Bedlam In The Tenements 1901

Fire In Chinatown

Chinatown had a fire this morning, which caused three deaths and gutted the four story building at 16 Pell street, Manhattan. Lee Chong Gung, a prominent Chinese Mason, 52 years of age, and Song Yu Ching, a Chinatown denizen of bad repute, were both found dead on the top floor of the burned building, and Chong Ho Now was killed instantly by jumping from the fire escape balcony on the third floor to the sidewalk.

A wild panic prevailed in the crowded quarters of Chinatown. The blaze broke out at 7:25 o'clock in the Chinese restaurant, on the second floor of 16 Pell street. At that hour Chinatown was still sleeping. But the men and women packed into the dirty tenements of that section sleep lightly, for there is always the dread and danger of fire, and it did not take a moment to awaken and throw the people into a panic when Moyhan discovered the fire and began yelling "Fo chu!" the Chinese cry of alarm.

Moy Han was sleeping with two other Chinamen, Lee Loy and Ung Chu, on the third floor. On the floor above were a number of Chinamen, whose names could not be learned, with the exception of Chong Ho Now, who was killed by jumping. Moy Han says he was dreaming when the smoke crept into the window from the floor below and awakened him. When he opened his eyes the clouds of smoke were so dense that he could not see.

He began to yell at the top of his voice and his screams brought Chong Ho Now and other Chinamen from the top floor. They crept out to the balcony and tried to go down the fire escape, but the ladders were enveloped in thick smoke that occasionally lighted up with red flame. A Chinese shopkeeper in the narrow street below saw the fire and ran away as fast as he could toward the Bowery. His cries attracted attention from passers-by and one of them pulled the fire box at Bayard street and the Bowery.

The Fire Department was not long in coming, but before the first hook and ladder wagon came clanging through the twisted streets Chinatown gave way to the worst panic of years. Pell street is lined with tenement houses, all packed with humanity as tight as pigs in a pen, for nearly 4,000 persons have to live in the narrow confines of the Chinese quarter. Two minutes after Moy Han began to cry "Fo chu!" the windows and balconies of these tenements were lined with Chinese, their yellow faces blanched white with fear.

The fire lay bare shame and degradation that are hidden from the every day visitors to Chinatown: White women, wild with terror, shrieking, fainting, clinging to their yellow consorts. Some of these women tried to throw themselves from the top stories.

In the building at 12 and 14 Pell street, adjoining the burning building, the panic was greater than elsewhere, for the inhabitants of that tenement were visited with fire in February and May of this year and they live in constant fear. The smoke from the restaurant poured into the windows of this tenement and drove the lodgers out of their rooms. The balconies were swarming with men and women. Fifteen white women live in this building. Tessie Moore, one of the white girls, smelled the smoke and ran screaming from the fourth floor to the street. Top floor dwellers ran to the roof for safety, while those living below fought their way through the smoke to the street.

Two women, Mamie Burke and Nellie Cook, fainted on the top floor of the tenement. A fireman named Slavin learned of their danger and rushed up to their rescue, bringing them down safely.

Just before the arrival of the firemen a body came crashing down into the crowd gathered in front of the burning building. It was Chong Ho Now, who had become panic stricken and jumped from the third floor. He struck head first on the curbing and his skull was crushed like an egg shell.

The firemen saw that the fire was dangerous and they sent in a third alarm. The streets of Chinatown are so narrow that all the fire apparatus could not get near the fire and it was half an hour before the fire was under control.

After the flames had been subdued firemen went into the building. On the fourth floor they found Lee Chong Gung and Song Yu Ching in a lodging room just back of the shrine room of the Chinese Masonic fraternity which occupied this floor. One man lay beside his bunk with his head in six inches of water, as if he had fallen out of bed while stupefied by smoke. The other body lay on a bunk with the head covered with a blanket. Captain Howe of the fire department had the bodies carried down and the firemen worked over them trying to revive them, as it was not certain they were dead. Ambulance Surgeon Beckwith of the Hudson Street Hospital arrived at 8:40 and pronounced the two Chinamen dead. The three dead bodies were carried to Elizabeth street police station.

The damage to property is estimated at $25,000, almost fully insured. In the basement of the burned building were N.W. Jung & Co., dealers in clothes wringers: Li Wong, printer, and F. Tin: printer. The first floor was occupied by the Quong Chang Wo, Chinese grocery company. The Hung and Farlow Chinese restaurant was on the second floor. The third floor was occupied by the Chee Kong Tong, the Chinese Masonic body, and several sleeping rooms. The Masonic order also occupied the fourth floor with its lodge room and shrine.

The shrine of Confucius was the only object not ruined by the fire. Though the building was practically gutted and nearly everything charred and blackened, this shrine was hardly touched by the flames. The superstitious Chinese talk with awe and wonder of the preservation of this shrine from the flames.

Website: The History
Article Name: Bedlam In The Tenements 1901
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


Brooklyn Daily Eagle September 3, 1901
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