Deeper Cut: Lovecraft in Chinatown

Chinatown [in San Francisco] must still be a fascinating & mysterious place, even though old-timers say it is merely a pallid echo of the original pre-1906 quarter. The only Chinatowns I’ve seen are those in Prov., Boston, & N.Y.—the latter the most picturesque of the three.

H. P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, 14 Mar 1935, Letters to E. Hoffmann Price 170

For his first thirty years, H. P. Lovecraft seldom left his native Providence, Rhode Island. All of his travels, his visits with friends, and to ethnic enclaves in different cities—as well as his marriage and all of his professionally-published fiction—happened in the last seventeen years of his life. The vast majority of character growth, exposure to different cultures, and challenges to Lovecraft’s prejudices happened in the final third of his existence. Which is why it is interesting to see what Lovecraft writes about various ethnic neighborhoods and enclaves he visited, including the few Chinatowns he visited on his travels.

Despite the name, “Chinatown” is a bit of a misnomer. In the 19th century, especially after the end of slavery, employers in the United States began to import cheap labor from Asia—including the Empire of China, Japan, the British Raj and other central and south Asian countries, Southeast Asian nations like Formosa (Taiwan) and Siam (Thailand), and the Pacific Islands. All of these “Asians” came to the United States at different times and places—and because of their different appearance, cultures, religions, language, and perceived economic competition, faced tremendous discrimination and even violence from the American citizens. Like many other immigrants, they tended to be poor and poorly paid, and settled in the cheapest or least desired neighborhoods and ghettoes—which in time came to include Asian-owned shops, restaurants, and other businesses; as well as schools, cemeteries, temples, and cultural centers or benevolent societies—and became, in effect, small organic communities operating alongside and within larger and predominantly white American cities.

While commonly called “Chinatowns” because the bulk of the immigrant population and their Asian-American descendants were perceived to be Chinese, these communities were not usually homogenous, but included many different nationalities and ethnicities, and the “flavor” of a given Chinatown could vary considerably from city-to-city—even the preferred dialect of the Chinese language and the style of Americanized Chinese food would often reflect the province(s) where the majority of the immigrants had emigrated from.

Like other ethnic and linguistic minorities in the United States, Asian immigrants faced social, economic, and legal discrimination. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1917 (the “Asiatic Barred Zone Act”) effectively halted immigration from Asia to the United States for decades; legal rules like Lum vRice, 275 U.S. 78 (1927) confirmed Asian-Americans as “colored” for the purposes of race laws, often prevented mixed-race marriages, segregating where Asian-Americans could work, live, and go to school. The Massie Case in 1932 highlights how prejudice against Asians could be deadly violent—and how socially accepted such violence was.

In the face of restricted immigration and ongoing discrimination, many Chinatowns shrank or ceased to exist altogether, the populations moving on—yet others thrived and grew, and still exist today, the largest existing both as vibrant communities still absorbing generations of immigrants and perhaps increasingly as tourist attractions. Yet in their endurance, they made their mark on American culture as well; the Asian architecture and festivals and the rags-to-riches stories of hardworking Asian immigrants struggling for their success became a part of the mythos of their cities. There was a dark side to this mythos too: Yellow Menace fears of enemy aliens, criminal gangs, opium dens, and tong wars filled the newspapers, dime novels, and eventually the pulps. It was not without reason that Robert E. Howard made his weird detective Steve Harrison’s beat Chinatown—the Texan was playing to the expectations of a pulp audience that had been raised to think of these ethnic enclaves in terms of stereotypes and prejudice.

Lovecraft, who visited Chinatowns in the 1920s and 30s, was aware of all of this—and his comments have to be understood as an outsider, a tourist who wants a glimpse of the exotic East he had long held in his imagination but never actually had the chance to visit.

Chinatown was as close to Asia as Lovecraft would ever get.

