Chinatown, Manhattan (History)

neighborhoods_manhattan_china_town_300x300Chinatown, Manhattan (simplified Chinese: 纽约华埠; traditional Chinese: 紐約華埠; pinyin: Niŭyuē Huá Bù) is a neighborhood in Manhattan that is home to the largest enclave of Chinese people in the Western Hemisphere Its location is in the borough of Manhattan in New York City, United States, bordering Lower East Side to its east, Little Italy to its north, Civic Center to its south, and Tribeca to its west.

With an estimated population of 90,000 to 100,000 people, Manhattan’s Chinatown is also one of the oldest ethnic Chineseenclaves outside of Asia. Historically it was primarily populated by Cantonese speakers. However during the late 20th century of 1980s-90s, large numbers of Chinese Mindong-speaking immigrants also arrived and played a significant role of the increased importance of learning and speaking the official Chinese language, Mandarin, in the community since many of Mingdong speakers also often speak Mandarin and many Cantonese speakers are now using Mandarin for necessary communication circumstances. It is one of nine Chinatown neighborhoods in New York City and twelve in the New York City Metropolitan Area, which contains the largest ethnic Chinese population outside of Asia, enumerating an estimated 779,269 individuals as of 2013; the remaining Chinatowns are located in the boroughs of Queens (up to four, depending upon definition) and Brooklyn (three) and in Nassau County, all on Long Island in New York State; as well as in Edison andParsippany-Troy Hills in New Jersey. In addition, Manhattan’s Little Fuzhou (小福州, 紐約華埠), an enclave populated primarily by more recent Chinese immigrants from the Fujian Province of China, is technically considered a part of Manhattan’s Chinatown, albeit now developing a separate identity of its own.

A new and rapidly growing Chinese community is now forming in East Harlem (東哈萊姆), Uptown Manhattan, nearly tripling in population between the years 2000 and 2010, according to U.S. Census figures. This neighborhood has been described as the precursor to a new satellite Chinatown within Manhattan itself,which upon acknowledged formation would represent the second Chinatown neighborhood in Manhattan, the ninth Chinatown in New York City, and the twelfth within the overall New York City metropolitan region.

As the city proper with the nation’s largest Chinese American population by a wide margin, with an estimated 557,862 individuals in 2013, and as the primary destination for new Chinese immigrants, New York City is subdivided into official municipal boroughs, which themselves are home to significant Chinese populations, with Brooklyn and Queens leading the fastest growth.



Ah Ken and early Chinese immigration

Ah Ken is claimed to have arrived in the area during the 1840s; he is the first Chinese person credited as having permanently immigrated to Chinatown. As a Cantonese businessman, Ah Ken eventually founded a successful cigar store on Park Row. He first arrived around 1858 in New York City, where he was “probably one of those Chinese mentioned in gossip of the sixties [1860s] as peddling ‘awful’ cigars at three cents apiece from little stands along the City Hall park fence – offering a paper spill and a tiny oil lamp as a lighter”, according to author Alvin Harlow in Old Bowery Days: The Chronicles of a Famous Street (1931).

Later immigrants would similarly find work as “cigar men” or carrying billboards, and Ah Ken’s particular success encouraged cigar makers William Longford, John Occoo, and John Ava to also ply their trade in Chinatown, eventually forming a monopoly on the cigar trade. It has been speculated that it may have been Ah Ken who kept a small boarding house on lower Mott Street and rented out bunks to the first Chinese immigrants to arrive in Chinatown. It was with the profits he earned as a landlord, earning an average of $100 a month, that he was able to open his Park Row smoke shop around which modern-day Chinatown would grow.

Chinese exclusion period

Faced with increasing racial discrimination and new laws which prevented participation in many occupations on the West Coast, some Chinese immigrants moved to the East Coastcities in search of employment. Early businesses in these cities included hand laundries and restaurants. Chinatown started on Mott, Park (now Mosco), Pell, and Doyers Streets, east of the notorious Five Points district. By 1870, there was a Chinese population of 200. By the time the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was passed, the population was up to 2,000 residents. In 1900, the US Census reported 7,028 Chinese males in residence, but only 142 Chinese women. This significant gender inequality remained present until the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943.

The early days of Chinatown were dominated by Chinese “tongs” (now sometimes rendered neutrally as “associations”), which were a mixture of clan associations, landsman’s associations, political alliances (Kuomintang (Nationalists) vs Communist Party of China), and more secretly, crime syndicates. The associations started to give protection from harassment due to anti-Chinese sentiment. Each of these associations was aligned with a street gang. The associations were a source of assistance to new immigrants, giving out loans, aiding in starting businesses, and so forth.

Wenfei Wang, Shangyi Zhou, and C. Cindy Fan, authors of “Growth and Decline of Muslim Hui Enclaves in Beijing”, wrote that because of the immigration restrictions, until 1965 the New York Chinatown continued to be “virtually a bachelor society”.

