From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES

Chinatown ’89: Rubbing Two Neighborhoods Together

A T-SHIRT ON SALE in Hong Kong captures the colony’s apprehen­sion about China as the day of its 1997 takeover approaches. It shows Chinese atop the Great Wall asking for more tourists; below them a dragon chews on hu­man bones above the caption: “The ones that came earlier were deli­cious.”

Nervous Hong Kong developers are funneling a lot of their capital to the low-­income neighborhoods of New York City’s Lower East Side. The resulting gentrification has upset Hispanics in the area who scapegoat poor Chinese immi­grants for the doings of rich Hong Kong developers.

The money pouring in from Hong Kong — roughly $400 million so far in Manhattan alone — has been spent on real estate. As a Chinatown realtor says, “The Chinese would rather own bricks than money.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721095″ /]

Most of the Hong Kong capital comes from pools of cash jointly held by as many as 20 investors. In contrast, the Japanese investment in U.S. real estate­ — which is expected to reach at least $43 billion by 1990 — comes largely from ma­jor corporations, which prefer to invest in office towers and hotel properties in Mid­town and the downtown financial district. Hong Kong investors, on the other hand, have concentrated on loft buildings and garment factories in Chinatown, which is devouring contiguous communities like Little Italy — now trimmed to just two blocks — and a previously Jewish neigh­borhood in the Lower East Side. Real estate brokers in New York maintain that property values on the Lower East Side increase the closer they are to the heart of Chinatown.

“Tiananmen Square has had a deep effect on Hong Kong,” says Thomas Li of Grand Enterprise Corporation, a partner in a proposed $15 million Hong Kong­–backed condo project on Delancey Street. “People who wanted to stay after ’97 have changed their minds. Many people I know are pulling out 80 per cent of their investments.”

It’s too early to tell how much of the capital flight fueled by recent events in China has ended up in New York. But the pre-Beijing massacre investments were already intensifying pressure on China­town, where commercial rentals and housing are already scarce. Businessmen were on edge about the colony’s future as far back as the early ’80s. But the new money has already inflated prices and ensured increasing gentrification. Three years ago, the largest feasible real estate deal in Chinatown was worth around $18 million. Today, a $50 million project is under way. In 1986, vegetable stall own­ers in Chinatown paid more rent per square foot than the owners of Tiffany & Co. in midtown Manhattan.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721103″ /]

THE DISPLACEMENT of other ethnic groups that is accompanying Chinatown’s expansion has given birth to a racially hostile environment where Hispanics vent their anger indiscriminately at all Chinese. The low-income Chinese, who have taken the brunt of gentrification-­inspired antagonism quietly, are blamed for the intrusion of their rich counter­parts into the neighborhood.

“Other ethnic groups in the area are confusing two different groups: the immi­grant workers and the Hong Kong inves­tors,” says Mini Liu of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence. “There’s a sense among non-Asians in the commu­nity that all Asians own land and are taking over.”

Last November at Seward Park High School, a racially mixed school on Grand Street, several Chinese students were as­saulted by a group of Hispanic class­mates. “There were three, four, or five incidents in a span of a couple of weeks, ” says Jules Levine, the school’s principal. “Although there were several Hispanic boys in the area when the attacks hap­pened, only one was identified as the ag­gressive one. He was brought to the po­lice, and the problem was solved.”

While doing its desperate best to shield the incident from public and press scruti­ny, Seward Park has been working with the Seventh Precinct, members of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, church leaders, and community organiza­tions to remedy the damage.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721116″ /]

Members of the ethnic education com­mittee planned to start a racism-aware­ness program by this fall. But, according to Mini Liu, “The school’s approach has been cosmetic. The committee had to be pushed hard to talk about racism aware­ness. They’re more interested in teaching cultural diversity — different types of food, dance, that kind of thing. They haven’t included a racism-awareness pro­gram in the curriculum.”

Several committee members stress that the Lower East Side, known for its Jew­ish, Hispanic, and — more recently — Chi­nese immigrant population, has had a history of racially motivated violence.

“Incidents like Hispanic kids chasing around young Chinese immigrants are cy­clical,” says Victor Papa, an activist priest who heads the Lower East Side Catholic Area Conference. “Seventy years ago Irish kids chased Italian kids on the very same streets. It’s part of the process of immigrant assimilation.” Papa nevertheless insists that “the Lower East Side is a model neighborhood for the whole nation of how many ethnic groups can exist together in relative harmony.”

“There are underlying tensions in the Lower East Side that surface when com­petition for housing and jobs gets stiff,” says Mini Liu. “When there’s a sense that one group is getting more help than other groups, that’s when the tension comes out. People tend to lash out at the most accessible people — in this case poor Chinese — instead of at City Hall or the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. It’s a systemic problem, not an attitudinal one.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

HALF A WORLD AWAY, the Hong Kong investors who have ignited this ethnic tension are spurred on by pending negoti­ations on provisions of the Basic Law — ­the colony’s post-1997 Constitution. The 59-member Basic Law Drafting Commit­tee, composed of Chinese officials and Hong Kongers appointed by the National People’s Congress, is now working on a third draft. The provisions currently per­mit martial law and the presence of the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong. China’s vow to keep its “socialist system and socialist policies” within its own bor­ders while giving Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy” for 50 years follow­ing the takeover seems dubious. China reserves the power to interpret and amend the Basic Law— even after negoti­ations have been finalized.

Two in every five of Hong Kong’s 5.7 million residents migrated from Commu­nist China. Hong Kongers’ distaste for communism is manifested in last year’s emigration figures: an estimated 45,000 Hong Kongers left the colony, more than 11,000 of them coming to the United States. For Hong Kong developers, the U.S. is a political safe haven for cash reserves. Last November, in a little-publicized ef­fort, then deputy mayor Alair Townsend and powerful members of the Chinatown business community flew to the colony with the Hong Kong Development Trade Council to promote investment in the New York real estate market. Ken W. Chin, a real estate lawyer in Chinatown and a respected member of the communi­ty, was one of the delegates.

“We’ve had a good response,” Chin says. “There’s a $50-million project on the way for a large hotel, with office and retail space and banquet facilities. We’re aiming to complete it by 1991 or 1992.” His vision for Chinatown: “It will be part of mainstream business. Five years from now, walking down Canal Street will seem like walking down Lexington Avenue.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721195″ /]

The Mandarin Plaza, a $37 million condo project at Broadway and White Street, is another Hong Kong–financed development. The 25-story condomini­um, which is due for completion next spring, is a joint development of Thomas Lee, a general partner in the New York–­based Target Development Corporation, and William To, a Hong Kong businessman.

According to John Eng, a real estate appraiser based in Queens, Hong Kong investors have been buying up Lower East Side loft buildings on East Broad­way, Broadway, Market Street, and Divi­sion Street. He estimates that the proper­ties are worth $70 to $74 per square foot before renovations. After the buildings’ conversions — usually into condos — they sell for $250 to $275 per square foot. In Chinatown, Eng says, Hong Kong inves­tors buy loft buildings and garment fac­tory spaces for an average of $1 million and then convert them into office build­ings. Before conversion, Chinatown prop­erties sell for $70 to $100 per square foot. After conversion, these properties are worth $300 to $325 per square foot. In 1988, Eng says, 40 to 50 such properties were sold to Hong Kong businessmen. From his figures, overseas investment ac­counts for 50 per cent of New York prop­erty sales; 35 per cent is solely from Hong Kong.

With Hong Kong property values al­most equaling those of Tokyo — the high­est in the world — market prices in the U.S. seem dirt cheap.

Though San Francisco has absorbed the bulk of Hong Kong investment in the U.S. ($500 million), the city’s Proposition M, which limits office construction to 450,000 square feet a year, is fast chang­ing that. According to Landy Eng (no relation) of the California State World Trade Commission, investors are beginning to feel unwelcome because of the difficulty in obtaining building and modi­fication permits. In comparison, New York is becoming more attractive.

Even more fundamental for the Hong Kong businessman than the rate of re­turn on investment and the economic at­mosphere of a city is the continuance of cultural and familial ties. New York’s Chinatown has the largest number of Hong Kong immigrants in the U.S., fol­lowed by San Francisco. Many real estate brokers and developers are happily an­ticipating more Hong Kong dollars in New York. ■

Equality From The Archives Immigration Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Chinatown ’89: Growing by Leaps

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721095″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721103″ /]

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.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721116″ /]

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.” ■


The New Chinese Exodus: The Party’s Over but Still in Power — Get Out Now
By Dusanka Miscevic and Peter Kwong

Riding the Dragon: Chinatown’s Politics — Many Votes, No Chinese Candidates
By Yuen Ying Chan

Surviving in America: The Trials of a Chinese Immigrant Woman
By Joann Lum & Peter Kwong

Outside Looking In
By Luis H. Francia


Chinatown ’89: Outside Looking In

THE AUDIENCE LEAPS TO ITS feet, moved to wild applause. The reviews are ecstatic, and the public reveals itself to be as keenly appreciative and discern­ing as it is culturally mixed. Not once, in a society expansive enough to encourage heterogeneity, are the labels exotic and ethnic mentioned.

This is the dream, shared by all artists of color.

And this is the nightmare: The recep­tion reeks with politeness, even noblesse oblige. But what the crowd sees/hears/reads isn’t you, only a pale apparition. The crowd addresses itself to this appari­tion even as you gesture frantically. You scream. No one hears. They’ve buried you alive and they don’t even know it.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721095″ /]

PING CHONG, A CHINESE-AMERICAN theater and performance artist who grew up and still lives in Manhattan’s China­town, recognizes both the dream and the nightmare. Chong, who won an Obie in 1977 for his work Humboldt’s Current, realizes the dangers with which cultural hyphenation in an immigrant society is fraught, where an Outsider — or someone perceived to be an Outsider — becomes the harbinger of a new and unsettling order. He acknowledges “the problematic nature of being not just an Asian-American artist but an artist of color, knowing the biases of this culture.”

