Eying Investment from China, Newark to Revitalize Its Chinatown

The remains of a part of a once thriving Chinatown in Newark. (Photo by Zheshu Xie via World Journal)

The remains of a once thriving Chinatown in Newark. (Photo by Zheshu Xie via World Journal)

Chinese living in New Jersey often feel something is missing. Yes, a Chinatown. But Newark may help fill that gap. In order to attract more Chinese residents and businesses to the biggest city in the Garden State, the city government hosted a forum on March 17 to discuss the idea of revitalizing its Chinatown, which was once vibrant in the 1920s.

Ugo Nwaokoro, deputy mayor [in the Mayor’s Office of International Relations and Diaspora Affairs] of the city, said at the forum that Newark cordially welcomes Chinese immigrants and businessmen, and it has been keeping close relations with investors from China. Revitalizing Chinatown not only can instill new energy to the local economy in Newark, but also can enrich the cultural fabric of the city and make it a multiracial and multifunctional haven for residents and businesses, Nwaokoro said.

The Newark Chinatown first emerged in 1870 and reached its peak in the 1920s when there were more than 3,000 Chinese living in the neighborhood around where City Hall is located today.

Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, many Chinese moved away. And the government tried once to revitalize the Chinatown in the 1940s but failed. By 2001, there were only two Chinese families left in the old Chinatown area.

Jorge C. Santos, vice president [of Economic Development Policy and Strategic Planning] at the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation, talked about the past and the future of Chinatown. He said: “The Newark Chinatown was located around Columbia Street and Lafayette Street. The land is owned by the city government and a few private parking garages. There are still three families living there.”

After years of relocation and rebuilding of the city, most of the area is desolate today. Even among those who still live there, few remember the once bustling Chinatown.


Donald P. Yee, is one of the few local residents in Newark who witnessed the rise and fall of Newark Chinatown. (Photo by Zheshu Xie via World Journal)

Donald P. Yee is one of the few who saw the rise and fall of the Chinatown in Newark. (Photo by Zheshu Xie via World Journal)

World Journal sidebar noted: The old Chinatown covered the area between today’s City Hall and the Prudential Center. Most of the space has been turned into paid parking lots. The only Chinese restaurant that lasted to today was also shut down. Debris is everywhere, with no trace of the prosperity at the time.

Donald P. Yee, a professor emeritus of Essex County College, is one of the very few residents who witnessed the rise and fall of the Newark Chinatown. He said that up till the mid 20th Century, the Chinatown was still a place for the Chinese to get together with families and friends. The Chinese liked to play gambling games there. “Many of them moved across the river to the Chinatown in New York. Some moved south to central New Jersey [towns] such as Edison. These were the earlier Chinese immigrants here,” he said.

Yee said the government had a loose hand on Chinatown and the laws were not often enforced. Trading birth certificates was quite popular there. And the Chinatown his parents used to live in not only had some restaurants, but also had underground opium dens and gambling dens. Some Chinese liked to patronize these places, which drew the ire of other residents in the area.  

[Editor’s note: Watch a video posted at World Journal to hear more from Yee.]


Newark officials – including Ugo Nwaokoro, deputy mayor of the Mayor's Office of International Relations and Diaspora Affairs, in the blue tie – meet with Chinese community leaders to discuss attracting more residents and investors from China. (Photo by Zheshu Xie via World Journal)

Newark officials – including Ugo Nwaokoro, deputy mayor of the Mayor’s Office of International Relations and Diaspora Affairs, in the blue tie – meet with Chinese community leaders to discuss attracting more residents and investors from China. (Photo by Zheshu Xie via World Journal)

Gwen Moten, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Cultural Development and Tourism, said Chinatown used to be an important part of the city. And people shouldn’t forget it. Newark used to have very close ties with the Chinese, she said, adding that the related history and memories is the pivot of the revitalization of Chinatown.

Those who participated in the forum also included Margaret Lam and David Yen, co-chairs of the New Jersey Chinese Festival Committee; Lichun Zhang, executive director of the NJ Chinese American Association, and Ming Xu, a director of the same organization; Chengjie Xie, chair of the New Jersey Fujianese Association, and Chunbo Wang, a researcher at Rutgers University.

The organizers also exhibited some photos of the old Chinatown and the rendering of the future Chinatown at the forum. Nwaokoro emphasized: “Newark welcomes Chinese immigrants and investors from China. If any investor is interested in the project of revitalizing Chinatown, we’d like to work with you.”

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