It was late in the morning. I was waiting for my mother’s friend in the bustling cosmopolitan center of New York, Manhattan. But tucked in Chinatown, the people moved slowly. The buildings were old and worn. The place seemed old and exhausted. Manhattan’s Chinatown is fading.
My mother’s friend was running late, so I entered the nearest cafe to kill some time. I ordered a coffee and sat down.
On the right, were four long aged tables. Elderly Chinese cooped together in their puffy, desaturated winter coats that engulfed the tiny stools they sat on. To the left are glass displays overstuffed with of baked goods. In the back, was an open kitchen framed by no less than ten pages of menu options. The window in front of me framed a spread of vintage red green and yellow neon signs stacked upon each other.
There was an odd familiarity of all this. It was the China from my parent’s favorite 1960s and 70s Hong Kong gangster films captured on VHS that we frequently watched on our dim living room television set.
Chinatown reflected how Chinese immigrants remembered and created the home they wish they had for more than 100 years. It was built and maintained by generations of young outcasts from a long period of social crises in China—the fall of the last emperor, a failed revolution, a World War sandwiched between two civil wars, and hyper-socialist policies—who creatively squeezed through American immigration restrictions.
When they arrived in the U.S., these early Chinese immigrants defaulted to starting their own business. Working for others was difficult due to their poor English and discriminatory wages enforced upon them. The Chinatown community grew as older generations passing on their expertise maneuvering through America’s sticky anti-immigration policies.
However by 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act, significantly increased the immigration quota for Chinese. A surge of new Chinese immigrants began to flood the U.S: the professionally trained entrepreneurs and the well-off looking for a better living standards.
According to the 2013 immigration report by the Population Division of the New York City Department of City Planning, the average annual income of new Chinese immigrants is $42,766, that’s well above the middle class in China. They’re well educated, 47 percent hold a bachelor’s degree, and emigrate into the states in their late 40’s with secure occupations.
Across from to me in the cafe, the neighborhood ladies gossiping about the city pulled out latest copy of the local Chinese newspaper. The headline read “Chinese Restaurant Owner Robbed.”
I began to eavesdrop as one of the ladies spoke, “Did you hear that the old restaurant got robbed earlier? People think we have money here, but the rent just so high. How do they expect us to live here?”
According to a 2008 report by the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, an Asian American advocacy group, increasing has forced the business owners in Chinatown are forced to abandon their community. The owners of these fading establishments are aging with their business as the younger generations are unwilling to upkeep the change. As the old establishments sell out, this district of Manhattan has been increasing development and building permits. New luxury apartments and tourist hotels have replaced old staple stores.
Eventually my mother’s friend arrived and praised my choice in cafe. Normally youngsters choose cafes that charge triple the price for the polished, glossy, ambiance.
I asked her about the conditions of this Chinatown. She told me it was better this way. Her daughters have a stable job. She discouraged her kids from following her footsteps, running a restaurant. Even she lost hope in Chinatown. She now picks up jobs in hospitality services. They recently moved into house to call their own in Brooklyn. She tells me leaving behind this excluded place is a sign that things are getting better for the Chinese.
Perhaps, this Chinatown community that grew out of survival is no longer necessary. Perhaps, a few decades from now Manhattan’s Chinatown will only be a myth, a story of an engine that could once help a family jump to the highest socioeconomic class within one generation for the past 100 years.