Download high-resolution image Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00

Mott Street

A Chinese American Family's Story of Exclusion and Homecoming

Author Ava Chin
Look inside
Listen to a clip from the audiobook
audio pause button
0:00
0:00
“Essential reading for understanding not just Chinese American history but American history—and the American present.” —Celeste Ng, #1 bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere

* TIME 100 Must-Read Books of 2023 * San Francisco Chronicle's Favorite Nonfiction * Kirkus Best Nonfiction of 2023 * Library Journal Best Memoir and Biography of 2023 * One of Elle's Best Memoirs of 2023 (So Far) * An ALA Notable Book *

“The Angela’s Ashes for Chinese Americans.” —Miwa Messer, Poured Over podcast


As the only child of a single mother in Queens, Ava Chin found her family’s origins to be shrouded in mystery. She had never met her father, and her grandparents’ stories didn’t match the history she read at school. Mott Street traces Chin’s quest to understand her Chinese American family’s story. Over decades of painstaking research, she finds not only her father but also the building that provided a refuge for them all.

Breaking the silence surrounding her family’s past meant confronting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the first federal law to restrict immigration by race and nationality, barring Chinese immigrants from citizenship for six decades. Chin traces the story of the pioneering family members who emigrated from the Pearl River Delta, crossing an ocean to make their way in the American West of the mid-nineteenth century. She tells of their backbreaking work on the transcontinental railroad and of the brutal racism of frontier towns, then follows their paths to New York City.

In New York’s Chinatown she discovers a single building on Mott Street where so many of her ancestors would live, begin families, and craft new identities. She follows the men and women who became merchants, “paper son” refugees, activists, and heads of the Chinese tong, piecing together how they bore and resisted the weight of the Exclusion laws. She soon realizes that exclusion is not simply a political condition but also a personal one.

Gorgeously written, deeply researched, and tremendously resonant, Mott Street uncovers a legacy of exclusion and resilience that speaks to the American experience, past and present.
© © Tommy Kha
Ava Chin is the author of Eating Wildly, winner of the Les Dames d’Escoffier International M.F.K. Fisher Book Prize. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and Saveur. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, New York Foundation for the Arts, New York Institute for the Humanities, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She is a professor of creative nonfiction at the City University of New York. View titles by Ava Chin
Part I
1970s-Present
1. The Elbow of Mott Street
2. The Crown Prince of Chinatown / Chin Family
3. Such Treasures / Wong-Ng-Doshim Family

Part II
1880-1906
4. Dek Foon / Ng-Doshim Family
5. Dek Foon / Ng-Doshim Family
6. Chin On / Chin Family
7. Elva Lisk / Ng-Doshim Family
8. Dek Foon & Chin On / Ng-Doshim & Chin Families

Part III
1906-1914
9. Shim & Chun / Ng-Doshim Family
10. Shim & Chun / Ng-Doshim Family
11. Yulan & Chin On / Chin Family
12. Angel Island / Chin Family

Part IV
1915 - Present
13. Mothers of Mott Street / Ng-Doshim Family Apt. 31 & Chin Family Apt. 23
14. The Flu of 1918 / Ng-Doshim Family Apt. 31 & Chin Family Apt. 23
15. Paper Families / Wong Family, Ng-Doshim Family Apt. 31 & Chin Family Apts. 22 and 23
16. A Homecoming / Chin, Ng-Doshim & Wong Families Apts. 22 and 23
17. 37 Mott Street

Acknowledgments
Bibliography
Index
1

The Elbow of Mott Street

Chinatown, New York City

As I walk past the restaurants, vegetable stands, and open-air shop fronts that line Mott Street-the main artery that pulses through the heart of Chinatown-the sights and smells here are as familiar to me as my grandparents' kitchen. Roast duck and slabs of salted pork. Vast bins of varying grades of dried shiitakes, baby shrimp, flower teas wrapped in cellophane packages. Plump dried oysters-plucked from their shells and naked, but for some black bearding and a spray of salt-so provocatively laid out that it almost hurts to look at them.

When I was a kid growing up in Flushing, Queens, before it became the "new" Chinatown, we used to come here nearly every week. Sometimes it was to see my grandmother Rose's family, or to go shopping for roast pork or Chinese beef jerky, items difficult to make at home. It always involved good food. Giant, elaborate meals of long, pan-fried egg noodles with sliced beef, chicken, pork, and verdant gai lan vegetables as long as my chopsticks. Lobster Cantonese with minced pork and lacy egg whites. A whole flounder steamed from head to tail-topped with a medley of ginger, scallions, and soy sauce-right before we devoured it down to the delicate skeleton, when it was time to flip it over and start again. Chinatown was where my maternal grandfather, Gene Wong, went on his days off to visit friends, place horse-racing bets at the local off-track betting office, and purchase in-season crabs or lobster. The smaller, younger female crustaceans were our favorite: tender, succulent, and if we were lucky, packed with rich, unctuous eggs.

I didn't know, on any of the innumerable weekend excursions we took here, that a whole other side of my family, one that I had never met, was just around the corner from our favorite Cantonese restaurant. They were there, even as we marveled at the tiny turtles or Mexican jumping beans, or sucked on sweet hawthorn berry candies or preserved plums from the Hong Kong sweets shop with the Japanese name, or tossed white gunpowder-filled pellets to make snapping noises against the pavement. If I had looked up, perhaps I would have seen them, residing right there in the elbow of Mott Street-37 Mott Street-an apartment building that had been the epicenter of the Chinese community for almost seventy-five years.

Built in 1915 after a fire destroyed a funeral parlor and a stable, the red brick building that locals called Sun Lau, or New Building, was considered the height of luxury when it rose from the ashes. The most prominent families of Chinatown flocked to live there, including members of both my maternal and paternal sides. There, they occupied the choicest apartments with views of the cross section of Mott and Pell Streets.

It's a bustling three-pronged, panoramic view here at the intersection of Mott Street and Pell, and this is where our family's story in New York begins.

