Filed Under Immigration

Cleveland’s Chinatown

Immigration, Cultural Activities, and Racial Violence on Ontario Street and Rockwell Avenue

While Chinese people have been immigrating to the United States as far back as the 1848 California Gold Rush, they only moved to Cleveland in the late 1800s, numbering fewer than 100 until 1900. These settlements in Cleveland were spurred on by discrimination and acts of racial violence in the western United States. The most disturbing of these incidents was the 1871 Los Angeles Chinatown Massacre, which resulted in the lynching of 19 Chinese residents. Cleveland’s Chinatown became the theater for a wide array of historical events such as the 1911 visit by Dr. Sun Yat-sen and the Tong Wars. While the racial violence and discrimination did not cease upon entering Cleveland, the Chinese managed to build a strong community based on a love of Chinese culture, community aid, and a willingness to struggle for their democratic rights.

Chinese immigration to the United States sprang from a wide variety of factors that exposed the conditions of China itself. Corruption and opium consumption led to the disaster that was the First Opium War in 1840, which provided the foundation for the colonization of much of China. Additionally, a lack of economic opportunities in China led Chinese people to emigrate in search of gold, jobs, and education. Chinese immigrants worked in the gold mines of California and moved on to the Transcontinental Railroad. They moved east as racial discrimination grew, finding work as laundrymen and restaurant workers in cities across the United States. To protect their businesses, the Chinese formed merchant associations known as tongs, which functioned as both guilds and gangs. The feuds between tongs frequently got out of hand, leading to attacks from racist neighbors and police. Fearing the “Yellow Peril” associated with Chinese immigrants, the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, restricting immigration until World War II. Around the same time, a small population settled in Cleveland, creating what would become one of the nation's most notable Chinatowns.

Cleveland’s Chinese community started as a tiny enclave along Seneca Street (later West 3rd) but shifted two blocks east by the early 20th century to the block of Ontario Street immediately north of Public Square. Much like other Chinatowns across the United States, most Chinese businesses in Cleveland were restaurants or laundries. After moving to Cleveland from Chicago, Wong Kee opened the first Chinese restaurant in the city on Ontario Street and then opened a more prominent one called the Golden Dragon on the northwest side of Public Square. Businessmen formed tongs to protect their interests. Over the decades, the two main tongs that emerged were known as the Hip Sing Tong and the On Leong Tong.

While the Chinese faced a great deal of racism from surrounding communities, one notable exception was the congregation at Old Stone Church which was located on Public Square at the southern edge of the small Chinese settlement. Seeking to win converts and aid the local Chinese, the congregation sent missionaries, provided Chinese-language church services, and protected Chinese immigrants from racist policemen. Two notable members of the congregation, Mary and Marian Trapp, founded a Chinese Sunday School, and their efforts were rewarded with an embroidered depiction of Jesus Christ made by the students. With these successful efforts, the church would serve as both a school and community center. The founding of businesses and support from Old Stone Church established the Chinese as crucial contributors to the local economy and gave them local support.

With the establishment of a stable Chinese community came the concern for issues in China itself. Centuries of dissent against Manchu Qing authority in China crystalized into the Chinese Revolutionary Movement, which succeeded in 1911 after nearly two decades of trial and error. One leading figure of the movement was the exiled revolutionary and future president of the Republic of China Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who frequently visited communities in the Chinese Diaspora to raise funds for the revolution. Sun notably visited Cleveland in April 1911, raising money at Old Stone Church, and having his likeness depicted in the Cleveland Press. Months later, the Chinese Revolutionary Movement culminated in the Xinhai Revolution, ending Manchu rule and continuing the tradition of Cleveland’s Chinatown being involved in Chinese affairs.

The tongs of Cleveland had many feuds during their existence, but it was only in 1925 when what became known as the Tong Wars that they gained attention from the police. Wong Bao led the Hip Sing Tong while the brothers Wong Kee and Wong Xing swapped the responsibility of leading the On Leong Tong. The brothers’ leadership of the tong was also tied to the Golden Dragon restaurant, which they jointly managed for many years. This relationship to the tongs and the Golden Dragon restaurant also likely existed for Bennie Shea Lin, who was related to the Wong brothers and wrote a brief article on the Golden Dragon in 1964. Soon, the police arrested local Chinese residents in many raids, including many who were not in the tongs as well. Many Cleveland residents disputed these arrests, standing in solidarity with the Chinese community. One notable example was Reverend William Foulkes of Old Stone Church, who defended his Chinese neighbors over WHK radio. The raids and arrests ceased, but racial violence remained.

As the Tong Wars raged on, Chinatown moved to Rockwell Avenue. The On Leong tong had already purchased land along Rockwell Avenue and the purchase was apparently one of the causes of the Tong Wars. As the businesses on Ontario Street were torn down after the Tong Wars, many Chinese put their resources towards the new On Leong tong Headquarters on Rockwell. They donated ebony tables, chairs, drums, gongs, and other artifacts to the building. Various Chinese businesses soon moved to Rockwell and the area became the center for the Chinese community as the Great Depression began.

