ONLY 50 YEARS AGO, Chinatown was what “Charlie” Chin of the New York Chinatown History Project calls “an outpost of working men” on lower Mott, Pell, and Doyer streets, and 25 years ago it had not yet crossed Catherine or Canal streets. Now the community has 10 newspapers, 25 bank branches, and a population of roughly 100,000 — half of whom have arrived in the last five years.
It now reaches north to Grand Street, west to the Holland Tunnel, north and east through much of the old Jewish quarter, and south to City Hall. Little Italy has been compacted into one block on Mulberry, where a city ordinance protects the Italian “look” for the benefit of tourists.
In addition, a rival Chinatown has blossomed at the end of the No. 7 line in Flushing, spilling over into Bayside, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights (aggregate population, 110,000). Another satellite community has sprouted up almost overnight in Brooklyn’s Sunset and Borough Parks, which now have a Chinese population of roughly 50,000.
While the pre-’97 Hong Kong exodus has recently added momentum to this rapid expansion, the initial impetus came from a change in U.S. immigration policy. In fact, it is the double valve of U.S. immigration and Chinese emigration policies that continues to determine and regulate the growth pattern of New York’s Chinese community.
The Immigration Act of 1965, more than any other event, set in motion the dynamic transformation of Chinatown. Blatantly discriminatory immigration quotas that had straitjacketed the community since the 1880s were lifted, and China’s visa allocation jumped at once from 105 per year to 20,000 (on par with all other non-European nations). Hong Kong, as a dependent colony, was allotted 600 at first, but the number has gradually increased, and now stands at 5000. (Eligibility is by country of birth, rather than current residence or citizenship.)
New York City’s Chinese population jumped from roughly 33,000 in 1960 to nearly 70,000 by the end of the decade, according to U.S. census reports (invariably an undercount because of the language barrier and the natural reluctance of legally shaky immigrants to come forward).
Even more striking than the sudden population increase was the arrival of large numbers of women. The male-female ratio, nearly two to one in 1960, approached parity by the end of the decade.
The U.S.’s family-based immigration policy — which gives preference to the relatives of those who already have American citizenship — may have ended the gender imbalance among Chinese Americans, but it did nothing about long-standing regional imbalances. Because the old China trade operated off the country’s southern coast, the majority of early Chinese immigrants were Cantonese — and Toyshan — speaking laborers from the south. Admission based on family ties meant that the bulk of the newcomers were also working-class southerners. Without English or professional skills, they gravitated toward Chinatown, where they were funneled into the restaurant and garment industries — and often exploited by their Chinese bosses.
In 1979, the U.S. government officially recognized the People’s Republic of China, which made an additional 20,000 visas available to Chinese people. The mainland government, as part of Deng Xiaoping’s modernization drive, has encouraged thousands of Chinese students and professionals to seek further training in the States. These changes, coupled with a loosening of Taiwan’s borders in 1976, opened the floodgates to a large number of Mandarin speakers — the northern Chinese and their relatives, who have controlled Taiwan since ’49.
These northerners are generally more educated than the southern Chinese and Hong Kongers who arrived during the previous era — and less likely to get sucked into the Chinatown economy.
By the late 1970s, the Chinatown housing market had become so tight that many of these newcomers — often with different class and lingual backgrounds — settled in Queens. The Flushing satellite is distinct in character from Chinatown both because it is more middle-class and because the language on the streets is Mandarin.
Sunset Park in Brooklyn, in contrast, is a Cantonese-speaking community, despite the fact that roughly 65 per cent of its population comes from the mainland, according to Paul Mak of the local Council of Neighborhood Organizations. The community has developed only in the last four years, since the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration laid the plans for Beijing to assume control of Hong Kong in 1997. Residents are culturally and economically more connected to Chinatown, to which they have easy access via the B and N trains. For instance, most residents do their banking in Chinatown, says Mak, since there are still no banks on Eighth Avenue, Sunset Park’s main drag.
As the Chinese community in New York and around the nation comes of age, it is beginning to test its political clout. Many community interest groups see the Kennedy-Simpson immigration bill, which has just passed the Senate and will be considered in the House this fall, as a backlash aimed at containing their political power.
A staffer at Wyoming senator Alan Simpson’s office explains that the purpose of the bill is to “increase the number and proportion of immigrants with skills — by increasing the overall number of visas” and “to give more [of a] chance to other countries,” since, currently, 85 per cent of all immigrants come from Asia or Latin America.
But Stan Mark, a lawyer at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, calls the bill “racially discriminatory… even exclusionary.” Mark says that while the bill is “being promoted as an increase in numbers,” an examination of the fine print reveals that “the number of family preference visas available will actually decrease each year.” ■
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 29, 2020