So many generations of my family have lived in this building-great-grandparents, grandparents and their siblings, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and now, me. When I last counted, I tallied forty-nine Chins and Ng-Doshims in total, many of whom took their first breaths as wailing newborns here.

Each wing of the family can trace its lineage back to an ancestor born and raised in the same fertile Pearl River Delta, an ocean and a continent away. Although each of them had lived out west collectively through the eras of Lincoln, Grant, Harrison, and Cleveland, it would take decades for their descendants to settle some three thousand miles away, in the apartment building that stood at the heart of the community they called Tong Yun Gai. It was here on Tang People's Street that their descendants became neighbors, lovers, classmates, sworn enemies, and eventually, as fate would have it-through my own birth-family kin.


In the glassy building entrance, I catch a glimpse of myself as I pull out a hefty key and open the door to 37 Mott Street.

It's a little like Alice through the looking glass as I enter the lobby-to anyone else it resembles an ordinary entrance with stairs leading to a narrow corridor, but for me it's a portal to my family and to our history in this country. I feel that rush every time I'm here. Soon, I am climbing the front staircase, the banister worn smooth by the hands of so many generations who lived here from childhood to old age. The stairway walls look like they are covered in a century's worth of dirt and grime. I often find garbage along the steps or cigarette butts on the windowsills, and if I run my finger along the soot in the screens it's as if I am temporarily disturbing the building's sedimentary layers before they settle back down again.

I arrive on the fourth floor of what was once our family domain. Chins have lived in the building in successive generations for over a hundred years, and aside from a few sporadic paint jobs and some strategically placed security cameras, the place is pretty much as it was when my great-grandparents lived here. The hallway walls are now painted-over bricks that make the place feel a bit like a bunker, and each door along the corridor is a different color and material style-classic painted-over tenement, white suburban prefab, complete with peephole and knocker, some even with patched-up screen doors. The effect is a janky individuality that I find strangely comforting.

It is a relief, after so many years of visiting this vibrant neighborhood-exoticized by outsiders, journalists, and even, I'll admit it, by me-to finally have a space to write here. Neighbors still keep their doors open in the summer, so that the smells of home cooking and the ringing tones of our language bounce through the hallways. Cantonese and Toisanese, which my grandfather spoke-a country dialect my grandmother considered backwards, but which I find charming-prevail here. While these southern dialects, with more than double the tones of standard Mandarin, are so familiar to me, I still have difficulty deciphering their meaning. (Once, when a neighbor asked me a question and I answered her in English, she looked at me startled. "You're not Chinese?" To her, my inability to speak Cantonese or Hoisanwa meant that I must be another ethnicity.)

I turn my key and enter a small T-shaped apartment.

The first time I walked into my writing studio, my footsteps audible against the wooden floors, I felt disoriented. I kept feeling like someone was going to shock me awake from my sudden good fortune of being here, and poof, I'd be out on the street again, looking up at the building from the outside.

When my generation moved in-the fourth to live here-we found old Chinese medicine bottles and "Sloan's Liniment" in the original kitchen cabinets, with doors that refuse to shut due to a thick century's worth of paint. The old Acme food storage safe, built into the wall-every unit has one-where my family used to burn lucky paper to honor our ancestors, is now flung open and transformed into a meditation area with a yoga cushion, incense, and a singing bowl.

I am standing in the kitchen, which doubles as a living space, where my great-uncle and great-aunt raised their family, just down the hall from my grandfather's apartment, and diagonally across from my great-grandparents' old unit.

This was the place where I was going to be writing the story I had been trying to uncover ever since I was a child, estranged from my father and his whole side of my family. Back then, I grappled with so many questions that spilled over to even the folks who raised me. Who were these pioneering family members who came before us? Who were they in relation to each other? Who was I in relation to them?

Then, as now, the dark shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act hovers over us all. Chinese Exclusion laws (1882-1943)-the country's first major federal immigration restrictions that closed its borders to a specific nationality-not only halted the majority of our legal immigration but also blocked Chinese from citizenship for sixty-one years. Coupled with earlier legislation that prevented women from freely immigrating, and had excluded Asians from naturalizing, these laws left a devastating impact on our communities across America for generations. These discriminatory laws shaped the histories of Chinatowns up and down the West Coast and reached all the way east, laying down the foundation for the very neighborhood in which I'm standing, a community that, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing anti-Asian violence, has been embattled and shaken to its very core. Still, despite these many years of racism, Chinatown is the only place for me that truly feels like a refuge.

As a writer, I believe it is important to uncover the truths from our collective past-no matter how painful or unsettling the discoveries. And so much of Chinese Exclusion has felt personal. As I tried to piece the puzzle together, I was forced time and time again to contend with my own feelings of exclusion, even from within my own family. No matter how old I was-a twenty-something writer seeking my father out for the first time, or a professor/mom to a sixth-generation New Yorker-no matter how many times I tried to understand and interview my father, I always found myself here alone, engaging in a solitary dance with the shadowy specter of having been excluded from my Chin side for so very long.

It wasn't the only erasure I felt. Growing up, my maternal grandfather, Gene, regaled me with stories of our ancestors on his side, stories about working on the railroad out west that held me in thrall throughout my childhood, well into my school years. In the sixth grade, when my teacher began the lesson on the nation's first transcontinental railroad, I thought that I already knew everything about it. But when I opened my big textbook on American history, I stared in disbelief at the official photograph. What was this nonsense? Why weren't we in the picture?


To understand what really happened, I needed to collect as many of our stories as possible. As a college student, I started interviewing my family members, and made my way out to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ genealogy library in Salt Lake City to look for traces of my railroad worker ancestor. Decades later, I continued the journey as a professor-zigzagging my way across the country to consult archives and experts, and to visit my families’ many places of detention, the border towns where they crossed over, and their sites of greatest achievement. I even moved my family across the globe as a Fulbright scholar to visit the villages in China that we had left behind. Eventually, I uncovered the Chinese Exclusion Act files on each of my major family members-manila folders filled with intrigue, half-truths, and in some cases, outright lies.

