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Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 12:24 pm
Chinatown

Although I lived for two years at the edge of Manhattan's Chinatown, and although I like the texture and feel of the neighbourhood better than almost any other place in the world (Grand Street between, say, Mott and Allen never fails to lift my spirits, filling me with a childish excitement), I don't actually know much about it. So I thought I'd do a little project today, a project on Chinatown.

What's really interesting about Chinatown is that it's a successful immigrant community (an "ethnic enclave") which is integrated without being assimilated. Manhattan Chinatown is an accepted part of the Lower Manhattan landscape, and yet it retains its otherness. In fact, this otherness seems to be the very condition of its acceptance. Unlike other ethnic communities in the area (Little Italy, the Jewish Lower East Side), which have thinned out as their populations assimilated or moved out to the suburbs, Chinatown continues to grow. According to Wikipedia its population might be as much as 350,000.

Many of the workers in Chinatown's catering, retail and garments industries speak little or no English. Forty years ago most of the Chinese here spoke Toisan and Cantonese, the langauges spoken in Guangdong and Hong Kong, where they came from. Now they're more likely to speak Mandarin and come from mainland China. New immigrants are arriving at a rate of 12,000 a year, but if illegal immigrants are included, that figure can be doubled.



I was sitting in my favourite Dumpling House on Eldridge Street yesterday evening. Two teenage Chinese girls sat next to me. They were talking in (I think) Mandarin. I wasn't at all sure that if I'd said "pass the hot sauce" they'd have understood. I felt like a guest in their country. I didn't feel like I was in the US at all. I wondered where they went to school. I wondered if they had any non-Chinese friends. I wondered how they felt about America. I wondered whether they ever hung a right on Canal Street and looked in the shop windows of SoHo: Anna Sui, Costume National... Judging from their fashions (the usual flared denims and cute pirated t-shirts), none of that stuff had made any impact. So near, yet so far. A couple of streets away, and a couple of worlds. And yet... no evident aspiration to that stuff.

The Manhattan Chinese operate a kind of semi-autonomous state-within-a-state. Legal requirements like the minimum wage just don't apply in Chinatown. Much of the economy operates on cash transactions to avoid the payment of tax. Copyright law is widely flouted in the pirated gear being sold on Canal Street. The run-down tenement accommodation many Chinese live in, with hallway bathrooms shared by several families, wouldn't pass housing authority standards. And the higher quality accommodation, in high rises like Confucius Plaza, is snapped up by richer members of the community in under-the-table deals with the poor families who were supposed to live there.

The New York authorities may seem to turn a blind eye to widespread illegal immigration and other infringements of the laws that apply to other Americans. But this is a fairly recent thing; for most of their history, Chinese Americans have been severely discriminated against. Chinese "coolies" famously built the railroads in the US in the 19th century. They also did very well in the Gold Rush. Perhaps too well; after a nationwide slump in the 1870s, in which resentment against the Chinese became intense, the government passed a series of Chinese Exclusion Acts. These prevented the Chinese from working in the gold industry, suspended further immigration from China, and denied the Chinese the basic rights of citizenship granted to other races. This legislation was partly repealed in the early 40s, mainly so that Chinese could be drafted into the US army. It wasn't until 1965 that Chinese immigration was put on an equal legal basis with other racial groups in the US. Now, better efforts are made to cater to the community on its own terms. Lutheran Medical Center recently opened a Chinese medical center in Brooklyn employing Mandarin-speaking staff trained in Chinese culture, heath beliefs, and disease patterns. At LMC there are Chinese chefs in the kitchen, Chinese artwork and colour schemes on the walls.

As for the future, the projected demographics of Manhattan are interesting. Non-Hispanic whites, already a minority, will continue declining. Black populations will decline from 2015 onwards. The population growth in the city between 2015 and 2025 will be led by Hispanics and Asians.

