Mott Street, New York City, 2009. Image credit: Flickr / Chris Ford CC BY-NC 2.0
“Do you remember this from your history class?” asks Anna Huang (whose Chinese name is Huáng huì nà, 黃慧娜). Huang is leading a group on a walking tour in lower Manhattan entitled Relive Life Under the Chinese Exclusion Act. She holds up her iPad, which shows John Gast’s famous 1872 painting American Progress, intended to be an allegory of settler-colonialist “Manifest Destiny.” A blonde young woman dressed in a white gown soars over a panoramic painting of the Great Plains with wagon trains streaming west: in one hand the diaphanous symbol of lady liberty is holding a book, in the other telegraph wires that extend into the background, where they can be seen alongside a new train track.
Relive Life under the Chinese Exclusion Act is a walking tour of Manhattan’s Chinatown hosted by Mott Street Girls, a Chinese American and women-owned initiative whose aim is to tell a history that has not been covered in the average K-12 education in the United States. I have joined Huang to learn more about how Mott Street Girls aim to make Chinese American history more accessible to contest stigmatization and racism toward Chinese American identities.
It is a windy day in 2022 at the beginning of May, which is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Around 20 people have gathered under the statue of Lin Ze Xu, a Qing Dynasty official who, in the nineteenth century, banned opium. Huang has begun the tour by asking the rhetorical question, “Why did the Chinese come here in the first place?” In order to explain this, Gast’s painting comes in handy.
As Huang later explains to me over a follow-up Zoom call, this is a part of US history that most Americans aren’t familiar with. Chinese American history was not taught in school when she was a student. Growing up in Boston’s Chinatown, Huang familiarized herself with Chinese American history through after-school activities such as Chinese dance and through a youth tour guide program. When she moved to New York, she became a volunteer for the Museum of Chinese in America.
“Can anybody tell me what Manifest Destiny means?” Huang asks our tour group. After two opium wars with the British, China was left in poverty, and at the same time, settlers in the United States wanted to continue expansion toward the West. In order to do so, they wanted to build a railroad. “So when you’re building a railroad, you need a lot of laborers, right,” Huang, who is dressed in a sporty outfit and wears long, black boots, says confidently—like someone who spends every weekend like this. And that is exactly what she does, many of them together with her Mott Street Girls co-founder and fellow second generation Chinese American, Chloe Chan (whose Chinese name is Chan Long Yee, 陳朗怡), who has other obligations on the day I join the tour.
Huang is referring to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. On the day of its completion, on May 10, 1869, a celebratory photo was taken by photographer Andrew Russell. “Anybody notice anything?” Huang asks as the guests look at the black-and-white photograph on her iPad on which champagne bottles have been broken and white men are shaking hands. 90 percent of the labor force of the Central Pacific Railroad were Chinese. But in Rusell’s photograph, East and West Shaking Hands at Laying Last Rail, commonly known as “The Champagne Photo,” “there is not a single Chinese person,” Huang points out. She continues: “It’s such an unfortunate fact because the Chinese did some of the most dangerous types of work.”
Then Huang shows the guests another photograph. This one is in color. On the 145th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 2014, Asian Americans, including descendants of the Chinese laborers who built hundreds of miles of railroad, met to have their photo taken by the artist Corky Lee. Just like Lee, Mott Street Girls want to make a suppressed history visible again, with the walking tour as their medium. As they see it, prejudice and stigma around Chinese American people stem from a lack of knowledge about their histories.
Like Huang, Chan also used to be a volunteer tour guide at the Museum of Chinese in America. They would do the tour on Thursdays, she recalls, and one day, after volunteering, they went out to eat together at Big Wong on Mott Street. The family of Chan, who grew up in New Jersey, has been going to that restaurant since they came to the US in the 1990s. “I can’t exactly remember what we ordered, but it was probably roast duck. Or maybe roast pork over congee, or something like that.” Chan reminisces and smiles. “Do you remember?” she asks Huang, who does not. “We’ve had so many meals since then,” Huang giggles. That’s how they became friends.
Huang and Chan decided to start Mott Street Girls when the pandemic hit in March 2020. They were at Spicy Village, Chan starts to tell me before Huang corrects her: “No, it was that dessert place. Mango Mango!” The museum had shut down, and they missed doing the tours. “We already have this knowledge,” they said to themselves. “Why not do something with it?”
