Manhattan’s Chinatown, from here on referred to as Chinatown, is the beating heart of a large network of Chinatown’s across the boroughs of New York City. It’s unique geographical location near the narrow southern end of the island of Manhattan, positions it as a major transportation hub, with the intersection of ten subway lines, the Manhattan bridge, and a section of The FDR Drive to the East, all situated either in or close to the neighborhood. It is along these subway lines, the B, D, J, Z, N, Q, R, W, and 6, that the nine other Chinatowns of New York City’s outer boroughs developed, with Queens’s Flushing Chinatown now growing beyond the size of Manhattan’s.

Chinatown Subway Map

Chinatown has long been the first point of contact for Chinese immigrants, beginning in the 1800s, although the immigrants that come today face very different challenges. These new immigrants have continually shaped and reshaped the borders of the neighborhood, which remain difficult to define. In conducting our research we identified the boundaries of Chinatown as Grand Street to the North, Worth Street to the South, Lafayette Street to the West, and East Broadway and Essex Streets to the East. Running through the center is Bowery, which divides Chinatown into two distinct subsections. To the west of Bowery lies the “Old Chinatown”, which began developing in the 1800s, and to the East lies the “New Chinatown”, which traces its roots to the late 1960s. These two sub-neighborhoods differ in style, resident demography, and culture*. They are also undergoing change in different ways, changes which we believe exemplify the different ways gentrification can be seen in a neighborhood.   

“Old” Chinatown

Chinese Theater, Doyers St, 1909.

Manhattan’s Chinatown traces its beginnings to the mid-1800s. Most Chinese immigrants coming at the time were Taishanese, from the southern part of China’s Guangdong Province, as well as some from Cantonese speaking Hong Kong. Cantonese became the lingua franca on the streets of Chinatown. Some of the first businesses opened to cater to the Chinese immigrants were traditional Cantonese dim sum tea parlors and Chinese theaters on Doyers Street, as well as laundry businesses [1]. Immigration from China was suppressed for over fifty years under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese to the United States. Prior to its enactment, a majority of the Chinese immigrants coming to New York were single men. The inability of these men to bring their wives over to the U.S. created a great gender imbalance in Chinatown, where men outnumbered women 50 to 1, creating a bachelor society that persisted into the twentieth century [2].  

Sunday on Poll Street, 1899.

Many of these men were driven to join or establish gangs. The gangs served a dual purpose, as a familial unit, as well as an informal police force for parts of Chinatown. The general social animus and racism toward Chinese people in the period of exclusion meant many police officers did not care to police the neighborhood, if they themselves were not the ones inflicting abuse [3]. These gangs, or tongs, as they were referred to, were often run by businessmen who would give loans to recent immigrants and act as their guarantors. They would help them find housing and work. Many of the immigrants were settled in tightly packed tenements, in rooms so tiny they resembled honeycomb, to maximize profit. Fires were common and shootings even more so [4] [5].Mr. Ma, a social worker at the Open Door Senior Center, came to the U.S. as a young man in the 1970s. He recalls his first visit to the neighborhood as “dangerous”. Mr. Ma remembers the frequency with which many men went to the illegal basement casinos of businesses in Chinatown to gamble, a vice quite common at the time. Many would become indebted to Gang leaders for their losses and disputes over debt often lead to gang warfare. The bend in Doyers Street in Chinatown was nicknamed the Bloody Angle due to the frequent violence [6].

Bloody Angle, Doyers St., 1900.

Gang violence subsided in the 80s, and by 1990 was almost entirely driven underground. It is thought to have ended with the death of prominent Gang Leader Benny Ong in 1994 [7]. Chinatown in the 80s saw a boom of the garment industry. Mr. Ma recalls working as a waiter in a restaurant and the garment factory workers who would frequent it for lunch, for a “taste of home”. Around this time Chinatown’s reputation as a tourist destination grew. Foreigners, most not of Chinese descent, began to visit in increasing numbers, and the illegal street vending of counterfeit goods exploded. This period of commercial growth continued until 2001. Following 9/11, Chinatown found it difficult to attract consumers to the area, as well as to get goods delivered to local businesses. Police checkpoints made movement in and out of the neighborhood challenging [8]. The neighborhood rebounded slowly, but it did recover and soon the streets were bustling again. But the damage had been done. Many Chinese-owned small businesses were forced to close their doors, unable to sustain their costs with less business [9]. Their proximity to the World Trade Center meant they sold those businesses for cheap, and developers picked up quite a few properties [10]. As more Chinese residents flocked to outer borough Chinatowns, Manhattan’s Chinatown drew in  a new kind of resident.

“New” Chinatown

The Chinatown East of Bowery has a far shorter history of Chinese residents than its Western neighbor. Chinese immigration into this area began in earnest after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Prior to the mid sixties the area bound by Bowery, Grand St., Essex, and East Broadway, was considered to be a part of the Lower East Side. Its residents were mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican immigrants, along with a smaller Jewish community [11]. Today, as you walk down Allen Street you can still find two Spanish speaking Catholic churches and one Dominican owned bodega. The new residents were Chinese, predominantly from the Fujian province of China. These Fuzhounese immigrants mostly spoke Fuzhou, a dialect of Chinese not well understood by speakers of Cantonese. They also spoke Mandarin. While a Mandarin speaking community existed in Flushing, Queens, in the seventies, it was a middle class neighborhood and most Fuzhounese immigrants were either low income or undocumented and would not be able to live there[12]. Many had been smuggled into the country illegally, by gangs, most of whom were also Fuzhounese [13].

