Quimbo Appo was an immediate curiosity when he showed up on the streets of lower Manhattan, and not only because he was Chinese. He brought with him an Irish wife and a three-year-old son whom everyone thought was just so cute—he looked as white as his mother, a real Yankee boy to all appearances. Appo proudly told people that the boy had been born on the Fourth of July. Any time the Times ran a story about the Chinese in Manhattan, they mentioned Appo as a “model citizen of his race.”
In 1840, Manhattan was just getting used to itself as a cultural melting pot—however, most of those cultures came from white races. Along with their skin color, Americans of English, Dutch or German ancestry had one big thing in common: they were obsessed with anything “Oriental.” George Washington himself insisted on having a set of Chinese porcelain at all times, even in the middle of the Revolutionary War.
Maybe that’s why the ruling classes tolerated Appo’s presence so easily. He was hardworking, thrifty, and lived far from their neighborhood. He was their token Chinese guy who ran a tea shop on Spring Street…which was fine with everyone, until more Chinese started showing up.
The California Gold Rush attracted great numbers of Chinese immigrants, who were fleeing the high land taxes brought on by the Opium Wars. As their population grew, they went from being a curiosity to a stereotype—the next best way to keep them compartmentalized. Popular fiction began to caricature “Chinamen” in the penny press. Yellowface minstrel shows mocked their speech and dress, often featuring “Siamese” twins (a trope based off a real pair of conjoined twins satirized in a story by Mark Twain).
It’s no surprise that the main audience for these caricatures was the poor working class. When the Gold Rush was over, a lot of these working-class types realized the Chinese had taken most of their jobs while they were busy seeking an overnight fortune. Now the Chinese were working longer hours for much less pay than they themselves were willing to take.
At that time, the Socialist party was beginning to form in response to dissatisfaction with the huge gap between rich and poor, and they blamed immigrants for enabling the corrupt economy by working for lower wages. They bullied the Chinese out of their communities, sometimes forcing them onto boats back to China, and pushed for laws that forbade Chinese from gaining citizenship, buying homes, getting jobs or opening their own businesses.
The Chinese didn’t protest; instead, they built Chinatowns. In the slums of Manhattan’s Five Points area, they lived in closely packed apartments. They started illegal businesses to provide each other with groceries, shoes and other necessities. While they were at it, they also opened illegal businesses to provide their uptown neighbors with opium, brothels and gambling. The government’s refusal to provide them with social services (like police or public schools) left them to govern themselves; Chinese associations sprang up around town to provide arbitration, healthcare, job placement and widow and child support. Many of these organizations vied for dominance in frequent street gang fights throughout Five Points.
As the Chinese fell from favor, so did Quimbo Appo. Within just three years he’d lost the favor of his upscale clients; his youngest daughter had died in childbirth; his wife was drinking a lot; he may have suffered from mental instability, or it might have been triggered by the sudden change of his fortunes. It’s hard to say from this point what’s true and what is invention—all we know is that in 1859, Appo showed up in the Times again, this time for murder. A fight with his wife had turned into a savage beating; their landlady tried to intervene, screaming “China n*gger” at Appo, until he stabbed her in the throat. After a farcical trial, he spent seven years in Sing Sing for the crime,.
By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, Appo had been to prison three more times and was being held in a mental hospital. He insisted that he was a great ruler in China, that he owned all the laundries in New York, that his son was the president of the United States.
A reporter wrote that “To all appearances he is perfectly rational, and for hours he will entertain you with stories of the old days in China and California…But when the Albany night boat passes Matteawan Appo points to the big search light that flashes in her bow and says proudly: ‘That is my diamond. They bring it to me every night.’”
Appo lived for 27 years in the mental ward at Matteawan, until he died. His wife was gone; she had fled New York on a ship to California, which sank off the coast of San Francisco. His only surviving relative was his son, George Washington Appo, the boy born on the 4th of July, who grew up to become one of New York’s most influential mobsters.