Providence's Black Chinese: A Love Story
On the morning of February 23rd, 1901, Chung Yick stood chatting with Mr. Joseph Hoffman, the proprietor of the picture frame shop on the ground floor of the Charles Street house the two men shared with several other tenants. The house wasn't much better than a tenement building, with its dirty wooden face and narrow crooked stairs. A crude sign on one side said "PICTURES" in bold letters, marking the entrance to Hoffman's store. The Yicks lived on the other side, along with the Rileys and the widow Driscoll, who were cramped up on the second floor. Still, it was a decent street to live on, with a mixture of small shops and residential homes and the Mosshassuck River creeping alongside it like an emaciated and sleepy serpent.
Chung was a gaunt man in his forties with hollow cheeks and intense brown eyes-he projected a certain gravity that was somehow incongruous with popular notions of the jolly, docile Chinaman. Instead of the traditional Chinese collarless jacket, he sported a conservative brown suit, complete with vest, tie, and polished black shoes. Chung was a cook by trade and a good one, too-well enough respected for the Providence Journal to dub him one of the city's "best-known Chinese restauranteurs." Most likely, he was an employee of the Wah, Yee, Hong & Co. eating house, the Chinese restaurant located closest to his home, just a brisk fifteen-minute walk away at the bottom of College Hill.
It was a windy Saturday morning with temperatures well below freezing, and Chung relished these last moments of warmth inside the store before he'd have to venture out into the cold. Several thousand miles away from his old home in southern China, where temperatures fluctuated between hot and hotter, Chung still hadn't quite adjusted to Providence's bitter winters. That walk would be especially brisk today!
"John," Mr. Hoffman said suddenly, addressing Chung by his chosen American name, "What's all that racket?"
Indeed, some great noise-frantic footsteps and shouting-could be heard coming from the general direction of Chung's kitchen where, minutes earlier, he had left his wife and stepdaughter bustling about their morning chores.
"It's a fire!" someone shouted from outside. "The attic's on fire!"
The first official Chinese resident in Rhode Island appeared on the state census in 1865, but there may have been at least one "Chinaman" in Providence even earlier.