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

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.

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