You can follow Jeffrey Yoo Warren's work on 'Seeing Providence Chinatown' on his Instagram (@unterbahn)or Medium page. You can find out more about Providence Chinatown at

JEFFREY YOO WARREN: We're actually between Empire and Walnut Street, which is almost not a street anymore. It's more like an alley. 

JAMES BAUMGARTNER: The Social Security Administration and a Roger Williams University building are behind us and AS220 and the Old Stone Bank are across the street. 

JEFFREY YOO WARREN: Empire street used to be really narrow, almost just the width of the sidewalk. So we're actually probably behind where the headquarters of the different Chinatown associations were.

CHUCK HINMAN: Those associations were in a large 3-story building that served as the anchor of the Providence Chinatown neighborhood. The neighborhood was small, covering just a few blocks.

JAMES BAUMGARTNER: There were six or seven Chinese restaurants; Chinese grocers, laundries and businesses that supplied restaurants across Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts. It was an area where people could live, work and socialize.

JEFFREY YOO WARREN: I guess I'm really interested in understanding not, you know, not just remembering, you know that this did exist. But understanding what it means today. You know, not only that the families that lived here are still around, the On Leong Merchants Association still exists and has an office in Providence over on Reservoir Ave. So some of those stories continue today, but also there are so many other people who have come, you know, to this city over the years, and had their own distinct experiences of being here. And then, you know, perhaps having their histories kind of erased or ignored.

CHUCK HINMAN: In Chinatowns across North America, most of the people came from the same small region in China and spoke the same dialect. We talked with John Eng-Wong, a visiting scholar at Brown University who studies the Chinese American experience. He told us that it was possible for you to run into someone who grew up in your same village in China. 

JOHN ENG-WONG: So there was that kind of affinity based on geography and language. And, and then on top of that, it was just a protection in numbers.

JAMES BAUMGARTNER: The neighborhood was home to about 100 people of Chinese descent, with another 400 living in the greater Providence area.

JOHN ENG-WONG: People would have come to Chinatown seeking a kind of adventure. They would have gone there, perhaps seeking opium. On occasion, I think most of the gambling activity that was there was Chinese, only likely because there was a language barrier. But that could have caused some excitement and opportunities for people as well. And then there were restaurants and there were festivals, I think, particularly at New Year's time. It was the hub of community, of activity for Chinese across the state and across the region.

CHUCK HINMAN: But in the mid-1910s, the city decided it wanted to widen Empire street. Buildings were torn down, including the one that housed the Chinese Merchants Association.

JOHN ENG-WONG: It was, you know, urban development. It's not uncommon throughout history, the people who are resident in the neighborhood when there's a big urban development underway, their interests don't get any kind of representation when those decisions are made.

CHUCK HINMAN: The residents were displaced, first to a building near Broad Street and later to various locations around Providence and the suburbs.

JAMES BAUMGARTNER: There’s nothing permanent marking the location where Chinatown used to be. But in 2018, Jeffrey Yoo Warren saw a temporary historic plaque that mentioned Chinatown as an aside.

JEFFREY YOO WARREN: I live in the neighborhood and when I found it, I was like ‘what?’ You know, I had no idea.

CHUCK HINMAN: This helped inspire Jeffrey to begin working on a virtual Providence Chinatown.

JEFFREY YOO WARREN: The current phase is to make a 3-D model of the neighborhood that's online, and not just online, but it's actually interactive. So you can go into it, you can walk down the street as it was, you can see the buildings, I'm using a lot of archival photos. And so the facades I'm using are real photographs, and so the idea is to try to evoke a feeling of walking on that street and evoke it in a way that makes it seem real, rather than just this kind of artifact, from an archive, or, you know, this sort of dusty history.

JEFFREY YOO WARREN: So I'm kind of closing out about six weeks of work to go through the Providence Journal, the Providence Public Library, the city archives, other sources to find the best pictures I can, at the best quality, I can of all these buildings.

CHUCK HINMAN: Jeffrey uses a few digital tools to take the old two dimensional photos and map them onto 3-D virtual buildings, filling in textures where necessary. Once everything is put together, the effect is like walking into a black & white photograph.

JEFFREY YOO WARREN: In the modeling program I'm using you can kind of move down to be about, you know, five or six feet tall, and then look at it from that angle. And you're like, Wow, this is actually – it feels quite real now. You get kind of chills when it, when it pops.

CHUCK HINMAN: You can see the signs in the windows for a tailor, a homeopathic pharmacy and The East India Tea company. There are crates out on the street filled with groceries. There are horses and carriages 

JAMES BAUMGARTNER: …and a few early horseless carriages. While searching for the best photographs, Jeffrey has been reading the Providence Journal’s coverage of Chinatown from the early 20th century.

JEFFREY YOO WARREN: Reading them is really painful. Because the language of the time is pretty racist. It uses a lot of racial slurs and is just the whole framing of how the newspaper tells, you know, what life was like there. It is really problematic.

CHUCK HINMAN: There are sensationalistic accounts of crime in the area, of gambling and opium. Again, here’s John Eng-Wong talking about the first group of Chinese immigrants who came to Providence in the 1870s and 80s.

JOHN ENG-WONG: They were, for the most part kind of refugees from the West Coast. There was a lot of violence against Chinese, in those communities, so they were seeking refuge.

JAMES BAUMGARTNER: He says that the emigreès did find some shelter in Providence, although because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and other racist policies, there were frequent police raids in the area. Here’s Jeffrey Yoo Warren again.

JEFFREY YOO WARREN: There were occasions when there were immigration raids, just like there are today, and people would go and take refuge, it was a sanctuary space for people to take refuge and try to hide from the immigration police.

JAMES BAUMGARTNER: I asked Jeffrey if he had a personal or family connection to Providence Chinatown.

JEFFREY YOO WARREN: I don’t, I'm Korean American. So I don't have, you know, ancestors in the neighborhood or anything like that. But I think there's something about being Asian American, and having experienced racism myself, even on Westminster street, you know, I've been told to get out of the country, things like that, and, and to think back, and to be aware that Asian Americans had a long role in our city's history and in our society that there is this deeper connection, and even 100 years ago, when things were much worse than they are today, in terms of racism in terms of discrimination, there was a place that was an enclave that was a place of, you know, belonging for Chinese Americans. I think that it's relevant to me, I think it has a particular meaning to Asian Americans today. 

CHUCK HINMAN: Jeffrey hopes that people will be able to gather in the virtual Chinatown space for community events and discussions to help connect with the history of Chinatown and to the lives of the people who lived there. 

JAMES BAUMGARTNER: We’ll have a link to ‘Seeing Providence Chinatown’ at The Public’s Radio dot org and there will be an event in June at AS220, right where Chinatown used to be.