It is a general rule of thumb, among researchers and historians alike, that it is the written record that is the gold standard, and the family stories that are long on twisted falsehoods, embellishment, and tall tales. But when you're Chinese in America, with roots that stretch back to the Exclusion era, it is the historical record that is a fabulist fabrication, and the oral stories, passed down from generation to generation, like rare, evolving heirlooms, that ultimately hold the keys to the truth.

At noon, the bells from Transfiguration Church ring throughout the building and the neighborhood, just as they did when my maternal grandmother, Rose, and paternal grandfather, Lung, were children, just as they did for my father and his siblings, and for my cousins a generation later, our family spilling out and taking over this floor. I pause at my writing desk-by the window, overlooking rooftops, fire escapes, and a tenacious understory tree in the courtyard, sitting in the midst of my family's long history-and note every chime.

2

The Crown Prince
of Chinatown

Chin Family

I first saw my father as a pair of feet in Italian leather shoes, bounding down the carpeted staircase of his office building, on one of the oldest streets in Chinatown.

It was a cold, rainy late afternoon in mid-February. When I arrived, only ten minutes before, I had stood at the threshold hesitating, every button on my black peacoat fastened, my breath fogging up the windows flanking the double doors. No one else in my family knew that I was here, or that I was meeting my father for the first time. If they did, they might have stopped me-and I couldn't risk losing my nerve.

I tried to stay calm and take deep, even breaths.

I had never hidden anything this big from the family who raised me, but I had been waiting my entire life for this moment.

Finally, I pushed the buzzer.

His building, the Edward Mooney House-the only townhouse dating back to the American Revolution in all of Manhattan-was a short two-block jaunt from Mott Street that I had walked numerous times before, as a child on family outings, and later, as a young activist in the community. I had no idea back then that if I looked up to the third floor of this red brick edifice, I could see his office, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of this elusive, mysterious man.

At the barbershop next door, hairdressers were busy fashioning buzz cuts, flattops, and layer upon layer of Jennifer Aniston Friends-style haircuts. A few doors down, a crowd of tourists was entering the soup dumpling restaurant, the city's first xiao long bao joint, for dumplings so juicy one had to eat them with both a spoon and chopsticks. Pell Street was a scant two blocks long, but it had everything-ATMs, a curio shop, even a Baptist church, though it was so narrow that sometimes trucks had to traverse it with one front and back wheel hiked up on the sidewalk. I noticed that my father's name had been outside, on the street-level buzzer that I had just pressed, at eye level, the entire time. As a writer, I liked to think of myself as an observant person, but what other important things had I simply walked past dozens of times, lost in my own head?

Then, finally, I heard the sound of feet running down stairs, and saw those black leather shoes.

Suddenly, the doors were flung open, and a small face with a thin protective smile was carefully peering down at me.

I had the sensation that I was meeting someone very familiar yet very odd-it was rather like being studied from across time and down the long end of a very old, unfolding telescope.

Discussion Guide for Mott Street

Provides questions, discussion topics, suggested reading lists, introductions and/or author Q&As, which are intended to enhance reading groups’ experiences.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

“Chin delights in recalling the lives of her more colorful ancestors . . . But she also writes unflinchingly of the racism and marginalization her family faced after arriving in the American West in the mid-19th century . . . Mott Street is a sensitively told story of survival, resilience, and resistance.” — Shannon Carlin, TIME’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2023

“A deeply empathetic and important book, one that renders visible the hidden achievements and sufferings of her family members—and insists that the wounding history of exclusion be seen clearly as well.” —Julia Flynn Siler, Wall Street Journal

“Chin probes the plight of four generations of her ancestors with the tenacity of a historian, the fine brush of an accomplished artist, and the sensitivity of one who openly communicates with the dead . . . guided by curiosity and courage . . . one of the unexpected gifts is that we hear Chin’s voice throughout . . . in her spine-tingling interactions with the spirits of those who have passed . . . magic.” —Megan Vered, Los Angeles Review of Books

“An expansive family history encompassing perilous journeys, sensational crimes and social change . . . Sensitive, ambitious, well-reported . . . It has a great deal to say about the Chinese experience in this country: the perilous journeys here, the racism that forced many into menial railroad and laundry jobs, and the draconian Chinese exclusion laws that for six decades (1882-1943) halted most legal immigration and blocked Chinese people from citizenship. The story has a certain pageantry. It flexes to absorb world wars, cholera epidemics, the San Francisco earthquake (the loss of official documents in flattened buildings was a boon to many Chinese immigrants), sensational crimes, foot binding and the rise of urban tongs . . . She and her vibrant family have come so far, but a lot of the old bruises are still right there on the surface.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review

“Bravura . . . Chin writes with a Proustian flourish about scrumptious foodscapes, and her new book—a valentine to four generations of her Asian American ancestors—plays to her strengths . . . Evocative . . . melding of different voices—a kind of free indirect style—works without drawing undue attention to itself as a composite form. There’s an immediacy to Chin’s description . . . [her ancestors] voices have been lovingly preserved in these pages.” —Rhoda Feng, The Washington Post

“The book shines a harsh and unforgiving light on this country’s legacy of racist policies, exemplified by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration for over 60 years and denied Chinese American residents the right to become U.S. citizens . . . an important read for those interested in learning about the origins of some of today’s most hard-line immigration policy proposals in America.” —Leland Cheuk, San Francisco Chronicle

“The Angela’s Ashes for Chinese Americans.” —Miwa Messer, Poured Over Podcast

“Ava Chin, the only child of a single mother in Queens, decided to embark on a quest to learn her family history, which necessitated wading through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. for six decades. Chin's in-depth research and family detective work led her to a building on Mott Street—and a new understanding of herself and her family.” —Zibby Owens, Good Morning America
 
“In the pages of Mott Street, Chin masterfully braids together the roots of her own family tree with the history of Chinese marginalization in America—specifically, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was only repealed during World War II, forcing migrants like her family members to forge new identities.” TIME Magazine, “14 New Books You Should Read in April”
 
