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The Changing Face Of America's Chinatowns

Dec 31, 2011
Originally published on December 31, 2011 9:16 pm

The Chinese New Year begins on Jan. 23. On that day, people will celebrate the Year of the Dragon in Chinatowns across the country.

The neighborhoods known as Chinatowns sprang up in the U.S. during the Gold Rush. But since then, they've seen gradual yet significant changes — not so noticeable to the average visitor, perhaps, but quite drastic to those who've called these communities home.

To find out more, weekends on All Things Considered guest host Rebecca Sheir visited the nation's biggest Chinatown, in New York City. We began on the unofficial main street, Mott Street: a narrow but bustling thoroughfare lined with souvenir shops, teahouses and restaurants, and packed to the gills with people.

Bonnie Tsui, the author of American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods, served as our guide. She got to know Manhattan's Chinatown at a very early age.

"I was baptized here [at the Church of the Transfiguration], and all the members of my family were," Tsui tells Sheir. "The adjacent street is the funeral row, so it all begins and ends here for a lot of Chinese Americans."

A Changing Demographic

The church used to offer services solely in Cantonese, the dialect that dominated North America's Chinatowns for decades. But these days, the church presents services in Mandarin, too — which Tsui says reflects Chinatown's current population.

In addition to Mandarin and Cantonese, she says, visitors may hear Toisanese, a subdialect of the Canton province, and even Fujianese.

Another big change, she says, is with industry. Traditionally, Chinatown's twin trades were clothing and food.

"Of course, the garment industry is sort of dying off a little bit now, but for a long time it basically employed all of the women in Chinatown," Tsui says. Her grandmother worked as a seamstress, and her grandfather worked in a fortune cookie factory where he hand-folded the cookies.

The garment industry may have shrunk, but the food business is going strong — from groceries and markets to restaurants. But not all of Chinatown's food establishments are Chinese.

Tsui points out a Mexican restaurant that bears the sign of a now-gone Vietnamese eatery, explaining that you can think of Chinatown as a "revolving door."

"One thing to note about Chinatown is that it welcomed Chinese immigrants in its history and all the Chinatowns across the country. For example, the one in Los Angeles became a welcoming spot for Southeast Asian immigrants, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai."

On any given day, people gather in Columbus Park to play board games and listen to live music. Tsui calls the park Chinatown's "living room."

"You know, a lot of the apartments are so small that people come outside and hang out, and it's wonderful to see life go by," she says.

A woman named Kitty has been coming to the park for decades. She moved to Chinatown from Canton province in 1969, and says the biggest change she's seen in the neighborhood is that "the food no good."

But not just the quality of the food — the price, too. Kitty says just about everything costs too much nowadays.

"Like the rent, too high, the water too expensive, heat too expensive, property tax too expensive," Kitty says.

Which is why Kitty eventually left Manhattan's Chinatown for the less pricey Flushing, Queens, what Tsui calls a "satellite Chinatown."

But while this relocation might benefit the people departing, Tsui says it's not so great for the urban center they're leaving behind. Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown has been fading for years. San Francisco's is seeing increasing outward migration. And as for New York's, Tsui goes so far as to say it's "fighting for its life."

"When the working class starts moving out of a neighborhood, it loses that vitality," Tsui says. "And there are different pressures not just of rising rents, but also the relationship between Chinatown and China is changing."

Sea Turtles

This relationship has to do with the economies of the U.S. and China. The International Monetary Fund predicts China's economy will be bigger than America's by 2016. And that means more work and higher wages for people back home.

This has led to migration back to China as even more well-off people who come to America for an education also head back. There's even a term for them: "sea turtles."

They have been lured back to China by the Chinese government with cash bonuses, financial aid, tax breaks and housing assistance.

"Before it would have been a no-brainer that they would have stayed in the U.S., and you know now it is just not a given, there's competition," Tsui says.

There was a 17 percent drop in the population of New York City's Chinatown over the past decade, and Tsui says this may point to Chinatown becoming more of a "cultural and symbolic touchstone" as it has for many Chinese Americans.

"Maybe it becomes less of a functional, living, working, daily life kind of place that at least like New York City's Chinatown has always been," Tsui says. "What is the future of Chinatown? We don't know, but these are important things to look at as we move forward."


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REBECCA SHEIR, HOST:

The Chinese New Year starts on January 23rd. And across the country, people will celebrate the Year of the Dragon in Chinatowns. Chinatowns sprung up in the U.S. during the Gold Rush. But since then, the neighborhoods have seen gradual yet significant changes - not so noticeable to the average visitor, perhaps, but quite drastic to those who've called these communities home. To find out more...

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN HONKING)

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHEIR: A little bit of traffic.

BONNIE TSUI: Very characteristic of Chinatown. Lots of traffic.

SHEIR: We headed to the nation's biggest Chinatown, in New York City. We started on the unofficial Main Street, Mott Street: a narrow but bustling thoroughfare lined with souvenir shops, tea houses and restaurants, and packed to the gills with people. Our guide on this cold windy day?

TSUI: I'm Bonnie Tsui.

SHEIR: Say your last name again so I get it.

TSUI: Tsui.

SHEIR: Tui?

TSUI: Tsui. It's a little bit of an S. Tsui.

