'Chinatown by the Sea' celebrated as escape from tenement life for early NYC Chinese families

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Every summer starting in the 1940s, David Liu’s family would leave behind their Chinatown neighborhood in Manhattan for the sandy beaches of the Jersey Shore, indulging in hot dogs, burgers, ice cream and other American beach staples they’d rarely have at home. And they were far from the only Chinatown families with this tradition.

“Once you got to the beach, you would look for your friends and you would bring your beach towels and umbrellas and stick them together,” Liu, 77, remembers of those summer days. “And in a very Chinese style, everybody shares their food.”

The oceanfront community of Bradley Beach, New Jersey, formally recognized a stretch of its borough as “Chinatown by the Sea” last month, in honor of the dozens of Chinese Americans who looked to the area every summer as an unlikely escape from the city, starting in the 1920s. 

While these families later bought up property, turning the area into a summer enclave of sorts, trips to the shore some 60 miles south of Manhattan initially began with the support of Church of All Nations and the nonprofit Fresh Air Fund. Together, they helped provide Chinatown families with a chance to flee the tenements and cramped conditions to take part in a quintessential American beach vacation.