“My favorite memoirs are the ones that tell a big story through a personal lens. Chin does this beautifully in Mott Street . . . It’s a visceral, vital book that exposes some of America’s most shameful history, while uplifting the people who resisted and thrived despite it.” Book Riot, “8 Fascinating New Nonfiction Books to Read in April 2023”

“A remarkable story . . . Mott Street is the focal point of an extraordinary tale of an extended family that throws itself into making life in America work.” —Gavin Newsham, New York Post

“Exceptional . . . Enhanced with rare photographs and documents, Chin achieves on the page what wasn't possible in her own actual life: to entwine her parentage into a single enduring story of abiding resilience and indelible inspiration.” —Terry Hong, Shelf Awareness (starred review)

“Stunning . . . Deeply researched and superbly told, this sweeping saga is sure to become required reading for those seeking to understand America’s past and present. Readers will be rapt.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Chinese American writer searches for roots not easily uncovered . . . In this elegantly written, probing narrative, Chin adds weight and substance to those near caricatures, an act of filial homage that ends with the arresting image of ‘the mothers of Mott Street’ revivified . . . A lively memoir that limns a long family history and helps us understand the troubled history of our nation.” Kirkus (starred review)

“A beautifully written ode to Chin’s family that explores the history of a nation through the eyes of those whose stories of strength, rage, and passion were often suppressed from the historical record . . . important and relevant, and her memoir gives readers a better understanding of immigrants’ pasts and presents in the U.S. and an idea of how to move forward.” Library Journal

“This richly narrated family history starts in Chinatown, then amplifies the broader experience of Chinese Americans across two centuries of hardship and opportunity . . . Chin draws upon oral narratives, archival research, photographs, location visits, and intuition to convey her ancestors’ feelings. Chin expresses familial affection and reveals an ugly anti-Chinese sentiment that unfortunately ‘has made a roaring comeback in our time.'” Booklist

“Ava Chin accomplishes an astonishing feat: by tracing five generations of her own Chinese American ancestors, she also traces the story of Chinese exclusion, illuminating an often-ignored part of our national past. Mott Street is a vibrant and moving family story, but it’s also essential reading for understanding not just Chinese American history, but American history—and the American present.” Celeste Ng, #1 bestselling author of Our Missing Hearts and Little Fires Everywhere

“Ava Chin’s quest to learn the story of her family uncovers another story: the American government’s almost century-long discriminatory treatment of Chinese immigrants and their children—a shameful episode in our history, and one that should be more widely known. Anti-Asian racism did not begin with Covid. Mott Street is written with feeling, with anger, and compassion. It’s a book from the heart.”Louis Menand, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Free World

“Ava Chin's fierce intelligence and gorgeous writing gives us an exciting and essential social history of three generations of Chinese New Yorkers that expands our understanding of American life. This important and much needed work will enrich our common conversation and how we know ourselves.” —Sarah Schulman, author of Let the Record Show

Mott Street should be required reading. Tracing the lineage of her own family, Ava Chin commits to the written record a foundational piece of American history that has been erased for too long. Thoroughly researched and powerfully told, Mott Street examines the legacy of Exclusion and what it means—for a nation, for a family, and for a human.” —Qian Julie Wang, New York Times Bestselling author of Beautiful Country 
 
“Ava Chin entered a six-story building in New York’s Chinatown and found a portal—one that led not only to both sides of her sprawling and turbulent family history, but to a visceral understanding of the Chinese-American experience in all its glory and pain. Mott Street is a masterful distillation of decades of research and storytelling, written with love, sorrow, and rage.” —Janice P. Nimura, New York Times Bestselling author of The Doctors Blackwell

“Ava Chin blazes a path through the fictions made necessary by the Chinese Exclusion Act to a gorgeously intimate story of her own family across generations and a powerful indictment of the ways this country's past xenophobia reverberates in the present. She discovers that many of her ancestors' histories flow through a single building on Mott Street, a place that simultaneously grounds and unleashes the spirit of their collective story. A beautiful and necessary book.” —Maud Newton, author of Ancestor Trouble
 
“Ava Chin has created a stunning work of genealogy that traces her family’s legacy in America back from present day Mott Street in New York City to the early days of Chinese Exclusion in California. It is a tender and loving portrait of her ancestors, depicting their joys and struggles as they built both the nation’s infrastructure and spaces of resistance and belonging for those excluded from the nation. More than a family history, Mott Street is a history of a people's survival and a history of America.​” —Grace M. Cho, author Tastes Like War
 
“Ava Chin has taken the stories she was told and the hurts that came her way in childhood and transformed them into an historically researched portrayal of two families in a new country that wanted their labor but not their citizenship. Chin reveals the pain that overcomes her as she learns her past but she proceeds by drawing strength from feeling her ancestors all around her in their building in Manhattan's Mott Street. The essence of this story is a yearning to understand the past and to discover what Chin can make of her glorious yet underusing inheritance in her present life as an author, professor, and parent. Mott Street is a masterpiece that opens up a unique history into a consideration of what came before that offers inspiration for all readers.” —Alice Elliott Dark, author of Fellowship Point

“Sweeping yet intimate, Mott Street is a lyrical, gripping account of survival, resilience and resistance. Through tireless research, Ava Chin uncovers the stories of her family that might have been lost to history. Deeply moving and unforgettable.” —Vanessa Hua, Forbidden City

About

“Essential reading for understanding not just Chinese American history but American history—and the American present.” —Celeste Ng, #1 bestselling author of Little Fires Everywhere

* TIME 100 Must-Read Books of 2023 * San Francisco Chronicle's Favorite Nonfiction * Kirkus Best Nonfiction of 2023 * Library Journal Best Memoir and Biography of 2023 * One of Elle's Best Memoirs of 2023 (So Far) * An ALA Notable Book *

“The Angela’s Ashes for Chinese Americans.” —Miwa Messer, Poured Over podcast


As the only child of a single mother in Queens, Ava Chin found her family’s origins to be shrouded in mystery. She had never met her father, and her grandparents’ stories didn’t match the history she read at school. Mott Street traces Chin’s quest to understand her Chinese American family’s story. Over decades of painstaking research, she finds not only her father but also the building that provided a refuge for them all.

