Theses Doctoral

From Medical Schools to Free Clinics: Health Activism and Education in New York’s Chinatown, 1950-1980

Gao, Hongdeng

In the post-World War II period, the population of poor and working-class Chinese New Yorkers––most of whom lived in Manhattan’s Chinatown––drastically increased in size and so too did the range of health problems they faced. This dissertation is the first in-depth historical study of Chinese Americans/New Yorkers’ postwar experiences with health education and activism. It documents the work of Chinese American grassroots activists and medical professionals to establish access to healthcare for Chinatown residents. By analyzing the transnational and cross-class dynamics of this movement, the dissertation challenges the long-standing assumption that the more well-to-do individuals of Chinese ancestry—especially recent professional immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong—had little interest in the wellbeing of their poorer counterparts. It also places Chinese New Yorker history alongside the better-known community control movements and health activism in Black and Latinx communities. The dissertation draws from research at 14 archives across the U.S., rare personal papers in Chinese and English, and interviews with over twenty Chinese American doctors and Chinatown activists.

Before the mid-twentieth century, Chinese New Yorkers faced inequities in medical education and healthcare due to racially discriminatory policies and practices. From the 1940s to the 1960s, the end of Chinese exclusion and U.S. Cold War geopolitical interests in Asia allowed a select group of Chinese and Chinese American doctors and nurses to enter academic medicine and public health in the city. Chinese American public health nurses attracted public and private funding for much-needed social and health services in Chinatown by leveraging their transnational backgrounds and popular beliefs in the assimilation and integration of nonwhites. Meanwhile, the New York City-based American Bureau for Medical Aid to China and other American groups launched medical aid programs to help train medical personnel for the Nationalist Party and sustain its troops in their fight against the Chinese Communist Party. A subset of Chinese medical graduates from these programs drew from their hybrid credentials, contacts, and linguistic skills to obtain competitive jobs at hospitals and academic medical centers in New York and other American cities. Many of the transplanted Chinese medical graduates had intended to return to China after a short stint of advanced study in the U.S. But they decided to stay as a pragmatic response to political and social upheavals and constraints.

Starting in the late 1960s, Chinatown’s rapidly expanding population, as well as the “maximum feasible participation” doctrine of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty initiative, made it strategic for the community watchdog agency, the Lower East Side Health Council-South, to court and include Chinatown residents in the fight for a better and new public hospital—Gouverneur Hospital. Inspired by the Civil Rights movement, workers’ struggles, and health radicalism in Black and Latinx communities, the Chinese American and Afro-Puerto Rican Health Council workers, Thomas Tam and Paul Ramos, implemented community programs and organized highly publicized and disruptive events, including a summer street health fair in Chinatown. Chinese New Yorkers of diverse migratory, class, age, and political backgrounds, including Chinese medical graduates who had the credentials and resources to serve their compatriots, played an integral role in these activities. In 1971, the cross-ethnic, cross-class coalition successfully demanded the opening and hiring of more bilingual personnel at the new Gouverneur. By the late 1970s, efforts led by Thomas Tam and Paul Ramos to bring the medical exam room into the Lower East Side became institutionalized in the form of the Chinatown and Betances Health Clinics. The clinics offered low-cost, comprehensive, and multilingual services, and encouraged professionals and youths of color to serve the community.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2028-10-11.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Ngai, Mae
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
October 18, 2023