The Many Faces of Chinatown Enter the Dragon

The Many Faces of Chinatown

 "Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.” An immortal line from a beloved movie, and perhaps a reflection of how many  Western urbanites over the years have viewed the large pockets of Asian  immigrants that have settled in their cities. Chinatowns dot the country from  coast to coast, but their residents have often been treated with suspicion,  discrimination, and outright hostility.  

 Despite many obstacles both social and governmental, New York City’s Chinatown has flourished since the late 1800s, and as it has grown and  cultural attitudes have shifted and evolved, it has caught the eye of  developers, newcomers to the city, and all manner of others, not necessarily of  Asian ancestry. The Chinatown of today still features the bright signs  illuminating bustling markets and apothecaries, and the staccatto sounds of  Mandarin and Cantonese being spoken on every street, but today it’s also home to new residential developments, and new residents themselves.  

 Hard Work, Little Reward

 The first Chinese immigrants to arrive in New York City were primarily men from  China’s Guangdong Province who moved east, after disembarking in California and  toiling to build the Central Pacific Railroad system. These men left their  wives and children back in China, with intentions to either send for them, once  they established themselves in the west, or to return to China with their  earnings.  

 For a number of unpleasant reasons it didn’t work out quite that way for most of them. Railroad workers were paid a  pittance for backbreaking labor, and the Chinese workers in particular were  willing to work for almost nothing. This instilled resentment in American and  European laborers, who felt they were undersold by this new wave of cheap  manpower. Consequently, blatant discrimination and physical violence against  Chinese newcomers was not uncommon, and eventually, a new set of stringent  labor and immigration laws were passed limiting the number of Chinese  immigrants allowed into the country and dictated where they could and could not  live once they got here.  

 Among these, the Chinese Exclusion Act—passed in 1882 and not repealed until 1943—prohibited newly arrived Chinese men from bringing their families into the  country. This legislation slowed the wave of immigrants to a steady trickle  comprised almost entirely of men, turning New York’s Chinatown into a curious neighborhood of bachelors. This—combined with the expatriated community’s retention of traditional cultural formalities and patterns— made New York’s Chinatown a mark for suspicion and misconception, as well as a novel  destination for curious Victorians, traipsing through the neighborhood hoping  to catch a glimpse of an opium den or gawk at the locals.  

 White New Yorkers’ view of Chinatown and its inhabitants didn’t end at mere curiosity. The Chinese were viewed as heathens, treated as  less-than second-class citizens, and forced to stay within the confines of  their neighborhood. Prejudice, combined with tight borders, created problems in  and of itself. According to Donna Lentol, a broker with Douglas Elliman’s downtown office, “Because of the waves of immigration into the Lower East Side, people kind of  broke off into different groups, and that’s how the various neighborhoods got formed.”  

 No Room, No Rest

 The compound effect of immigration policies, the circulation of racial  ideologies and a middle class exodus to suburbia created a vacuum effect in  Chinatown, and by 1960, the neighborhood became an insular community, of no  more than 5,000 residents, concentrated with elderly bachelors and functioning almost autonomously. The  overwhelming majority worked within a block or two of where they lived, in one  of Chinatown’s handful of industries; textile production was an economic mainstay of the  neighborhood, along with hand laundries and restaurants. Living conditions in  many of the buildings were far from what would be considered healthy or  pleasant.  

 Nearly everything in Chinatown at the turn of the last century—from the industries to the tenement buildings to the legal system—was controlled and regulated by affiliations of businessmen and community  leaders called tongs. The tongs of Chinatown handled legal disputes, social  services, and neighborhood protection, among many other things. From time-to-  time, disputes arose between tongs, and violence occasionally erupted on the  streets. The Tong Wars, as they were called by outsiders at the time, stymied  New York’s police forces and made what was already an obscure area even more peripheral.  Throughout WWI, the Great Depression, and the Prohibition era, the Exclusion  Act tightened its grip, and Chinatown became even more of an island unto  itself.  

 After the Wars

 As the country staggered under the weight of war and economic collapse, the  denizens of New York’s Chinatown— well acquainted with privation and hardship—largely went about their business. The tongs—now under the scrutiny of the newly vigilant NYPD continued to orchestrate the  goings-on in the neighborhood. Little changed in the day-to-day lives of New York’s Chinese until the United States’ entrance into World War II—with mainland China as an ally—at which point the Chinese Exclusion Act was finally stricken from the books.  

 Two decades after that, in 1965, the Immigration and Naturalization Act raised  the quota of Chinese able to enter the country from its prewar low of 105  people per year to 15,000.  

 Once the ban on emigrants was lifted, thousands of families flooded into  Chinatown, reuniting with lost relatives, and by 1970 Chinatown began to shift  it’s long-held borders into Little Italy, parts of Soho, and the Lower East Side.  Says Lentol, “Since WWII, [Chinatown] has gotten more crowded—more densely populated. ”  

 The rapid influx of newcomers strained the network of support that had been  built up in Chinatown and resulted in a large proportional increase in poverty  and miserable working conditions. New arrivals outstripped the ability of the  tongs to regulate trade and settle disputes, and as more and more young Chinese  arrived in the city, the old-timers’ hold on their neighborhood began to erode. The waning of tradition, combined  with hard economic times and the passing of generations of elders, contributed  to a rise in crime, and the tongs—which, occasional internal battles notwithstanding, had until then been more or  less benevolent—became less concerned with cultural preservation and community oversight and  more like street gangs. Drugs, guns, and protection rackets soon became all too  common motifs in the fabric of life in Chinatown.  

