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Providence’s Forgotten Chinatown

A new downtown exhibit, Providence’s Chinatown, will explore the history of the city’s Chinese American community

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We talk a lot about certain moments in Providence’s past: we talk about the jewelry industry, about the historic mansions on Benefit Street, about Roger Williams, about Lovecraft. But there are hidden pockets of the city’s history that have been all but forgotten. Providence’s Chinatown is one of them. This month, you can explore the city’s Chinese heritage through a downtown walking tour.

Between 1880 and the 1960s, the city was home to a large Chinese American community, with its epicenter on Empire Street, in what’s now the artsiest corner of downtown. “Like Chinese populations in other cities, the Chinese in Rhode Island built a community center in downtown Providence for economic and social life,” says Julieanne Fontana, a curator of the Providence’s Chinatown project. “Though small, it was an important part of the history of the Chinese in the United States, and is an integral part of the diverse cultural heritage of Rhode Island.” The self-guided walking tour of what was once Providence’s Chinatown exists in window displays, and explores different themes of Chinese American heritage, from immigrating to America (displayed in Trinity Rep’s windows) to building networks (at Providence Public Library) and establishing businesses (at 275 Westminster). The exhibit, put together by grad students at Brown with the Chinese Historical Society of New England, also includes an extensive exhibit at the Rhode Island State Archives that they hope will become a permanent collection. A walking tour and screening of The Chinese Exclusion Act is happening May 12, and the project runs through May 31.