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"Slum Tourism" in New York’s Chinatown

Today we call it "poverty porn." A hundred years ago, the same activity was called "slumming" in Britain and "slum tourism" in the U.S. Wealthy folks would go to the city slums where the other half (actually the majority) lived and saw how they went about their lives. For visitors to New York's Chinatown, there was the added draw of an exotic culture they knew little about. And if they saw illegal and/or immoral activities, that was a bonus that not only gave the tourists a thrill, but also reinforced their sense of superiority. What they didn't know was how much money Chinatown was making off these visits, and how much of the "danger and depravity" they saw was faked.    

Affluent slummers often employed guides or joined organized groups. Industrious young men—independent “slumming guides”—capitalized on the crowds by introducing them to brothels or saloons that were accustomed to hosting slummers, or had sprung up specifically to do so. Usually white and working-class, these “lobbygows,” as they came to be known in Chinatown’s pidgin English, marketed themselves as critical cultural conduits to the exotic, unfamiliar Chinese. They even advertised in local papers and came to be seen as legitimate businesses. In Chicago, for instance, in 1905 a local resident sought police approval to establish “a guide system to escort slumming parties and show strangers the sights.”

Slummers saw strange sites such as opium dens filled with Chinese actors, Chinese restaurants owned by Italian families, and gunfights between gangs that happened right as a tour came through. Read how Chinatown accommodated slum tourists at Atlas Obscura.


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