 By the 1980’s, Chinatown was a maze of crowded, crumbling 19th century tenement buildings,  run-down noodle shops, and floundering businesses. New construction in the area  was at a standstill, and the divided and sub-divided residential buildings were  under the control of independent landlords—many of whom only rented space to incoming workers and accepted only cash for  rent, without offering tenants the benefits or security of an official lease.  

 (Re)Enter the Dragon

 Things changed, however, as the economic doldrums of the 1970’s and early 80’s gave way to the halcyon days of the 1990’s. Suddenly, Downtown was a gritty-but-glamorous place to live, and hip young  professionals who’d either overflowed or been priced out of neighboring NoLita, Tribeca, and SoHo  turned an eye to the hive of activity below Canal Street. Chinatown’s Blade Runner ambiance and charm reinforced its appeal, and soon the media was  reporting on friction and acrimony between lifelong Asian residents and  newcomers. Rental landlords, tempted by the prospect of charging sky-high  market rents for walk-up tenement apartments, began to oust rent-controlled  tenants— many who occupied their homes for over two generations.         Today the  neighborhood is home to an approximation of 150,000 people, a number that  remains questionable, as historically Chinatown’s population has gone under-counted. Dr. Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian  American Studies, urban affairs and planning and sociology has written several  books about Chinatown and confirms that population under-counting is a  perpetual problem. “The 2000 census shows Chinatown’s population at 54,650, although the actual figure my have been twice that,” reports Kwong in a New York Times, three-part, question and answer series  titled Answers About the Gentrification of Chinatown.  

 Shortly after the last census Chinatown’s sizable population experienced decreases in the requisite services and grants  residents state they desperately needs. The city’s resource contribution to the Chinatown Partnership Local Development  Corporation—an organization which has assumed the task of street cleaning, trash pick-up and  systematic graffiti removal—is due to expire in mid 2010. “It’s a common misconception,” says Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, “all the city is responsible for is removing the trash from your corner garbage  can, and the inspection of buildings three times a day to distributing fines  when appropriate.”  

 The partnership was formed after 9/11 to address the communities’ sanitation deficiencies; however, according to Chen the problems extends beyond  trash removal— it concerns quality of life and prevailing assumptions which consider  uncleanliness a normal characteristic of marginalized neighborhoods. “No one argues with the janitor when they clean their office or hallways three  times a day, but also no one volunteers to do it themselves,” he says. “ When you talk about funding and volunteers, how do you sustain something like that? It  about enlightenment and taking a stand.”  

 Affordable Housing and Rezoning

 Much to the dismay of longtime residents and small business owners, Chinatown  has changed dramatically with the construction of new condominium developments,  boutique hotels, trendy restaurants and luxury shopping establishments  post-9/11.     Many of the residents and community activists believe that the city’s new land-use policies benefit luxury and large-scale development and extirpate  the neighborhood’s urban charm and cultural character. However, what is most alarming is the  accelerated pace in which unregulated private development has taken place at  the detriment of tenants and shop owners. The Community Development Project of  the Urban Justice Center and the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence report  an increase in housing violations, where a surveyed total of 75 percent of  Chinatown’s residents “lived with one or more serious housing violations in the past year.” Other tenants surveyed in the study reported harassment from landlords, forced  evictions and displacement.  

 Concerns over large-scale development in similar communities have garnered  attention from the City Planning Commission (CPC) and the Department of Housing  Preservation and Development (HPD).  

 “When exploring the possibility of a rezoning we work closely with communities to  identify areas where zoning is outdated and neighborhood character is in  jeopardy of being irreversibly changed,” says a representative of the New York City Department of City Planning. After extensive review the Department of City Planning approved the Lower East  Side rezoning plan, which came into effect on November 19, 2008, but excludes  Chinatown.  

 The plan re-zones over “110 blocks in the East Village in Manhattan Community District 3,” to include a moratorium on tower-scale developments, support modest growth and  the development of affordable housing to sustain the tenant-based population  and preserve the historically integrity of the neighborhood.  

 “In the East Village and Lower East Side we heard numerous concerns about new  buildings that had been constructed at heights significantly above the low- and  mid-rise scale so strongly associated with these neighborhoods, they say.”  

 However, many Chinatown residents and community advocacy groups are not  satisfied with implications of Lower East Side/ East Village rezoning on  Chinatown’s future. Groups such as the Chinese Staff and Workers Association, Chinese  Restaurant Alliance and the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops charge  that the rezoning measures are racist and believe the plan will only drive  luxury high-rise development into Chinatown.  

 A court action was requested, by the above mentioned parties, to void the CPC’s Environment Impact Statement and order a revised statement addressing the “disproportionate racial impact on low-income communities of color.”  

 Chinatown in the 21st Century

 Throughout its history, New York City’s Chinatown has stood alongside, yet apart from, the rest of the metropolis,  closely guarding its traditions and culture and serving as an entry point for  millions of people in search of a piece of the American dream. As time has gone  on, other concentrations of Chinese immigrants have sprung up in Queens and  Brooklyn, but the oldest Chinatown in Lower Manhattan remains the iconic  original. Says Lentol, “I think it’s a culture that’s ingrained in Lower Manhattan, and that’s a good thing. Everybody has their piece of Manhattan, and that’s the way it’s been throughout the city’s history. People immigrate in and take over certain parts, and then in a few  years, it changes. I think now, people have businesses in Chinatown for the  sake of the business; they come to New York to start a business in Chinatown,  or they come to make their money so they can then purchase an income-producing  property in Chinatown.”  

 Time will tell whether or not the neighborhood can hold onto its unique identity  in an era of towering expenses, changing politics, and uncertain economics—but for now, Chinatown’s history speaks for itself: over a century of largely self-sustained growth and  stability against formidable odds in a sometimes-hostile city.

 Hannah Fons is associate editor of The Cooperator.

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