Garment Factory, 1983 by Bud Glick.

Unable to assimilate into the Cantonese speaking “Old” Chinatown, many faced great job and housing discrimination. They often settled for garment factory jobs where many of them would find work for below minimum wage, often working far above the legal forty hour limit [14]. A great many turned to crime and gang activity to survive [15]. Finding adequate housing proved challenging as many building landlords were Cantonese speaking Chinese immigrants who would rarely rent out living space to Fuzhounese. This lead to the illegal subdivision of the few, already dilapidated, tenement style residences available.

Bud Glick, Storefronts on Catherine St, 1981

The Fuzhounese slowly began to establish economic roots. They began to open their own businesses, primarily fast food restaurants, but some garment factories as well, many of which catered to other Fuzhounese immigrants [16]. Soon they began to open wholesale retailers to supply those restaurants. The area became known first as a part of Chinatown and then as Little Fuzhou. Mandarin slowly overtook Cantonese as the Lingua Franca on the streets of Chinatown [17]. The real estate market had been declining in the 80s but the immigration and business ventures of the Fuzhounese in the region boosted investor confidence and prompted speculation by Cantonese businessmen, which drove up real estate prices [18]. Many of the very people who contributed to the revitalization of the neighborhood could no longer afford to live there. Some cantonese landlords would artificially raise rents to encourage Fuzhounese residents to move out, with many relocating to Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn [19].

Two Types of Gentrification

Hotel construction underway.

Just as the two Chinatowns, “Old” and “New”, have very different histories, the two are experiencing gentrification very differently. To the West of Bowery, gentrification takes the form of sleek high rise buildings and rolled ice cream [20]. The area retains its commercial roots, and much of the new business caters to young people and tourists. “Fad” foods abound, inspired by the popular culture of East Asia. Chinese bakeries can no longer only sell goods for the Chinese palate, but must now accommodate for the tastes of the new, usually white, residents, or risk closure [21]. Chinese landmarks are preserved so that a French tourist may come and snap some photographs. It is reminiscent of the way Little Italy is preserved as a bastion of Italian immigration, where shops selling I love New York t-shirts denote the entrance and exit. Much of the new development in the area is dedicated hotel space, to accommodate for the the tourists who will come.

Businesses frequented by young people in Chinatown.

Mr. Ho, an English teacher at the Open Door Senior Center, conveys mixed emotions about these changes. He says he is glad young people are coming to Chinatown as it contributes to economic development, and attracts infrastructural investment in the neighborhood. Yet he believes more and more businesses are not Chinese owned. The area retains its Cantonese character but he wishes for more investment from young Chinese people. Mr. Ho’s dilemma exemplifies the difficulty “Old” Chinatown now faces. Its permanent population skews older and older, with a 30 percent increase of elderly Asian residents from 1990 to 2000 [22]. Young Chinese people are not often staying, opting instead for cheaper housing in the outer boroughs, so that they may have the space to raise a family. The older residents, many of whom are in rent controlled apartments, are low income, and while they may not struggle with housing costs, the increasing cost of goods has been burdensome [23]. Many are too old or incapable of working and cannot afford to live on their own. Many, like Mr. Ho relocate to outer borough Chinatowns, and commute to the senior center to socialize. Their previously rent-controlled apartments go on the market, making affordable housing more difficult to come by, and encouraging the influx of young, mostly white, professionals. The area retains its Cantonese character in part thanks to the Confucius Plaza Coops, a complex of affordable apartments for Chinese residents.

Some of the condo developments typical of those East of Bowery.

To the East, gentrification takes the form of mid-sized glass condos and coffee shops. The area is still very heavily residential. The Fuzhounese businesses are closing up shop, replaced in large numbers by Art Galleries and businesses catering to middle and upper class whites. While there are still some Fuzhounese residents, many live side by side with white college students spilling over from the East Village [24]. The new developments are mostly mid-sized condominiums, most about ten to fifteen stories high. Of the new constructions, 42 Allen St replaced a wholesale lobster and seafood retailer, while 55 Hester St, designed by chinatown based architect Jung Wor Chin, took the place of another, older, residential building [25].  Both buildings have their address written above the front door in Chinese characters, which most of their residents probably cannot read. The Fuzhounese are slowly leaving the area, often not by choice, as their landlords worry the Fuzhounese presence will affect their ability to turn a high profit. Some turn to less than legal means to drive them out and the strategy is working [26] [27]. According to the 2010 census, some 6,000 Chinese residents have been displaced from Chinatown [28].

So does this mean it is the end of Chinatown as we have known it? Probably. Is this the end of Chinatown in general? No. Chinese immigration into the United States continues. Organizations across the city continue to fight for the preservation of cultural landmarks in Chinatown, as well as for rights of the Chinese residents who remain [29]. New Chinese immigrants are settling across the five borough of New York City, injecting the city with their culture and vibrancy. They still come to Chinatown for socializing and a sense of community. “Old” Chinatown will likely remain as is, at least on the surface, so long as it continues to attract tourists and businesses. Chinese immigrants will continue to be a vital part of the character and story of New York City.

 Up Next: Why The Change?