Providence

There were two small Chinatowns in Providence, Rhode Island: a small one centered around Burrill St. that burned down in 1906, and a newer one centered on Empire Street which was torn down in 1951 as the city extended the street and expanded it, not coincidentally razing the old buildings and displacing the small community there. While Lovecraft could have theoretically visited both during his lifetime, he was no doubt more familiar with the small community centered around Empire St.—as Empire intersects with Westminster St., where the Chin Lee Co. First Class Chop Sooey and American Restaurant stood, an establishment where Lovecraft and his aunt sometimes took their meals:

Christmas, thank Pegāna, was decently mild—& I succeeded in dragging my elder aunt down town for the firs ttime in a year & a half—to partake of an old-time Christmas feast with plum pudding and all, at the hospitable refctory of that staunch upholder of ancient English tradition—Chin Lee, Esq., (a very distant eastern connexion—phonetically at least—of the main Virginia line of Stratford & Arlington!) who so liberally stocked you with chow mein at our little pre-Maxfield supper last June.

H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 27 Dec 1929, Letters to James F. Morton 212

“Chin Lee” (Chin Dong Goon) was the proprietor of the restaurant that was in or near the Providence Chinatown; an early menu survives showing largely American and French dishes, but this was probably for white customers. His daughter Grace Lee Boggs reports she was born in the family apartment above that restaurant.

Regrettably, Lovecraft doesn’t offer any more descriptive details of the Providence Chinatown, although he must have passed through or near it several times during his life. Being so relatively small both geographically and in terms of population, it probably lacked much in the way of distinctive architecture or tourist draw, although one can easily imagine Lovecraft taking out-of-towners for a stroll down Empire St. and making the turn at Westminster St., in case they wanted some chow mein or chop suey.

Boston

We threaded the colonial lanes of Beacon Hill, chapel, Old Corner, Old South Church, old State House, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s house, (buily 1676) birthplace of Mortonius’ grandfather, old North Church, hellish colonial byways of the North End, (the scene of “Pickman’s Model”—I was heartbroken to find the actual alley & house of the tale utterly demolished; a whole crooked line of buildings having been torn down) & the relatively commonplace Chinatown along Beach St.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 17 Jul 1927, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.609

Boston was an international port for centuries, but the sprinkling of Chinese and other Asian nationals only appears to have formed an ethnic enclave in the 1870s, after a number of immigrants were brought over from California to Massachusetts as cheap labor. Despite discrimination, the Boston Chinatown grew and flourished, and was the largest New England Chinatown outside of New York during Lovecraft’s lifetime—and the only one in the region to survive to the present day.

It isn’t clear when Lovecraft first visited Boston’s Chinatown. Amateur journalism brought him more contacts and spurred his first adult travels outside of Providence, to Boston to meet up with fellow amateurs, and to listen to Lord Dunsany at Copley Plaza in 1919. Lovecraft might well have seen the Boston Chinatown on any visit in the 1920s; the 1927 letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark discusses a tour of Boston where Lovecraft showed Donald Wandrei the sights, so he must have been familiar with it sometime before that.

As with Providence’s Chinatown, Lovecraft doesn’t give any real description. “Prosaic” probably implies that it was not markedly touristy at the time, and that the architecture mostly reflected Western styles. The paifang archway that now stands at the head of Beach St. as a symbolic entrance wasn’t erected until 1982, so in Lovecraft’s time the distinction would have been made in non-English signage, the greater number of Asian faces on the street, the sounds of people speaking Taishanese, and the smell of Chinese food wafting out from a thousand kitchens.

New York

Klei, now at the head of a triangular expedition with the same personnel as Saturday’s, proceeded to lead us into the slums; with “Chinatown” as an ulterior objective. […] And then Chinatown appeared. Here cleanliness reigned, for certain enterprising rubberneck-wagon owners use it as a sort of seat of local colour–they have fake opium joints which they point out as the real thing. Doyers St., the main thoroughfare, is narrow and crooked. It is fascinatingly Oriental, and Loveman rhapsodised on the evil faces of the natives. Probably it was only the usual low-caste physiognomy of the coolie type which so thrilled him–but bless me! Let the poets find thrills where they can.

H. P. Lovecraft to the Molo, 18 May 1922, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 97

The Manhattan Chinatown in New York City was, and remains, the largest Asian ethnic enclave on the East Coast of the United States. On his first trip to New York in 1922, Lovecraft’s friend Rheinhart Kleiner took him and fellow visitor Samuel Loveman on a tour of many points of interest in the city. Already, as Lovecraft noted, the area was becoming picaresque and beginning to cater to tourists, though it was still a thriving community and probably more Asian people in one place than Lovecraft had seen before.