What came after that was a lot of research to make Mott Street Girls into what they wanted it to be: an intimate tour that sees Chinatown through their lens as second generation Chinese Americans. A tour that goes all the way from the beginning of Chinese immigration during the Gold Rush to contemporary social issues such as anti-Asian violence, fire safety, food insecurity, and gentrification. Rewriting the narrative lies in their name. While Mott Street is the place they decided to form Mott Street Girls, the abbreviation of the walking tour company also refers to a long lasting xenophobic misconception about the seasoning MSG, monosodium glutamate. MSG, which adds the flavor of umami to food, became associated with symptoms such as nausea, headaches, and heart palpitations in the 1960s—symptoms that were coined as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome.’ But research has failed to make such a connection.
“We try to touch on these issues so that people can have a more personal connection to the community,” Chan says over Zoom. “We bring up present issues to see how we can connect the dots between the past and the present. Because history doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” she underlines. This is also where it becomes personal for Chan and Huang. As they have delved into research for their walking tours, they have simultaneously gotten to know their own families’ histories better. And have been surprised by their discoveries.
“I actually realized that my great-great-grandfather came to America and worked here for a little bit before deciding to go back to China,” Huang tells me. “It amazed me to know that my ancestor actually set foot in America,”
Mott Street Girls wants to inform people about the challenges the community in Chinatown is facing. One of them is the planned 45-storey mega jail in Chinatown, a part of former mayor Bill de Blasio’s “borough-based jail system” that the community is rallying against. On our walking tour, this is noticeable too: on the pavement, somebody has tagged “stop mega jail” in white spray paint. The community is concerned about the possible economic and social impacts of the mega jail, Chan explains: “We would rather use that money towards social services or mental health care versus rebuilding a broken system.” Chan reckons that she might not have been as informed about the situation if she had not been leading tours. As tour guides Chan and Huang feel like they have the responsibility to be up to date and ready to give the walking tour participants the most relevant information if they ask for it.
Before the tour, I meet up with Huang, who is accompanied by Rebecca Shi, at the restaurant Golden Unicorn. It is 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and the restaurant is already filled with people. Shi met Chan on Bumble BFF, an app for making friends, and through their friendship, she eventually became involved in Mott Street Girls. In the beginning, Mott Street Girls, whose Instagram account has in the vicinity of 10, 000 followers today, was just Chan and Huang’s “side hustle,” as they call it. It still sort of is. They both work full time, Huang as an analytics consultant and Chan as a clinical researcher. As Mott Street Girls gained more public awareness, however, people such as Lily Pan, Isabelle Ng, Caroline Crisostomo, and Liane Ma, who independently reached out to Chan and Huang, have become part of Mott Street Girls—just like Shi.
Telling the stories about Golden Unicorn and other restaurants is “not just about the food,” Huang told me at the restaurant as the beige paper tablecloth disappeared under a mosaic of bamboo steamers filled with assorted rice rolls, buns, and dumplings. “It’s about knowing the story of the business. And actually,” she said, “it’s more than that too. It is actually about being a part of the community.”
And empowering the community is central to Mott Street Girls’ mission. “Most tour guides might not actually be from the community. We are certified tour guides, yes, we took the exam. But we also know the people,” Huang adds during our Zoom conversation. Chan tags along: “A lot of it is also just about building connections. I think that’s one of the most gratifying parts about having founded Mott Street Girls—getting to know who our neighbors are.”
Back at Golden Unicorn, photographing the meal has become a collaborative effort. The waiter brings red flowers to the table and adds pudding to the menu for the sake of the photograph. The phone changes hands in between Shi and Huang trying to capture the perfect picture.
“I wrote a paragraph about this one,” says Shi enthusiastically with reference to the Instagram post that will be published later the same day. She holds up a white napkin with Golden Unicorn’s logo. The unicorn, she tells me, does not look like what many Americans imagine when they think of a unicorn. That is because the creature on the napkin, which has scales and horns and looks more dragon-like, is “actually a Qilin.” In Chinese mythology, the Qilin is a symbol of good fortune, prosperity, and longevity.
In the future, Mott Street Girls hope to have visited every Chinatown in the country. But hearing people’s feedback is what keeps them going. They believe that history can be a form of social activism.
“An African American woman went on the tour, and she was surprised that she didn’t learn about this history in school. She was like: ‘I feel like I can draw parallels to my histories of aggressions and suppression.’ I didn’t anticipate that! I just wanted to let people know about Chinese American history,” Huang says.
Before we sign out of the Zoom room, Chan adds: “If you don’t know your history, you can’t change the present or the future. And therefore, we think it is important for people of all races and backgrounds to learn about Chinese American history. Because if we don’t know about each other’s history, it is hard to build empathy and connect with each other.”
Mette Kierstein is a cultural journalist. She holds a Graduate Certificate in Gender and Sexuality Studies from The New School for Social Research.