The associations formed a governing body named the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (中華公所). Though this body was meant to foster relations between the Tongs, open warfare periodically flared between the On Leong (安良) and Hip Sing (協勝) tongs. Much of the Chinese gang warfare took place on Doyers street. Gangs like the Ghost Shadows (鬼影) andFlying Dragons (飛龍) were prevalent until the 1990s. The Chinese gangs controlled certain territories of Manhattan’s Chinatown. The On Leong (安良) and its affiliate Ghost Shadows (鬼影) were of Cantonese and Toishan descent, and controlled Mott, Bayard, Canal, and Mulberry Streets. TheFlying Dragons (飛龍) and its affiliate Hip Sing (協勝) also of Cantonese and Toishan descent controlled Doyers, Pell, Bowery, Grand, and Hester Streets. Other Chinese gangs also existed, like the Hung Ching and Chih Kung gangs of Cantonese and Toishan descent, which were affiliated with each other and also gained control of Mott Street. Born-to-Killalso known as Canal Boys, of Vietnamese and Chinese descent had control over Broadway, Canal, Baxter, Centre, and Lafeyette Streets. Fujianese gangs also existed, such as the Tung On gang, which affiliated with Tsung Tsin, and had control over East Broadway, Catherine and Division Streets and the Fuk Ching gang affiliated with Fukien American controlled East Broadway, Chrystie, Forsyth, Eldridge, and Allen Streets. At one point, a gang named the Freemasons gang, which were of Cantonese descent, had attempted to claim East Broadway as their territory.

Columbus Park, the only park in Chinatown, was built on what was once the center of the infamous Five Points neighborhood of New York. During the 19th century, this was the most dangerous ghetto area of immigrant New York (as portrayed in the book and film Gangs of New York).

Post-immigration reform

In the years after the United States enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, allowing many more immigrants from Asia into the country, the population of Chinatown increased dramatically. Geographically, much of the growth was to neighborhoods to the north. The Chinatown grew and became more oriented on families due to the lifting of restrictions. In the earliest years of the existence of Manhattan’s Chinatown, it had been primarily populated by Taishanese-speaking Chinese immigrants and the borderlines of the enclave was originally Canal Street to the north, Bowery to the east, Worth Street to the south, and Mulberry Street to the west.

Immigration reform in 1965 opened the door to a huge influx of Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong and Guangdong province in Mainland China, and Standard Cantonese became the dominant tongue. With the influx of Hong Kong immigrants, it was developing and growing into a Hong Kongese neighborhood, however the growth slowed down later on during the 1980s-90s.

Development stages

Through the 1970s-80s, the influx of Guangdong and Hong Kong immigrants began to develop newer portions of Manhattan’s Chinatown going north of Canal Street and then later the east of the Bowery. However until the 1980s, the western section was the most primarily fully Chinese developed and populated part of Chinatown and the most quickly flourishing busy central Chinese business district with still a little bit of remaining Italians in the very north west portion around Grand Street and Broome Street, which eventually all moved away and became all Chinese by the 1990s.

Until the 1980s, the eastern portion of Chinatown east of the Bowery, which is considered part of the Lower East Side was developing more slowly as being part of Chinatown, the proportion and concentration of Chinese residents was lower and more scattered than the western section, and there was still a higher proportion of Non-Chinese residents than Chinatown’s western section consisting of Jewish, Puerto Ricans, and a few Italians and African Americans.

During the 1970s and 1980s, the eastern portion of Chinatown east of the Bowery was a very quiet section, and like in all of the rest of the Lower East Side, many people and especially many Chinese people were afraid to walk through or even reside on the streets east of the Bowery due to deteriorating building conditions and high crime rates such as gang activities, robberies, building burglaries, and rape as well as fear of racial tensions with other ethnic people that were still residing there. In addition, there were fewer businesses and there were significant amount of vacant properties not occupied. Chinese female garment workers were especially targets of robbery and rape a lot on their way home from work and often left work together as a group to protect each other as they were heading home. In May 1985, a gang-related shooting injured seven people, including a 4-year-old boy, at 30 East Broadway in Chinatown. Two males, who were 15 and 16 years old and were members of a Chinese street gang, were arrested and convicted.

Starting in the 1970s and especially throughout the 1980s-90s, Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese immigrants and then later on many other Non-Cantonese Chinese immigrants also were arriving into New York City. However, due to the traditional dominance of Cantonese-speaking residents, which were largely working class in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the neighborhood’s poor housing conditions, they were unable to relate to Manhattan’s Chinatown and mainly settled in Flushing and created a more middle class Mandarin-Speaking Chinatown or Mandarin Town (國語埠) and even smaller one in Elmhurst, since most of the newer upcoming generations of ethnic Chinese were already using Mandarin although still their regional dialects in everyday conversations, whereas Cantonese speaking populations largely don’t speak Mandarin or only speak it with other Non-Cantonese Chinese speakers. As a result, Manhattan’s Chinatown and Brooklyn’s emerging Chinatown were able to continue retaining its traditional almost exclusive Cantonese society and were nearly successful at permanently keeping its Cantonese dominance.

