Subscribe to the IHARE Blog

Did Little Syria in Lower Manhattan Consist of Asian-Americans? – Issue for the 2020 Census

Little Syria Exhibit (Arab American Museum)

Once upon a time in the 19th and 20th centuries, there was a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan called Little Syria. The area was defined as west of Broadway to the Hudson River and from the Battery at the southern tip of Manhattan north to Liberty Street. Beginning in the 1880s, a variety of people from the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East began settling there. By the 1920s, the population consisted of about 8000 people including 27 ethnicities. Their tenements were located near the docks where the residents worked. Thanks to the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the World Trade Center, almost all of Little Syria has been destroyed. The 9/11 Memorial is now adjacent to what was once Little Syria.

Are these Syrian-Americans Asian-Americans? Are Iranian-Americans Asian-Americans? How should Americans be classified by race?


“Asia” itself is a Greek term. In addition, the Greeks named part of Asia “Syria.” The Greeks were under the impression that Assyria, located in the Mosul area in northern Iraq, actually had been further west than it really had been. The error stuck and today the land is still called Syria from the Greeks. Is it still part of Asia?

The ancient Egyptians used other words to designate the area since the term “Asia” had not yet been invented by the Greeks. They definitely considered the people to its east not to be real people and to be in what today is Asia. The traditional translation by Egyptologists in reference to these people in Sinai and the Levant is “vile Asiatics.” The modifier is implied even when it wasn’t used.

This distinction between the real people in Egypt and the subhumans in Asia continued on with the Greeks. They differentiated the people of Europe and the barbarians of Asia. The issue climaxed in the 5th century BCE when the Persians (modern Iranians) sought to expand their empire from Asia into Europe as the Greeks understood the world. Waterways from the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea and the Mediterranean did provide a natural and easily recognizable “line in the sand” to mix metaphors between Asia and Europe. The great journey by the Mycenaeans in the Trojan War represents the oldest story of such a crossover. The Persians moved into Europe twice leading to the famous battles at Marathon and Thermopylae. Notice how all these crossing from one domain into the other became great stories in western tradition.

Then in the next century, the Europeans turned the tables. Under the leadership of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, the Europeans crossed eastward into Asia Minor, modern Turkey, and kept going until they reached India and Afghanistan. To the ancient Greeks who coined the term Asia, that was as far as they went. At that point Alexander’s troops were practically at the point of mutiny. Enough was enough and they were not going to continue marching eastward. Thus for Greece, Asia did not include Koreans.

The biblical experience depicts a similar worldview. After the Flood, the three sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth, then repopulated the world. The genealogies in the Table of Nations (Genesis, Chapter 10), identify a mainly Shemitic-world (from which the Semitic language group is defined) stretching no further east then the Elamites in western Iran. When Abram (later Abraham) confronts the kings from the east as biblical scholars phrase it in Genesis Chapter 14, again Elam is the easternmost point. The prophet Isaiah in various passages presents a world view from Elam in the east to Egypt in the west to the Sabaeans (Sheba, modern Yemen) in the south (Isaiah 11:1; 18:1-2; 20:3-5; 43:3; 45:14). Both the Table of Nations and Isaiah assert that these descriptions encompass all the peoples of the world (Genesis 10:32; Isaiah 18:3).

It is with Josephus, the first century CE Jewish historian, that the Jewish worldview is pushed eastward in accord with the Greek view of Asia. In seeking to identify the four rivers which watered the garden of Eden, Josephus wrote:

Ant 1:38 Now the garden was watered by one river, {c} which ran around the whole earth, and was parted into four parts. And Phison, which denotes a multitude, running into India, makes its exit into the sea, and is by the Greeks called Ganges.

Clearly Asia in ancient times to the people who created the term and the other peoples affected by the Greek culture, extended from Asia Minor in modern Turkey eastward to west India. Obviously that definition of the continent has changed.

Scholars today have devised various geographical terms to deal with the vast Asian continent we now know to exist. One really does not become an expert in all of Asia. Instead it is divided into various regions:

1. Southwest Asia referring to the ancient Near East and more of an anthropological term than one used by Assyriologists, Egyptologists, biblical scholars or politicians today
2. Southern or South Asia referring to the Indian subcontinent that geologists say “crashed” into the Asian continent producing the world’s highest mountains
3. Southeast Asia best known to Americans from the Vietnam War
4. East Asia of China, Korea, and the islands of Japan
5. Central Asia of the “stans” or landlocked states carved out of the former Soviet Union
6. Siberia which could be called North Asia but isn’t.

Together these regions comprise the Asian continent. Overall they encompass multiple ecologies and landscapes, two major races, Caucasian and Oriental, four major religions, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Moslem. It’s hard to see what Turks and Vietnamese have in common besides their humanity. Are Turkish-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans both Asian-Americans?

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Orient was a lot closer to Europe then you might think. The Orient began in Turkey then. The famed Orient Express commenced regular train service in 1883. It began in Paris and ended east in Istanbul at the dividing line between two continents. The American Schools of Oriental Research was founded in 1900 and its first school was in Jerusalem. The Palestine Oriental Society was founded in Jerusalem in 1920.