Chong deals with this problematic con­cern by employing material that is osten­sibly not Asian, at least not in the tradi­tional sense. His works are highly eclectic, drawing from sources as varied as film noir, vampire legends, Archie comics, cartoons, Indonesian shadow plays, and Alice in Wonderland. Yet his elliptical pieces suggest an Asian sensibil­ity, with their yin-yang interplay of light and shadow, cartoon humor, and totali­tarian menace. They suggest, above all, a continuity — darker than we would ordi­narily care to admit — between the per­ception of wake time and the time of the buried self.

Chong’s characters rarely have conver­sations; instead, they speak in codes and at cross-purposes. Their few exchanges are marked either by cheery banality or by melancholy and despair: earmarks of an impotent, and ultimately fragmented, society. There’s a loss of awe, of spirituality — a big concern of Chong’s — and the only thing that makes sense is non-sense. Chong’s latest work, Noiresque, which had an all Asian-American cast, is a per­fect example: Its main character, Alice, gets stuck in Terminal City, an Orwellian nightmare that might be New York. Or Hong Kong.

However you want to read the dilemma of the hyphenated artist, one of its essen­tial aspects is the fashioning of a sensibil­ity secure from the demands of both sides of the hyphen (whom do I write for when I write for “myself”?). Then there’s the fact that all art, as David Henry Hwang once said, is ethnic. The dominant (read white, male, upper-class) ethnicity has the power and the privilege of disassoci­ating itself from the term “ethnic,” cate­gorizing itself as “universal,” with self­-anointed guardians holding up lily-white standards for all to emulate. And so the peculiar logic of the crossover, of cultural hyphenation — where the hyphen sways like a frayed rope bridge over a roaring chasm — dictates a one-way movement, from the “particular” to the “universal.” Or, as Chong puts it, “How white do I have to be?”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721103″ /]

BORN IN CANADA and brought to New York’s Chinatown at the age of one, Chong grew up on Bayard Street, where his parents opened a restaurant. “China­town was more of a village then,” Chong, who is in his forties, recalls. His first experience of the staged arts was the Chi­nese opera, his father having been a producer/director of Chinese opera and his mother a performer. This influence is evi­dent in the ritualistic and imagistic as­pects of his work. Indeed, Nosferatu opens with two angels in stylized combat reminiscent of martial arts, and the musi­cal punctuation includes cymbals, used much as they are in Chinese opera.

Chong believes it’s extremely difficult to expand in a ghetto. “The Chinese there don’t support the arts. They’re very pragmatic, they’re into making money. They’ll watch soap operas. Don’t forget, when we talk of the art of China, we’re talking about the aristocracy.” Eleanor Yung, codirector of the Chinatown-based Asian American Arts Center, agrees: “Most of the immigrants recognize physi­cal survival and are so busy with this they forget cultural survival.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

A similarly pollinated sensibility in­forms the works of Ming Fay, a sculptor who’s lived in New York for 16 years. Fay is known for his modernistic giant sculp­tures of fruits and vegetables such as coconuts, pears, and peppers. Because they’re such familiar items, they can be easily appreciated — or just as easily disparaged — as Claes Oldenburg spin-offs. But Fay works in a very different con­text, choosing certain items because of their iconic value in Chinese tradition. Thus, a pear represents prosperity, a peach, longevity, and an orange tree, good fortune.

Like Chong, Fay is pragmatic enough to know that recognition of the Asian-­American artist is as much a political as an aesthetic act. “As we grow in number, politics will come into play. Critics will be forced to pay attention. It will be the younger artists” — and here he names Martin Wong, David Diao, Mel Chin, Ti Shan Hsu — “who will reap the fruit — no pun intended.”

There is, of course, always a gap be­tween artists and their audiences — nar­rower when a cultural history is shared, wider when it’s not. Asian-American ref­erence points puzzle; we know WASP and JAP, but what about sansei, ABC, and Flip? Inevitably, the audience turns to familiar imagery, determined largely by totemized stereotypes, e.g., the opium den, the Filipino houseboy, the submis­sive Asian woman. The audience itself becomes a problem. As Filipino-Ameri­can novelist, poet, and performance artist Jessica Hagedorn points out, “I’m not going to give up my ‘inside jokes’ to ac­commodate them, but I do hope there’s enough there that a discriminating reader can understand and appreciate.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721116″ /]

The insularity of New York audiences is a familiar beast to all artists operating outside the mainstream. Laments Ki­miko Hahn, poet and director of the mul­ticultural arts organization Word of Mouth, “We have trouble getting people outside the community to attend our readings even though they’re held in Manhattan’s Chinatown, easy to get to. There’s a refusal to expand beyond the familiar names of small circles.” In addi­tion, she points out, the phenomenon of crossing over often results in what she terms “one writer per season,” that is, the Chosen One Stands In for All.

Yet the success of David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly on Broadway, of Ping Chong’s works in the downtown art scene, and of Maxine Hong Kings­ton’s and Amy Tan’s books continues to tantalize, keeping alive the dream, how­ever peripherally. But just as there exist guardians of the “universal,” so too are there guardians of the “particular,” quick to portray each step across the gap as a betrayal. Hwang and Kingston, for instance, have been attacked within the Asian-American community for revision­ism; for writing for a white audience; for, in short, “selling out.” Clearly, in the minds of both sets of guardians, “culture” and “ethnicity” are irrevocably defined. It is this dogmatic, ultimately sentimen­tal attachment to an old order that con­stitutes the most difficult obstacle for the artist intent on crossing over. ■


The New Chinese Exodus: The Party’s Over but Still in Power — Get Out Now
By Dusanka Miscevic and Peter Kwong

Riding the Dragon: Chinatown’s Politics — Many Votes, No Chinese Candidates
By Yuen Ying Chan

Surviving in America: The Trials of a Chinese Immigrant Woman
By Joann Lum & Peter Kwong

Growing by Leaps
By Lauren Esserman

Equality From The Archives Immigration Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Chinatown ’89: Surviving in America

EVERY SUNDAY MORNING, hundreds of Chinese gar­ment workers, waiters, and cashiers spend their only free time of the week at­tending English classes. Squeezed into makeshift classrooms organized by various community groups and churches in China­town, they struggle with basic words and simple dialogues. At the end of class, a few frustrated students will fret that they are too old and forgetful to ever learn English. Ying Jian Xia, 42, attended classes like these when she first arrived here from Hong Kong four years ago. But after three months she had barely mas­tered the alphabet. Discouraged, Ying gave up, convinced that “for a person of my age, it’s hard to learn. You’re set in your ways.”

Ying is not alone in this predicament. According to the 1980 census, 55 per cent of the city’s Chinatown residents — many of whom have been here more than 10 years — don’t understand English. Some observers blame the Chinese themselves for this situation. They argue that all immigrants should learn English and make the difficult transition of assimila­tion, rather than keep to their own kind. Ying, too, believes that “you just have to speak English to get a good job.” She knows that the ability to speak English might have landed her a job as a hotel cleaning woman, which, she was told, would pay more than $10 an hour and offer good benefits.

But Chinatown residents, unlike those of many other transitional immigrant en­claves, end up getting caught in their community because they can get jobs there. Chinese immigrants not only live in Chinatown but work for and with oth­er Chinese. They don’t use English among themselves and don’t come into contact with many “Americans.” Ying’s inability to learn English, then, has more to do with her lack of opportunity to hear and speak it than with her age. Ying’s efforts were further hindered by her having had only three years of formal education in mainland China — to this day, she has problems reading Chinese. Again, her lack of education is not unusu­al; the 1980 census reported that 71 per cent of the residents of New York’s Chi­natown had not graduated from high school. They occupy the opposite end of the social spectrum from the well-educat­ed, upwardly mobile Chinese profession­als — engineers, doctors, and scientists — ­at whom Americans enjoy marveling.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721095″ /]

Ying is no longer studying English and has accepted her life as a seamstress at the Fashion Enterprise factory, which is located on the fourth floor of a 19th-cen­tury bank building on Canal Street. Fash­ion Enterprise, a medium-sized factory, is a family-run business: The mother of the man who owns it supervises the hemming section, one of his wife’s sisters is the floor manager, her other sister sews and monitors the work of the other seam­stresses, and one of these sisters’ husbands is a steam presser.

Typically, a Fashion Enterprise seam­stress works from eight in the morning to seven at night, six days a week, and makes about $200 per week. Wages of hemmers and cutters are even lower, about $5000 a year — just above the cutoff point for eligibility in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union health insurance plan.

Although New York’s garment industry suffered a 40 per cent job loss between 1969 and 1982, the number of factories in Chinatown increased. The availability of factory and service jobs has encouraged thousands of people with minimal skills and no English to emigrate from Asia directly to American Chinatowns. In New York’s Chinatown, close to 20,000 Chi­nese Americans are employed; the popu­lation has grown from 15,000 in the ’60s to well over 100,000 today. The main reason for this boom is that Chinatown’s wage rates are competitive with those of the Third World. Most of the Chinatown owners are “cheap,” says Ying, using out-­of-date machines, deliberately confusing or failing to inform workers about piece rates before each job is done, and refus­ing to pay overtime. To survive in New York on piece rates, workers put in as many hours as possible. Some even work on Sundays, and others will not take breaks during work, eating plain bread for lunch so as not to have to stop their machines. One of Ying’s coworkers de­scribes her work as involving ying lee­ — “feminine exertion,” an intense, exhausting type of labor that does not require brute strength.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721103″ /]

YING, HER HUSBAND TING AN, and their three daughters, Jenny, 16, Eunice, 14, and Pauline, 11, arrived in this country from Hong Kong in 1985. Ying and Ting An speak only Cantonese. The couple had to start working as soon as they “got off the boat” in order to pay back the $9000 they had borrowed, interest-free, from Ying’s brother and Ting An’s sister to resettle here.

Although Ying has accepted her lot here, her 52-year-old husband is having trouble accepting his. In Hong Kong, Ting An was a wicker-furniture maker, but here in the U.S., he has had to work as a dishwasher in Chinatown and, now, as a food preparer at a Chinese restau­rant in the Hamptons. For $1200 per month, he works 11 hours a day, six days a week, in a kitchen where he sees and talks to only his Chinese coworkers. After work Ting An retires to a rooming house that he shares with his colleagues. As the restaurant is located two hours away from his family’s apartment on Manhat­tan’s Lower East Side, Ting An visits just once a week.

