Belleville’s Chinatown, the First on the East Coast

Mark J. Bonamo | December 30, 2019 | Winter 2019
The small Essex County town on Newark’s outskirts became a civic sanctuary for first wave of Chinese immigrants forced away from West Coast
Memorial to Chinese immigrants in graveyard of Dutch Reformed Church, Belleville

We’ll be on winter hiatus starting Dec. 23. While we’re recharging our batteries, we’ll be posting a series of stories about New Jersey history. We’ll be back delivering our unique coverage of politics and public policy on Jan. 2. Have a great holiday and a happy and safe New Year.

When you walk into the Caffé Intermezzo on Bloomfield Avenue in the North Ward of Newark, with a quick look to the left you can see just over the Belleville borderline, where the iconic Belmont Tavern restaurant serves its famed Chicken Savoy.

Inside the café, still an Italian-American stronghold despite demographic changes in the neighborhood, those inside reflected upon a major change made by a major immigrant group almost 150 years before.

“Chinese? Yeah, there are a lot of Chinese here in New Jersey. And I believe it when you say they were here before,” said Mario, who prefers to go only by his first name, as he served cup upon cup of espresso, upon learning that just over the border in Belleville was where the first Chinatown on the U.S.’s East Coast was established. Belleville’s Chinatown was an ethnic and socioeconomic municipal powerhouse that radiated influence throughout the Garden State.

“You know what? Anything’s possible, and the Chinese building a Chinatown down the block in Belleville is most definitely possible, in my humble opinion.”

Backbone of America

Mario’s acknowledgement that Chinese Americans were once an important factor in Belleville reflects an often-forgotten historical reality. In the second half of the 19th century, Chinese workers were the backbone of those who helped stretch America’s railroad network from coast to coast after the Civil War. But the price these far-from-home laborers paid was not just in blood, sweat and tears. Deep anti-Chinese anger in the U.S., especially on the West Coast, and the subsequent enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 are yet unhealed wounds that remind the descendants of these Chinese Americans of an injustice unearned.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Chinese laborers at work on the Central Pacific Railroad

Yet all was not lost for the Chinese railroad workers. Back east, Belleville, then a small Essex County town on the outskirts of a still partly-bucolic Newark, became a civic sanctuary for the first wave of Chinese immigrants who were forced away from the West Coast hate to a new home a mere 12 miles west of New York City.

Belleville Mayor Michael Melham notes that many people don’t know that by 1870, more than 10% of Belleville’s population was Chinese, living in the first thriving Chinatown on the East Coast of the U.S. But Mayor Melham, pointing to the French origin of his city’s name, which means “beautiful town,” says the town’s name is a historical marker of how Belleville has always been a little different.

A welcoming ‘beautiful town’

“Belleville’s roots were not English, but Dutch, and the local Dutch population never supported England or the crown,” said Melham, pointing to the long-standing Dutch Reformed Church on Main Street. “The Dutch have always been known for being progressive, tolerant and understanding. In that tradition, the Chinese were welcomed here in Belleville, the beautiful town that accepted them as its own.”

This acceptance and respect is demonstrated in the graveyard behind the Dutch Reformed Church, which is now called “La Senda Antigua,” a sign of the demographic shift of Belleville’s population from largely Italian and Irish to Latino, among other ethnic groups.

Amid the graves and monuments that remember heroes of the American Revolution, who fought for a new nation’s freedom, is a memorial to the Chinese immigrants who came to that new nation and made Belleville their home.

“In Sacred Memory of those Pioneering Souls” is etched on the front of the monument, the words also inscribed in Chinese characters on an edifice shaped like a Chinese pagoda.

At the base of the monument, another gravestone lying among those of other Americans, the words “Chinese Railroad Workers to Commemorate the 150th Anniversary of Your Heroic Work” are etched, mirrored again in the writing of these workers’ forefathers. The monument is dedicated by the United Chinese American Association of New Jersey, and is currently framed by both a Christmas wreath and an American flag.

Chinese New Year

“Our history in Belleville has always been very progressive, and about standing up for what’s right,” said Melham, noting that Belleville will soon commemorate the 150th anniversary of its first Chinese New Year celebration held in 1871, a moment that will be celebrated with traditional Chinese fireworks, dragons and lanterns. “And doing the right thing means not necessarily going along with everybody else.”

Dedication of memorial to Chinese immigrants in Belleville

Ronald Chen, former dean and professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark, pointed out how the first Chinatown in Belleville ultimately trickled down to nearby Newark, where a thriving Chinese American community reached its peak along Mulberry Street from the 1920s to the 1940s. That community was later dispersed by a strict quota system that essentially sealed off immigration from China until the end of the quota system in 1965.

“Anyone personally, or through their family, who has gone through an earlier iteration of this mistrust, xenophobia, and even racism, it is déjà vu all over again, including lately,” said Chen, whose parents immigrated from China in the late 1940s.

History’s lessons

“For every 20 years over the past century and a half, the waves of immigrants who arrived in America came from different places. But the story is still the same, whether they were Italians, Irish, Poles, Jews, as well as more recently Latinos, Muslims and Asians. We need to learn the lessons of history. Every time the population at large reacts to immigration with fear, the nation learns to eventually regret it.”

If you listen to Mario back at the Caffé Intermezzo, the Italian community in Newark and Belleville regret nothing. They came to this country and built their families, businesses and churches, all work done in the name of the realization of the American dream. According to current census statistics, there are now only about 300 Chinese Americans living in Belleville. But the first Chinatown on the East Coast that they created in Belleville resonates far beyond their numbers, including among their Italian American neighbors living just blocks away.

“Listen — we Italians came to this country, and we made our lives. This is what the Chinese did before in Belleville, and what I believe they’re doing now,” Mario said. “And why not? They work, and if you work, Italian, Chinese or whatever, you can build your own beautiful town. You can make your dreams real.”