Breaking the silence surrounding her family’s past meant confronting the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—the first federal law to restrict immigration by race and nationality, barring Chinese immigrants from citizenship for six decades. Chin traces the story of the pioneering family members who emigrated from the Pearl River Delta, crossing an ocean to make their way in the American West of the mid-nineteenth century. She tells of their backbreaking work on the transcontinental railroad and of the brutal racism of frontier towns, then follows their paths to New York City.

In New York’s Chinatown she discovers a single building on Mott Street where so many of her ancestors would live, begin families, and craft new identities. She follows the men and women who became merchants, “paper son” refugees, activists, and heads of the Chinese tong, piecing together how they bore and resisted the weight of the Exclusion laws. She soon realizes that exclusion is not simply a political condition but also a personal one.

Gorgeously written, deeply researched, and tremendously resonant, Mott Street uncovers a legacy of exclusion and resilience that speaks to the American experience, past and present.

Author

© © Tommy Kha
Ava Chin is the author of Eating Wildly, winner of the Les Dames d’Escoffier International M.F.K. Fisher Book Prize. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Village Voice, and Saveur. She is the recipient of grants and fellowships from the New York Public Library’s Cullman Center, the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program, New York Foundation for the Arts, New York Institute for the Humanities, and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. She is a professor of creative nonfiction at the City University of New York. View titles by Ava Chin

Table of Contents

Part I
1970s-Present
1. The Elbow of Mott Street
2. The Crown Prince of Chinatown / Chin Family
3. Such Treasures / Wong-Ng-Doshim Family

Part II
1880-1906
4. Dek Foon / Ng-Doshim Family
5. Dek Foon / Ng-Doshim Family
6. Chin On / Chin Family
7. Elva Lisk / Ng-Doshim Family
8. Dek Foon & Chin On / Ng-Doshim & Chin Families

Part III
1906-1914
9. Shim & Chun / Ng-Doshim Family
10. Shim & Chun / Ng-Doshim Family
11. Yulan & Chin On / Chin Family
12. Angel Island / Chin Family

Part IV
1915 - Present
13. Mothers of Mott Street / Ng-Doshim Family Apt. 31 & Chin Family Apt. 23
14. The Flu of 1918 / Ng-Doshim Family Apt. 31 & Chin Family Apt. 23
15. Paper Families / Wong Family, Ng-Doshim Family Apt. 31 & Chin Family Apts. 22 and 23
16. A Homecoming / Chin, Ng-Doshim & Wong Families Apts. 22 and 23
17. 37 Mott Street

Acknowledgments
Bibliography
Index

Excerpt

1

The Elbow of Mott Street

Chinatown, New York City

As I walk past the restaurants, vegetable stands, and open-air shop fronts that line Mott Street-the main artery that pulses through the heart of Chinatown-the sights and smells here are as familiar to me as my grandparents' kitchen. Roast duck and slabs of salted pork. Vast bins of varying grades of dried shiitakes, baby shrimp, flower teas wrapped in cellophane packages. Plump dried oysters-plucked from their shells and naked, but for some black bearding and a spray of salt-so provocatively laid out that it almost hurts to look at them.

When I was a kid growing up in Flushing, Queens, before it became the "new" Chinatown, we used to come here nearly every week. Sometimes it was to see my grandmother Rose's family, or to go shopping for roast pork or Chinese beef jerky, items difficult to make at home. It always involved good food. Giant, elaborate meals of long, pan-fried egg noodles with sliced beef, chicken, pork, and verdant gai lan vegetables as long as my chopsticks. Lobster Cantonese with minced pork and lacy egg whites. A whole flounder steamed from head to tail-topped with a medley of ginger, scallions, and soy sauce-right before we devoured it down to the delicate skeleton, when it was time to flip it over and start again. Chinatown was where my maternal grandfather, Gene Wong, went on his days off to visit friends, place horse-racing bets at the local off-track betting office, and purchase in-season crabs or lobster. The smaller, younger female crustaceans were our favorite: tender, succulent, and if we were lucky, packed with rich, unctuous eggs.

I didn't know, on any of the innumerable weekend excursions we took here, that a whole other side of my family, one that I had never met, was just around the corner from our favorite Cantonese restaurant. They were there, even as we marveled at the tiny turtles or Mexican jumping beans, or sucked on sweet hawthorn berry candies or preserved plums from the Hong Kong sweets shop with the Japanese name, or tossed white gunpowder-filled pellets to make snapping noises against the pavement. If I had looked up, perhaps I would have seen them, residing right there in the elbow of Mott Street-37 Mott Street-an apartment building that had been the epicenter of the Chinese community for almost seventy-five years.

Built in 1915 after a fire destroyed a funeral parlor and a stable, the red brick building that locals called Sun Lau, or New Building, was considered the height of luxury when it rose from the ashes. The most prominent families of Chinatown flocked to live there, including members of both my maternal and paternal sides. There, they occupied the choicest apartments with views of the cross section of Mott and Pell Streets.

It's a bustling three-pronged, panoramic view here at the intersection of Mott Street and Pell, and this is where our family's story in New York begins.

So many generations of my family have lived in this building-great-grandparents, grandparents and their siblings, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and now, me. When I last counted, I tallied forty-nine Chins and Ng-Doshims in total, many of whom took their first breaths as wailing newborns here.

Each wing of the family can trace its lineage back to an ancestor born and raised in the same fertile Pearl River Delta, an ocean and a continent away. Although each of them had lived out west collectively through the eras of Lincoln, Grant, Harrison, and Cleveland, it would take decades for their descendants to settle some three thousand miles away, in the apartment building that stood at the heart of the community they called Tong Yun Gai. It was here on Tang People's Street that their descendants became neighbors, lovers, classmates, sworn enemies, and eventually, as fate would have it-through my own birth-family kin.


In the glassy building entrance, I catch a glimpse of myself as I pull out a hefty key and open the door to 37 Mott Street.

