Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York is a glimpse into the power struggles that plagued the neighborhoods of lower Manhattan in the late 19th century. It addresses universal and timeless themes of xenophobia and resistance to immigration, but limits the emphasis of its story to the ongoing battle between the so-called “Natives”—those whose parents arrived in America as early as the 1600s—and the “Dead Rabbits” and other Irish gangs that emerged as the Irish population grew three centuries later. But Herbert Asbury’s 1928 eponymous book, on which Scorsese based his film, features many other gangs of the era, the most prominent of them the Hip Sings and the On Leongs, whose activity centered on Chinatown’s Doyers Street.
Despite its short 200 feet in length, much happened on the crooked street that bent at the middle. The bend later became known as the “Bloody Angle.” Asbury wrote:
The police believe, and can prove it so far as much proof is possible, that more men have been murdered at the Bloody Angle than at any other place of like area in the world. It was, and is, an ideal place for ambush; the turn is very abrupt, and not even a slant-eyed Chinaman can see around a corner…
Today, the street is home to the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, New York’s oldest Dim Sum place, barber shops and a post office. Two doors down from Nom Wah is Apotheke, a bar with a 17th century European apothecary theme that stands right at the sharp bend at 9 Doyers Street. While today, the bar serves as an upscale lounge, its plot has once been farmland, the base for a lodging house, and an area once ridden with crime—but more on that later. Let’s take a look at how this street came to be, back to the grasslands.
Asbury hints at the origins of the street in his extensive description of its history:
Doyers Street is a crooked little thoroughfare which runs twistingly, up hill and down, from Chatham Square to Pell Street, and with Pell and Mott streets forms New York’s Chinatown, of which it has always been the nerve center and the scene of much of the turbulent life of the quarter. It is an orphan street, ignored by the handbooks and histories of early New York, and there appears to be no record of how and for whom it was named. Perhaps the best guess is that it honors the memory of Anthony H. Doyer, who built a house at No. 3 in 1809, and after living there several years removed to Hudson Street . . .
While Asbury calls it an “orphan street,” it actually had many fathers. First off, the street may have actually been named after Anthony H. Doyer’s father, Hendrick Doyer. Before coming to America, Doyer pere married Anthonia Hogemans on June 20, 1788 in the Netherlands. Their son Anthony was born in New York 10 months later on April 6, 1789.
Hendrick was a merchant. He distilled Geneva, a popular Dutch gin of the time made from juniper berries— and owned land, presaging its current incarnation. The National Americana Society’s historical magazine Americana reports that Hendrick purchased a strip of land on April 30, 1793. It is described as “a prettily wooded piece of land. Theron he kept tea gardens to which numbers of the gentry used to resort.” David Thomas Valentine described the Doyers’ distillery as “one of the most ancient edifices on the line of the Bowery Lane and probably dated from the Dutch era.” It stood at the junction of Doyers Street, Pell Street and Bowery Lane.
Legend has it that “one of the early Doyers buried a treasure of thirty-five million dollars in gold in the walls of his house,” writes Asbury. But no one has yet to discover it.
In 1797, Hendrick Doyer changed his name to Henry Doyer, citing “inconveniences.”
City Register records at the New York City Department of Finance show that Doyer was not the first to own this plot of land. The oldest conveyances recorded is on October 5, 1787: the grantors are Issac Stoutenburgh and Philip Van Cortlandt; the grantees are Comfort Sands and James Dunlap. Stoutenburgh and Cortland were Commissioners of Forfeiture for the Southern District of the State of New York; that is, men charged with selling the land that the loyalists confiscated during the American Revolution. In other words, it’s safe to assume that at some point during the mid-18th century, the loyalists had taken possession of what we know as Doyers Street. Meanwhile, Sands was a wealthy merchant, banker, and politician, who during the American Revolution was a member of the New York Provincial Congress and was appointed as the first New York State Comptroller, or Auditor-General. Under the same date, Comfort Sands and his wife Sarah are seen conveying one half interest in the same lot to Dunlap. Then, finally, on October 5, 1796, James and Jane Dunlap are recorded conveying the lot to Doyer.
There is another hint in the ledger: “The eastern portion, within the farm of James Delancey, was conveyed in lots at an early date. The southwesterly portion, within the farm of James Spencer, was also conveyed in lots at an early date.” Based on the map that the ledger also provides, we can see that Doyers Street was part of the eastern portion, that is, James Delancey’s farm.