He would prefer a job in Chinatown but, except for those of waiters, the wages there are much lower than what he’s re­ceiving now. Being a waiter, though, re­quires some comprehension of English, of which he has none. As a matter of fact, Ting An does not even know the English name of the town where his restaurant is located. Feeling stuck and humiliated, he will not discuss his situation with anyone.

Tired and beaten, Ting An assumes a peripheral role in his family, seeing him­self as simply one of the breadwinners and an occasional visitor. “He doesn’t call at all — even when the kids are sick,” Ying says matter-of-factly. The kids seem to be as adaptable as their mother. They like their father and enjoy having dim sum with him in Chinatown on his day off and getting him to “buy things we don’t need; like lead pencils,” as one daughter puts it. But they don’t know him or miss living with him. They have only the faintest notion of what his living and working conditions are like. On his part, Ting An hasn’t forgotten that he never wanted to come to the U.S. in the first place; it was Ying’s idea to move here for their children’s education.

Even Ying admits that she and her husband are having a difficult time ad­justing to this country. Since they can’t read a map or ask for directions, their mobility is severely restricted. They are lost as soon as they leave Chinatown or the immediate area around their apart­ment. Ying is dependent on her English-speaking daughters to negotiate the af­fairs of daily life, such as filling drug prescriptions and writing out money or­ders to pay the rent and phone bills. Ying does not read newspapers or watch TV, and she has no American friends. She has ventured out of the city only twice in her four years here — to a New Jersey apple orchard and to Belmont State Park — ­both times on day trips organized by a Chinatown community group.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

WHEN ASKED WHETHER she regretted having emigrated, Ying, with tears dis­turbing her usual composure, answered, “I know my life was fated for hard work. It’s the only kind of life I ever knew. But we did not come to escape hardship. We did it for our children.” Ying was born into a poor family in the Guangdong province. In 1959, partially as a result of the failed Great Leap Forward, a severe famine struck the country, and Ying’s family emigrated to Hong Kong. She was only 11 and was not able to resume her schooling, which she had been forced to abandon while in the third grade in Chi­na. In Hong Kong she went straight to work in a factory making plastic flowers. As Ying passed through her teens, her parents talked about marrying her off to ease the family’s financial burden; her chances, however, were not great because she had suffered from a heart murmur since childhood. At the age of 25 she agreed to marry Ting An, a man 10 years her senior, who appeared simple, trust­worthy, and unfazed by her health. In addition, he had experienced a similar life of poverty and hardship. Ying ended up caring not just for Ting An, but also for his blind father and his brother who had cancer. Soon, with the addition of her three children, Ying’s household consist­ed of seven people living together in a tiny studio apartment. “Seven people had to eat,” she says, and they could not live on the HK $1600 (US $230) a month that her husband brought home as a producer of wicker products. Ying supplemented their income with her seamstress work. “I had to work from morning until night — I cooked for them, cleaned house, waited on them, and worked all day at home sewing,” she recalls. It was only after her father-in-law and brother-in-law died and the loans incurred during their illnesses were paid off that Ying and her husband had the chance to think about their own futures.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721116″ /]

WHEN THE FAMILY FIRST ARRIVED in the U.S., they piled into the small China­town apartment of Ying’s parents. For 10 months the two couples and three chil­dren shared the cramped two-bedroom apartment. Ying, Ting An, and their daughters then found a place for $460 a month in a run-down neighborhood in Flatbush; Ting An was mugged soon after they moved there. But luck came their way. A friend of Ying’s told her about a homesteading project sponsored by Re­habilitation in Action to Improve Neigh­borhoods that had an opening in a 16-unit building in the Lower East Side. Undaunted by the fact that her family was the only Chinese participant (most of the others were Latino), Ying joined the project, taking her daughter Jenny every Saturday for more than a year to help clean up rubble, mix cement, and put up walls. The surrounding neighborhood is depressed, but the family is living in a two-floor unit with five bedrooms and two bathrooms, for which they pay $480 a month.

The kids are enjoying their home. After dinner and before finishing up their homework, they can be found hanging out in the living room, which is furnished with a Sony TV, a Quasar VCR, and two couches and an armchair covered with clear plastic. One wall-hanging proclaims “Fortune” in Chinese; another calls for “Joy, luck, and longevity.” One evening, the girls watch a rented Hong Kong­–made movie called The Arranged Mar­riage, set in China at the turn of the century. It’s a love story that, although they’ve seen it already, transfixes them. Then it’s time for Jenny to pop a tape of Raidas, a Hong Kong disco group, into the Toshiba Bombeat cassette player. Eunice and Jenny sing along with the Cantonese lyrics. The songs, says Jenny, are “about friendship and social issues — ­about how to deal with people.”

Despite the appearance of material comfort, there are signs here and there of barely making due: The towels in the bathroom, for example, are worn thin and gray with use, and the living room and kitchen light bulbs hang stark and naked. All of this, however, does not matter much to Ying, who says that “we decided to come to America for the children’s future.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”721195″ /]

THERE ARE EXCELLENT SCHOOLS in Hong Kong. In fact, in Ying’s mind they are better than those in the U.S., which she thinks are “not strict enough.” But the school system in Hong Kong, starting at the elementary level, is extremely com­petitive. Opportunities for young people to go to college are few. Average students from working-class backgrounds are at a disadvantage because their parents can­not afford to hire private tutors or send them to tutorial schools to get ahead. Immigrating to the U.S. offered Ying’s kids the chance to attend college — some­thing she deeply wants her children to have, something that she missed out on herself.

Ying is making every possible sacrifice for her children. She does not want her kids to work — they are to devote them­selves to education. In Hong Kong, Ying would shut the three girls in the apart­ment and padlock the TV until their fa­ther came home. “I wanted them to study,” she explains. Today she continues to apply the same kind of pressure. The girls are instructed to come home as soon as school lets out, and are rarely allowed to go out with friends. Ying periodically visits her daughters’ teachers (“so my children will be afraid”), taking along an English-speaking friend. And though she can’t help her kids with their home­work — in fact, since she can’t read, she can’t even tell whether they’re doing it­ — she often warns them that “if you trick me, you’re just cheating yourselves.” When their report cards arrive, Ying has them translated by a friend.

While education is the top priority for Ying, her children aren’t the super-accel­erated Asian kids celebrated in the me­dia. All three daughters agree that Ameri­can schools are less rigorous than those in Hong Kong. Jenny observes that “it’s easier here. You don’t do as much home­work.” Still, none of the children are having an easy time in school. And, contrary to a prevailing myth, none of the three excels in math, and the younger two don’t like science.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721207″ /]

But the three sisters become animated when discussing their dream careers. Eu­nice, who is in the ninth grade at China­town’s I.S. 131, wants to be an astronaut, even though she doesn’t do well in sci­ence. But she and Jenny, a sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School, also de­scribe the thrill of being undercover de­tectives. One soon realizes that their im­pressions are shaped by their favorite TV shows, including Moonlighting, 21 Jump Street, and Miami Vice.

Aside from school and TV, the girls don’t have much contact with the outside world. Even in school their friends are mostly recent Chinese immigrants who speak Cantonese. The girls have a sole acquaintance in their apartment building, a Greek man who takes them to Yankee games. Jenny often breaks away from the family on Sunday mornings to attend ser­vices at the Protestant Chinese Alliance Church in Chinatown. It is the social, not the religious, aspect that draws her there; after the service, members of the congre­gation have lunch together and the chil­dren and teens play games. A self-de­scribed “tomboy,” the laconic Jenny likes to play sports with the boys. She is glad that her mother doesn’t go to church with her because she knows that Ying doesn’t approve of this kind of play. Jenny’s fan­tasy is to be able to “go all around the world. I’d just go find a job, get some money, then go to another state, then another. It would be fun.”

The girls’ attitudes toward jobs and college are ultimately formed by the expe­riences of their parents. Eunice says that she wants to go to college so that she “can find a good job,” which in her view means one in which “you don’t need to work very hard — like teachers, who don’t have to work as hard as people who work in restaurants. They get home early and have many holidays.” Pauline chimes in with “working in a bank — my mom says it’s a good job.” The girls have never visited their parents’ workplaces, but they have been told of the conditions and warned repeatedly of expecting that kind of future if they don’t study hard enough. “She has to work 24 hours a day — or 18,” says Pauline of her mother’s job in the garment factory. “No, she works from eight to seven,” says Eunice. “It’s boring and hard. And it’s ugly and dirty, with all the material on the floor.” Jenny says she wouldn’t want to work as a seamstress because she doesn’t like to sew, but she concedes that her mother probably doesn’t, either.

[related_posts post_id_1=”421903″ /]

YING AND HER DAUGHTERS are engaged in a strained balance of power involving language and culture. The kids know En­glish as well as Cantonese, and thus have access to mainstream American society. They aren’t interested in teaching En­glish to their mother, and she does not ask it of them. When the girls speak English among themselves, Ying is closed out. Ying, however, wants to maintain tight control over her children; she is afraid of losing them to a world with which she cannot communicate. More­over, they are Ying’s only expression of hope and the future.

But such an acknowledgment would never come from Ying herself, for it has no place in her pragmatic world. She ag­gressively pursues concrete goals to main­tain her family. She talks about being fated to a hard life, but she takes advan­tage of opportunities that present them­selves. It was Ying who found the family’s good apartment through the homestead­ing project, and she who applied for emi­gration. (She told Ting An that she and the kids were going to the U.S. — he could join them if he wished.) As the mainstay of the family, Ying tends to its every aspect. She works to bring in money, takes care of the bills, maintains the fam­ily’s apartment, directs and disciplines her children. Even her dreams are about being responsible for the care of her fam­ily. She entertains no illusions about her husband, their marriage, and his role in the family. “He never has any opinions about anything, and he doesn’t make any decisions,” she says. Sometimes Jenny tires of her mother’s stories about how hard she’s worked for the family, but Ying forges ahead. She describes her phi­losophy: “As long as I’m honest and do things according to what’s right, I have nothing to be afraid of or to regret.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717232″ /]

She has no sophisticated beliefs, no formulated political ideas, but she seems to have a sense of the limitations inher­ent in her class as a worker. “There is absolutely no future for people like me,” she says. Still, as strongly as Ying feels about education, she seems unsure of its ultimate value. Sometimes, her attitude is almost Confucian: “Education is not for a good job,” she says. “It’s something for yourself.” At other times, she is less lofty: “Education helps one get a good job. I don’t know enough to know what jobs are good. I guess a good job is a job that pays well.”