It was a place that Lovecraft would revisit at least a few times during his stay in New York (1924-1926), and possibly he would pass by or close to it several times in later years depending on his route through the city. In his letters, he noted his second visit:

Another thing I visited that day was Chinatown—Mott and Dyer Sts., branching off from sordid Chatham Square. This I had seen after dark two years ago with Kleiner and Loveman; but I now beheld it for the first time by day. There are some interesting Oriental balconies, carved and gilded, but so few that one’s expectations are invariably disappointed.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 1 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.141

At this point, Lovecraft would have probably already seen the Chinatowns in Providence and Boston, so he might have had his hopes up that New York—bigger and older than both—might have more of an exotic flavor. In this, like other Chinatowns, Lovecraft would be somewhat disappointed: these were working, living communities, not the romantic transplanted neighborhoods from Asian cities or dangerous ghettoes he might have imagined or hoped for:

Kirk, Leeds, & I once explored the N.Y. Chinatown during a tong war, when there were pairs of policemen stationed around at short intervals apart to prevent trouble—but we couldn’t scare up a single flying bullet.

H. P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, 14 Mar 1935, Letters to E. Hoffmann Price 170

“Tongs” or benevolent societies were mutual assistance organizations that initially grew up in the West Coast Chinatowns such as San Francisco, and from there spread out or encouraged the formation of new groups. Despite the laudable stated purpose of helping its members—many Chinese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century would have been relatively poor, spoken little or no English, and lacked many contacts to secure housing or handle immigration legalities—some of these groups became infamous for their association with criminal enterprises such as gambling, protection rackets, human trafficking, and sex work, and for the vicious fighting that could break out between rival organizations.

These “tong wars,” especially those in San Francisco, grabbed national headlines in the late 19th century, but diminished in scale and intensity in the 20th century. “Tong War” headlines appear in 1924 and 1925, and newspapers were prone to sensationalize the prospect of a bloody gang fight, so it isn’t clear when Lovecraft went on this particular expedition.

New York Daily News, 19 Oct 1924

There is some indication that Lovecraft got used to Chinatown, and passed through it or near it semi-regularly as needs dictated:

After leaving [Samuel Loveman] at his airy domicile & starting on a walk over Brooklyn Bridge & up through Chinatown to the north, Kirk & I decided to surprise Loveman with a birthday gift–as which, after much deliberation, we chose a bookcase, plus several cheap decorative accessories to brighten & domesticate his room.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22 Jan 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.237-8

During the period of his stay in New York, Lovecraft walked much of the city and became, in his own lights, a tour guide, particularly to its surviving Colonial buildings. When Donald Wandrei was to visit New York in 1927, Lovecraft made sure he didn’t miss out on the New York Chinatown either, giving him instructions much as he would for Harlem:

Chinatown (walk along Park Row from City Hall, turn into Mott St. at Chatham Sq.)

H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 1 Jul 1927, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei 128

Lovecraft had left New York in 1926 and moved back to Providence, which is probably the only reason why he didn’t show Wandrei the Manhattan Chinatown himself, as he did with the Boston Chinatown. Lovecraft still passed through New York periodically the rest of his life, and it was on one of these trips when Frank “Sonny” Belknap Long, Jr. wanted to visit some sites in New York, he turned to “Grandpa Theobald” to lead him:

We later followed a route of quaint sights–old chuchyards, waterfront areas, Chinatown, Five Points, &c.–which Sonny had compiled from a series of newspaper articles, & on which he needed his old Grandpas’ expert guidance. I could steer him without difficulty, & we coerced everything on the programme.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 2-3 Jul 1931, Letters to Family and Family Friends 2.930

Other Chinatowns

There were other Chinatowns in cities Lovecraft visited like Cleveland, Miami, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, some of which still exist, others of which are no more. It does not appear that Lovecraft visited these ethnic enclaves, or if he did, chose not to make any reference to them in his surviving letters. Most of these, like Providence’s own quarter, would have been relatively small and easy to overlook, especially as Lovecraft was often traveling quickly and on the cheap.