It's a little like Alice through the looking glass as I enter the lobby-to anyone else it resembles an ordinary entrance with stairs leading to a narrow corridor, but for me it's a portal to my family and to our history in this country. I feel that rush every time I'm here. Soon, I am climbing the front staircase, the banister worn smooth by the hands of so many generations who lived here from childhood to old age. The stairway walls look like they are covered in a century's worth of dirt and grime. I often find garbage along the steps or cigarette butts on the windowsills, and if I run my finger along the soot in the screens it's as if I am temporarily disturbing the building's sedimentary layers before they settle back down again.

I arrive on the fourth floor of what was once our family domain. Chins have lived in the building in successive generations for over a hundred years, and aside from a few sporadic paint jobs and some strategically placed security cameras, the place is pretty much as it was when my great-grandparents lived here. The hallway walls are now painted-over bricks that make the place feel a bit like a bunker, and each door along the corridor is a different color and material style-classic painted-over tenement, white suburban prefab, complete with peephole and knocker, some even with patched-up screen doors. The effect is a janky individuality that I find strangely comforting.

It is a relief, after so many years of visiting this vibrant neighborhood-exoticized by outsiders, journalists, and even, I'll admit it, by me-to finally have a space to write here. Neighbors still keep their doors open in the summer, so that the smells of home cooking and the ringing tones of our language bounce through the hallways. Cantonese and Toisanese, which my grandfather spoke-a country dialect my grandmother considered backwards, but which I find charming-prevail here. While these southern dialects, with more than double the tones of standard Mandarin, are so familiar to me, I still have difficulty deciphering their meaning. (Once, when a neighbor asked me a question and I answered her in English, she looked at me startled. "You're not Chinese?" To her, my inability to speak Cantonese or Hoisanwa meant that I must be another ethnicity.)

I turn my key and enter a small T-shaped apartment.

The first time I walked into my writing studio, my footsteps audible against the wooden floors, I felt disoriented. I kept feeling like someone was going to shock me awake from my sudden good fortune of being here, and poof, I'd be out on the street again, looking up at the building from the outside.

When my generation moved in-the fourth to live here-we found old Chinese medicine bottles and "Sloan's Liniment" in the original kitchen cabinets, with doors that refuse to shut due to a thick century's worth of paint. The old Acme food storage safe, built into the wall-every unit has one-where my family used to burn lucky paper to honor our ancestors, is now flung open and transformed into a meditation area with a yoga cushion, incense, and a singing bowl.

I am standing in the kitchen, which doubles as a living space, where my great-uncle and great-aunt raised their family, just down the hall from my grandfather's apartment, and diagonally across from my great-grandparents' old unit.

This was the place where I was going to be writing the story I had been trying to uncover ever since I was a child, estranged from my father and his whole side of my family. Back then, I grappled with so many questions that spilled over to even the folks who raised me. Who were these pioneering family members who came before us? Who were they in relation to each other? Who was I in relation to them?

Then, as now, the dark shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act hovers over us all. Chinese Exclusion laws (1882-1943)-the country's first major federal immigration restrictions that closed its borders to a specific nationality-not only halted the majority of our legal immigration but also blocked Chinese from citizenship for sixty-one years. Coupled with earlier legislation that prevented women from freely immigrating, and had excluded Asians from naturalizing, these laws left a devastating impact on our communities across America for generations. These discriminatory laws shaped the histories of Chinatowns up and down the West Coast and reached all the way east, laying down the foundation for the very neighborhood in which I'm standing, a community that, with the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing anti-Asian violence, has been embattled and shaken to its very core. Still, despite these many years of racism, Chinatown is the only place for me that truly feels like a refuge.

As a writer, I believe it is important to uncover the truths from our collective past-no matter how painful or unsettling the discoveries. And so much of Chinese Exclusion has felt personal. As I tried to piece the puzzle together, I was forced time and time again to contend with my own feelings of exclusion, even from within my own family. No matter how old I was-a twenty-something writer seeking my father out for the first time, or a professor/mom to a sixth-generation New Yorker-no matter how many times I tried to understand and interview my father, I always found myself here alone, engaging in a solitary dance with the shadowy specter of having been excluded from my Chin side for so very long.

It wasn't the only erasure I felt. Growing up, my maternal grandfather, Gene, regaled me with stories of our ancestors on his side, stories about working on the railroad out west that held me in thrall throughout my childhood, well into my school years. In the sixth grade, when my teacher began the lesson on the nation's first transcontinental railroad, I thought that I already knew everything about it. But when I opened my big textbook on American history, I stared in disbelief at the official photograph. What was this nonsense? Why weren't we in the picture?


To understand what really happened, I needed to collect as many of our stories as possible. As a college student, I started interviewing my family members, and made my way out to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ genealogy library in Salt Lake City to look for traces of my railroad worker ancestor. Decades later, I continued the journey as a professor-zigzagging my way across the country to consult archives and experts, and to visit my families’ many places of detention, the border towns where they crossed over, and their sites of greatest achievement. I even moved my family across the globe as a Fulbright scholar to visit the villages in China that we had left behind. Eventually, I uncovered the Chinese Exclusion Act files on each of my major family members-manila folders filled with intrigue, half-truths, and in some cases, outright lies.

It is a general rule of thumb, among researchers and historians alike, that it is the written record that is the gold standard, and the family stories that are long on twisted falsehoods, embellishment, and tall tales. But when you're Chinese in America, with roots that stretch back to the Exclusion era, it is the historical record that is a fabulist fabrication, and the oral stories, passed down from generation to generation, like rare, evolving heirlooms, that ultimately hold the keys to the truth.

At noon, the bells from Transfiguration Church ring throughout the building and the neighborhood, just as they did when my maternal grandmother, Rose, and paternal grandfather, Lung, were children, just as they did for my father and his siblings, and for my cousins a generation later, our family spilling out and taking over this floor. I pause at my writing desk-by the window, overlooking rooftops, fire escapes, and a tenacious understory tree in the courtyard, sitting in the midst of my family's long history-and note every chime.