When asked about her future, Ying says, “I don’t plan for the future. I deal with what I need to do now.” It’s likely that her daughters, armed with their knowledge of English and at least some education, will move on to mainstream jobs and assimilated lifestyles. Ying will have accomplished her objective. But her own prospects are not as promising, de­spite some material improvements in her living situation. She left behind a dreary life in China to make her way to this land of opportunity, only to find herself trapped and isolated in Chinatown. ■

Editor’s note: Names and some identify­ing characteristics in this article have been changed. 

Research assistance by Wendy Lau 

From The Archives Immigration Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Chinatown ’89: The New Chinese Exodus

OH, BY THE WAY, THEY ARE CRACKING DOWN. IF YOU run into anybody who needs a passport, don’t forget, I can get one.” Mr. Wu smiled from behind his desk, handing us the tickets for a June 1 flight from New York to China. He had a whole range of deals to offer: a passport issued by a Central American country for US $12,000, with the provision that the holder not go there; a similar passport with a visa to the United States for US $18,000; and, at the top end of the scale, a passport to be issued within two days for US $50,000, enabling the holder to reside in a South American coun­try immediately. Interested parties, once smuggled out of China, were to contact him from Hong Kong. Who in China could come up with that kind of money?

“Plenty of people can afford it,” he laughed. “Private business is booming and corruption is all over the place. You’ll be surprised.” He had the assurance of someone who had processed at least a handful of cases. As to who would want a passport within two days, Mr. Wu had an unusual answer: “Someone who needs to get away in hurry. People in political trouble, like terrorists, maybe.”

His remarks turned out to be prophetic. We arrived in China on the day of the military crackdown in Beijing, and a whole group of people needed to get out. Indeed, it was probably networks of the type that Mr. Wu had been linked up with that saved the lives of some of the most prominent prodemocracy protesters. “Under­ground railroads,” operated by the so-called “snake­heads,” were instrumental in smuggling the “counterrev­olutionaries” out of China. The incredible sum of $50,000 — in a country where annual per capita income is $300 — seemed like a small price to pay. Many outside supporters, particularly the people of Hong Kong, were more than willing to pick up the tab.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721095″ /]

People have been leaving the People’s Republic of China since its inception. The first wave of well-to-do and well-educated émigrés, able to pay for a safe cross­ing, became the engine for Hong Kong’s economic boom in the 1950s, and the core of the now well-established professional class of Chinese Americans in the United States. In later decades, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution, the thoroughly “proletarianized” would-be escapees were mostly reduced to swimming across to Hong Kong from the surrounding areas in Guangdong Province. Most were disaffected young men who felt they were wasting their lives in the countryside. Quite a few have ended up as waiters in New York’s Chinatown.

When China opened her doors under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, new methods came into vogue. People with sufficient academic credentials were, once again, allowed to apply to foreign universities. Having a rela­tive overseas became an asset. Searching for a potential “foreign relative” became an obsession of many young city dwellers. We were approached in 1980 by a mayor’s son and a daughter of a top-ranking diplomat, both in their early thirties, who asked for “our hands in double marriage,” to be dissolved once out of China so they could marry and live abroad. They belonged to the most privileged class in China, and it was hard to imagine why they would want to leave. Partly, it was out of curiosity about the outside world. Partly, the decision reflected their understanding of what the West was: a place where they could indulge their expensive tastes and fulfill material needs without ideolog­ical obstruction.

The young woman was lucky to marry an unsuspecting Englishman. For a year she phoned and wrote back to China about her life in Great Britain, mention­ing a cassette player, a motorbike, and other things that her husband bought for her. Then she decided she was not going to divorce him after all.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721103″ /]

Several artists we know cultivated their “foreign relations” for years so as to eventually land a spouse. For them, going abroad meant the opportunity to express their individual sensibility freely. One painter simply wanted to make abstract paintings after years of socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism. Another hoped to be able to exhibit his politically satirical sculpture. Filmmakers were dreaming of rich, appreciative patrons­ — no more government-approved movies.

A successful actress in her mid-twen­ties cannot stand working with directors who are bound by the style of the 1940s. “What can they say about the feelings and problems of the young in the 1980s?” she asks. “These people can’t come up with anything new, and they prevent others from doing it because they feel threatened. So I just get paid to sit at the studio doing nothing.” A 70-year-old holistic en­thusiast from Southern California agreed to marry her, but the Party official at her work unit refused to grant permission.

In China, the Party has a final say in matters that are considered private in the West, such as marriage and birth. Even dating is often arranged under the good auspices of a concerned Party secretary. The Party has taken over the traditional role of the family. Only, if the family arranges a marriage, it is seen as a vestige of feudalism; if the Party does it, it’s a social responsibility. A woman still un­married at 25 cannot be left to her own resources. Our friend who refused two suggested candidates after two arranged dates in 1979 knew she would get only one more chance before she was per­ceived as a social problem.

Because of the population problem, childbirth is very much under Party con­trol. When we asked a young college as­sistant professor and his wife in Shang­hai this summer whether they were planning to have a kid, he said: “Well, we missed our quota last year, so now we have to wait.” The wife explained: “There are too many young couples in our neigh­borhood, and the neighborhood commit­tee can only allow so many childbirths a year.” Actually, they didn’t even think they wanted a child. “China is so back­ward,” she said looking around the one­-room apartment, “and we are so crowd­ed — these are no conditions for a child.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

HOUSING, JOB ALLOCATION, salary in­creases, and promotion are also in the hands of the Party. Rather than worrying about professional problems and job per­formance, many talented employees have to spend time cultivating useful connec­tions to make life a little easier.

Chen Yixin, a first-rate electronics en­gineer and inventor of audio equipment from Beijing, disliked playing politics and got tired of being ordered around by in­competent and jealous supervisors. When the door opened in 1980, he joined his brother in California to work as a TV repairman. Although settling for a humbler job, he hasn’t regretted leaving the brutalizing day-to-day struggle behind. “Chinese society rewards the informers and the sycophants, while the talented get persecuted. I never got a reward for anything I did. Now, at least, I make money when I work hard. I can do what­ever I want in my free time.”

Expressing one’s individual taste and style is the meaning of freedom for many in China. They proudly exhibit their sound systems and collections of foreign tapes, announcing defiantly: “I like Tai­wanese music,” or “This kind of love song suits my mood.” When they envy the freedom of Westerners, they don’t think of the right to be involved political­ly. They seek to leave China in order to be left out of politics — to be left alone.

Wang Degong is a high school science teacher from Shanghai we’ve known for years. He applied to join his sisters in Canada in 1980, but discovered that Can­ada had no use for high school teachers who spoke no English. He then applied, in 1982, for an immigration visa to the U.S. through his brother-in-law, pledging to wash dishes if need be. We were curi­ous why he wanted to leave China so badly. “You don’t know,” he said. “I’m scared to death of movements.” He was referring to the political movements he had to live through in forty-odd years.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721116″ /]

We met him again in mid-June of this year, some time after the military crack­down in Beijing. He was still waiting for his visa, and still spoke no English. But, somehow, this time his plight seemed plausible. China was embarking on a new “movement,” and who could blame him for not wanting any part in it? By the time we left Shanghai he knew he’d have to spend the month of July, after school gets out, in daily study-group sessions with other teachers in his school. The aim would be to “unify their thought,” namely their understanding of the pro­-democracy movement. In practice this would mean that after reading “Chair­man Deng’s Speech,” which condemned the movement as counterrevolutionary, they would all have to express their com­plete agreement with the condemnation, and confess to any aberrations that may have occurred in their thoughts or ac­tions during the demonstrations. They would have to report on other people’s “mistaken” demonstration support, and hope that no one reported them.

Psychological pressure has been the bottom line of all political movements in China. The Communist Party mobilizes the people through “consciousness-rais­ing,” pitting one segment of the popula­tion against another, so as to leave the Party in full control. One of the best­-publicized cases during the recent arrests in Beijing involved a sister who turned in her student-brother, presumably to pro­tect her own family from being implicat­ed. It’s something Western observers have trouble comprehending. But seeing it lauded throughout the media gave the Chinese citizens a signal — the manipula­tion of fear is once again being used by the government.

Only this time, the Party is more des­perate and violent. Its present attempt to achieve ideological unity is “ludicrous,” according to Ai Min, the daughter of a very high Party official. “There is no legitimacy in this leadership’s claim on morality.” Intelligent and confident of her capability to think for herself, Ai Min is one of the few Chinese who have had the opportunity, or the guts, to change jobs several times, so as not to be stuck with work that is not challenging. Her present job, which brings her into fre­quent contact with foreigners, provides a high income and the possibility of traveling abroad. She never thought of leaving China in the past — she believed that the reforms of the 1980s needed people like her, who found satisfaction in doing their jobs well.

But now that’s become irrelevant. Ai Min doesn’t want to be manipulated into phony self-criticism, nor to take part in the drive for ideological conformity. She is angry that the Party expects her to stop being a thinking individual. Al­though she trusts that the fascist regime will eventually collapse, she doesn’t feel like wasting her most productive years waiting for that to happen. She admits that she would like to leave China now.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721207″ /]

NOBODY WE ENCOUNTERED IN CHINA in the weeks following the Beijing massacre denied that they would like to leave. “If our government were to open up the bor­der, not one person would be left in China,” mused Bing, our taxi driver, as he weaved through Shanghai’s traffic, avoid­ing the plainclothes policemen on our track. “All government officials send their children abroad. Why should the people be stupid enough to want to stay?” What bothered him the most was the official corruption. “The harder I work, the more ways they find to squeeze me,” he complained, revealing that he had been paying $400 under the table at each yearly inspection of his vehicle to the official who wielded the rubber stamp. “Hah, money means nothing in China if you don’t have the official connection. You are still nobody.”