Chinatown & Lovecraft’s Asiaphobia

Lovecraft was both a white supremacist and came to hate New York City and its large immigrant population. There are many comments in his letters regarding his particular animosity towards New York and its immigrant population, an animosity that informed several stories written or conceived while he wrote in the story such as “He,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” Readers of passages like the following might wonder if Lovecraft’s animosity toward the city were inspired in any way by Chinatown or its inhabitants:

You can’t imagine the horror of being engulfed in a maelstrom of repulsive Orientals whose aberrant physiogonomies & rat-like temperaments grate more & more on the sensibilities of an aesthetically impressionable person. New York represents such a stupidenous ruin & decay–such a hideous replacement of virile & sound-heritaged stock by whipped, cringing, furtive dregs & offscourings–that I don’t see how anyone can live long in it without sickening.

H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 1 Jul 1927, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei 84

The fact is, Lovecraft was not predominantly talking about the Chinese or Japanese or Korean immigrants of New York: he was talking about Jews. While it seems weird to us today to talk about Jews as “Orientals,” the stereotypes of the early 20th century often considered Jewish peoples to have immigrated from, or be descended from people who immigrated from, the Near East, Middle East, or Central Asia (particularly with regards to the Khazar hypothesis, which Lovecraft seems to have picked up in New York). This identification is made much more explicit in other letters, where Lovecraft directly references the supposed Asian origins of Jews—and the best that can be said about those prejudices is that Lovecraft wasn’t being uniquely horrible, but was reflecting a very common way of “othering” Jewish immigrants and Jewish-Americans.

The odd thing about the Chinatowns and other ethnic enclaves that Lovecraft encountered on his travels is that he generally did not despise their existence. He accepted the existence of non-Anglo-American cultures, and even stated his admiration for what little he knew of Chinese and Japanese culture in many letters; he also vociferously didn’t want those cultures to spread or intrude on what he saw as white American culture. A self-contained enclave was preferable to the great American Melting Pot. While he never said it in such words, Lovecraft didn’t mind the Chinese in Chinatown anymore than he would have minded the Chinese in China.

That was part of Lovecraft’s rationale for his hatred of New York—the idea that it had once been an American city and that now all the (particularly Jewish) immigrants had come in and taken over; so that it had effectively ceased to be American by his standards (although a glance at the census might have enlightened Lovecraft to the fact that there weren’t quite as many Jews in New York as he thought). In a later letter, Lovecraft wrote:

I freely admitted that the nascent replacement-culture of New York might have as much potential intrinsic merit as any other culture, & that the centuries might conceivably refine & develop it into something of unique excellence–as interesting & non-repugnant to us as Chinese or Saracenic culture.

H. P. Lovecraft to Donald A. Wollheim, 9 Jul 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 308

Lovecraft’s experience of Chinese culture was limited to what he had read in books, the art he had seen in museums, and his brief trips to Chinatowns in Providence, Boston, and New York; he was as much a tourist as any diner in a Chinese restaurant in the United States, and the “exotic” atmosphere of carved and gilded balconies, delicate Japanese prints, and the music of bamboo flutes was his main expectation. In many ways, this expectation of the exotic remains in American culture, from the decor at American Chinese restaurants to the busloads of tourists who visit the various Chinatowns around the country—or, if that is insufficiently real, perhaps to the China Pavilion at Epcot Center in Orlando.

What needs to be understood about Lovecraft’s racism and his experience with Chinatowns is that this was by and large the limit of his experience with Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans. Social and legal discrimination in the United States had helped segregate Asian peoples in these few cities, and in these few parts of cities—his experience, and his prejudices, were not unique. Lovecraft’s asiaphobia and asiaphilia were informed by and reflected the culture he was a part of.

Those same stereotypes still inform aspects of our experiences today, even though the Asiatic Barred Zone Act has long been abolished. Many of us are still tourists with notions of an exotic Orient that reduces the real people and cultures, fascinating in their history and variety, down to a handful of set roles and expectations. Lovecraft’s Chinatown visits neither cured nor exacerbated his prejudices; he neither feared and hated the Asian-Americans he met nor fell in love with them. At best, these visits expanded his world, at least a little…and perhaps in our own lives, if we visit Chinatown, we might appreciate them for what they are and have been, instead of being disappointed that they don’t live up to the fantasies of opium dens and tong wars that were dated even when Lovecraft strolled those streets.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

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