Tony the Tour Guy's Blog

A not very regular series of posts on New York City history, historic preservation, genealogy and related themes.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Bogus Opium Den and NYC's WORST Tour Guide

Imagine this scene: It is sometime around the end of the 19th century. A young Chinese immigrant is walking along Mott Street in Chinatown when he suddenly finds himself being pointed to by a Cantonese-speaking American who is leading a large group of unfamiliar people. Excitedly, the American
tells his audience that the young man is a hit-man for a sinister "tong" gang. The accusations are groundless, but that does not give the young immigrant much consolation.

Chuck Connors, the self-described "Mayor" of Chinatown, was one of many early tour guides in our City who specialized in sensationalist and not-always- factual excursions through the poorer and more "exotic" parts of town. Catering to a combination of xenophobia, fascination with unfamiliar cultures and the thrill of the slightly dangerous, tour leaders such as Connors would direct their guests, who were often wealthy foreign visitors, through immigrant communities while relying upon their alleged inside-knowledge of the underworld to tell tales of crime, sin and debauchery. Connors was the undisputed king of the trade. He actually spoke some Cantonese, which added to his credibility, and he knew enough about the local community to bill himself as its unofficial "mayor." Eager to bring in tourist dollars, a few local Chinatown entrepreneurs found it profitable to cater to the visitors by constructing such attractions as fake "Buddhist temples," to which they would charge admission. Since the tourists typically had no exposure to Asian culture, they were easily fooled.

The highlight of Connors' tour was a visit to an "opium den." There his guests would listen to tales of degeneracy told by alleged "addicts" and "white slave girls." Although one would think that such 'tabloid tourist' would cater to the unsophisticated, Connors' tour clients included Sir Thomas Lipton and the German royal family.

Sources:
Kenneth Jackson, editor, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NEW YORK CITY.
Gwen Kinkead, CHINATOWN: A PORTRAIT OF A CLOSED SOCIETY.
Rena Bulkin, FROMMER'S WALKING TOURS OF NEW YORK CITY.
Luc Sant, LOW LIFE.

Copyright 2000 by Historic New York Tours

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