Like many other private entrepreneurs whom we met this summer, he was apply­ing for a student visa to Australia. With a policy granting student visas to all for­eigners who pay $5000 for a semester of language courses at an accredited institu­tion, Australia had become the preferred destination for the Chinese who have the money, but not the connections or quali­fications to leave any other way. They hope to permanently settle abroad. “I’d be willing to do anything to stay out of China,” Bing contemplated. “I’ve done manual work all my life, what do I have to be afraid of?”

By the end of June, however, the Chi­nese government announced that all the Chinese exit visas would have to be reis­sued. Bing was concerned that he may no longer have a chance to leave. So were many students who had already gained admission to respectable foreign universi­ties. In the July issue of the Bulletin of High Education, Beijing authorities an­nounced new criteria for issuing exit vi­sas: from now on the political attitude of the applicants would be stressed. Accord­ing to diplomatic sources, students cur­rently being given clearance to leave are not the first-rate ones interested in sci­ence or technology, but mainly second-rate English majors from provincial uni­versities. The consequences are already being felt in America: new Chinese stu­dents have been typically applying to lesser-known, smaller schools. What mat­ters, according to a Chinese National Education Commission official comment­ing on the situation in the China Daily a few days ago, is that students profess patriotism and desire to serve their country.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717232″ /]

The new policy appears to be a direct response to the almost universal condem­nation of the government by the large expatriate student community. Many of the 800,000 Chinese who have studied abroad during the past 10 years have not gone back. The recent move of foreign governments allowing Chinese students to overstay their visas is certain to de­prive China of a whole generation of her best minds — a double tragedy for China, which already lost a generation to the Cultural Revolution. There are 70,000 such students in the United States alone. They will eventually have to go back, unless they acquire a foreign passport.

Only, sometimes, even that is not enough. Hong Kong’s 3.25 million Chi­nese residents who hold British passports will not be allowed to settle permanently in Great Britain after the colony reverts to China in 1997. They will automatically become Chinese subjects. Both Britain and China went through pains to instill confidence in the principle stipulated by the Basic Law, to be implemented upon reversion: one country, two systems. The law was designed to ensure maximal au­tonomy for Hong Kong in its first 50 years under Chinese rule. In the wake of the military crackdown in Beijing, how­ever, Hong Kong residents cynically com­pare the future of the territory to the present predicament of Tibet.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721195″ /]

Hong Kong is certainly no Tibet today, but the recent events have shown just how fragile prosperity can be. On June 5, the Hong Kong stock market lost over 1000 points, or 37 per cent of its value. Similar losses in the value of real estate measured tens of billions of U.S. dollars. A run on mainland-owned banks depleted them of US $2.1 billion in the first three days after the massacre. Hong Kong jour­nalist Liu Huiqing asks: “Can the Hong Kong people restrain their anguish, an­ger, and disillusionment to work con­structively for the future?”

Many residents have, in fact, respond­ed by participating in public protests, demonstrations, strikes, and vigils. The most committed intend to battle for dem­ocratic institutions and broader partici­pation in politics for the people of Hong Kong. But they realize that the destiny of Hong Kong cannot be separated from that of China. “We can only have democ­racy if China has democracy. Our effort will have to be a part of the larger Chi­nese struggle,” explains Danny Yung, a Hong Kong artist and activist, and a for­mer resident of New York City.

The Chinese government appears ap­prehensive of this new interest in peo­ple’s power and human rights in Hong Kong. The Chinese State Council official in charge of Hong Kong affairs an­nounced: “We will not tolerate anybody using Hong Kong or Macao as a base to subvert the government of the People’s Republic.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”421903″ /]

IT IS NOT CLEAR what the Chinese gov­ernment intends to do, but most people don’t feel like waiting around to find out. Immigration applications to even the most obscure places are up, and passport sales are booming. Many consular offi­cials reportedly engage in sales of genu­ine passports through intermediaries for as little as US $5000. A fake passport costs US $1400 to $3000, depending on how urgently it’s needed. There is no guarantee that one will succeed in enter­ing a foreign country with it, but a Hong Kong resident remarks: “My chances are better with a fake passport than if I apply for an immigration visa.”

The Chinese exodus has become a big business, with almost the whole world a market. But nearly all people fleeing both mainland China and Hong Kong would like to come to the United States. The myth of the promised land is still very much alive. Hong Kong residents know quite well where they are headed, even if only from movies and encounters with foreign tourists. For many mainlanders, however, America is simply a better place: “the beautiful country,” as its name in Chinese reads. “Are the roads abroad much better than in China?” in­quired a private chauffeur of a Chinese dignitary, adding: “I know your cars are much better.” Then, as if though ponder­ing the reason for the unequal prosperity, he concluded: “You must have decollecti­vized your land much earlier than China.”

While America may be a better place, many of the new immigrants will end up in Chinatowns, settling for sub-minimum wages, intensifying the competition for jobs and housing, driving real estate val­ues even higher. George, a young New York–based Chinatown developer, de­lights in the prospect: “I’ll make enough money by 1997 to retire.” For the com­munity residents, however, the new wave of immigrants means that the already depleted community resources will be overstrained. Even more worrisome is the chilling effect of the Beijing massacre­ — which stripped the affable mask from the face of the Chinese government — on pre­viously enthusiastic Americans. Many Chinese Americans fear that the inter­rupted honeymoon in Sino-American re­lations may negatively affect their treat­ment by other Americans — an experience still vividly remembered from the Korean and Cold War years.

The new arrivals do not share such concerns. “Don’t call me Yaping, my name is Edward,” insists a Chinese col­lege student to his Chinese-American friends. “I’m no longer Chinese. I’m an American now.” His identity change re­flects the popular hatred for the Chinese government, and a conviction that the new land will reward his determination. ■

Equality From The Archives Immigration Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Chinatown ’89: Riding the Dragon

STILL BASKING IN HIS PRIMARY VICTORY, Joe Hynes, Democratic candidate for Brooklyn district attorney, found himself in an upscale Chinatown restaurant one day in late September, making a pitch to the local press corps. At the luncheon, Hynes’s Chinese-American sup­porters, mostly accountants, lawyers, and garment con­tractors — all members of the emerging Chinatown mid­dle class — were on hand to endorse their chosen candidate and announce plans for an October fund­raiser. “It will be a great party and the initiation of Chinatown into American politics,” said Robert Lin, an organizer for the event and professor at John Jay Col­lege of Criminal Justice.

While most Chinatown people don’t vote in Brooklyn, New York’s Chinatown, with its hustle and bustle, nev­ertheless represents the soul of the Chinese existence in New York City. So it is only appropriate for Joe Hynes to cross the Brooklyn Bridge and give symbolic homage to the city’s 300,000 Chinese.

All through the summer, every mayoral candidate came through Chinatown to pay his respects, visiting day-care centers, senior citizen centers, schools, park events, stomping the litter-filled streets of the crowded neighborhood.

In return, Chinatown gave generously. In late August, Mayor Koch was feted at a 77-table banquet at China­town’s Silver Palace Restaurant, adding over $40,000 to his campaign coffers. Richard Ravitch, who befriended a group of Chinese garment manufacturers, was rewarded with $28,000 at another fundraiser.

According to exit surveys conducted by the Asian­-American Legal Defense and Education Fund at four Chinatown polling stations, David Dinkins was the big winner with 51 per cent of the Democratic primary vote. But the Dinkins victory hardly represents the real politi­cal awakening of Chinatown — that has yet to happen.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721095″ /]

FOR ALL THE ATTENTION lavished on Chinatown — and all the money they collected — the candidates have gen­erated little enthusiasm among the men and women on the street. In the primary, less than 600 voters turned out at the six Chinatown polling stations — out of an estimated 9000 registered voters.

“It is very disappointing, and I don’t know why,” said a puzzled Pauline Chan, president of the Chinatown Voters Education Alliance.

The long history of internal strife in China is the main culprit for the apathy, according to Nora Chang Wang, founder and board member of CVEA. “Chinese Americans, whether they are from China or Hong Kong, don’t want to associate with any political party,” said Wang. “The fights between the Communists and the Kuomintang make them think that party politics means dirty politics.” Wang added that a CVEA study early this year revealed that a full 60 per cent of the registered voters in the Chinatown area reported no party affiliations.

Wang, who emphasized that she speaks in her capaci­ty as a “community person,” is associate commissioner of the city’s Department of Employment, one of the two highest-ranking Chinese Americans in the city adminis­tration.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721103″ /]

If China’s politics hangs like a deadly weight on the political involvement of Chinese Americans in this coun­try, ironically it has also ushered in a new wave of activism since the Tiananmen massacre. As mainland students returned to their classrooms and libraries after an initial uproar, a number of Chinatown groups took up the good fight for democracy in China. Alfred Lui, director of a senior center and an organizer of a number of pro-democracy demonstrations, believes that any di­version from American politics by these activities will only be temporary — the agitation will have a healthy effect, shaking the community out of numbness. “At least people will begin to think not in terms of them­selves, but matters of right and wrong, just and unjust.”

But the Tiananmen events have also reopened old wounds — and created new splits. Virgo Lee, chair of the citywide Asian Americans for David Dinkins, rejected a last-minute plea by Lui, also a Dinkins supporter, to dissociate himself from an 80-table banquet in honor of National Day in the People’s Republic of China. Lui, who chose to picket outside the restau­rant with 60 other demonstrators, warned that support for the Chinese gov­ernment by AADD members would hurt Dinkins’s campaign efforts. “Attending the dinner is not an endorsement of what happened at Tiananmen,” Lee said. “Picketing is not appropriate in terms of maintaining good relations in the community.”