2

The Crown Prince
of Chinatown

Chin Family

I first saw my father as a pair of feet in Italian leather shoes, bounding down the carpeted staircase of his office building, on one of the oldest streets in Chinatown.

It was a cold, rainy late afternoon in mid-February. When I arrived, only ten minutes before, I had stood at the threshold hesitating, every button on my black peacoat fastened, my breath fogging up the windows flanking the double doors. No one else in my family knew that I was here, or that I was meeting my father for the first time. If they did, they might have stopped me-and I couldn't risk losing my nerve.

I tried to stay calm and take deep, even breaths.

I had never hidden anything this big from the family who raised me, but I had been waiting my entire life for this moment.

Finally, I pushed the buzzer.

His building, the Edward Mooney House-the only townhouse dating back to the American Revolution in all of Manhattan-was a short two-block jaunt from Mott Street that I had walked numerous times before, as a child on family outings, and later, as a young activist in the community. I had no idea back then that if I looked up to the third floor of this red brick edifice, I could see his office, and perhaps even catch a glimpse of this elusive, mysterious man.

At the barbershop next door, hairdressers were busy fashioning buzz cuts, flattops, and layer upon layer of Jennifer Aniston Friends-style haircuts. A few doors down, a crowd of tourists was entering the soup dumpling restaurant, the city's first xiao long bao joint, for dumplings so juicy one had to eat them with both a spoon and chopsticks. Pell Street was a scant two blocks long, but it had everything-ATMs, a curio shop, even a Baptist church, though it was so narrow that sometimes trucks had to traverse it with one front and back wheel hiked up on the sidewalk. I noticed that my father's name had been outside, on the street-level buzzer that I had just pressed, at eye level, the entire time. As a writer, I liked to think of myself as an observant person, but what other important things had I simply walked past dozens of times, lost in my own head?

Then, finally, I heard the sound of feet running down stairs, and saw those black leather shoes.

Suddenly, the doors were flung open, and a small face with a thin protective smile was carefully peering down at me.

I had the sensation that I was meeting someone very familiar yet very odd-it was rather like being studied from across time and down the long end of a very old, unfolding telescope.

Guides

Discussion Guide for Mott Street

Provides questions, discussion topics, suggested reading lists, introductions and/or author Q&As, which are intended to enhance reading groups’ experiences.

(Please note: the guide displayed here is the most recently uploaded version; while unlikely, any page citation discrepancies between the guide and book is likely due to pagination differences between a book’s different formats.)

Praise

“Chin delights in recalling the lives of her more colorful ancestors . . . But she also writes unflinchingly of the racism and marginalization her family faced after arriving in the American West in the mid-19th century . . . Mott Street is a sensitively told story of survival, resilience, and resistance.” — Shannon Carlin, TIME’s 100 Must-Read Books of 2023

“A deeply empathetic and important book, one that renders visible the hidden achievements and sufferings of her family members—and insists that the wounding history of exclusion be seen clearly as well.” —Julia Flynn Siler, Wall Street Journal

“Chin probes the plight of four generations of her ancestors with the tenacity of a historian, the fine brush of an accomplished artist, and the sensitivity of one who openly communicates with the dead . . . guided by curiosity and courage . . . one of the unexpected gifts is that we hear Chin’s voice throughout . . . in her spine-tingling interactions with the spirits of those who have passed . . . magic.” —Megan Vered, Los Angeles Review of Books

“An expansive family history encompassing perilous journeys, sensational crimes and social change . . . Sensitive, ambitious, well-reported . . . It has a great deal to say about the Chinese experience in this country: the perilous journeys here, the racism that forced many into menial railroad and laundry jobs, and the draconian Chinese exclusion laws that for six decades (1882-1943) halted most legal immigration and blocked Chinese people from citizenship. The story has a certain pageantry. It flexes to absorb world wars, cholera epidemics, the San Francisco earthquake (the loss of official documents in flattened buildings was a boon to many Chinese immigrants), sensational crimes, foot binding and the rise of urban tongs . . . She and her vibrant family have come so far, but a lot of the old bruises are still right there on the surface.” —Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review

“Bravura . . . Chin writes with a Proustian flourish about scrumptious foodscapes, and her new book—a valentine to four generations of her Asian American ancestors—plays to her strengths . . . Evocative . . . melding of different voices—a kind of free indirect style—works without drawing undue attention to itself as a composite form. There’s an immediacy to Chin’s description . . . [her ancestors] voices have been lovingly preserved in these pages.” —Rhoda Feng, The Washington Post

“The book shines a harsh and unforgiving light on this country’s legacy of racist policies, exemplified by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration for over 60 years and denied Chinese American residents the right to become U.S. citizens . . . an important read for those interested in learning about the origins of some of today’s most hard-line immigration policy proposals in America.” —Leland Cheuk, San Francisco Chronicle

“The Angela’s Ashes for Chinese Americans.” —Miwa Messer, Poured Over Podcast

“Ava Chin, the only child of a single mother in Queens, decided to embark on a quest to learn her family history, which necessitated wading through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. for six decades. Chin's in-depth research and family detective work led her to a building on Mott Street—and a new understanding of herself and her family.” —Zibby Owens, Good Morning America
 
“In the pages of Mott Street, Chin masterfully braids together the roots of her own family tree with the history of Chinese marginalization in America—specifically, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was only repealed during World War II, forcing migrants like her family members to forge new identities.” TIME Magazine, “14 New Books You Should Read in April”
 
“My favorite memoirs are the ones that tell a big story through a personal lens. Chin does this beautifully in Mott Street . . . It’s a visceral, vital book that exposes some of America’s most shameful history, while uplifting the people who resisted and thrived despite it.” Book Riot, “8 Fascinating New Nonfiction Books to Read in April 2023”

“A remarkable story . . . Mott Street is the focal point of an extraordinary tale of an extended family that throws itself into making life in America work.” —Gavin Newsham, New York Post

“Exceptional . . . Enhanced with rare photographs and documents, Chin achieves on the page what wasn't possible in her own actual life: to entwine her parentage into a single enduring story of abiding resilience and indelible inspiration.” —Terry Hong, Shelf Awareness (starred review)

