Chinatown Then and Now: Through the Lens of Emile Bocian

Explore the streets of 1970s and 1980s New York Chinatown captured in Emile Bocian’s photographs and view how they look today.

Emile Bocian with a Camera (1970/1980) by Joyce KaplanMuseum of Chinese in America

Emile Bocian and Chinatown

Emile Bocian (1912-1990), a photographer of Polish Jewish heritage, became a regular fixture in New York Chinatown during the 1970s and 1980s when he worked as a photojournalist for the Chinese-language daily The China Post.

He lived in the neighborhood’s newly built Confucius Plaza Apartments and was perhaps the federally subsidized housing project’s only non-Asian resident.

This exhibit juxtaposes Bocian’s historical photographs with contemporary ones to show how the neighborhood looked back then and some of the ways it has changed.

View of Mott Street (1976-03) by Emile BocianMuseum of Chinese in America

Mott Street, 1976

Bocian's thousands of photographs documented the everyday and cultural life of New York Chinatown’s people and streetscapes during a time of gentrification and immense demographic change.

Mott Street

Traditional Chinese characters are still in wide use on storefront signs. Note the old businesses that have closed and the new ones that have sprung up.

The Eng Sui Sun Association, Emile Bocian, 1970/1980, From the collection of: Museum of Chinese in America
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Family associations are some of the oldest community organizations in Chinatown and were formed by Chinese immigrants sharing a common surname or place of origin to provide mutual aid. The Eng Sui Sun Association (伍胥山公所) at 5 Mott Street was founded to serve members of the Eng (Wu, 伍) clan.

Quong Yee Wo Co. Groceries (1980) by Emile BocianMuseum of Chinese in America

38 Mott Street, 1980

Quong Yee Wo & Co. was a family-run store and import-export firm established ca. 1898 by Do Chung Leung. It sold Chinese fancy goods and groceries and has been passed down to several generations of the family.

Many stores with 100-year histories closed during the 1980s and 1990s as long term leases expired and rents increased.

P.S. 23 School Building, Emile Bocian, 1976-06, From the collection of: Museum of Chinese in America
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Left: Given its Lower East Side location, students from numerous immigrant backgrounds and even generations have studied at P.S. 23 since it was constructed in 1891. After the school closed in 1976, the building was repurposed into community organization space and became home to MOCA in 1984. Right: A devastating fire destroyed the building in January of 2020. MOCA was fortunately able to salvage and move the collections being housed there to a renovated archives space at 3 Howard Street.

Youth foot race in Columbus Park, Emile Bocian, 1976, From the collection of: Museum of Chinese in America
Columbus Park, Emile Bocian, ca. 1976, From the collection of: Museum of Chinese in America
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Bounded by Mulberry, Baxter, Bayard and Worth Streets, Columbus Park has been serving as a gathering place for the local community since it was built in 1897. During the 1970s and 1980s, youth and family events such as annual summer field days were often held at the park.

Columbus Park

Children Eating Cones Outside What is Now the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (1978) by Emile BocianMuseum of Chinese in America

65 Bayard Street, 1978

A neighborhood landmark, the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory has been serving homemade ice cream in unique Asian flavors such as lychee, durian, and black sesame since its opening in 1978.

Pagoda-topped Phone Booths on Bayard (1979) by Emile BocianMuseum of Chinese in America

Bayard Street, 1979

With the ubiquity of cellphones, public telephone booths such as these pagoda-topped phone booths (公用電話) on Bayard Street have all but disappeared.

BoBo Restaurant, Emile Bocian, 1980, From the collection of: Museum of Chinese in America
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Opened in 1949, the iconic BoBo Restaurant was the first of five restaurants opened by pioneer woman filmmaker Esther Eng. It became a popular gathering place for Cantonese opera and movie actors, and Esther herself assisted working actors by employing them in her restaurants.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor (1976) by Emile BocianMuseum of Chinese in America

13 Doyers Street, 1976

Nom Wah Tea Parlor (南華茶堂) has been serving delicious dim sum fare since 1920 and holds the distinction of being the oldest continuously running restaurant in New York Chinatown.

Kimlau Square (1970/1980) by Emile BocianMuseum of Chinese in America

Kimlau Square, 1970s - 1980s

In Kimlau Square stands one of Chinatown’s most recognizable landmarks, the Kimlau War Memorial, dedicated in 1961 to honor Second Lieutenant Benjamin Ralph Kimlau (1918-1944) and Chinese American soldiers who lost their lives while serving in the U.S. military.

Kimlau Square

In 1997, a statue of Lin Zexu, the famed official from Fujian Province who led China’s resistance against the British importation of opium, was added to Kimlau Square by Chinatown’s newer immigrants from Fujian, and now a main commercial thoroughfare for the Fujianese.

Mural of History of Chinese Immigration to the United States at Chatham Square (1976-04) by Emile BocianMuseum of Chinese in America

Chatham Square, 1976

Painted by artist Alan Okada and City Arts youth in 1972, this community mural, titled, “History of Chinese Immigration to the United States,” was once located at Chatham Square. It depicted large faces of a family at the center and a background showing the main kinds of jobs historically available to Chinese laborers—railroad, mining, and garment work.

Two Men Across from the Pagoda Theater (1970/1980) by Emile BocianMuseum of Chinese in America

11 East Broadway, 1970s - 1980s

The Pagoda Theatre was designed in a modern “Chinese Deco” style by Chinese American architect Poy Gum Lee (1900-1968). It was among the first of the community theaters screening Chinese-language films to close in the early 1990s and was quickly demolished in 1992.

Home to one of the largest Chinese communities in the Western Hemisphere, Manhattan Chinatown is a vibrant and dynamic neighborhood that has been ever-changing since its beginnings in the 1870s.

These historical photographs—selected from the more than 120,000 photographs and negatives comprising MOCA's Emile Bocian Collection—​offer a small snapshot into a nostalgic and bygone era, capturing beloved communal gathering places such as community movie theaters, schools, restaurants, and parks, as well as now vanished murals and storefronts. Visit MOCA's Collections and Research Center at 3 Howard Street to view more stunning black and white photographs from the Emile Bocian Collection.

Credits: Story

Historical photographs taken by Emile Bocian, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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