Lee is also president of the Chinese Progressive Association, one of the 18 sponsors of the dinner. CPA traces its origin to a small group of Asian-Ameri­can radicals who came together in the late ’60s to advocate ties with the Peo­ple’s Republic of China, a taboo subject in the community at that time. Since then, CPA members have broadened out and become active in the Rainbow Coali­tion, and now they have become the main players in the AADD — while remaining pro-China and riding the changing tides of the Chinese leadership over the years. But as China first shifted toward capital­ism and now fascism under Deng Xiaoping, being pro-China has long ceased to be seen as an automatically “progressive” stance. So once again, American politics became trapped in Chinese realities.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

THE DEAD HAND OF THE PAST works in other ways. After all, this is a community where, by American law, residents could not bring their wives in from overseas or become citizens until World War II. The decades of exclusion were followed by an­other quarter century of silence, when community activists were labeled Com­munists and haunted by the FBI and by Chinatown’s anti-Communists.

The first openings didn’t come until Nixon visited China in 1972. It was only then that the civil rights movement of the ’60s finally came to Chinatown. Thousands of residents demonstrated for construction jobs, over union and indus­try opposition, and protested against po­lice brutality.

But that was the ’70s. As Chinatown approaches the ’90s, money and people are pouring in from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China at an unprecedented rate. Foreign banks and investors are bringing as many opportunities as threats to the old order, just as residents are drawn into a fiercer battle to make it in the U.S.

For the average working-class Chinese American, it’s a daily battle to survive, to keep your kids in school and away from the street gangs, and maybe, one day, to move to a “good” neighborhood. Con­trary to the myth depicting Asian Ameri­cans as “the model minority,” 71 per cent of Chinatown residents never finished high school and 55 per cent either do not speak English well or at all, according to the 1980 census. In addition, 24.7 per cent of Chinatown’s families live below the poverty level, compared to 17.2 per cent citywide. The census also found that at least half of all Chinatown families have two or more wage earners.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721116″ /]

SO FOR THE 5000 OR SO IMMIGRANTS that pour into Chinatown each year, nothing but work — and more work — ­could be the ultimate salvation. Since most immigrants work at nonunion jobs and are reluctant to receive government benefits (for fear of jeopardizing immi­gration prospects of close relatives), their only security comes from monthly entries into the precious saving pass books.

In Chinatown, the stores and restau­rants never close except during Chinese New Year. Here garment workers bend over their machines until seven, eight, or even nine o’clock at night and keep going on Saturdays, sometimes even on Sun­days, as long as jobs are available. Over the years, piece rates in the factories have gone down, but low wages are clearly no deterrent for people with limited options.

Workers board mini-vans on China­town street corners every morning that take them to their suburban or out-of-­state jobs. In packed, smoke-filled neigh­borhood employment agencies, new im­migrants hustle for choice jobs — ­restaurant jobs with 60-hour work weeks, but at locations not so far from the city so they can come home to their families once every week, instead of every month.

Chinatown’s emerging middle class, on the other hand, is also under siege, even as they try to get ahead of the rat race to exploit the new riches from overseas. Paul Yee, head of the Chinatown Beauti­fication Council and owner of a travel service on Canal Street, lamented the de­terioration of basic services during the Koch years, which he feels is threatening the neighborhood’s development. Parking has become the number one problem, he said, undermining both the restaurant and the garment industries, which de­pend on sidewalk deliveries to survive.

Yee said Chinatown has lost at least four major parking lots to condominium or commercial developments in the last few years. As he speaks, a nearby 15-story condo built on a former parking lot at the corner of Henry and Market streets has topped out; it will soon be renting at $350 to $400 a square foot, Hong Kong investors are expected to be the prime buyers. Yee added that he has complained about peddlers, the homeless, traffic, and the parks for years.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721195″ /]

BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Chinatown is under­represented and underheard — and win­ning a catch-up game will require consid­erable maneuvering. Chinese Americans do not hold any elected legislative office in the tri-state region, Chinatown’s best chance for an electoral seat is in the state assembly, yet the neighborhood is split between the 61st and 62nd districts along the Bowery, rendering Chinese-American votes on both sides insignificant.

School District 2, where over 35 per cent of the students are of Chinese origin, has only one Chinese member on its nine-person school board. Chinese-Amer­ican representation on the local commu­nity board has improved since David Dinkins became borough president (with the power to appoint all board members) four years ago, but the five Chinese Americans on the board still fall short of the proportion of Chinese residents in the area, which is about 24 per cent.

Chinese Americans are similarly under­represented in the city administration, According to a new study by the Commu­nity Services Society, Asian Americans, of which more than half are Chinese, make up 1.7 per cent of the total city government workforce — less than half their share of the city’s total labor force.

Finally, in spite of Mayor Koch’s occa­sional parties for Asian Americans at Gracie Mansion and his promises of Asian-American appointments, there are only two Chinese Americans occupying senior decision-making positions in the city government: Nora Chang Wang and Barbara Chin, assistant commissioner of the NYC Human Rights Commission.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721132″ /]

For Chinatown residents, the big cor­porations are as guilty as Koch’s City Hall, with the banks leading the charge for the Chinatown gold mine. Deposit levels at Citibank’s main Chinatown branch at Mott Street stood at $27 mil­lion in 1988, ranking eighth among the total of 76 Manhattan Citibank branches, surpassed only by Wall Street, and mid­town Park and Fifth Avenues branches. Taken together, the three Citibank Chi­natown branches boasted $550 million in deposits. Yet just two months ago, Citi­bank put on hold a Chinatown applica­tion for a $7 million loan for commercial development until the sponsors can raise more equity funds.

The project, named Chung Pak, is to be built next to a new detention center at Canal and Centre streets on land donated by the city as part of a compromise. The project, for which the community must raise its own seed money, has suffered numerous delays, with Citibank’s stalling on the loan its latest woe. “With all the money Citibank is making in our commu­nity, I thought it should have given us an interest-free loan,” said 72-year-old Yukfoo Chan, a longtime Chinatown resident who sees his chance for an apartment in the housing that would be built atop the commercial project fade day by day.

Robert Lee, who heads the nonprofit Asian American Arts Centre on the Bow­ery, shares many of Chen’s gripes about the banks. He added that his center had managed to get $500 every year from one bank but “you have to dress up to attend their press conferences and let them take your pictures for the papers.”

[related_posts post_id_1=”717232″ /]

IN THE SUREST SIGN of the post-Koch era, Chinatown restaurants are getting ready to remove the mayor’s picture from their windows. The three-term mayor will best be remembered for the detention center he built in the heart of Chinatown, over vehement protests from Chinatown residents, which culminated in a 20,000-strong march on City Hall.

But even staunch Dinkins supporters, who are convinced that a Dinkins reign would usher in a new openness and ac­cess for minorities to City Hall, dare not entertain high hopes. “We have to keep making noises and keep up the pressure,” said AADD cochair Lui.

If fighting is the answer, Chinatown will have to fight its greatest enemies from within — to once again energize and bring together its people to identify with an issue, a cause, and maybe a candidate. Despite the public rhetoric and the cam­paign fanfare, community leaders will have to answer one ultimate question: can they mobilize and deliver?

Take the Chinese Consolidated Benev­olent Association, whose president once earned the title “unofficial mayor of Chi­natown.” An umbrella organization con­sisting of 60 family associations — some of which are now defunct — CCBA has been taking a backseat in most major Chinatown issues, whether they be housing, land use, the schools, or new road plans. While the group has been the standard bearer of anticommunism in the commu­nity for decades, it has uncharacteristi­cally taken a low profile in the community after the massacre.

[related_posts post_id_1=”421903″ /]

To many residents, these are signs that the century-old CCBA has grown old and spent. After all, the group just took a beating when City Hall excluded it from the sponsorship of Chung Pak, after Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau warned that three members of the CCBA’s Board had ties to the “tongs,” Chinatown’s criminal underground.

True, the new Chinatown middle class has been challenging the old guard for some time. But it is unclear if the young professionals, civic-minded entrepre­neurs, and ’60s-radicals-turned-main­streamers will ever come together and agree on a working agenda to claim the allegiance of their people. As the politics of Chinatown and the city prepares for a new administration, activists outside CPA are watching closely to see if AADD will open up access to the campaign be­yond the narrow interests of any one or­ganization. “It should be an opportunity to prove the viability of our community,” said Nora Chang Wang.

Citywide, a new generation of Chinese professionals and businessmen, American and foreign-born, is coming of age and is increasingly represented in the corporate, industrial, and art worlds. But for Chinatown, these are intangible allies, since few “Uptowners” have been willing to make the connection with the “Down­towners” committing to change in China­town. Chinese-American multimillion­aires will donate millions of dollars to the big-name institutions instead of casting their favors on a dilapidated Chinatown. Gerald Tsai, former Wall Street wizard and CEO of Primerica, donated $5.5 mil­lion to Boston University last year. Maria Lee, a Hong Kong investor, gave a mil­lion dollars to Pace — instead of to a school in Chinatown, where she is reap­ing huge profits in real estate and from the neighborhood’s largest chain of bakeries.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717156″ /]

WHILE DINKINS SUPPORTERS CITED their candidate’s longtime commitment to Asian-American issues as the reason for his victory, many remain unconvert­ed. In the two election districts that cover the heart of Chinatown, voters gave Koch a 56 per cent majority in the primary. Race is still a touchy subject. Mini Liu, chair of the Committee Against Anti­-Asian Violence, recalls that when a Chi­natown anticrime group displayed snap­shots of circled “suspicious characters” to pedestrians on Canal Street, all the tar­geted people were black. “It is outrageous,” Liu says. “It is racist, and feeds the notion that crime is generated by black people.”

While few would admit to such overt racism, there are those who believe that for Chinese Americans to identify them­selves as a minority is detrimental. “Our first task must be to rid ourselves of our own prejudices — [to realize] that we are Americans, no more, no less,” said Peter Ng, a Republican local district leader.

AT LATE SEPTEMBER’S CHINESE Na­tional Day banquet in honor of the main­land government, 800 people defied the demonstrators and catcallers in the streets to enter the Chinatown restau­rant. Many of those who attended, with their business stakes in China, could not afford to break ties with the Chinese gov­ernment. But many others in the crowd were laundry and restaurant workers who had no personal ax to grind. For many workers who emigrated years — or even half a century — ago, the occasion is not so much a celebration of the Deng-Li-Yang regime, but rather a final defense of their pride as a people in a still-foreign land.

