A Journey Through Chinatown

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Immigrants Both Renew and Unsettle Chinatown

June 9, 1993. New York Times

The elderly man, influential and well known in Chinatown, stood in the front room of his office on Mott Street and hovered between the desire for full disclosure and the need for discretion.

He talked about illegal immigrants, like the ones who came ashore in Queens on Sunday morning. He worried that they faced years of misery and hardship here, that they would contribute to a loss of control in the community, a lessening of the influence of the old guard. Some of them, he said, would inevitably be tempted by gang membership, already a growing problem in Chinatown.

It was his mention of gangs that made him not want to talk anymore.

"People are scared," he said.

"Who knows who's behind this, what kind of international gang?" he continued, alluding to the smugglers of the latest illegal immigrants from Fujian Province who are now in the custody of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "I get my name in the newspaper. Is the Government going to protect me? Tomorrow I'm not here. For what?" A Web of Emotions

The mood in Chinatown after a ship carrying nearly 300 illegal immigrants went aground off Queens on Sunday was mixed and complicated, just as Chinatown itself has become in the last several years.

Unease was easy to detect. There was sorrow too, especially for the six people who died trying to swim ashore from the grounded freighter. They were, after all, only trying to do what many thousands who now live in Chinatown have done before them -- start a new life in America.

Above all, perhaps, there was a tip-of-the-iceberg feeling, a pervasive belief that the spectacularly failed arrival of nearly 300 illegal immigrants on Sunday was only a small part of a broader pattern. It was a reflection of the fact that this colorful part of New York has been going through rapid and sometimes unsettling change.

"The history of Chinatown in less than 25 words?" said David S. Chen, the executive director of the Chinatown Planning Council, a state-financed agency that provides social services to many new immigrants. "Growth, complexity, more complexity and diversity." On the Surface

To the average outsider who comes for the occasional meal, Chinatown has an entirely deceptive simplicity as the place of Chinese culture in New York, the home to thousands of little shops with exotic signs and restaurants. Chinatown is the place of storefront Buddhist Temples, martial arts parlors and dozens of associations -- often grouped by surnames like the Li Family Association and the Eng Family Association -- that typify the extended welfare systems of traditional Chinese life.

But beneath the surface, Chinatown is, and always has been, a place in constant flux. More than anything else, Chinatown has long been a kind of transit center, the place where Chinese immigrants -- especially those with little money, no English and not much formal education -- come first, before making some money and moving away, to be replaced by new arrivals.

"Nobody wants to stay in Chinatown," said Simon Wong, a reporter for The United Daily News, a Chinese language daily. "But even though people leave, Chinatown continues to expand because the numbers of new immigrants, both legal and not, are so high."

Before American immigration laws were changed in 1965, total immigration may have been a hundred or so people a year. Now, China and Taiwan each have quotas of 20,000 legal immigrants a year. Hong Kong is allowed to send 5,000. Many of these immigrants come first to New York with a result that the overall Chinese population in New York, perhaps 70,000 or so in the mid-1960's, has soared to more than 500,000 today. And that is just legal immigration. "The numbers are astonishing," said Mr. Chen of the Planning Council. Emerging Chinatowns

Given that growth, it is not surprising that several Chinatowns have emerged in lower Manhattan and several others in Queens and Brooklyn.

One of the several Chinatowns is the older, more established place, the original Chinatown of before World War II, which was largely settled by people from a single Chinese county, Tay Shan, in southern Guangdong Province. This is the Chinatown west of the Bowery and south of Canal Street, relatively posh and glittery, the tourist attraction and gourmet center, where venerable institutions like the Chinese Benevolent Association, an umbrella group for some 70 social services agencies and family associations, still wield influence.

"Of course we feel sorry for the ones who died," said Victor Loui, the secretary of the association, speaking of the events over the weekend. But, Mr. Loui allowed, there were some feelings of resentment mingling with the sorrow among the older Chinatown residents. The new arrivals, he said, are reputed to work for such low wages that they drive down the wages of others.

"And then, they have to pay off big debts," Mr. Loui said. "And when the smugglers who brought them here want their money, some of them are forced into something illegal, women as prostitutes for example. Some of the men maybe will be forced to rob or whatever. Because if they don't get enough money to pay the smugglers, they can be beaten or even killed."

Another Chinatown is farther to the east, a spill-over Chinatown on the other side of the Bowery, a bit rougher, more unkempt, more Wild West than the older quarter of Mott Street. Places for New Arrivals

There in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge are a few dingy storefronts with names like Hong Kong Employment Agency and Asia Employment Agency, which everybody in Chinatown knows as the gathering places for new arrivals.

Every day, the men stand three or four deep in airless rooms beneath strips of fluorescent light bulbs trying to push to the counter where female agents have job openings at $3 an hour in the back rooms of restaurants and in garment factories.

It is widely believed in Chinatown that Fujian, a coastal province across a narrow strait from Taiwan, is probably the source of more Chinese immigrants, especially illegal ones, than any other region. Nobody seems to know how many there are in New York, or how many came legally, but among other residents of Chinatown the Fujianese have a reputation.

"They are very tough and they work very hard," said Mr. Wong of The United Daily News. What he did not say, but what is commonly believed is that there are whole new networks of Fujianese associations that operate parallel to the older Cantonese establishment of Chinatown. The Fujianese are also seen as the most likely recruits for underground groups.

The Fujianese are in a sense at the bottom of the complicated social and economic ladder of Chinatown. At the top are earlier immigrants who have made fortunes or who are highly educated professionals who came to the United States from Taiwan and Hong Kong to earn degrees from Harvard and Yale and who do not so much live in Chinatown as visit the district for the marriage of a daughter or to shop or to see their lawyers.

"There are the ones who come by plane," said Mr. Chen of the Chinatown Planning Council, "and those who wade ashore." No Single Pattern

There is no single pattern, no easy generalization about the lives they lead after they come to this country, Mr. Wong said. A number of them, unable to pay their debts, end up in the criminal underground. Some end up murdered. More commonly, they work very hard for several years, living several to a room, spending very little money, saving what they can, until they can start a small business of their own, sometimes in Chinatown, often in the suburbs or out of state.

Directly beneath the Manhattan Bridge on East Broadway is the Rong Cheng (Glorious City) Flower Shop, whose owner is said to represent a success story among recent immigrants from Fujian, supplying bouquets for wedding parties and other celebrations. One assistant inside the tiny, narrow shop, gave his name simply as Lin and said he regretted coming to the United States, which he did about one year ago from Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian Province.

"Life is hard here," he said, speaking in Mandarin Chinese. "America is not a good place."

But a visitor to the shop, who gave his name as Tony, seemed to be a success story. Tony, who was dressed in Banana Republic khaki, said he came from Fujian 10 years ago and at first worked in a garment factory. Now he has interests in a restaurant and a factory.

"I'm happy," he said. "I got a business. I made some money."


Copyright 1993 The New York Times Company

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