A graduate student in history at the University of New Orleans, Winston Ho admits that discussing architecture may seem far afield from his thesis topic.
“I am researching and writing about the Chinese in New Orleans during the Second World War,” said Ho. “But investigating the culture ... inevitably brings up the architecture.”
Ho will present “From Chinese Laundries to the Pagoda House: Orientalist and East Asian Architecture in New Orleans” at 6 p.m. Feb. 6 at the Preservation Resource Center, 923 Tchoupitoulas St. To sign up, go to prcno.org.
Many locals are familiar with the “Pagoda House” in the 2000 block of Napoleon Avenue. With its double concave rooflines and upturned roof corners, it mimics a Westerner’s fantasy of a pagoda.
“It is in a style that I would call ‘orientalist’ — a romantic version of a Far East structure designed and built by Westerners,” said Ho, a native New Orleanian whose parents were born in Taiwan. “A Chinese person would not recognize the house as Asian and would think it very strange.”
As far as residential architecture goes, Ho compares the sensibility of the Napoleon Avenue house to that of the Steamboat Houses on the river in Holy Cross.
“They were all built within 10 years of one another in the first decades of the 20th century,” he said. “The design of the house Uptown was influenced by Raoul Vallon’s friendship with Lafcadio Hearn (the writer who detailed Creole life in New Orleans before moving to Japan in 1890). Vallon wanted a house like no other, and he got it.”
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The Steamboat Houses in the Lower 9th Ward were designed and built by father-and-son riverboat pilots at Egania and Douglas streets, next to the Mississippi River levee.
“The second one — built by Milton Doullut’s son across the street from the levee — is in more original condition, and any American would look at the green tile roof, the roof cresting and the concave roofline, and say that it 'looks Japanese,'” said Ho.
Although Vallon was inspired by Hearn when working on a plan for his home, common wisdom is that Doullut visited the St. Louis World’s Fair and saw the Japanese exhibit there (although a family member disputes this theory).
In addition to homes built in the pseudo-Asian style that Ho calls "orientalist," he points to commercial establishments that reflect the aesthetic.
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“Both of the Trey Yuen restaurants across the lake are built in the style, and the House of Lee that was on Veterans was, too,” Ho said.
Chinese immigrants came to the United States and New Orleans as early as 1850, and by 1870, they were well established. But in 1882, the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act meant a 10-year moratorium on immigrant laborers.
All the same, the Chinese people who were already in the city became a strong community.
One of the city’s most fanciful buildings — the Pagoda Cafe on North Dorgenois Street at Bayou Road — began life as a Chinese laundry in the 1930s. There were dozens of them, according to Ho, although the Pagoda Cafe is the sole survivor.
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Ho said that explaining the distinction between Asian architecture and orientalist is intended to help people understand that “orientalist architecture” is not authentic Asian architecture, designed and built by Asians for Asians. Instead, it is a romantic Western interpretation of it, designed and built by Westerners for one another.
Ho spent more than a year in Beijing and Taiwan studying the Chinese language. He also holds degrees in history and Chinese from Rutgers University in New Jersey.
When he studied in China and Taiwan, Ho spent time photographing authentic Chinese architecture.
"East Asian architecture is different from anything in the West in terms of construction techniques and aesthetics," he said. "But through architecture, we can learn how people in Asia and people in the West came up innovative but different approaches to solving the same problems."