‘Opium Den’ in New Chinatown Hotel Stirs Controversy

Hotel 50 Bowery (Photo by Shuhan Yu via World Journal)

Hotel 50 Bowery, a brand new branch of the boutique chain Joie de Vivre, immediately stirred controversy right after it opened on May 16 in the heart of Chinatown. The opium den-themed parlor lounge that the 229-room hotel plans to unveil in June raised eyebrows among some in the community who blame the hotel for commercializing the painful memory of the Opium Wars, in which the Qing Dynasty was forced to sign humiliating treaties with the British invaders. A spokesperson from Bowery Holdings LLC, which owns the hotel, declined to comment because the company does not manage the hotel. The parent brand, Joie de Vivre, didn’t respond by press time. 

The 22-floor Hotel 50 Bowery is a building developed by Chu Enterprises LLC, a major development company in Chinatown to fulfill its founder, the late pioneer real estate developer Joseph Chu’s desire to give back to the community. Chu, who envisioned the hotel, passed away before he realized his dream. His son Alex and grandson Jonathan took over the torch to build the hotel, now the tallest building in Chinatown. The second floor of the hotel is designated as a public gallery jointly run with the Museum of Chinese in America to display antiques accidentally uncovered during the construction, such as the hundred-year-old wine bottles and dishes from the Bull’s Head Tavern which was located on the site, as well as exhibitions about the history of Chinatown. 

The lounge in question, named The Green Lady, is slated to open this summer. It offers live music and other entertainment facilities for guests to relax there. But it is backfiring – as if someone had dropped a bomb on the community. “The lounge brings back historic memories of the Opium Wars in the Qing Dynasty,” said Karlin Chan, a community activist, on May 22. “In the late 1800s, there were many fake opium dens in Chinatown run by white people. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act makes me suspect the dens were not real.”  Chan vehemently opposes Joie de Vivre using an opium den as a theme for the lounge. “The hotel is the pride of the community. But at the same time, it allows the management to market it using a negative stereotype of the Chinese. Isn’t it ironic?” Chan said. 

But Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, doesn’t agree. “The more you know about the history of Chinatown, the more you are aware that there are too many dark spots in history,” said Chen. But the marketing of a hotel has to be able to attract eyeballs. “Yves Saint Laurent has a perfume product called Opium. That is also a kind of marketing. So when a Chinese hotel mentions this history, is it really a vicious attempt?” 

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