Jimmy Chen, 67, who came to the United States in 1940 to work 16 hours a day in a laundry — and is still working — ­recalls fondly when China exploded the atomic bomb in 1965. “It makes us so proud as Chinese.” Talking about the demonstrators outside the restaurant, he said, “You curse your country, people will look down on you.”

But for the silent and nonvoting major­ity in Chinatown, there seems to be little way out of the enigma of being Chinese in America, at least for the time being. As immigrants of color, they have become neither Americans nor Chinese, but exiles in a promised land.


Tongs Strike Back in Chinatown

Nicky Louie’s Mean Streets

A pockmark-faced guy who sometimes spends 10 hours a day laying bowls of congee in front of customers at a Mott Street rice shop remembers the day the White Eagles, the original Chinatown youth gang, ripped off their first cha shu baos (pork buns). “It was maybe 10 years ago. We were hanging out in Columbus Park, you know, by the courthouse, feeling real stupid. Most of us just got to Chinatown. We couldn’t speak English worth a shit. The juk sing [American-born Chinese] were playing basket­ball, but they wouldn’t let us play. We didn’t know how to anyway. I remember one of our guys said, ‘Shit, in Hong Kong my old man was a civil servant — he made some bread. Then he listened to my goddamned uncle and came over here. Now he’s working as a waiter all day. The guy’s got TB, I know. And I ain’t got enough money for a goddamned cha shu baos.’ ”

Even then the juk tuk (Hong Kong–born Chinese) were sharp to the short end of the stick; they looked around the Toy Shan ghetto and sized up the possibilities for a 16-year-old immigrant. The chances had a familiar ring­ — what the tourists call “a Chinaman’s chance,” which, of course, is no chance at all.

So the eight or nine kids who would become the nucleus of the White Eagles walked up the narrow street past the Italian funeral and into the pastry shop, where they stole dozens of cha shu baas, which they ate — and got so sick they threw up all over the sidewalk.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721103″ /]

Within the next week the Eagles got hold of their first pieces — a pair of automatics — and began to terrorize Toy Shan. They beat the daylights out of the snooty juk sing. They ripped off restaurants. They got tough with the old men’s gambling houses.

It was logical rebellion: In Hong Kong they were city slickers; here the farmer “overseas Chinese” had them penciled in for the laundries and restaurants. There might be moments of revenge, like lacing a lo fan’s sweet-and­-sour with enormous hunks of ginger to watch his white lips pucker. But you knew you’d wind up frustrated, throwing quarters into the “Dancing Chicken” machine at the Chinatown Arcade. You’d watch that stupid chicken come out of its feeder to dance on a record for a couple of minutes, and you’d know you were watching yourself.

Better to be a gangster, and easier. In Hong Kong, you try anything shifty and the cops bust up your ass. They would search an entire block, throwing pregnant women down the hillsteps if they got in the way, just to find a guy they suspected of boosting a pocketbook from the lobby of the Hyatt Regency. Here the cops were all roundeyes­ — they don’t know or care about Chinese. Besides, the old guys kept them paid off. Corruption was the way and extortion was the perfect crime, since the merchants believed money sends away evil.

The fringe benefits included street-status, fast cars to cruise uptown and watch the lo-fan freaks, days to work on your “tans” at Coney listening to Brit rock and new Hong Kong–Filipino platters, plenty of time to go bowling, and the pick of the girls — in general, the old equation of living quick, dying young, and leaving a beautiful corpse.

The Kids Get Cool

It took the Toy Shans a while to comprehend what was happening in their village. Kids had been an unknown quantity in Chinatown. Until the immigration laws eased up in the ’40s, there simply weren’t any. In a show of solidarity with our great Eastern ally, the U.S. agreed to allow Chinese women to immigrate here. At first the lo fa kews were pleased: These were nice kids, respectful kids, hard-working ones worth burning your fingers in the laundry for.

Soon there were flashy ones, too. In 1965, several juk sing “clubs” began to appear. Foremost was the Continentals, a hip bunch who were trying desperately to escape the traditional Chinese stereotype. They spent a good deal of time looking in the mirror, practicing complex handshakes and running around ripping the insignias off Lincoln Continentals. They even talked back to their parents and got acne from eating pizza on Mulberry Street, but no way they were going to carry guns and steal. These Hong Kong ghetto kids, however, had no propriety.

In the beginning the family associations did their best. They marshaled the new kids into New Year’s dragon dancing. For the older, more sullen ones, they established martial-arts clubs. But these kids didn’t seem interested in discipline; besides, they smoked too many cigarettes. That’s when the tongs intervened. Within weeks of the first extortion report, several White Eagles and representatives of the On Leong tong were sitting in a Mott Street restaurant talking it over. When they were done a pact was sealed that would establish the youth gang as a permanent fixture of “New Chinatown.”

It was agreed that the Eagles would stop random mayhem around the community and begin to work for On Leong. They would “guard” the tong-sponsored gambling houses and make sure no other bad guys ripped off restaurants which paid regular “dues.” In return, the Eagles’ leaders would receive a kind of salary, the right to hang around gambling houses to pick up “tips” from big bettors who thought the kids’ presence brought them luck, free meals in various noodle houses, and no-rent apartments in the Chinatown area.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721095″ /]

It seemed a brilliant arrangement: it got the Eagles jobs that furthered the status quo as well as keeping them out of everyone’s hair. But for the tongs, it was more. The On Leongs and Hip Sings no longer struck fear in the heart of Chinatown. Paunchy middle-aged businessmen, they spent most of their time competing for black-mushroom con­tracts. Tong warriors like Sing Dock were just misty reminiscences for bent-over guys playing away their last dollar at fan-tan. The Eagles brought them muscle they felt they would need in changing times. And the kids fulfilled vicariously a longing for the past. This was like having your own private army again, just like the good old days.

But the tongs weren’t used to this kind of warrior. The kids mounted a six-foot-tall statue of a white eagle on top of their tenement at Mott and Pell. Ten of them piled into a taxicab and went uptown to see Superfly; afterward they shot up Pell Street with tiny .22s just for the sheer exhilaration of it. They went into tailor shops, scowled, and came away with $200 suits. Once Paul Ma — Eagle supreme commander — showed up for an arraignment wearing a silk shirt open down the front so everyone could see his bullet holes.

During eight or so years on top in Chinatown, the Eagles set the style for the Chinese youth gang. Part was savagery. Eagle recruiting practices were brutal — coer­cion was often used to replenish their street army. They kidnapped merchants’ daughters and held them for ransom. They also set the example of using expensive and high-powered guns. No Saturday-night specials in China­town. The gangs use Mausers, Lugars, and an occasional M-14. One cop says, “You know, I’ve been on the force for 22 years, and I never saw nothing that gave me nightmares like watching a 15-year-old kid run down Bayard Street carrying a Thompson submachine gun.”

But there was another side to this. A new style was emerging in Chinatown. Chinese kids have had a tough time of it in schools like Seward Park. Blacks and Puerto Ricans, as well as meanies from Little Italy would vamp Chinese students for sport. Groups like the Cons and Eagles were intent on changing this. It was a question of cool. In the beginning they copied the swagger and lingo of the blacks — it is remarkable how closely a Chinese teenager can imitate black speech. From the Puerto Ricans they borrowed souped-up car styling, as well as the nonfashion of wearing army fatigues, which they added to their already zooty Hong Kong–cut shirts.

[related_posts post_id_1=”418976″ /]

But it was Bruce Lee, the Hong Kong sex-symbol kung-fu star who did the most for the Chinese street presence. In the early days of Lee’s fame, Chinese youngsters were baffled by the black and Puerto Rican kids sitting in the first rows at the Pagoda and Sun Sing theatres to watch the martial-arts epics. Later, when kung fu became a ghetto craze, the Chinese kids began to capitalize. They ran around Chinatown carrying nunchakas — kung-fu fighting sticks — which few of them knew how to use, and postured like deadly white cranes. When “Kung-Fu Fighting” became a number-one hit on WWRL, being Chinese was in. They became people not to mess with (although the police report there has never been a gang incident in which martial arts were used). “It was like magic,” says one ex-Con. “I used to walk by the Smith projects where the blacks live, and those brothers would throw dirty diapers out the window at me. Now they call me Mr.”

The image of the Chinese schoolgirl was changing too. Overnight they entered the style show on the subway. A lot of the fashion — air-blown hairstyles, mucho makeup, and tiny “Apple jacket” tops — came from the Puerto Ricans. Classy tweezed Oriental eyebrows produced a new “dragon lady” look.

Openly sexual, some of the Hong Kong girls formed auxiliary groups. Streaking their hair blonde or red to show that their boyfriends were gangsters, they were “ol’ ladies” expected to dab their men’s wounds with elixirs swiped from Chinese apothecaries. It was something to brag about — which not many Chinese women get to do. There are stories of them carrying pieces and doing sentry-work during extortions. Once a group of girls stole a car, which they used to spirit their boyfriends out of a tough spot. But who can blame them? More than half Chinatown’s women work in the 300-odd garment factories in the area, buzzing through the polyester 12 hours a day, trying to crack $100 a week. Hanging with the bad kids risked an occasional gang bang, but it was a better risk than dying in a sweat shop.

Ghost Shadows on Mott Street

The Chinese underworld couldn’t be concerned with this kid stuff; they play a bigger game. The Chinatown heroin connection dates back to the 1949 expulsion of the Nationalist government from the mainland. It’s no secret that many of the Kuomintang generals — including, almost certainly, Chiang Kai-shek — were hooked up with the notorious “Green Gang,” part of an ancient smuggling ring with access to potent poppy patches in “The Golden Triangle” (a well-fertilized area covering parts of Burma, Thailand, and Laos).

When Mao marched on Nanking many of these pusher­-politicians turned tail for New York, where they eased into the On Leong power structure. At first there were problems: The Chinese could move the stuff through the Commonwealth Circuit — Hong Kong to London to Toronto — but they had no street distribution network here. It was then, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency (which spends a good deal of time keeping tabs on Chinatown dope trade), that the On Leong people went across Canal Street to deal with Italian organized crime. Soon after that, several On Leong elders became very rich and a new adage was added to Mafia parlance: “if you want the stuff, get yourself a good gook.”