On my very first blog post of this trip I described the Manhattan Chinese as "the Americans of the future". The phrase had a double meaning: these people are quite literally the New Yorkers of the future, as whites decline and Asians help spearhead new demographic trends. But I also meant to imply that China is in a sense the "America" of the 21st century. And, without wanting to imply that there's anything wrong with this, I get the strong impression that it's to that "America" rather than the one they're (somewhat elliptically) living in that the Manhattan Chinese feel loyalty. Maybe that un-American or post-American quality is what makes me feel so at home amongst them. And yet they're also, in some way, a memory of something ultra-American. Their energy and enterprise fills lower Manhattan with a sense of purpose it hasn't really had since the Jews of the Lower East Side pushed the borough's population, temporarily in the early 20th century, to over 2 million. Then, too, Grand Street teemed.

21CommentReplyFlag

alphacomp
alphacomp
Digital Video Camera
Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 05:47 pm (UTC)
Some parts of it look very Blade Runner-esque, don't you think?

I've lived on Spring and Mott my entire life, on the cusp of Chinatown and the Bowery.
I know exactly what you mean; Chinatown has been suspiciously detached from the seemingly (and unfortunately) unyielding gentrification of Lower Manhattan and it seems to be one of the few thriving communities here. As such, it's really the most interesting and exciting parts of Manhattan; I'm pretty much there every other day.

I'm always worried that, like a lot of things that I've really liked in the area(i.e that really cool art book shop on Prince St., Smylonylon and soon Rocks In Your Head) it's going to pack itself up and become replaced by small, nondescript boutiques showcasing thoroughly uninteresting wares.
Or, even worse, it could become something like Little Italy: A loose conglomeration of cheap souvenir shops and restaurants.




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charleshatcher
charleshatcher
charleshatcher
Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 06:53 pm (UTC)

I always seem to come away from your journal with a disquieting sense that you like things less for what they are, and more for what they are not.


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notkoan
notkoan
alcibiades
Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 07:05 pm (UTC)

"What's really interesting about Chinatown is that it's a successful immigrant community (an "ethnic enclave") which is integrated without being assimiliated. Manhattan Chinatown is an accepted part of the Lower Manhattan landscape, and yet it retains its otherness."

^ That's essentially the sort of neighborhood that I live in. There are a lot of suburbs in LA that are integrated without being assimilated. You can easily live in my neighborhood for 50 years without speaking a word of English.

"I was sitting in my favourite Dumpling House on Eldridge Street yesterday evening. Two teenage Chinese girls sat next to me. They were talking in (I think) Mandarin. I wasn't at all sure that if I'd said "pass the hot sauce" they'd have understood. I felt like a guest in their country. I didn't feel like I was in the US at all. I wondered where they went to school. I wondered if they had any non-Chinese friends. "

^I went to school with a lot of people like this. Yes, it's quite possible that all of their friends are Chinese. Probably they went to school where the majority of people were Asian, like I did. But people who went to school in America will know how to speak English, much as it doesn't seem like it.

What I find amusing is that you had to go all the way to Manhattan to find this phenonmenon remarkable. This sort of thing also goes on to a great extent in the UK. I remember asking someone living in London to buy me a Pulp t-shirt. The person had no idea who Pulp was because she only hung out with Chinese people and only listened to Chinese music.


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subtechnique
subtechnique
Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 07:05 pm (UTC)

I think I understand what you're getting at here.

My wife hails from Kwangju, S. Korea (the "fiber optic city" the town mothers and fathers want you to know). So, I find myself spending a lot of time along the Flushing, Northern Blvd, Korean corridor.

There was a moment, last Spring, when we were exiting a restaurant. It was evening and the sun was setting. Overhead, an immense passenger jet glided towards an airport. It appeared to be skimming just above the blue tip of a Samsung office tower.

Everywhere, there was movement and color: commercial, family, etc.

For a long series of seconds, it felt to me like the most alive and human place in the world.


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notazionist
notazionist
tout va bien
Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 07:20 pm (UTC)

During one of my first visits to Chinatown, in my mid-teens, I stopped at a small restaurant to have dim sum. Of course, being at that age, I was quite awe-struck by the non-white, non-English speaking populous as I'm accustomed to in upstate NY. Eating my lunch, a motherly figure came to me and took the chop sticks out of my hand, which bothered me at first, but then showed me how to properly eat with them. I've felt, since then, that I was in a living room with a large family, and that her simple lesson was more about me "fitting in" than showing me that I was an idiot.


