16 February 2009

Searching for Chi Chao-ting in Bath Beach, Brooklyn

In the early twentieth century, migratory anticolonialists followed pathways that led them around the world. Indian revolutionaries traveled from small villages to work in Shanghai, to study in California and to buy weapons in Berlin. Chinese intellectuals cracked open textbooks in Moscow and they made tofu in France. African seamen made their way from South Africa to Marseille to Port of Spain. In the course of my dissertation research on anticolonialism in the 1920s and 1930s, I’ve grown accustomed to finding the subjects of my study at various points on the globe, from Buenos Aires to Murmansk, Detroit to Kabul.

The passages of Chi Chao-ting are exemplary in this regard. In the 1920s, Chi traveled from China to the United States to study at the University of Chicago. He ended up joining the Communist Party and eventually made his way to Moscow where he received training in the basics of Marxism-Leninism and propaganda work. Around 1930, he returned to the United States where he began publishing articles and pamphlets under the cover name of R. Doonping, while at the same time acting in a New York staging of Sergei Tretiakov’s anti-imperialist play Roar, China! and working on his doctorate at Columbia. In 1936, his dissertation was published by the Institute of Pacific Relations under the attractive title of Key Economic Areas in Chinese History, as Revealed in the Development of Public Works for Water-Control. It was, apparently, influential at the time.

Such labors, movements and locations were fairly typical of the group of activists, artists and intellectuals that I write about.

What isn’t typical, however, was Chi’s address in New York: 75 Bay 25th Street, Brooklyn.

Snuggled between Bensonhurst and Bath Beach in the south end of New York's best borough, this address was far from Party hotspots in Harlem and lower Manhattan and certainly not a manageable commute to Columbia University's Morningside Heights. Moreover, this area was basically dead in the 1930s. According the WPA Guide to New York City, Bath Beach, as of 1939, was "a cluster of small houses and ramshackle or abandoned mansions and hotels leading down to a deserted beach.” Kenneth T. Jackson’s Neighborhoods of Brooklyn gives a bit more detail on the locale and its inhabitants:

With more rapid rail transit in 1916 and 1917, Jewish and Italian families from the Lower East Side of Manhattan began to settle in Bath Beach. The stock market crash of 1929 accelerated this shift in population and caused Bath Beach to change focus. As mansions were abandoned and the condition of other grand houses declined, smaller homes and apartment buildings were constructed to match the housing needs of immigrants from Italy and elsewhere.
Okay, perhaps Chi moved out with some LES Jewish socialists who had joined the CPUSA in the 1920s. Or maybe he just got stuck, like many other working-class students, washing dishes at some dilapidated resort for the summer and that address is what ended up on his forms. Or maybe there was some other secret to Bath Beach’s history unknown in the annals of New York radicalism!

Always looking for excuses to travel to Brooklyn’s nether regions, Lizzie B and I grabbed our maps, hopped on the D train and set out to search for traces of Chi's story. As the train clanked along from platform to platform, I daydreamed of finding some odd building—an ancient-looking union hall or a beat-up Chinese community center—that would provide some plausible excuse for a young Chinese Marxian economic historian to take up residence so far away from the action. Or maybe Chi's home itself (pictured above on the left) would turn out to be some large hotel where the young student worked in the day and slept at night. (Obviously not the case.)

Alas, here’s what we got:

Clearly recent-vintage Progressive Democrats Club on Bay 25th Street

An oldish-looking Chinese grocer, probably opened in the 1980s

A Russian deli with not-very-delicious looking food

A Golden Calf-e?

Evidence of Russian immigrants, vinyl siding, huge gaudy cars, and the Democratic Party. But we already knew from the map that we were in south Brooklyn.

In other words, we found absolutely no clues as to why Chi lived in Bath Beach in the 1930s. It seems the story most likely died with the man in 1960.

But Lizzie B and I did have a nice walk around another peculiar immigrant neighborhood in our beloved borough. Which ain't all bad for a day of "dissertation research."


Anonymous said...

Water-control! Was Karl Wittfogel reading his stuff, or vice versa?

Maps: if you haven't read Thomas Wolfe (not the jive-ass Esquire journalist, the real Look Homeward, Angel one)'s story "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," check it out. A map! Red Hook! Jesus.

Buster said...

Was Karl Wittfogel reading his stuff, or vice versa?


..."Only the Dead Know Brooklyn," check it out.

Doing it right now.

kg said...

Do all the tables have 12 chairs at the Golden Calf cafe?

kg said...

I love the line "'it’s a good place to stay away from, dat’s all. It’s a good place to keep out of.”"