While the Chinese had found difficulty in settling in the United States, their love of Chinese culture and community aid gave them a sense of mission and made Cleveland’s Chinatown regionally and even nationally prominent. As in other cities, they created a strong business community that was organized via tongs. Their education at Old Stone Church attracted the attention of figures such as Sun Yat-sen. Their efforts to protect their democratic rights during the Tong Wars and support for the United States and China during World War II played a vital part in undoing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. Cleveland celebrated by naturalizing one Zhu Yun On under the name Bennie Shea Lin, the first Chinese American to be naturalized since 1882. The Chinese faced many difficulties during their early years such as tong feuds, racial violence, and the police, but they overcame such challenges through strong community aid and a willingness to fight for their rights.

Images

Interior of On Leong Headquarters
Interior of On Leong Headquarters Interior of the On Leong Tong headquarters in Cleveland's Chinatown district, Rockwell Ave. and E. 22nd St. The On Leong was one of several tongs, or Chinese merchant organizations, with a presence in Cleveland's Chinatown district. The land purchase needed to build this headquarters is one of the cited reasons for the beginning of the Tong Wars in 1925. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Creator: Cleveland Press Date: January 4, 1932
Wong Kee's Golden Dragon Restaurant on Public Square, 1910
Wong Kee's Golden Dragon Restaurant on Public Square, 1910 Wong Kee and Wong Xing owned and ran the restaurant for many years while also being leaders of the On Leong tong. The building famously hosted the revolutionary Sun Yat-sen during his 1911 visit. A man named Chin would own the restaurant during the 1930s and 1940s. A grease fire nearly destroyed it in 1949, leading to its closing shortly after that. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection Date: 1910
Chinese Headquarters, Ontario Street
Chinese Headquarters, Ontario Street Chinese headquarters of the On Leong tong before 1929. The On Leong tong is a Chinese merchants' association. In Cleveland, they functioned as a way to connect and protect Chinese merchants from other tongs and the police. The organization's leadership changed between Wong Kee and Wong Xing and its feuds with the Hip Sing tong frequently led to wars like the Tong wars between 1925 and 1927 Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection Date: ca. 1900
Police Raid in Ontario Street Chinatown
Police Raid in Ontario Street Chinatown The Cleveland Press took this picture during a police raid during the Tong Wars. While Cleveland's On Leong and Hip Sing tongs had many feuds in the early 20th century, the deaths of two Chinese men in late 1925 drew police attention. Detective John Gannon breaking in a door in an Ontario street store. Behind him Detective Henry Cowles prepares to help. Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection Creator: City of Cleveland Board of Zoning Appeals Date: September 24, 1925
Police Invade Cleveland Chinatown
Police Invade Cleveland Chinatown During the 1925 Tong Wars, the police conducted multiple raids on Chinatown. While the intention may have been to stop the wars themselves, all Chinese in Cleveland soon became a target for arrest. This photo faces north on Ontario Street. The Cuyahoga County Courthouse stands at the end of the block. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Creator: Cleveland Press Date: September 24, 1925
1297 Ontario Street
1297 Ontario Street An exterior view of Chinatown, looking north Source: Cleveland Public Library, Photograph Collection Date: ca. 1900
Chinatown in early 1929
Chinatown in early 1929 Chinese colony which will be wrecked to make way for U.S. Parcel Post building. Source: Cleveland Memory Project, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Creator: Cleveland Press Date: July 1, 1929
Bennie Shea Lin's Naturalization in 1943
Bennie Shea Lin's Naturalization in 1943 Bennie Shea Lin was originally named Zhu Yun On and a relative of the prominent restaurant owners Wong Kee and Wong Xing. After decades of racism and discrimination, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. The Chinese celebrated by naturalizing Lin, the first Chinese-American to be naturalized since the Chinese Exclusion Act. He even contributed to the Cleveland Press many years later to write about the Golden Dragon restaurant ran by his relatives. Source: "Naturalize First Chinese Citizen Here." Cleveland Press. December 18, 1943 (Accessed November 22, 2022) Creator: Cleveland Press Date: December 18, 1943
Rockwell Avenue at Night
Rockwell Avenue at Night This nighttime view facing east along the south side of Rockwell Avenue shows the two largest businesses in that block in the mid-20th century: the Shanghai and Golden Gate restaurants. Chinatown was centered on Ontario Street into the late 1920s but was reestablished on Rockwell Avenue after 1930. Source: Cleveland Press Collection, Cleveland State University Library Special Collections Creator: Lou Moore Date: February 10, 1950

Location

2150 Rockwell Ave, Cleveland, OH 44114 | This was the location of the On Leong Merchants Association headquarters in Old Chinatown.

Metadata

Jan Jalics, “Cleveland’s Chinatown,” Cleveland Historical, accessed February 21, 2024, https://clevelandhistorical.org/index.php/items/show/974.