Volume 16 • Issue 24 |November 11 - 17, 2003

Grads reunite in Chinatown

By Jessica Mintz

Downtown Express photo by Corky Lee

Mary Sham, class of ’41 at P.S. 23, which closed in 1976, points to her picture in a class photo.

In the cafeteria of P.S. 130 on Baxter St. between Hester and Grand, it’s class photo time. The risers are out, and the students, dressed in their best, are laughing and nudging and ignoring the photographer’s shouted instructions. The flashbulb snaps as schoolmates from later years look on, waiting for their turn.

Sonny Ho, 39, and Howard K. Chin, 38, are two of the youngest kids in the room. They haven’t seen each other in 27 years – since 1976, when they were in the last graduating class at P.S. 23.

On Saturday, Ho and Chin joined over 200 other P.S. 23 alumni for a reunion organized by Museum of Chinese in the Americas. The day began at P.S. 130, a familiar space for many P.S. 23 students who, after 1944, completed the seventh and eight grades there. As younger alumni posed for a final photo, reunion attendees trickled south to their old alma mater at 70 Mulberry St., which has been home to MoCA since 1980.

Ho, a chiropractor who lives in Las Vegas, and Chin, a records manager for a Manhattan law firm, joked around like elementary school was barely behind them. Their exploits – including spitting paper wads on the bathroom ceiling and getting spooked out by the haunted back staircase – were hardly forgotten.

Those weren’t the only details they recalled.

“There was maybe one Italian kid in the whole school at the time,” Chin said. And Ho added, “A lot of kids back then, their English was bad, and the teachers didn’t speak Chinese.” Ho was 5 years old when he came to the U.S. “We grew up in Chinatown,” he says. P.S. 23 was their first environment outside their families – and, said Ho, “our first contact with non-Asians.”

Ho and Chin recognized few faces, but alumni from the ‘60s and ‘70s were far outnumbered by those from earlier decades.

The reunion was a way of expressing MoCA’s mission, “to bring people together, and uncover history,” said Fay Chew Matsuda, the museum’s executive director. The reunion helped open connections between school, neighborhood and alumni. It also gave MoCA a chance to access and record the attendees’ memories of the school; an oral historian and a video team were on hand to interview some alumni, and composition books were scattered about the museum for anyone who felt like jotting down a thought.

P.S. 23, which rang its first bell in 1893 and held its last recess in 1976, was at first an elementary school filled with European immigrants and first-generation children: Irish, Italian, and East-European Jews. The neighborhood demographics shifted several times in the 1900s, first becoming predominantly Italian, and then, with changes in immigration policy in 1943 and in the mid 1960s, predominantly Chinese, said Matsuda.

Like Ho, many former students traveled from far away to reacquaint themselves with their old stomping grounds. Some came from California, Washington, D.C., and like Doug Hum, from Canada.

“I grew up in Toronto. My family moved [there to perform] with the Cantonese Opera,” said Hum, who left P.S. 23 in 1951. “At the end of the war [in 1949, which found the Communists controlling mainland China], the group came here. We were going to return to China, but that didn’t happen.”

Hum stumbled across the museum last year with his family. “I went to my classroom. I have very fond memories of those years – ages 9 to 11 are very important years.” And for Hum, Chinatown holds precious memories. “In Toronto, they demolished the Downtown Chinatown,” said Hum. “When I came back, it was like stepping into a time capsule. Everything I remember is still here.”

It’s a very different story for some earlier graduates of P.S. 23. Most of the reunion attendees on Saturday were Chinese, but Sal Ercolino, who graduated from P.S. 23 in 1947, was one of a few Italian faces that dotted the crowd.

“In 1947, it was mostly Italian,” says Ercolino, who was born at 84 Mulberry St., just across from the school. “Every store on the block now is a Chinese store. No butcher shop. No bars. No vegetable stores. My grandfather’s barbershop is now a curio shop.”

Outside P.S. 130, small groups of former students wandered down Baxter St. in the direction of P.S. 23.

“We used to stand in line here, this is where we went into the building,” said Ruby, 57, of Yonkers, who declined to give her last name. “We all grew up together. We used to go roller skating on Canal St., Centre St. to Lafayette. Now it’s more crowded.”

On the way to the school, Ruby pointed out places on Mott St. where she and her friends ate Italian ices; on Canal St., she spotted a China Trust bank that once was a drug store where she slurped down New Englands, a soda fountain drink. She recalled getting Italian-style egg, sausage and potato sandwiches for lunch, because “we didn’t eat that stuff at home.”

Inside the doors of P.S. 23, she declared, “It’s still as hot as it ever was,” but the staircases, wide in her memory, didn’t seem quite so impressive.

One flight up, the museum was crowded full of people peering closely at old class photographs.

Richard Young, 53, and an ophthalmologist who has practiced in Chinatown for 22 years, remembered his elementary school years. “I was ‘overly talkative,’ but not a ‘conduct problem,’” said Young, laughing.

When he graduated in 1961, the school was 99% Chinese, he said, but employed only one Chinese teacher, Grace Mok. He laughs when he remembers a “nice Irish teacher, Miss Connolly, who used to have the kids sing ‘When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.’” Years later, his non-Chinese friends found that tidbit hilarious. At the time, “we didn’t really know why we were singing that song.”

Young, who lives in Tribeca, remembers the little details: Instead of a P.A. system, the school had buzzers that would go off in coded bursts in the classrooms. He also remembers black bits from the school’s coal-burning furnace sprinkled on white snow outside the school to stop the students from slipping.

Goldie Chu, 72, who came to the reunion with her daughter, Wendy, said she would have liked to have seen more diversity at the school.

“I didn’t like the segregated school, and I was very verbal about it,” said Chu. “Other parents would say, ‘Chinese kids do well by themselves,’” But when Wendy’s younger brother and sister came home from school one day and told their mother that they didn’t want to touch the stairwell banisters after a black classmate did, Chu said that was it. “I wanted them to live in the world.”

After that, Chu moved her children to a more integrated school, P.S. 2, and ran for the school board, where she continued her vocal opposition to segregated schools.

The afternoon faded early into evening, and as the temperature dropped, a group of 90 continued on to Danny Ng Restaurant on Pell St. One of the stragglers, Ann Chan, a docent at MoCA and a student at P.S. 23 through 1947, looked into one of the museum’s exhibition rooms.

“That’s my second and third grade room,” she said. She was a loner in school, one of the slowest in her class, she said. She remembers Italian boys who pulled her hair, and a teacher, who made her learn the flags of all the countries. “I happened to have Iraq and Iran,” she says. “I’ll never forget those flags.”

Chan said during the Depression, her father, a struggling laundryman, gave her to a family in Chinatown when she was one month old. She came to care greatly later in life about her own education and about teaching others about Chinese culture. Walking down Mott St., she chatted about being part of a new group that helps clean Chinatown’s streets, a task she found embarrassing at first, but now takes pride in.

She said each block she passed reminded her of places where someone helped her learn, including P.S. 23 on Mulberry St.


Downtown Express is published by
Community Media LLC.

Downtown Express | 487 Greenwich St., Suite 6A | New York, NY 10013

Phone: 212.242.6162 | Fax: 212.229.2970
Email: news@downtownexpress.com

Written permission of the publisher must be obtainedbefore any of the contents of this newspaper, in whole or in part, can be reproduced or redistributed.