‘Mott Street’ Review: Once Upon a Time in Chinatown
At a downtown Manhattan address, Ava Chin discovered a whole side of her family she’d never met. She set out to trace their collective history.
By Julia Flynn Siler
A fifth-generation New Yorker, Ava Chin began filling notebooks with stories from her mother’s side of the family when she was a grade-schooler in Flushing, Queens. But she was haunted by the painful mystery of her absent father—a prominent Chinese American lawyer and politician who’d broken his engagement to her pregnant mother before Ms. Chin was born—and the ancestry he wasn’t there to tell her about.
“My father’s not being there defined me, for better or worse. His denial was unbearable, so I did the only thing I could think of—I wrote about it.”
That project would eventually become “Mott Street,” a deeply researched retracing of the eventful journeys taken by Ms. Chin’s immigrant forebears. To gather material she traveled from Angel Island in San Francisco Bay to Promontory Point, Utah, where workers completed the transcontinental railroad, to the Chinese villages in Guangdong Province that her family members had left behind around the turn of the 20th century for life in America.
Ms. Chin finds some surprises in her family tree: a risk-taking businessman who smuggled opium in giant soy-sauce containers, a midwife who helped introduce basic hygiene to tenement living during the 1918 flu epidemic, an intersex woman born with male and female genitals, and a community leader that some called “Bowtie Jesus.”
She also discovers the building that would become the focal point for her family history. Ms. Chin had known since she was a child that her family’s immigrant experience began with her great-great-grandparents, and took place in far-flung parts of the U.S.
But it is only in her 20s, after boldly seeking out her elusive, charismatic father—whom she dubs “the Crown Prince of Chinatown”—that Ms. Chin finds the Manhattan location where the lives of many members of her family intersected: a six-story red-brick building that still stands today at 37 Mott Street.
By her tally, at least 49 of her relatives ended up living at one time or other in that same building in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown. It was, in her words, a “portal to my family and to our history in this country.” Ms. Chin soon herself rents a writing studio there to pursue her search. The tenement building at the corner of Pell and Mott is where some of the most heart-wrenching scenes of her story unfold: babies are born, a husband beats a wife, and a child dies outside the building in a terrible accident.
Ms. Chin braids two stories of exclusion together: her personal narrative, rooted in her rejection by her father, and a much larger, political drama, the long and troubling history of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Congress first passed this law in 1882 to restrict Asian immigration, and it remained in force until repealed in 1943, when China became a U.S. ally during World War II.
Ms. Chin illuminates this larger story through the experiences of her family members.
“Mott Street” grapples with the emotional legacy of exclusion in a way that many of the more traditional histories of the Chinese American experience have been unable to, limited as they are by the paucity of written first-hand accounts and by misleading or false official documents.
An associate professor of creative nonfiction at the City University of New York, Ms. Chin has written a book that builds on earlier histories, such as the late Iris Chang’s “The Chinese in America” (2003), Jean Pfaelzer’s “Driven Out” (2007) and Gordon Chang’s “Ghosts of Gold Mountain” (2019). But Ms. Chin alerts readers of her decision to “imagine” the conversations that her ancestors had. “Whenever possible, I cross-referenced these stories against the written record, but often the written record itself had to be approached skeptically, especially when nineteenth-century anti-Chinese bias was outright blinding—a real lesson in reading against the grain.”
In many instances, she imagines what their feelings must have been like, including the experience of her great-great-grandfather Yuan Son, who helped build the transcontinental railroad. This narrative technique may set readers of traditional histories on edge. She also infers much from family photographs—as when she sees as a look of “murderous rage” on an ancestor’s face—and envisions the shame her relatives must have felt in experiencing schoolyard taunts: “I imagine it was the first time they heard the taunt ching chong Chinaman.”
When Ms. Chin moves closer to the present day, her story gets grittier and more compelling. She viscerally describes the humiliating inspections at Angel Island, the immigration station in San Francisco Bay that one of her great-grandmothers, Yulan, passed through in 1914. The details, often based on family stories, are precisely drawn: Yulan’s father, for instance, gave her stones to carry to America with her from their home village in China. She uses them to make tea as soon as she arrives in San Francisco’s Chinatown, dropping the pebbles into boiling water along with fragrant Toisan orange peels.
Some of the most lyrical passages of the book are about food. That is not surprising, since Ms. Chin, the author of “Eating Wildly” (2014), is a celebrated food writer and the recipient of the Les Dames d’Escoffier International M.F.K. Fisher Book Prize. Her descriptions are sexy and mouth-watering: “Plump dried oysters—plucked from their shells and naked, but for some black bearding and a spray of salt—so provocatively laid out that it almost hurts to look at them.”
Likewise, Ms. Chin describes how, as a child, she’d travel to Manhattan’s Chinatown nearly every week for such delicacies as “a whole flounder steamed from head to tail—topped with ginger, scallions, and soy sauce—right before we devoured it down to the delicate skeleton, when it was time to flip it over and start again.”
It is when the book ties together the legacy of exclusion with what the Department of Justice has called a recent “surge” in violence against Asian Americans that “Mott Street” burns with righteous anger. Readers feel the full weight of the burden borne by many generations of the author’s combined Wong, Ng and Chin families—what she calls “a perpetual ‘otherness.’ ” Ms. Chin tires of the suspicious queries that come, even when Asian Americans “wear the ‘right’ clothing or speak with the ‘right’ accent or graduate from the ‘right’ schools—‘Where are you from? No, where are you really from?’ ” Such “unnerving, even threatening” questions, she notes, doubt her right to inhabit “the very soil upon which so many of us were born.”
Now a mother raising her own sixth-generation daughter in New York, Ms. Chin has written a deeply empathetic and important book, one that renders visible the hidden achievements and sufferings of her family members—and insists that the wounding history of exclusion be seen clearly as well.
Ms. Siler’s most recent book is “The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown.”
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Appeared in the May 20, 2023, print edition.