Friday, February 12, 2010

New Jersey celebrates the Chinese Year of the Tiger

Program at NJPAC just a few miles from original 1871 observance in Belleville

New Jerseyans can publicly welcome the New Year – 4708, for those keeping count – this weekend at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark.

With 2 p.m. performances Saturday and Sunday of a "Year of the Tiger" program, the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company of Fort Lee will complete a 12-year cycle of dances based on the Chinese zodiac.

It's not just the coincidence with St. Valentine's Day that makes this annual celebration special, according to Andrew Chiang, the company's executive director. The Tiger is "a great year: vitality, strength and honesty," he said. "We need a good boost."

The location is also significant, because NJPAC is just downstream from the site of the first public celebration on Chinese New Year in New Jersey, the Passaic Steam Laundry in Belleville.

Taiwan native Chen is well known in the dance world, and her 22-year-old company tours extensively. It will perform the new program at multiple locations around New York.

"But it's much more special at NJPAC," where the performances will be the centerpiece of a larger cultural celebration, Chiang said.

Festivities include separate entrance parent-child workshops at 12:30 p.m. to make colorful masks for the colorful "Lion Dance;" masters of paper folding and paper cutouts who will demonstrate their works; handicrafts by other artisans, sounds by The Chinese Music Ensemble of New York; the country's oldest and largest Chinese orchestra, plus the option of feasting at Chinatown Restaurant in Harrison.

"As Chinese-Americans, not only do we carry the tradition, but we came here to develop new things," Chiang said.

In all, it promises to be somewhat more elaborate that the 1871 observance by laundrymen in Belleville. The 68 workers had only been in town a few months, traveling by train from San Francisco to the rural station called Santiago Park, then riding wagons the last six miles to their new dormitory home, fenced in at the Passaic Steam Laundry.

The business belonged to a retired sea captain, James Hervey, and was already successful. But not successful enough, for Hervey's employees were strangely ungrateful.

It seemed to the captain that his laundresses, mostly Irish immigrants, were lucky to be here. After all, one of the first major laws adopted by the new American republic had been the Naturalization Act of 1790, which offered a route to citizenship only to "free, white persons." The Irish barely met the criteria.

When his recalcitrant workers staged a work stoppage for higher wages, Hervey followed the "let's you and him fight" style of management. Looking across the continent for replacements, he dispatched a foreman and assistant to San Francisco, even providing money to hire an interpreter, Charley Ming.

Frustrated gold miner Wah Lee had established a "wash-house establishment" in the California city in 1851. Its success was a cultural accident.

Whatever piety, intrepidity and technology Europeans carried with them to the New World, they did not bring strong traditions of personal cleanliness. In Anglo-Saxon society, washing was women's work. That was a problem in the mining boomtowns, where the very few women tended to be otherwise engaged. Lee recognized he could build a service industry without irritating whites.

Chinese immigration never amounted to more than 4 percent of the nation's total. But no sooner had Chinese crews driven the final spikes for continental railroads than the unlucky, unskilled or just plain shiftless began heading west in record numbers.

Whites certainly didn't expect to arrive at the Pacific to find Asians holding jobs. Over the coming decades, racism grew into a wave of ethnic clearances from California to British Columbia. One businessman advised his son to "go back to China when you make your money ... if you stay here, the white man will kill you."

Back in mid-century China, though, the British fought two wars to force their surplus opium into the country. Much of central China fell to the vast insurgent armies of the Taiping Rebellion, in what some historians consider the bloodiest human conflict until World War II.

(As a young man, the Taiping leader, Hong Xiuquan, had been exposed to Christian missionaries, which led to the revelation that he was Jesus' younger brother. Also, that he should free China from the Manchu demons of the Qing dynasty.)

In sum, New Jersey never looked so good.

The Belleville laundrymen scarcely had been in their new quarters for 12 hours when reporters from Newark and New York arrived to peer at the wondrous heathens. Hervey reassured the New York World that the newcomers were segregated from his remaining female employees, even while at work.

A few months later in 1871, the reporters were back at the "scrupulously clean" dormitory to observe the New Year goings-on. The Newark Advertiser seemed particularly puzzled by the amount of tea, music, banging gongs and divinations, but all agreed that the decorations were colorful, representations of deities artful, and the men helpful.

"There can nowhere be ... a busier, more orderly group of workmen," said Scribner's Monthly.

New Yorkers worried about an inundation "of painted and pig-tailed Mongolians residing here, will be surprised to learn how few the number really is and how largely they have conformed themselves to the manners and customs of those about them," said the Tribune.

Indeed, shortly after their arrival, some of the men had turned up at local churches and Sunday schools.

After news of a mutually incited riot that left French nuns and officials dead, as well as Chinese, Hervey got death threats and a crowd demanded he fire the workers. But others in Belleville, including returned missionaries, rallied to their support and the furor ended.

When one of the men died of pneumonia, the Newark Advertiser covered the funeral, finding "genuine sadness." It reported, "death raises the same feelings in the heart of the heathen as in the Christian."

That wasn't the feeling in much of America. To "preserve Anglo-Saxon civilization without contamination or adulteration," in the words of one senator, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, denying entry, re-entry or naturalization to any person of Chinese descent. The U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly upheld the law, and the number of Chinese in America fell 30 percent over two decades.

But at the Passaic Steam Laundry, the genie was already out of the bottle. Over the years, many of the men and their relatives had left the company to start their own ventures. Ong Yung, the brother of one, is credited with opening the first Chinese laundry in Manhattan off Chatham Square.

On Feb. 8, 1883, the New York Times reported on Manhattan's New Year celebrations, led by the community's patriarchs, "the laundry owners." But devout Chinese were headed for Belleville, and "the only Chinese joss-house or place of worship in the vicinity of this city."

The newspaper found "the shrine was fantastically decorated with cut-paper ornamentation, containing grotesque figures of Chinese men, women and animals." Throughout the day, worshippers of "devout face and humble mien" attended ceremonies supplemented with food, music and firecrackers.

For information on this weekends performances and mask workshops at NJPAC, visit or call (888) 466-5722. For more information, other performances or the banquet, contact the dance company at or (800) 650-0246.

Joe Tyrrell may be reached at

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