This makes sense because the Delanceys were loyalists who sided with the British during the American Revolution, thus corroborating what we’ve learned about the Commissioners of Forfeiture earlier.
To dig deeper, we can also look at the different maps compiled in Phelps Stokes’ The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909. The map above is one of the first official maps of New York City after the American Revolution. Doyers Street is visible—the crooked bend is already there, but it is yet to be named. To look even further back, we can look at maps from the Dutch period.
Based on the Dutch deeds above, the first settlers of what later became Doyers Street were the Bee(c)kmans. Their influence is clear from the New York Historical Society’s description:
The Beekmans were one of New York’s most prominent families. Their name is perpetuated in New York City’s Beekman, Ann, and William Streets, all named after family members, and in other namesake places throughout New York state […] In 1652, William purchased Corleas Hook’s plantation on the Hudson river. A few years later he was appointed Vice Director of the Southern River (the Delaware River) territory in 1658, and for nine years was one of the burgomasters of New Amsterdam. In 1664, after he took an oath of allegiance to the English King Charles II, William was appointed sheriff of Esopus in Ulster County, where he served until 1672. During his service in 1670, he purchased an extensive property on Pearl Street along east river, extending west to present-day Beekman/William Streets and “The Beekman Swamp” west of that. In 1675, with the eruption of King Philip’s War in New England, he and other prominent New Yorkers petitioned Governor Andros to dispose of their estates and move elsewhere in the colony. They were denied and imprisoned, but later released on bail. In 1683, he was named mayor and later purchased territory in Rhinebeck; he stayed on this property until his death in 1707.
* * *
So much for 9 Doyers Street in its pre-existence. What happened after Henry and Antonia Doyer bought the place? The Doyers owned it for ten years and then passed it along at least five times before it became the lodging house of the Sanitary Aid Society for the Tenth Ward, founded in 1884 during a movement to improve New York City’s tenements.
The Society had roots in the Jewish community and was formed after a meeting of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in midtown, led by the renowned rabbi and ethics professor Felix Adler. The Directory of Social and Health Agencies of New York City lists the Society’s role as:
Investigates evasions and violations of existing sanitary laws, prosecutes offending parties and endeavors to educate public opinion on this subject. Supported by members’ fees, lodging-house receipts and voluntary contributions.
The Jewish Messenger explained that the Tenth Ward, in particular, was “a district which requires special attention from the overcrowded and unsanitary condition of many of its tenement houses.” It provided a pilot case for this new movement, and people hoped that it would become a model for other distressed areas of the city.
Their official statement was as follows:
The lodging house that opened on the property April 1, 1885 offered homes to people who had been forced to leave their overcrowded tenement apartments. The New York Tribune described the lodging as a four-story brick building that was once a tobacco factory with a basement, clean white walls and painted floors. “The office and reading room are on the ground floor,” the article went on. “The lodgers, who are taken from the overcrowded tenement houses, only pay 10 cents for a bath and a bed …”
In just a couple of months, the Sanitary Aid Society inspected over 2,000 tenement houses and cleaned 200 of them; 9 Doyers Street became the exemplar of the society’s “usefulness and energy.” It was clean, cheery and self-supporting and gave refuge each night to more than 60 men, away from the “overcrowded and unhealthy haunts of wretchedness.” In just one year, 9 Doyers Street accommodated over 22,000 people. That number bumped to 61,000 the following year, pushing the Society to expand the lodging to a second location. Five years later, the neighborhood changed again.
* * *
Asbury, in The Gangs of New York, blames a Cantonese man named Wah Kee for triggering the bad days. Kee was a businessman who profited from gambling and an opium den that he ran above his “curios, vegetables, and preserved fruits and sweets” store on 13 Pell Street. “Almost immediately,” Asbury wrote, “he attracted the riff-raff of the Bowery and Chatham Square, and the character of the neighborhood began to change.” By the mid-1890s, there were 200 gambling games and almost as many opium dens in the small triangular area of Chinatown that is Mott, Doyers and Pell Street.
Gambling invited police corruption and payoffs that averaged $17.50 a week and caused conflicts in the community. Obviously, those who ran the gambling joints made the most money, creating competition for control of the area. The On Leongs and the Hip Sings were the major groups. The On Leongs, led by Tom Lee, overpowered the Hip Sings, making Lee the boss of Chinatown. However, things escalated in the early 1900s when a man ambitious to oust Lee from leadership entered the picture. His name was Sai Wing Mock, better known as “Mock Duck.”
