As you walk toward 8th Avenue in Sunset Park, you quickly begin to experience the sights, smells, and sounds associated with many Chinese ethnic areas. First, you’re hit with the smell of food wafting through your nose. It’s not the smell of some distinguishable food but of many all mixed together, and yet it’s a smell that screams of a Chinese population. Next you hear the noise, the noise of hundreds of people talking–and possibly shouting over one another–all at once. There are the sounds of the elderly speaking, of the workers standing on the sidewalks handing out flyers, and the sounds of children laughing and running around. And all around, everywhere you look, are small businesses, with no shortage of bakeries and places to eat. There are grocery stores with fruits and vegetables flowing into the sidewalks. There are stores selling ingredients for herbal medicine. There are clothing stores, stationary stores, trinket stores, home goods stores, and more. There are food carts advertising a wide range of foods, from noodles to dumplings to the (in)famous stinky tofu. But as one walks toward the 8th Avenue subway station near the top of the main shopping street area, the noise and frenzy clear a little, and one can see the World Journal Bookstore, with its red awning and cluttered store-front window.

Photo Credit: Sandra Kumwong

Fairchild Aerial Surveys, Inc. and Frederic R. Harris, Inc. – “NY-201-2. Aerial View of Terminal, looking north.” Library of Congress, Prints and Photograph Division, Historic American Engineering Record: HAER NY,24-BROK,54–2

If you had been walking down 8th Avenue a few decades ago, you would have seen something completely different; you likely wouldn’t have been able to imagine that one day, it would become Brooklyn’s Chinatown. In the 40s and 50s, 8th Avenue Sunset Park was filled with Norwegian immigrants. It was known then as Lapskaus Boulevard, named after a Norwegian dish. But by the 60s, there were almost no new immigrants from Norway, though the area was still predominantly white. Over the next few years, the area fell into decline. The Brooklyn waterfront, which had been the main source of income for the Norwegians and other Scandinavian immigrants, closed, sending the local economy into a rapid downward spiral. “Real estate values plummeted and the crime rate crept alarmingly higher each year” (Brooklyn Chinese-American Association). Most residents moved to the suburbs, leaving storefronts vacant.

It was only in the 80s that the first Chinese business, a supermarket, opened on the avenue, serving both the white population that still remained and the Chinese immigrants living in Brooklyn and Manhattan. It ended up being a good location, as 8th Avenue is conveniently located by the N train, which goes straight to Manhattan’s Chinatown. Additionally, many Chinese saw it as a sign of good fortune since 8 is the lucky number for the Chinese. Soon, other businesses began springing up on lucky 8th Avenue. There were lots of empty spaces, and property was still relatively cheap. And soon, the Chinese were flooding the neighborhood. Many moved from Manhattan’s Chinatown, where rents were rapidly increasing, to Brooklyn’s new Chinatown in Sunset Park. Between 1980 and 2000, the Chinese population in the area boomed, many foreign born, and the number of white people slowly diminished, with few Norwegian businesses holding on, many needing to adapt and add a Chinese fusion. This trend has continued into recent years; the Chinese population was still growing in 2010, although there were fewer foreign born. The change has left the Norwegians feeling extremely out of place. A Norwegian woman noted that she was sad because she feels “out of place, like strangers” (In Brooklyn, Wontons, Not Lapskaus) in a neighborhood that once felt like home. Where there were once “two or three Norwegian bars and bakeries on each block[, now] there are two or three Chinese restaurants on a block” (In Brooklyn).

Where there were once two or three Norwegian bars and bakeries on each block, now there are two or three Chinese restaurants on a block Edith Reinertsen (In Brooklyn, Wontons, Not Lapskaus)

But what outsiders and data do not generally show is that within this greater shift, there has been another shift in the population in more recent years. The original Chinese immigrants were almost entirely Cantonese, with most immigrants coming from the Guangdong province in China. This makes sense when one realizes that most of the Chinese in Manhattan’s Chinatown are Cantonese. However, when you talk through 8th Avenue now, you can hear a larger variety of dialects, and you’ll find that most store employees speak Mandarin and/or Fujianese. This shows the recent shift from Guangdong immigrants to Fujianese immigrants.

