A Changing Chinatown
Gentrification Continues to Affect Manhattan’s Ethnic Enclave
By Annie Cheng
The Metro North from New Haven costs $16; the subway ride is $2.75. After your train screeches to a halt at Grand Central, if you take the 6 downtown to Canal Street and emerge above-ground, you will be greeted by older Chinese immigrants waving “I Love NYC” snapbacks and T-shirts in the air. At first glance, the neighborhood will look no different than anywhere else in Manhattan — over-commercialized, over-priced, something of a tourist trap. There’s a Starbucks, a Chase Bank, a two-story-tall McDonald’s and cramped storefronts overflowing with cheap souvenirs. But if you continue to walk a few blocks further, going past Mott Street, you will be transported to a new side of the city.
As you walk, the businesses become even more tightly-packed and the streets more narrow. Countless storefronts boast the best Shanghai-style dim sum in the city, hand-pulled Lanzhou noodles, boba tea, late-night dumplings and noodle broths. Fast-talking vendors stand behind colorful produce stands, and enormous racks of charsiu pork hang in the windows. But as fascinating as Chinatown may appear to an outsider, this isn’t a tourist space — it’s a home. Generally speaking, the streets and shopfronts aren’t fancy. They weren’t meant to be.
New York Chinatown was born in the mid-1700s, but wasn’t as densely populated until the 1850s. After Chinese immigrants began arriving in waves to work on the Central Pacific Railroad during the California Gold Rush, racial tensions between white laborers and Chinese newcomers began to escalate. Fleeing mob violence and blatant discrimination for larger cities in the Northeast, many Chinese laborers sought safety in diversity and numbers. In New York City, the Chinese population established an autonomous system in Chinatown. It was always meant as a safe haven — a means of survival in the era of discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Acts (1882), when Chineseness was officially criminalized as non-American.
But fast forward to the 1950s, and the Chinese-American community began moving outside of these enclaves. Professor Mary Lui, an Asian-American Studies professor at Yale University, highlights the dispersal of Chinese-Americans across the United States as vital to understanding changes in Asian-American roles in American society. Lui noted the hotbeds of Chinese culture in major metropolitan areas, in both the northeast U.S. and the West Coast. “You begin to see this dramatic split in terms of class…there is still a concentration of the urban poor in cities and upper class Asian-Americans living in suburbs.”
Inner-city Chinatowns continue to attract immigrants from all walks of life, with a large urban poor population. They offer life-saving networks of support, education, and ethnic unity, as well as an undeniable familiarity. The community was interdependent and straightforward for protective purposes. Over time, Chinatowns have transformed from segregated ghettos into booming local economies where Chinese diasporic communities continue to thrive.
Chinatown residents share a collective identity and desire to help one another. There are banks, schools, restaurants, bakeries, and other community resources that cater specifically to a Chinese-speaking population, allowing for visibility and mobility for all residents. Practices such as morning walks and park-based fitness routines, common in China, are replicated in American Chinatowns.
Although he hasn’t lived there since he was a child, Tre Huang, 18, noted the strong sense of community in Manhattan Chinatown. “It feels the same to me every time I go…Everyone’s like me.”
When he was a kid, chess was the go-to activity for kids in Chinatown. They practiced every day, studying from a Russian teacher and competing at inter-district chess tournaments every weekend. Huang grinned as he described his passion for the activity, reminiscing about how he used to play over and over with his classmates. “It sounds like a geeky nerdy thing, but it was something we shared and grew up with. It will never be a part of us anymore.” Parents allowed their children to roam freely in the neighborhood out of both convenience and strong sense of community, knowing that there was safety in unified Chineseness. “[In Chinatown], I was always with my people…here in [Lakeland], the school bell rings and everybody just goes their own ways.” Huang used to spend hours in bakeries, libraries, and parks. “Even now when I visit, I see myself in the boy fooling around with his friends at the corner of the park, just like I used to.”
Around Mott Street and Grand Street where Huang grew up, he said not much has changed. However, he’s noticed how on the fringes, Chinese residents have been “pushed in.” He was surprised to return last year and see the McDonalds, but admitted his own unfamiliarity with gentrification. However, even he can sense the subtle changes, such as a Jewish population pouring into the edges of the neighborhood and a new hotel popping up on a street he used to frequent. “It’s happening so slowly that I’m not aware of it. It’s like a subtle ‘I’m getting rid of you,’ but we can’t see it.”
It was clear he missed Chinatown; he mourned his transition into the suburbs of Lakeland, Florida, where he didn’t connect with the white-majority population. According to the official demographics of Lakeland, the city is only 1.8% Asian. “I just feel like a stranger in a distant land, like Clarisse in Fahrenheit 451.”
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund reported that Boston’s Chinatown dropped from 70% to 46% in Asian residents from 1990 to 2010. While Asian population changes in Manhattan and Philadelphia are subtler percentage-wise — remaining steady at 45% in NYC — the white population has increased by 19% in the past ten years, reflecting a decrease in black and Latinx residents. The traditional extended-family unit has now shifted as well, with 21.4% more singles integrated into the neighborhood.