SHEIR: Tsui. Tsui.

TSUI: Yeah. Perfect. Yeah.

SHEIR: In any case, Bonnie wrote a book called "American Chinatown: A People's History of Five Neighborhoods." She got to know Manhattan's Chinatown at a very early age.

TSUI: I was baptized here, and all the members of my family were.

SHEIR: We're standing in front of the Church of the Transfiguration.

TSUI: Sort of the adjacent street is the funeral row. So it all begins and ends here in Chinatown for a lot of Chinese Americans.

SHEIR: The church used to offer services solely in Cantonese, the dialect that dominated North America's Chinatowns for decades. But these days, the church presents services in Mandarin, too, which Bonnie says reflects Chinatown's current population.

TSUI: You'll hear a lot of different dialects. You won't just hear Cantonese, and you won't just hear Toisanese, which is a sort of subdialect of Canton province. You'll hear Fujianese, and you'll also hear a lot of Mandarin. So it's a real potpourri these days.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

SHEIR: Another big change, she says, is with industry. Traditionally, Chinatown's twin trades were clothing and food.

TSUI: Of course, the garment industry is sort of dying off a little bit now, but for a long time, it basically employed all of the women in Chinatown, you know? And my grandmother worked as a seamstress for decades.

SHEIR: And your grandfather worked in a fortune cookie factory?

TSUI: My grandfather worked in a fortune cookie factory. He hand-folded them. You think of that episode of "I Love Lucy" with the chocolates going down the assembly line. He was that guy, trying to keep up.

SHEIR: The garment industry may have shrunk, but the food business is going strong - from groceries and markets.

TSUI: People are picking out crab and shrimp and fresh vegetables.

SHEIR: To restaurants.

TSUI: Fay Dah bakery is - that place has great gai mei bao.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SHEIR: But here's the thing:

What do we see here, Nam Wah tea parlor?

Not all of Chinatown's food establishments are necessarily Chinese.

Here, we have Doyers Vietnamese Restaurant. That's interesting.

TSUI: One thing to note about Chinatown is that it welcomed Chinese immigrants in its history in all the Chinatowns across the country. For example, the one in L.A. became a welcoming spot for Southeast Asian immigrants: Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai.

SHEIR: Many of whom, Bonnie says, just feel more comfortable in Chinatown.

TSUI: You can think about Chinatown as a revolving door, right? So a lot of people come and a lot of people leave. But it's like this continuing influx and exit for people.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHEIR: And on any given day, you'll find a bunch of these people in Columbus Park, as they play chess, listen to live music. Bonnie calls the park Chinatown's living room.

TSUI: You know, a lot of the apartments are so small that people come outside and hang out, and it's wonderful to see life go by.

SHEIR: We meet a woman named Kitty who's been coming here for decades. She moved to Chinatown from Canton province in 1969, and says the biggest change she's seen in the neighborhood?

KITTY: The food, no good. The bakery, the coffee and - it's no good.

SHEIR: But not just the quality of the food - the price. In fact, Kitty says just about everything costs too much nowadays.

KITTY: Like the rent, too high; the water, too expensive; the heat, expensive; tax property, too expensive.

SHEIR: Which is why Kitty eventually left Manhattan's Chinatown for the less pricey Flushing, Queens, what Bonnie Tsui calls a satellite Chinatown. But while this relocation might benefit the people departing, Bonnie says it's not so great for the urban center they're leaving behind.

Washington, D.C.'s Chinatown has been fading for years. San Francisco's is seeing increasing outward migration. And as for New York's, Bonnie goes so far as to say it's fighting for its life.

TSUI: When the working class starts moving out of a neighborhood, it loses that vitality, you know? I mean, and there are different pressures not just of rising rents, but also the relationship between Chinatown and China is changing.

SHEIR: And a lot of that has to do with the economies of the U.S. and China. The International Monetary Fund predicts China's economy will be bigger than America's by 2016. And that means more work and higher wages for people back home. So as our friend, Kitty, points out:

Do you know people who moved here and then decided to move back to China?

KITTY: Yeah. A lot of new people come here, right? They cannot find a job, right? And in the main country where they have a house, at least they don't pay that kind of money like that.

SHEIR: But even more well-off people who come to America for an education often head back. There's even a term for them.

Can you talk about the sea turtles?

TSUI: The sea turtles. Well, so they have been lured back by incentives from the Chinese government.

SHEIR: Like cash bonuses, financial aid, tax breaks, housing assistance.

TSUI: And so before it would have been a no-brainer that they would have stayed in the U.S. And, you know, now it's just not a given. There's competition.

SHEIR: So where do you see New York City's Chinatown in, I don't know, two decades, three decades?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TSUI: I certainly can't say for sure, but there are certain trends that we can look at.

SHEIR: One being the 17 percent drop in the population of New York City's Chinatown over the past decade.

TSUI: And that seems like it's significant. Perhaps this points to Chinatown becoming more of a cultural and symbolic touchstone as it has for many Chinese Americans. But maybe it becomes less of a functional, you know, living, working, daily life kind of place that at least New York Chinatown has always been.

SHEIR: So many are left wondering...

TSUI: What is the future of Chinatown? We don't know, but these are important things to look at as we go forward.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE CHINATOWN BUS")

SHEIR: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.