“Stunning . . . Deeply researched and superbly told, this sweeping saga is sure to become required reading for those seeking to understand America’s past and present. Readers will be rapt.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Chinese American writer searches for roots not easily uncovered . . . In this elegantly written, probing narrative, Chin adds weight and substance to those near caricatures, an act of filial homage that ends with the arresting image of ‘the mothers of Mott Street’ revivified . . . A lively memoir that limns a long family history and helps us understand the troubled history of our nation.” Kirkus (starred review)

“A beautifully written ode to Chin’s family that explores the history of a nation through the eyes of those whose stories of strength, rage, and passion were often suppressed from the historical record . . . important and relevant, and her memoir gives readers a better understanding of immigrants’ pasts and presents in the U.S. and an idea of how to move forward.” Library Journal

“This richly narrated family history starts in Chinatown, then amplifies the broader experience of Chinese Americans across two centuries of hardship and opportunity . . . Chin draws upon oral narratives, archival research, photographs, location visits, and intuition to convey her ancestors’ feelings. Chin expresses familial affection and reveals an ugly anti-Chinese sentiment that unfortunately ‘has made a roaring comeback in our time.'” Booklist

“Ava Chin accomplishes an astonishing feat: by tracing five generations of her own Chinese American ancestors, she also traces the story of Chinese exclusion, illuminating an often-ignored part of our national past. Mott Street is a vibrant and moving family story, but it’s also essential reading for understanding not just Chinese American history, but American history—and the American present.” Celeste Ng, #1 bestselling author of Our Missing Hearts and Little Fires Everywhere

“Ava Chin’s quest to learn the story of her family uncovers another story: the American government’s almost century-long discriminatory treatment of Chinese immigrants and their children—a shameful episode in our history, and one that should be more widely known. Anti-Asian racism did not begin with Covid. Mott Street is written with feeling, with anger, and compassion. It’s a book from the heart.”Louis Menand, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Free World

“Ava Chin's fierce intelligence and gorgeous writing gives us an exciting and essential social history of three generations of Chinese New Yorkers that expands our understanding of American life. This important and much needed work will enrich our common conversation and how we know ourselves.” —Sarah Schulman, author of Let the Record Show

Mott Street should be required reading. Tracing the lineage of her own family, Ava Chin commits to the written record a foundational piece of American history that has been erased for too long. Thoroughly researched and powerfully told, Mott Street examines the legacy of Exclusion and what it means—for a nation, for a family, and for a human.” —Qian Julie Wang, New York Times Bestselling author of Beautiful Country 
 
“Ava Chin entered a six-story building in New York’s Chinatown and found a portal—one that led not only to both sides of her sprawling and turbulent family history, but to a visceral understanding of the Chinese-American experience in all its glory and pain. Mott Street is a masterful distillation of decades of research and storytelling, written with love, sorrow, and rage.” —Janice P. Nimura, New York Times Bestselling author of The Doctors Blackwell

“Ava Chin blazes a path through the fictions made necessary by the Chinese Exclusion Act to a gorgeously intimate story of her own family across generations and a powerful indictment of the ways this country's past xenophobia reverberates in the present. She discovers that many of her ancestors' histories flow through a single building on Mott Street, a place that simultaneously grounds and unleashes the spirit of their collective story. A beautiful and necessary book.” —Maud Newton, author of Ancestor Trouble
 
“Ava Chin has created a stunning work of genealogy that traces her family’s legacy in America back from present day Mott Street in New York City to the early days of Chinese Exclusion in California. It is a tender and loving portrait of her ancestors, depicting their joys and struggles as they built both the nation’s infrastructure and spaces of resistance and belonging for those excluded from the nation. More than a family history, Mott Street is a history of a people's survival and a history of America.​” —Grace M. Cho, author Tastes Like War
 
“Ava Chin has taken the stories she was told and the hurts that came her way in childhood and transformed them into an historically researched portrayal of two families in a new country that wanted their labor but not their citizenship. Chin reveals the pain that overcomes her as she learns her past but she proceeds by drawing strength from feeling her ancestors all around her in their building in Manhattan's Mott Street. The essence of this story is a yearning to understand the past and to discover what Chin can make of her glorious yet underusing inheritance in her present life as an author, professor, and parent. Mott Street is a masterpiece that opens up a unique history into a consideration of what came before that offers inspiration for all readers.” —Alice Elliott Dark, author of Fellowship Point

“Sweeping yet intimate, Mott Street is a lyrical, gripping account of survival, resilience and resistance. Through tireless research, Ava Chin uncovers the stories of her family that might have been lost to history. Deeply moving and unforgettable.” —Vanessa Hua, Forbidden City

Books for LGBTQIA+ Pride Month

In June we celebrate Pride Month, which honors the 1969 Stonewall riots in Manhattan and highlights the accomplishments of those in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, and Asexual + (LGBTQIA+) community, while recognizing the ongoing struggles faced by many across the world who wish to live as their most authentic selves. Here is

Read more

PRH Education High School Collections

All reading communities should contain protected time for the sake of reading. Independent reading practices emphasize the process of making meaning through reading, not an end product. The school culture (teachers, administration, etc.) should affirm this daily practice time as inherently important instructional time for all readers. (NCTE, 2019)   The Penguin Random House High

Read more

PRH Education Translanguaging Collections

Translanguaging is a communicative practice of bilinguals and multilinguals, that is, it is a practice whereby bilinguals and multilinguals use their entire linguistic repertoire to communicate and make meaning (García, 2009; García, Ibarra Johnson, & Seltzer, 2017)   It is through that lens that we have partnered with teacher educators and bilingual education experts, Drs.

Read more

PRH Education Classroom Libraries

“Books are a students’ passport to entering and actively participating in a global society with the empathy, compassion, and knowledge it takes to become the problem solvers the world needs.” –Laura Robb   Research shows that reading and literacy directly impacts students’ academic success and personal growth. To help promote the importance of daily independent

Read more