Belleville honors its first Chinese residents from 150 years ago

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BELLEVILLE, NJ — On Sept. 20, Margaret Lam and David Yen, chairpersons of the United Chinese American Association of New Jersey, quietly observed the 150-year anniversary of the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants in Belleville. Lam and Yen set a dozen red and a dozen yellow roses at the Chinese monument located in the cemetery of the old Belleville Dutch Reformed Church, now La Senda Antigua. 

Few are aware that the Belleville Chinese community existed even before New York’s Chinatown. 

Lam and Yen were joined by Belleville Historical Society President Michael Perrone and North Arlington resident Val Hadshinow, who created the monument. The group then crossed the river into North Arlington to visit the still-standing mansion of Capt. James Hervey. Hervey was the former sea captain and prominent business owner who brought the Chinese immigrants from California to work in his Passaic Steam Laundry, the largest commercial laundry in America at that time.

The Chinese community here began with the arrival of 68 Chinese men and boys from San Francisco and grew to 300. The first Chinese New Year on the East Coast was celebrated in Belleville in February of 1871; a Chinese temple was established and a school for the Chinese immigrants opened later that same year. For almost two decades Belleville was a center of peaceful living for the Chinese with their elaborate celebrations and held out as an example of a welcoming community in an era of strong anti-Chinese sentiment. 

Photos Courtesy of Michael Perrone