Speaking of Turkey, even today, it shows that old dividing line between Europe and Asia still prevails. Many many years ago, Turkey sought membership in the European Common Market. That application floundered over whether an Asian country could meet the European standards. Now Turkey has if not abandoned then certainly minimized its western “orientation” and turned eastward and to the south. Technically that shift is to Asia but the area is often called the Middle East.


In the United States, by the time Little Syria was being created in lower Manhattan, Asians from the opposite side of the Asian continent already had become to populate the other side of the American continent. Chinese laborers significantly contributed to building of the western branch of the Transcontinental Railroad completed in 1869. There then began a new phenomenon in the United States called “Chinatown.” Chinatowns appeared in many cities and they weren’t called “Asiantowns.” Similarly in the 18th century when Massachusetts merchants sailed to the Orient, the dishware they brought back was and is called “china” and not “asia.”

During World War II, the term “Asia” still was not the common usage. Japanese-Americans were interred, not Asian-Americans. The war was fought in the Pacific Theater not the Asia Theater. Not until the Vietnam War in southeast Asia in the 1960s did the term”Asia” become more commonly used. Also in 1965, immigration laws changed. People from many new countries began to arrive here including refugees from the war-torn countries in southeast Asia. Now Americans were aware of problems on two sides of the Asian continent: one called Southeast Asia and the other the Middle East. The bifurcation of the continent had begun.

What then does Asian-American mean in the United States today? In an article “What a Fraternity Hazing Death Revealed About the Painful Search for an Asian-American Identity” by Jay Caspian Kang in the New York Times (online version Aug. 9, 2017; printed version on August 13, 2017 with the title “Not Without My Brothers,”) the author writes:

“Asian-American’’ is a mostly meaningless term. Nobody grows up speaking Asian-American, nobody sits down to Asian-American food with their Asian-American parents and nobody goes on pilgrimages back to their motherland of Asian-America….My Korean upbringing, I’ve found, has more in common with that of the children of Jewish and West African immigrants than that of the Chinese and Japanese in the United States — with whom I share only the anxiety that if one of us is put up against the wall, the other will most likely be standing next to him.

A comment to the article expresses a similar attitude:

Thank you for this article. I think you really captured the particular neurosis that is the “Asian American” identity. I am second-gen Asian American and mixed, and I agree, I really have no idea what that means, beyond the attendant stereotypes…

At times, people needed to be instructed that they were Asian.

I didn’t know I was Asian until I came to America at age 14 from Korea. Asia was a large connected piece of land that did not confer any identity on me until I came to the US. Growing up in Michigan, I felt at times “Asian-American” felt like an identity concentration camp where white Americans shove all the foreigners who spoke goobledegooky languages into one category. It took about 20 years for me to feel comfortable describing myself as an Asian-American – that made-up identity.

“Goobledeooky” is the modern equivalent of the “bar bar” the Greeks thought Asians spoke which led to the word “barbarian.”

It isn’t as if the people called Asian-Americans aren’t only aware that Asian-American is a made-up identity. They also are aware that one size doesn’t fit all peoples from Asia either.

Thanks for this article. East Asians are well hidden in this society. As are South Asians (into which I married many years ago). All are lumped together as “Asians” in the U.S. And all the brownish ones have now morphed in this era of white extremism into terrorists. Racism is simply rampant.

The mention of east and south Asia suggests the possibility that the individual recognizes the existence of Asians in the center, southwest, and northern part of the continent as well despite the use of the term as if it only means east Asia. However I doubt people are comfortable with extending the use of Asian-Americans to include all Americans from the Asian continent, like Syrians and Iranians.

This issue of the meaning of Asian-American is not mere academic chatter. Quotas especially in education depend on the proper classification of people into their respective races. Even though Asian is a completely bogus term as a racial identifier doesn’t mean it can’t acquire legal standing as a recognized racial group. As both political parties maneuver to exploit racism to their own advantage it is essential that there be an agreed upon terminology and definition of races. In commenting of the meaningless of the term “Asian-American” noted by other respondents, one individual wrote:

The term African-American is also meaningless when you live in a city – like NY, Boston, DC, or Miami – where recent black immigrants from multiple countries are a substantial portion of the black population and have not that much in common with native-born American blacks.

Hispanic is also pretty meaninglesss both as a racial and nationality concept, especially in cities where the national origin of Spanish-speaking immigrants is quite diverse. It’s only binding characteristic is linguistic.

Isn’t it time we did away with these silly HR form categories?

Think of the young Nikki Haley, our ambassador to the United Nations, trying to compete in the Miss Bamberg beauty contest where she was born in South Carolina to immigrants from India. She was too light to compete for the title of black queen and too dark to compete for the title of white queen. As a result this South Asian Caucasian was disqualified as not fitting in any existing category. In a time of identify politics where people are defined by their hyphen, it is important that We the People have an adult conversation about the categories we are going to use classify ourselves otherwise Syria, Turkey, Iran, and maybe India will no longer be part of Asia.