In stores such as World Journal Bookstore, employees typically speak Mandarin, Fujianese, at least some Cantonese, and possibly other local dialects too. Sunny, an employee, moved into the area from Fujian, China just two and a half years ago. She echoed our demographic research, noting how “the first people who came here  were from Guangzhou, but later…many years later, Fuzhou people [started coming]”. Brooklyn’s Chinatown is now less of an extension of Manhattan’s Chinatown and perhaps more of an extension of Little Fuzhou. It’s hard to pinpoint a concrete reason for this shift, especially since much of the collected data doesn’t differentiate between different Chinese populations/groups, but it’s possible that once a few Fujianese people moved in, those with connections to them started moving in and have continued to draw in more relatives and friends. Whatever the reason, the change isn’t difficult to observe.

Photo Credit: Sandra Kumwong

Thankfully, and unlike in some other demographically shifting areas, the change hasn’t really led to any big problems in the community, largely because, Sunny said, “everyone just pays the money” they’re supposed to. Regardless of where they come from, they realize that they are all in the struggle together. And the struggles have been increasing. Like many other areas throughout New York City, rent, both for homes and commercial, have been rising. “Normally, one store has to pay about $10,000 per month, and [for] the space for the counters, they have to pay $3,000 a month,” Sunny informed us. These numbers are far higher than they were in the past when immigrants first started moving in, and as they continue to rise, businesses are finding it harder and harder to make rent and compete. For bookstores like WJ Bookstore, there have been a few semi-recent causes for struggle. WJ Bookstore has been in New York for about two decades now. The first store was opened in Queens and then expanded to multiple branches throughout the city, but now, they are beginning to close one by one. One major issue they now have to deal with is the internet. As more and more people choose to buy online and can obtain/buy books in foreign languages much more easily, physical bookstores like WJ have had to close. In the past, “there were so many bookstores in New York, but there are [much fewer now]” (Sunny). Adding to this is another issue more specific to this branch, which is recent construction on the subway which many take into 8th Avenue. Due to the construction, several stops, including the 8th Avenue stops, are closed. This has caused a strain on businesses, especially ones like WJ Bookstore, which relies on people who may not necessarily live in the immediate area. Business has thus been slowing down. Yet, despite the struggles, the 8th Avenue branch still stands, fighting to make the rent but refusing to leave.

Normally, one store has to pay about $10,000 per month, and for the space for the counters, they have to pay $3,000 a month Sunny at World Journal Bookstore

The book store continues to cater to the needs and wants of community members, and the store is lucky that these needs and wants haven’t changed much. Sunny told us that most of the books that they sell haven’t changed in recent years, but parents are increasingly “looking for student exercise books or New York State test books,” while the “old look for some books for cooking and for health.” The store also sells little Chinese trinkets, educational material, stationary, etc, and the flow of customers isn’t completely lacking. The staff is helpful to the Chinese customers who come in, no matter where they or their parents (and maybe grandparents) came from in China.

Photo credit: Sandra Kumwong

It’s hard to say what will come of small businesses such as World Journal Bookstore in the overall context of NYC and also what will happen in the area in general as rents continue to rise and the fight gets tougher. For now, these stores mostly focus on catering to the needs of the Chinese/Fujianese population, since they’re mostly the ones shopping for the goods. But while the population of the 8th Avenue areas continue to grow, the growth has slowed down in more recent years, with the most significant change being the decrease in new immigrants arriving in Brooklyn. It will be interesting to see how these changes will continue to impact both the community as a whole and the book store in general, and it will similarly be interesting to see the fate of small but specialized bookstores in the future. Will time bring in the next big wave of immigrants, rendering the current population out of place, or will they be able to adapt and continue the fight together, whether Cantonese, Fujianese, other Chinese, immigrant, second generation, etc. Because at the end of the day, the personal struggles of one family and one business can show us a lot about the issues and triumphs of the entire community.


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Congress, Prints and Photograph Division, Historic American Engineering Record: HAER NY,24-BROK,54–2

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Yarrow, Andrew L. “In Brooklyn, Wontons, Not Lapskaus.” New York Times 17 Mar. 1991: n. pag. Print.

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