Places that Matter

Chinatown Senior Citizens' Center

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Chinatown Senior Citizens' Center, game room
Chinatown Senior Citizens' Center, game room
Chinatown Senior Citizens' Center, orchestra room
Chinatown Senior Citizens' Center, poetry room
70 Mulberry Street, stairwell and stair tower
Chinatown Senior Citizens' Center, exterior
In warm weather, Columbus Park serves as an outdoor extension of the senior center's game room
A place for Chinatown seniors to participate together in traditional culture
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Place Matters Profile

By Meng Yu

The New York Chinatown Senior Citizens' Center is in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Look for a red brick building with fortunetellers, snack vendors, and shoe menders out front.

Every day, about 300 or 400 people come to the senior citizen center. Anyone who is not Chinese and is under the age of 60 or so will definitely stand out in the crowd, but is still welcome. According to Mr. Zhu, a volunteer staff member, of the center’s 6,000 registered members, only 1 percent are non-Chinese, even though any legal resident over the age of 60 is eligible to join, regardless of nationality.

Few recent immigrants are involved in the center. Before World War II, some 90 percent of the Chinese in the United States were of Cantonese origin, with half coming from just one county, named Taishan (Toishan). Many of the Chinatown Senior Center’s members are Taishanese. Mr. Zhu, who himself is Taishanese, said many of his fellow townspeople emigrated because of poverty.

Members are engrossed playing games in the center’s biggest hall. The center also houses an engaging Cantonese opera club and an amateur singing and dancing troupe. Other regular activities include taiji (tai chi), calligraphy, and Chinese chess. The Chinese-American Planning Council established the senior center in 1974 with government funding. The center is located at 70 Mulberry street, in the former Public School 23 building, a Norman Romanesque revival edifice designed by C.B.J. Snyder in 1892. Snyder was Superintendent of School Buildings for the New York City Board of Education from 1891 to 1923, and is remembered as a prolific architect who advocated for improved school building design and construction as a means of creating a better society. The school opened in 1893 as an elementary school, and educated many European and first-generation immigrants.

The neighborhood's demographics shifted after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, and many Chinese children attended seventh and eighth grades at P.S. 23, where they frequently made first contact with non-Asians. In 1961 the school was predominantly attended by Chinese students, but employed only one Chinese teacher. The last class graduated in 1976, and the school relocated to nearby Confucius Plaza as the Yung Wing School. The Museum of Chinese in America, which began as the New York Chinatown History Project in 1980, was housed on the second floor of 70 Mulberry Street until 2009. Indeed, the museum's founders collected oral histories and objects from seniors at the center, whose memories and memorabilia now constitute a bridge between theirs and their parents' generations and future generations of Chinese Americans.

Fun and Games