Duck was “a bland, fat, moon-faced little man” who wanted to be Chinatown’s emperor and was the terror of the neighborhood, Asbury explained. Within a year, he gained control of the Hip Sings and recruited tong members to face Lee and his Hip Sing family.
But of course, not everyone in the area were gang-affiliates. Somewhere down the line while tensions were growing in Chinatown, someone named Wong I Gong occupied 9 Doyers Street. Gong was a tea and rice seller, and is quoted in the New York Herald in August of 1894—not about his fear of the local gang wars but of the continued war between China, his home country, and Japan.
Along with the growth of New York’s Chinese population from 12 people in 1872 to 700 people eight years later, in 1880, the community built the city’s first Chinese theater on Doyers Street. A man named Chu Fong ran the Chinese Concert and Theatrical Company. The theater became a central part of the Chinese community, as well as the scene of crime that ranged from the numerous bloody tong fights to something less violent.
The performance of any tragedy, comedy, opera, negro minstrelsy, negro or other dancing, wrestling, boxing with or without gloves, sparring contest, trial of strength or any part or parts therein, or any circus, equestrian, or dramatic performacne or exercise, or any performance or exercise of jugglers, acrobats, club performances or ropedancers, on the first day of the week, is forbidden.
The Sun wrote that the small theater played a “tremendous part in the life of Chinatown,” as it was the only place for the Chinese to gather in New York. It played the role of church, school and public assembly for the locals. In 1903, after the Kishineff massacre (an anti-Jewish riot in Kishineff, Russia that ended in 49 Jews dead) the Chinese invited Jews for a benefit performance at the theater. “Feeling that they, too, are persecuted in the world,” they played three performances for the Kishineff victims.
In 1910, the owners of the theater announced they were closing the place. One of their actors, Ah Hoon, who was a member of the On Leongs, had been murdered in a tong war, and the theater had become its battleground, leaving more tong men dead inside it. While a truce was put in order, “the hatchet and gun men who had been making a shambles of the playhouse now waited outside for their victims, so that the audiences were as small as ever,” wrote Asbury.
Later that year, The New York Times reported that an actor by the name Raymond Hitchcock leased the theater. Opening night under the new management, the cast of 18 members played “Si Foom Kick Chung,” a tragic Chinese drama that translates to “The Persecution of Kick Chung,” with a popular Chinese actor at the time, Louie Quai, playing the lead. However, as Hitchcock tried and failed to make the theater prosper with motion pictures, it was finally time for the theater house to close. It became a mission of the New York Rescue Society run by ex-convict Tom Noonan, and stayed that way for most of the 20th century. Today, the theater house is preserved at 5-7 Doyers Street as a Cantonese restaurant and tenement building.
The tong wars slowly faded out in the first half of the century after Mock Duck was arrested in 1912– “he made formal proclamation that he was done with tongs and wars,” Asbury wrote– and when the tongs signed a new treaty on May 22, 1913, which kept Chinatown peaceful for the most part. In 1924, another war broke out, and fights continued sporadically, but it never returned to its height.
* * *
In 1920, the plot was sold from Charles Horton to Charles Salomone, an Italian immigrant who made a name for himself in real estate and charity work. Conveyance records at the City Register show that it was sold back to Wong Gong in 1925. The next sale listed is in 1939: the grantor was Thomas Mcnamee and grantee Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank. The following year, it was returned to Salomone, who after his death, passed it along to his wife Antoinette in 1943. By 1966, it was in the hands of the Richbrook Realty Corporation and was passed on to multiple corporations like the 9 Doyers Street Realty Corporation, and the Knickerbocker Federal Savings and Loan Association.
Over the years, the top floors have remained a place for living– from lodging house to apartment–while the bottom floor has seen different businesses come and go, including a coffeeshop in the 70s, and now as Apotheke, the bar.
Apotheke’s Director of Operations Seth Bulkin talked about the area in an interview with FAIR: “It’s very different, unique, when it comes to the location. There isn’t a train in a two to five min walk from here like most other locations. It’s a destination area; you really have to want to come here to be here. I think that the location has absolutely helped the allure of the business because it is kind of like that old world, the style of it is that old European style. When you come, what we’re trying to do is try and transport you from reality into an alternate reality.” An alternate reality that perhaps isn’t too far removed from its history.