Insiders' Perceptions

  Robert King Ling 

            Mr. Ling, who works as a janitor in the Off-Track-Betting parlor in Chatham Square, has resided in Chinatown for the past 57 years. Born in America to a family of immigrants, Mr. Ling moved to Chinatown after living in Brooklyn for the first six years of his life. The reason for the move, he said, was to allow his parents more flexibility in their working hours. Mr. Ling stayed with his uncle while his parents were away at work. Now, with his close family deceased, the 63 year old Mr. Ling finds joy in sitting on benches at Chatham Square every Saturday afternoon, basking in the warmth of the sun.
            Living for more than half a century in New York City’s famous Chinatown, Mr. Ling has witnessed and lived through many of the changes in the neighborhood. He offered a mischievous smile when questioned about the gangs that allegedly operated in Chinatown in the 1960s. He said, “There were always kids fighting in the streets before.” While pointing to Mott Street he added, “There were the Black Eagles, White Eagles, and White Dragons.” When asked if these gangs scared him when he was younger, he sat straight up on the bench and proudly proclaimed, “No, I was one of them. I was a tough guy.”
            Over the past few decades Chinatown has expanded almost exponentially in terms of size. “Originally, there were 3 blocks, and then 5, and now it expanded all the way to Hester, Grand, and Delancey,” Mr. Ling explained. Despite its name, Chinatown wasn’t always filled with Chinese people. Originally, the Italians dominated the place. “They would call us ‘chinks,’” Mr. Ling recalled, “and so all of us [all the gangs] would [unite together and] go and fight the Italians.”
            According to Mr. Ling, Chinatown has changed for the better and for the worse. The gangs are still here, but inactive, making Chinatown a much safer place. “The streets are cleaner”, Mr. Ling added. Thanks to the help of local organizations like CCBA (Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association), Chinatown is no longer clogged with litter. CCBA, Mr. Ling explained, helped the people in Chinatown a lot. They’d offered translations in Chinese and helped the people communicate in English. To this day, CCBA still tries to help but is not as successful as before especially when it comes to fighting rising rents in the area.
            The downside of the ever-expanding Chinatown, with its lucrative business profits, is the rapid increase in rent. Luckily, this hasn’t been much of a problem for Mr. Ling. He still lives in a rent-controlled apartment. However, after he dies, “the rents will probably skyrocket.” For a lot of the senior citizens in Chinatown the rent is still the same as before. But when they die, the rent will rise.

            Unsure of what this means for the future of Chinatown, Mr. Ling contemplated it on his bench after we left in search of our next Chinatown local.




Picture Link

            Fifteen year old Henry attends Baruch College High School and has lived in Chinatown for 8 years. He has tried out many boroughs like Brooklyn and Staten Island, but he likes living in Chinatown the most. When asked why, he cited the familiarity of the place and the comfort he feels when living in an area with people of the same ethnic background.

            For Henry, a typical weekend involves basketball and a couple of friends at various parks in Chinatown. He is an American-born Chinese and has assimilated into the American culture despite his fairly traditional family. The reason for this, he explained, is because his parents are “chill” and they don't pressure him to retain Chinese values. Unlike many other Chinese Americans, he was not forced to go to Chinese school. He speaks Cantonese at home, but cannot write a single Chinese character. Despite this, Henry still eats dim sum with his parents and his older sister on weekends. He is “sick of yum-cha” though. 



 Jack K. Eng 

            Mr. Eng is the current sitting president of CCBA (Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association). At the age of 19, he emigrated from the Canton region in China to America, landing in Los Angeles. His aunt had already immigrated to the U.S. years before and had set up a restaurant in Los Angeles. After living there for less than 2 years, Mr. Eng then moved to New York, to be reunited with his parents, who had arrived in New York in previous years.
            He attended Baruch College and graduated in 1972. Through family connections, he landed a job in an accounting firm on East Broadway. Working in Chinatown, he said, had its benefits. He spoke Cantonese and English, which were essential for working in Chinatown. Later, in order to attract more clients, he joined various organizations in Chinatown. For example, there was the Hipsing Association on Pell Street. Later he found his way into CCBA, where he’d stay for the next 20 years.
            Mr. Eng and his family did not live in Chinatown. “It was hard to find an apartment here,” he said. “Due to rent control, many people did not want to move out.” Thus, they settled in nearby 14th street because of its proximity to Chinatown; it was only a short bus ride to his work place in Chinatown.
            After getting married, Mr. Eng along with his wife and daughter moved into Chinatown. However, he soon regretted this decision. “There were a lot of gangs in Chinatown,” Mr. Eng recalled. “It was scary.” He told us a story about an experience he had in a theatre on East Broadway and Catherine Street. “I was sitting there watching the show, and all of sudden two men cornered me in my seat. One asked me, “What did you do to my friend in the bathroom?” Mr. Eng had no idea what the man was talking about. They threatened to beat him up if he didn’t hand over ten bucks. The theatre had long since been torn down, but the experience and the fear remains vivid in Mr. Eng’s mind. It was then that Mr. Eng readily decided that Chinatown was too dangerous for his family. He wanted a safer place for his daughter to grow up in, and thus they moved to Queens.
            According to Mr. Eng, Chinatown has definitely changed a lot over the past years. Not only are the gangs no longer a threat, but Chinatown has also become a cleaner and more beautiful place because of Chinatown Partnership to Local Development Corp, a city funded local community organization. The once prosperous garment industry had been driven out, largely beaten by the fact that garment services have been outsourced to China. Today, local businesses and offices replace old factories. Due to this, rent for business lofts has multiplied greatly. Mr. Eng said that in the past, one could easily find a loft for $500/month, but today, that same loft would go for $5,000/month. Moreover, Chinatown has greatly expanded in terms of size. For many years, the Chinese could not cross over Canal Street, into the Italian dominated area of the neighborhood: Little Italy. “There were no Chinese stores on that side of Canal Street,” Mr. Eng added. Today, local Chinese businesses have developed well past Canal Street, and in essence, enveloped Little Italy as a whole.

            As for the future of Chinatown, Mr. Eng has no doubt that Chinatown will continue to grow. Despite the climbing rents, Mr. Eng says Chinatown still remains as the number one place for newly arrived Chinese immigrants to go. This is because the other “Chinatowns” [referring to Flushing, Queens and 8th Ave, Brooklyn] have even higher rents than Chinatown. In Chinatown, the new immigrants have access to assistance from the various local organizations like CCBA and CPC. And just as before, these groups will continue to aid the recent immigrants in their transitions and adjustments to the American way of life.