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erasehead
erasehead
nozomi
Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 07:59 pm (UTC)
If you haven’t.

With your cosmic amount of curiosity and sort of childish openness you should really visit some of the East European countries :)


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dubow_org
dubow_org
Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 08:01 pm (UTC)

For your info (incase you didn't know already) the billboard says

"The money I wire arrives in moments, so my son can learn even more new things"

I guess aimed at large number of immigrants (mostly illegal?) who travel all the way to the US to try provide for the family back in China.


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henryperri
henryperri
Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 08:20 pm (UTC)

An ethnic group unwilling to assimilate themselves in America = cause for celebration.

An ethnic group unwilling to assimilate themselves in Japan = cause for concern/criticism.


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subtechnique
subtechnique
Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 09:20 pm (UTC)

An ethnic group unwilling to assimilate themselves in America = cause for celebration.

An ethnic group unwilling to assimilate themselves in Japan = cause for concern/criticism.

....



Of course, this is directed against Momus' singular love of Japan and naive refusal, so the clear eyed realist's story goes, to acknowledge her flaws. As such, it's part of the ongoing soft conflict between the resident Western exceptionalists who routinely take a jab at Mr. Currie and the views he offers here at Click Opera.

There is however, another way of approaching the question of assimilation/no assimilation. Assimilation occurs most successfully where there is a meeting of the dominant group's acceptance with the newcomers' desire to be absorbed.

Where this marriage fails to occur, non or quasi assimilation is the norm.

I'm not Korean (I am, in fact African American, to use the current label) and when I travel to S. Korea - which is often - there are times I feel acceptance and other times rejection. My failure to assimilate is as much a function of the dominant culture's resistance to accepting me as a potential member (though "cousin" or "close family friend" have been offered as alternative niches) as it is a result of my own muddled and inconsistent resistance to what level of absorption/acceptance is offered.

A similar push and pull is in play amongst the Chinese immigrants of New York.


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(Anonymous)
Wed, Mar. 15th, 2006 03:38 am (UTC)

just...thanks for articulating all that so well

i have had the most interesting internal struggles and triumphs in the whole pull-push of (attempted, and very rough) assimilation into another culture (Japan)


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hungryandhollow
hungryandhollow
Clay
Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 11:01 pm (UTC)

There are sizeable areas of the California coast that are essentially Asian colonies. I have two adopted sisters, vietnamese, early 30's, whose parents sent them to America in their teens. Their parents moved to America for a few years a while back, and speak absolutely no English, and were pleasantly suprised to learn that they didn't need to learn any - they live, work, and play surrounded by Vietnamese.

When I came to college at UCSB, one of the people I became good friends with had a Korean roommate from an all-Korean area. She barely spoke English because, despite being able to read and write it well enough to enter a UC school, she had never had a major use for speaking it until coming to college. Not even in elementary or high school. She had never had a non-Asian friend. We talked a lot because I was hoping to draw her out of her shell, and due to growing up with Vietnamese sisters, I was able to understand her incredibly thick accent better than most and used to speaking to people who would lapse into another language without realizing it (this wierded-out a lot of our fellow dorm-mates). She went home after one quarter, telling me she was scared, friendless, and out of her depth. She made two friends, both Asians in similar situations who spoke Korean, not because people didn't like her but because her accent, bad spoken English, and borderline fear of white people made it hard for her to meet people. She barely left her room.

I was aware of Asian communities much more than most people, growing up with two teenage girls fresh out of Vietnam, but I was shocked by the stories she told, of how there could be enclaves like this, that people could go through the school system without being able to speak English. It's very different from the Hispanics of Central California, bilingual and bicultutral, both integrated and assimilated. I wonder if the Pacific Rim, mixing Asia and America, will be the site of whatever new Renaissances we have in the 21st century.


