Tiny Doyers Street, tucked between Chatham Square and equally minute Pell, is so narrow and twisted that it resembles a medieval lane in a European town.
During the early years of the 20th century, when violence and mayhem were commonplace on Doyers, police dubbed the street’s dramatic turn “the Bloody Angle,” in tribute to the built-in potential for surprise that made it ideal as a battleground. According to writer Herbert Asbury, opposing fighters could approach one another, hidden from view, until they met at the curve in a volley of gunfire.
Every building on this old block could tell a story, but one structure – number 5-7, which appears to have been fashioned as a combined factory and tenement sometime during the middle 19th century – stands out. In 1893, the very first Chinese-language theater in the U.S. east of San Francisco was constructed inside this building, to meet the needs of a growing community of Chinese New Yorkers.
Sometimes known as the “Chinese Opera House,” the theater was painted with murals on its side walls – the work of Loo Gop, at the time Chinatown’s only illustrator. There was no balcony; patrons were seated on rows of wooden benches with back panels that ran from stage to exit. The theater had only a small stage with little room for scenery; in this way it honored Chinese theatrical tradition by relying on actors to create a sense of place through movement and body language.
The Chinese Theater was initially viewed with perplexity by New York audiences. Most disconcerting for some was the music, with its array of pentatonic intervals seldom heard on the Western stage. But over time, the theater began to acquire the reputation of an “in” thing to see, a centerpiece of the Chinatown rubberneck bus tours that were becoming popular by the turn of the century. New Yorkers, wanting to distinguish themselves from the swarming tourists, began making efforts not just to see plays at the Chinese Theater but actually to enjoy them. Drama critic Franklin Fyles noted, in May 1905, that “evening trips to the Chinese Theatre are a transitory fad with the same people who make up our first-night audiences for new plays during the dramatic season.”
All this ended in the summer of 1905, when members of two rival tongs, the On Leongs and the Hip Sings, unleashed a ferocious gun battle inside the Chinese Theater that left four men dead. The massacre signaled an important moment in New Yorkers’ continuing evaluation of Chinatown. For some, the neighborhood had always been an unpleasant place but not an intrinsically dangerous one. Now an element of fear crept into Chinatown’s popular imagery, and the little Chinese Theater – innocuous until that awful night – felt the immediate effects. By the early 1910s dwindling receipts forced its closure, and the space was converted into a mission house for the Rescue Society of New York.
Today, although no plaque marks 5-7 Doyers Street as a historic spot, the building’s influence can be felt throughout the neighborhood, in the spirit and excitement of modern Chinatown.
Excerpted from Automats, Taxi Dances and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure, by David Freeland. The book is published by NYU Press and can be ordered here.