Doyers Street is an angled, narrow street that runs 1 block at a sharp angle from Pell Street into the intersection of Bowery and Chatham Square. In 1791, Dutch immigrant Hendrik Doyer bought the property and ran a distillery at 6 Doyers, the spot where the post office stands today. It was once known as the Bloody Angle for the many battles of the Tong gangs (On Leong Tong and Hip Sing Tongs) of Chinatown in the late 1800s and lasting into the 1930s. The term ‘hatchet man’ was used in the late 19th century to describe a Chinese assassin who carried a handleless hatchet.
There are two long standing businesses remaining on this street. At 13 Doyers is Nam Wah Tea Parlor, they have been around since 1920. My Grandma met my Grandfather here. My Dad’s mom up and left Chicago when her husband (dad’s biological father) passed away around 1940. She was working as a waitress and he was a customer at the counter. She use to tell me that she always liked the way he dressed. Funny thing is that the first time I ever stepped foot in the place was a few years ago. My mom took me to try the dim sum. They make the sticky rice (naw mai fan) the way I remember it as a kid with Chinese sausage (said in Cantonese as lap cheong).
At 18 Doyers is Ting’s Gift Shop which opened in 1957 the same year the last opium den in NYC closed. They sell touristy stuff and trinkets but you will often hear me referring to them as tchotchkes (Yiddish, most NYers especially Lower East Siders know a little sprinkling of Yiddish words no matter what race.). In 1958 they were raided and 10 pounds of heroin were found. They no longer sell illicit items but it does add a good story to its colorful past.
At 5-7 Doyers Street was the site of the first Chinese language theater from 1893-1911.
There are secret tunnels all over Chinatown. Since Doyers and Pell was known as a place of vice, gambling parlors and opium dens – some buildings had secret tunnels leading to Bowery, Mott and Chatham Square. The prefect getaway tunnels. They were originally used by Doyer for drink and food storage before the days of refrigeration. What’s left is a remnant of the tunnels that existed. It’s now the trendy bar Apotheke, before that it was the Golden Flower restaurant. It’s kind of fitting that a bar resides in a former opium den back in the days of wild Doyers Street.
While reading up on the history of the area, I came across www.infamousnewyork.com, it’s about the underworld of the city. I haven’t completely fact checked what I just read. This site said that Irving Berlin got his start at a saloon on Pell Street (the street Doyers branches off from). Another site said that was just a rumor. Mike Salter (1868-1922) was of Russian Jewish descent, a ward heeler (urban political operative), American saloon keeper, and a part of Chinatown’s underworld. He was an important figure. The Pelham Cafe was located at 12 Pell Street where Irving Berlin worked as a singing waiter and was known as Izzy Baline. Back in the day, this area was a place where people would go to slum it and experience the other side of life. People like John Jacob Aster and Prince Louis of Battenberg (a Rear Admiral in the British Navy) came to see Izzy as word spread of his talent.
It amazed me as I read the tales and history of Chinatown. Some of the old buildings remain standing to this day with altered facades but if you dig, you can find the stories and pictures of the past. Mike Salter’s saloon is now a beauty salon. I never realized opium dens were around when my family walked these same streets. Ever since my grandma pointed out that some buildings have dates at the top, I wanted to learn their stories. My fear is that as neighborhoods becomes trendy again, they become endangered to development and will soon disappear into modern glass towers that are plaguing this city.