In the early part of the twentieth century, Chinatown was entirely contained within twenty-four airless square blocks of South Square bounded on the east and west by Hidalgo and Harrison Streets, and north and south by Davidson Street and Washington Square South. In all four directions Chinatown stopped at the curb’s edge, so that the thoroughfares themselves remained wholly American, and for cars passing through or pedestrians on the far side of the street the buildings fronting the Chinese side were as impenetrable as medieval castle walls, and the asphalt as effective as any moat. To casual observers, the perfectly gridded streets that passed through Chinatown were almost invisible, hidden behind the lights and streamers and signs and commotion of that wall.
Racist zoning practices coupled with the immigrant instinct to huddle for safety conspired to quickly overcrowd the neighborhood, and so the buildings of Chinatown grew taller, and the apartments inside them were subdivided with an intensity that violated all of the city’s tenement laws but went unnoticed by city officials and unreported by Chinatown’s citizens.
This city-within-a-city was an amalgam of early industrial America and the waning Chinese empire that would later serve as a source of intoxicating nostalgia but which at the time was considered both a mystery and a nuisance. It was accepted as fact by children outside of Chinatown that the Chinese had even moved into the sewers and built small cave-like apartments just above and around the effluence. (In truth, many of Chinatown’s manhole covers were missing, but this was more the result of municipal neglect than anything else–the value of scrap metal in those days was such that manhole covers were stolen all over the city, even in the more genteel parts, but the city was quick to replace them.)
Within this community people lived and grew and married and died, and dramas large and small were seeded, flowered, and withered. The stories rarely if ever attracted notice beyond the imaginary boundaries of Chinatown, but with those twenty-four blocks the stories were common knowledge, the names and dates passed around like precious heirlooms, and the repercussions studied with exquisite scholarship.
Helen Fan was born in a fourth-floor apartment on Belgrano Street in 1894. She attended Public School 18 on Moreno Street, which still stands as Dr. Sun Yat Sen Elementary School; and the adjacent High School 9, which was torn down in the 1960s. Her parents worked at a shop on Belgrano Street, and she married a butcher from Santander Street and they moved into an apartment next door. This was the extent of her world, entirely contained in within a five minute walk.