Tea That Burns

In January of 1879, Hor Poa left his native China and headed for the United States, setting off a chain of events that would lead to Bruce Edward Hall, his half-Chinese, half-white great-grandchild, who would write a book on New York’s Chinatown and his father’s family. Hall, whose father changed the family name from “Hor” to “Hall,” set out to recreate the sights, sounds, and smells of New York’s Chinatown, from its beginning, through the years of opium dens and Tong wars, to its present, when it no longer is the heart of Chinese American culture.

Hall presents an excellent history of details, filled with colorful characters and snapshots of daily life—from the crowded living conditions to the foods and festivals. He also does an excellent job of portraying interactions between the Chinese and other ethnic groups and the immigration problems that created strains in Chinese American society.

As Hall states in his introduction, one of the book’s most revealing and enjoyable parts, he is looking for his roots, or at least a connection to place. He finds it in Chinatown, which nevertheless is a “foreign universe” to Hall, a child of suburbia. This distance causes Hall to write like an outsider—even when telling a relative’s story he sounds like a third-party historian rather than part of the family, which unfortunately keeps the reader at arm’s length from the Hor/Hall family.