However, there was already a small and slow growing Fuzhou immigrant population in Manhattan’s Chinatown since the 1970s-80s in the eastern section of Chinatown east of the Bowery, which was still underdeveloped as being part of Chinatown.

Migration to Brooklyn Chinatown

Now the increasing Fuzhou influx has shifted into the Brooklyn Chinatown in the Sunset Park section of the Brooklyn borough of New York City. This shift is replacing the Cantonese population throughout Brooklyn’s Sunset Park Chinatown significantly more rapidly than in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Brooklyn’s Sunset Park Chinatown is becoming the new Little Fuzhou in NYC, or figuratively, Brooklyn’s East Broadway (布鲁克林区的東百老匯).

During the late 1980s and 1990s, most of the new Fuzhou immigrants arriving into New York City were settling in Manhattan’s Chinatown and later formed the first Fuzhou community in the city amongst the waves of Cantonese who had settled in Chinatown over decades; but by the 2000s, the Fuzhou population growth had slowed within Manhattan’s Chinatown and began to accelerate in Brooklyn’s Chinatown instead.

Gentrification in Manhattan’s Chinatown has slowed the growth of Fuzhou immigration as well as the growth of Chinese immigrants to Manhattan in general,which is why New York City’s rapidly growing Chinese population has now shifted primarily to the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn.

Some Chinese landlords, especially the many real estate agencies in Manhattan’s Chinatown mainly of Cantonese descent, have been accused of prejudice against the Fuzhou immigrants, supposedly making Fuzhou immigrants feel unwelcome with concerns that they will not be able to pay rent secondary to debt to gangs that may have helped smuggled them in illegally into the United States and out of fear that gangs will come up to the apartments to cause trouble.

There is also supposedly concern that Fujianese are more likely to make the apartments too overcrowded by subdividing an apartment into multiple very tiny spaces to rent to other Fuzhou immigrants. East Broadway, Manhattan’s center of Fuzhou culture, has perhaps the most blatant results of illegal apartment subdivisions including having many bunk beds in just one small room. As a result of fear of being evicted by Cantonese landlords, many Fuzhou immigrants resort to renting a tiny space from Fujianese landlords inside apartments already occupied by Fuzhou immigrants.

With the rapid growth of Fuzhou homeownership in Brooklyn’s Chinatown, and like many other Chinese immigrants and other ethnic immigrants who have become successful homeowners, the Fuzhou homeowners subdivide the houses into multiple apartments to rent out to tenants. This has created opportunities for the newly arriving Fuzhou immigrants to NYC to seek landlords of Fuzhou descent in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. Here they are able to rent an apartment at a lower price and in better conditions than ones in Manhattan’s Chinatown with fewer barriers imposed on them, however there are Fuzhou landlords that can sometimes still discriminate Fuzhou tenants by imposing high rent prices. Brooklyn’s Chinatown is now the new nexus for new arriving Fuzhou immigrants to settle in NYC and many of them in Brooklyn’s Chinatown have also illegally subdivided their apartments into tiny rooms to rent to other Fuzhou immigrants.

Although Mandarin is spoken as a native language among only ten percent of Chinese speakers in Manhattan’s Chinatown, it is used as a secondary dialect among the greatest number of them. Although Min Chinese, especially the Fuzhou dialect, is spoken natively by a third of the Chinese population in the city, it is not used as a lingua franca because speakers of other dialect groups do not learn Min.

Decline and gentrification

In the 1990s, Chinese people began to move into some parts of the western Lower East Side, which 50 years earlier was populated by Eastern European Jews and 20 years earlier was occupied by Hispanics.

By 2007, luxury condominiums began to spread from SoHo into Chinatown. Previously Chinatown was noted for its crowded tenements and primarily Chinese residents. While some projects have targeted the Chinese community, the development of luxury housing has increased Chinatown’s economic and cultural diversity.

Currently, the rising prices of Manhattan real estate and high rents are also affecting Chinatown. Many new and poorer Chinese immigrants cannot afford their rents; as a result, most of the growth in new Chinese immigration has shifted to other Chinatowns in New York City, including the Flushing Chinatown (法拉盛華埠) and Elmhurst Chinatown (艾浒 唐人街) in Queens, the Brooklyn Chinatown (布鲁克林華埠) and its satellite Chinatowns in Brooklyn on Avenue U (唐人街, U大道) and in Bensonhurst (唐人街,本生浒), as well as toEast Harlem (東哈萊姆) in Upper Manhattan. Many apartments, particularly in the Lower East Side and Little Italy, which used to be affordable to new Chinese immigrants, are being renovated and then sold or rented at much higher prices. Building owners, many of them established Chinese-Americans, often find it in their best interest to terminate leases of lower-income residents with stabilized rents as property values rise.

By 2009 many newer Chinese immigrants settled along East Broadway instead of the historic core west of Bowery. In addition Mandarin began to eclipse Cantonese as the predominant Chinese dialect in New York’s Chinatown during the period. The New York Times says that the Flushing Chinatown now rivals Manhattan’s Chinatown in terms of being a cultural center for Chinese-speaking New Yorkers’ politics and trade.