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noaei_xanadu
noaei_xanadu
Adair
Mon, Mar. 13th, 2006 11:54 pm (UTC)

You should go out to Flushing, which is even bigger than the Chinatown in Manhattan.
Or come to Crown Heights, where I live, and hang out with the Caribbean Americans :)


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desant012
||||||||||
Tue, Mar. 14th, 2006 02:36 am (UTC)

Ah, it's nothing new. You'll find cultural enclaves everywhere in this region, it's not just the Chinese. Ever been to Borough Park? In North Jersey if you speak Sicilian you can become a privileged member of a special class; some Italians still can't even speak English.

According to your definition of Post-American, the trend began back in the 17th-century before this nation was even founded. It's just the nature of where you are ... you're not really seeing anything new or different than what's been going on for the past couple hundred of years.

I've barely left New Jersey, and I know about Nepalese traditional martial arts, the government and history of Ghana, the linguistic differences between Caribbean dialects, the Korean alphabet, etc., just through the friends I've had. Enclaves are everywhere, but they might not be as obvious or easily-accessable as Manhattan Chinatown.


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loverboy82
loverboy82
( ... )
Tue, Mar. 14th, 2006 03:09 am (UTC)

I went to grade school in Confucius Plaza for 7 years, so the neighborhood has a special place in my heart and I still think it is one of the most fascinating Manhattan neighborhoods. At that time Chinatown was in the middle of gang wars. I remember coming to school and seeing dried blood on the playground from fights from the previous night. At the school I went to, besides my class which was very diverse, the rest of the school was almost completely chinese. It's reasons like this that chinatown remains insular. But the neighborhood is so huge, it butts up against all neighboring neighborhoods; the legal district to the south, eastern SoHo, it engulfs Little Italy, merges with the Lower East Side. You neglect to mention the way in which Chinatown has all these mini-neighborhoods: Fujianese on East Broadway, a Malay enclave, etc.

Chinatown manages to re-create the aura of China. You're right about the black/grey market activity; piracy, illegals, flophouses, the chinatown buses, etc. in this respect Chinatown is similar to China.

Regarding your last paragraph: I've had some similar ideas about China as the new America, exceeding even it in terms of materialism, commercialism and crassness. You assume that the Manhattan Chinese are more loyal to China than America. My grandfather left Shanghai and then Taiwan for Brooklyn. He was a huge supporter of Reagan for his stance on communism. Does that make him ultra-American as well? Immigrant and ethnic loyalties are often much more complex than you make them out to be.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
loverboy82
loverboy82
( ... )
Tue, Mar. 14th, 2006 04:07 am (UTC)

bellydancing is hott.


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csn
csn
Nick the Monk-Rom
Tue, Mar. 14th, 2006 04:07 am (UTC)

Yeah, I agree--I would say quite a few Chinese, and other immigrants in general, are among the most fervent Americans--just look at the large contingent of wealthy Iranians who rabidly support an invasion of Iran.


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loverboy82
loverboy82
( ... )
Tue, Mar. 14th, 2006 04:13 am (UTC)

quite right. there's a reason why these people left, isn't there?


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qingwen_tao
qingwen_tao
Tue, Mar. 14th, 2006 04:23 pm (UTC)
so far, so near.

Hi! I'm a Chinese girl,a Taiwanese, to be exactly. I work and study in Shanghai. I love your music since I was really a young girl. Thank you. Your CDs are always with me, no matter which city I stay. It's so good to find your blog. thanks to google. (still feel far away? Ask me, I'll certainly pass you the hot sauce!ha ha!) Qingwen


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Wed, Mar. 15th, 2006 01:08 am (UTC)
Re: so far, so near.

Hello, nice to meet you! I'm surprised that someone in Shanghai is reading, but happy! Please pass the hot sauce!


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mooshstache
mooshstache
mooshstache
Wed, Mar. 15th, 2006 08:02 pm (UTC)

there is a hidden dive bar located on the boundary of Chinatown and Little Italy called Bear Cafe. it was until very recently a hipster cafe called Beard Cafe, but the new owners (chinese) just dropped the "d" from "beard" and turned it into a speakeasy-style dive bar. i thought it was funny. http://www.nypress.com/17/32/food/JoshuaMBernstein.cfm


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(Anonymous)
Thu, Mar. 16th, 2006 10:07 am (UTC)

chinese are everywhere. Period.


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