Luxury condominium developments have increased drastically in Chinatowns from New York City to Los Angeles. City managers have often offered more flexibility to private investors to entice growth and expand municipal tax bases without insuring protective measures for Chinatown residents. National economic activity has also driven gentrification practices. The decline of manufacturing resulted in former industrial land being converted into luxury housing, removing working class jobs and increasing the land costs.
As the housing market continues to increase and land managers prioritize profit over protection, residents are being pushed out by inflated prices. Rather than stabilizing rent and addressing resident concerns, some real estate investment firms such as Madison Capital resorted to what they referred to as a “repositioning strategy.” This strategy involved old-school tactics such as refusing repairs, shutting off water and power lines, and aggravating New York Chinatown tenants to leave. According to a 2011 New York Times article, the firm offered buyouts to residents of Delancey Street tenement walk-ups, ranging from ten to sixty thousand dollars — but residents were understandably reluctant to desert their homes.
Critical displacement of local residents occurs through a multitude of forms, another of which is the increasing number of art galleries in the neighborhood. Over 100 galleries exist in Chinatown, often owned and operated by monied investors. The rent prices have forced out long-time residents, restaurants, and other Chinese-owned businesses such as herbal medicine shops and bakeries. The previous working-class residents suffer from the hiked rent prices along with a depletion of community spaces, resulting in an irreparable change to the Chinatown landscape.
In September 2016 — a story covered by The Bowery Boogie — local artists Betty Yu, Tomie Arai, and Mansee Kong formed the Chinatown Art Brigade, with the objective of reasserting Chineseness into gentrified Chinatown areas and advocating on behalf of residents. Their mobile, wall-sized projections continue to do so, generating hashtags such as #ChinatownisNot4Sale.
This pushback isn’t just confined to Manhattan. Coalitions such as Boston’s Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) and New York’s Chinatown Tenants’ Union (CTU) have been instrumental in organizing Chinatown residents to advocate against unjust housing policies, harmful gentrification, and targeted economic and social erasure. Others such as San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center (CDC) focus on both direct advocacy and on celebrating the cultural history of the Chinese community through arts collaborations and events.
As tourism began to pour in from outsiders seeking an “exotic” experience, Chinatown business-owners were forced to cater to their needs in order to survive, especially noticeable at the entrances of transportation hubs such as the Canal Street metro station. On the sites of former dumpling shops stand crowded mall style units, selling “I Love New York” shirts and garish Chinatown merchandise.
As gentrification increases dramatically in New York Chinatown, Flushing, Queens has become the new hotbed of Chinese immigrants. Joyce Ho, a lifelong New Yorker and Chinese-American, highlighted the curious phenomenon of Chinatown as a “performative space” and Flushing as an “authentic space.” She lauded the ability of the Chinese community to carve out its own space through Chinatowns, but raised the point that outsiders begin to change the culture of that space by selectivity glorifying and vilifying certain aspects of the community.
She pointed out that while Chinese people dominate Chinatown in a physical sense, many of the buildings themselves are not Chinese-owned. “There’s a disconnect between those in power of the space and those who are performers of the space,” she told me.
Still, it may be slightly incoherent to attempt to translate economic tourism to the loss of cultural preservation. Tenets of authenticity are often selectively embellished to cater to tourists, such as red lantern imagery and cheap candies. Certain aspects of culture such as dumplings or Chinese characters are frequently cherry picked by a largely young, white population who “love dumplings so much” or tattoo “生” on their biceps. Blocks of Chinese immigrant public housing are packed next to blocks of mostly white-run fusion restaurants and bars.
Ho notes that “all of the genuine restaurants are in the middle of Flushing — in the dingier parts of Chinatown — where the tourists would never venture to.”
In Flushing, Chinese and Chinese Americans have a more pervasive and — to use Ho’s term — “authentic” presence. The Flushing Chinatowns now collectively outnumber the traditional Manhattan Chinatown by 120,000 people. They began as a home for Taiwanese immigrants, although they were later dubbed “Mandarin Town,” in comparison to Manhattan Chinatown where the predominant language is Cantonese. Since the late 1970s, the Queens district has hosted numerous enclaves of Chinese culture. Unfortunately, Ho disparaged the beginnings of gentrification that have begun to creep into Queens. Skyview shopping malls began to open a couple years ago — soon followed by more telltale signs of development, such as upscale lofts.
Peter Kwong, the late Hunter College professor, anti-gentrification scholar, and Chinatown advocate, was doubtful that most Chinatowns would survive the economic downturn caused by the loss of manufacturing jobs and increase in rent prices. “By and large, the people have scattered and working-class Chinese tend not to concentrate in areas like these because there’s very few jobs. New York City’s Chinatown is the one exception because of a large base of jobs,” he said in an interview on NPR. Of anti-gentrification efforts in New York Chinatown, his view was realistic yet determined: “We are basically the very last stand.”
Although scholars may question the ability to Chinatowns to survive gentrification, the neighborhood’s resilience and power of ethnic unity has been proven time and time again. Chinatown will continue to change over time, just as Chinese identity has evolved with America. In examining the spatial quality of Chinatown, it is important to note that the neighborhood is as much a state of collective mind as it is geography.
Annie Cheng is an undergrad at Yale University, dim sum aficionado, and ardent lover of museums. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published at tyglobalist.org.