The connection — which is believed to be kept running by a manager of an On Leong restaurant who is also believed to be the only Chinese ever admitted to the Carlo Gambino crime family — works well. While most of the country is flooded with Mexican smack, in New York the percentage of Golden Triangle poppy runs high. The dope money is the lucrative tip of Chinatown’s pyramid crime structure. The take and extortion kickbacks of many gambling houses provide seed money for the dope trade.

With the gang kids around, business could get even better. DEA people say the gangs are used as runners to pick up dope in the Chinese community in Toronto and then body-carry it across the border. But they may play a greater role. Chinese dope hustlers have always felt on uneasy ground when dealing with flashy uptown pushers. Now, however, street sources say the gutter-wise gangs are dealing directly with black and Puerto Rican dealers.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

But using junk is frowned on in Chinatown. It probably has something to do with the senior citizen home on East Broadway. Eighty-year-old Chinese men and women who still suffer from the effects of long-ago opium addiction live out their lives on methadone over there. They’re probably the oldest addicts in America. The specter of the opium days is still horrifying down here, where landlords con­tinue to find lamps and pipes in attics. These days kids know it too; one Shadow — who was packing a .32 — said, “I look at those people and see a skull, know what I mean?”

That’s why the sight of 14-year-old Eagles nodding on Mott Street during the smack influx of the early ’70s was so galling to the old men. It was a final indiscretion, a final lack of discipline. Actually, the Eagles had been tempting fate for some time. They insulted tong elders in public. They extorted from restaurants they were supposed to be protecting. They mugged big winners outside of the gambling houses. It was playing havoc with the tong’s business as usual. Often the old men threatened to bring in sharpshooting hitmen from Taiwan to calm the kids down.

So in 1974, when Quat Kay Kee, an aging street hustler looking for a handle in the tong hierarchy, told the On Leong of a new and remarkable gang leader, the old men were ready to listen. Nicky Louie and his Ghost Shadows would be more dependable, but no less dangerous. To show their style, Nicky and his top gun, Philip Han (known as Halfbreed), supposedly put on masks and pulled off a ballsy submachine-gun holdup at the Eagle-guarded gambling house in the local VFW post.

Soon after, in another gambling house, a drunken Eagle poured a water glass of tea down the brocade jacket of an On Leong elder. The word came down: The tong had formally withdrawn its support of the Eagles; the Shadows could make their move. A few nights later, the 4 a.m. quiet on Mott Street was broken by Shadows honking the horns of their hopped-up cars. They rode around the block, screeching their tires. The Eagles tumbled out of bed clutching their pieces. The shooting woke up half the neighborhood. Amazingly, no one was injured. But the change had come. The Eagles fled to Brooklyn. And Nicky Louie was pacing back and forth on Mott Street.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721001″ /]

Gangs and Tongs Together 

This struggle proved that the tongs needed the gangs if they were to retain control in a changing Chinatown. The gangs, too, had learned a lesson. Survival is more important than cool. The gangs now knew it was the old guys who made the illegal bread possible through their well-developed connections. Find a Shadow at the corner of Mott and Canal and ask him what the tongs mean to him. He’ll point at the On Leong pagoda and say, “A bankbook, man,” and then point to the Chemical Bank.

So it comes as no surprise that, aside from the sorties against rival gangs, Nicky’s Shadows have been model tenants during their stay on Mott Street. The perfect rebels have ended up as defenders of the status quo. Reformers are fearful of visits from gun-wielding gang members; one lawyer who spoke out against the Chinatown establishment woke up the next morning to find Mott Street plastered with wall posters telling him to get out of town. Threat of gang extortion is also responsible for pushing newer unaligned Hong Kong businesses into tong affiliation.

One hundred years of neglect has atrophied the links to the lo fan power. Years ago, according to just about everyone, the cops and tongs had a neat nonaggression pact well oiled with palm grease. The petty vice at the gambling houses and the occasional opium ODs were unreported and unnoticed except for the obligatory elec­tion-year raids publicized by tabloid “exposes” of “myste­rious” Chinatown life. Back then there was only one Chinese cop, the fabulous Johnny Kai. Kai walked a thin line between American and Chinese law and did a good job for both. Today, however, with Chinese making up the majority of the Fifth’s constituency and youth crime skyrocketing, there is still only one Chinese cop on the beat, Barry Eng, who once said with a straight face, “The associations disowned the youth gangs a long time ago.”

Estrangement from the community they supposedly protect has led to cynicism in the police department. The existence of large sums of illegal money always brings up the possibility of top payoffs. It’s a tough rap to beat — espe­cially in Chinatown — and the Fifth Precinct cops widely resented former special prosecutor Maurice Nadjari’s two-year-long probe of corruption down here.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719876″ /]

Not that the cops say there aren’t payoffs. One On Leong insider says, “Those guys are crooks. I was pit boss at a gambling house and gave $200 a week to the same sergeant for two years.” It’s just that the street-level police say they’re not seeing any of the money. They figure the Chinatown vice organizations are sophisticated enough to bestow their favors on higher-ups.

Fifth Precinct cops are not allowed to make gambling arrests unless they actually see money on the table. But since the chance of a lo fan getting into a Chinese gambling house unnoticed is akin to a snowcone in hell, they might as well not bother. Instead they are instructed to send intelligence reports to the public morals division uptown. Most cops, however, feel this is a thankless task. “For the most part it’s file it and forget if with those guys.” says one. “When you do raid the houses, it’s almost like they’ve been tipped. By the time you get through all the trick doors, there’s no one there but a couple of 100-year-old men smoking cigarettes.”

Nicky’s Peace

Last summer it all began to hit Nicky Louie — all the night riding and blood, and knowing any minute he could be splattered across a wall. One Saturday afternoon on Mott Street he saw an old enemy Eagle gesturing in his direction from across the street. It was a finger. Nicky was being fingered. He stood like a freeze frame, looking at the two strangers drawing down on him. One had a Mauser, the other a Colt .38. The first gunshot whistled by his ear and broke him out of his trance. He ran down Mott, pushing aside the tourists and the old ladies, turning down Canal until he was safe, panting against a wall.

That afternoon haunted Nicky. Battling Paul Ma made sense. But these unknown hitmen had no reason to shoot except money.

It was scary; things seemed to be getting out of control. Eagle Yut Wai Tom had been convicted — the first gang kid to be sent up for murder. Word was around that Tom, who’d been saying that getting 20 years wasn’t nothing, had cracked on Riker’s Island. The cops were doing a suicide watch next to his cell. Quat Kay Kee, Nicky’s old sponsor at On Leong, had been flipping out, too. Shot at in the Wiseman Bar on Bayard Street by a group of Eagles wearing wigs, Quat railed that he’d tell all. He managed to compose himself just before the drug cops got there with their tape recorders.

Being a warlord was a tough gig. To keep up their street army, the Shadows had been forced to recruit younger and younger kids. But what exactly do you say to a 14-year-old when you’re a 22-year-old legend? The young Shadows were griping about their wages, saying that they were getting spit waiter pay for long nights in the gambling houses while Nicky and Halfbreed were cruising around on the island in their cars. In the early part of the year some of the kids had broken a way from Nicky to ally themselves with the scuzzy Wah Chings. For a couple of nights in January, they had actually succeeded in pushing Nicky off the Street. It took all of his negotiating prowess to fix things again.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721906″ /]

For months he’d let it be known that he was tired of being a youth-gang leader, but the tong gave little indication that they’d allow him to move up in the organization. And quitting was out of the question. First of all, he knew too much and had far too many enemies. It wouldn’t be enough to leave Chinatown, or even New York City. Anyplace there was On Leong — like Toronto or Chicago — or Hip Sing, which is just about everywhere, he’d be known and fair game. Anyway, if he did get out, what was waiting? He knew lots of ex-gang guys who’d “retired” and now broke their humps for their families in the old restaurant grind.

Ironically, it was the old men who provided Nicky and the other gang kids with an escape from street fighting. Despite Chinatown’s traditional reluctance to look for outside help, poverty money is beginning to find its way down here. Funding scams may not be as venerable as gambling houses, but for a modern world, there must be modern hustles. So the tongs figured the angles. People had been telling them about a Harlem incident in which the hak guey youth gangs have given up their arms. The federal government had laid a sizable chunk of cash on groups promising to reform the kids. The old men saw an opening; if they could get the gangs to call “peace,” they could get the uptight merchants off their backs as well as pick up a large grant. There would be a cut of the pie for the gang kids, too. The plan was laid out to Nicky. He liked it and promised to set it up. He contacted Eagle Paul Ma and Dragon Mike Chen — who hated each other more than they both hated Nicky — and got them to say “cool.”

Next step was to make it respectable. So the gangs contacted one of Chinatown’s “name” social workers and told him they wanted to give up their evil ways. The worker, eager to be known as the man who stopped Chinatown gang warfare, went for it. Everything was set.

But somewhere along the line, Nicky began to forget it was all a scam. Suddenly, he liked the idea of “reforming,” learning English for real and getting a decent job. And he wasn’t the only one. Around lo tow, guys were still packing rods, but they also were talking about what they’d do when they went “legit.”

The first “peace” meeting was at the Kuo Wah restaurant on Mott Street. Kids embraced each other, saying it was crazy for Chinese guys to kill other Chinese guys. Nicky sat down with Paul Ma. They’d been trying to wipe each other out for years; but now they spent hours reminiscing about their favorite extortion spots on Mott Street.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718606″ /]

The old men were flabbergasted. What a double-cross! If these kids were on the level, then the whole vice structure could go down the tubes. Then again the gangs could be pulling a power play to cut Chinatown up for themselves. Either was disaster. And after that the tongs did everything they could to sabotage the peace. They spread mistrust among the merchants; they tried to bribe front the gang leaders. The kids had to stay one jump in front their bossmen. They changed the restaurant where they were meeting, which was just as well because the place was raided while the gangs met around the corner. Pissed to find the Kuo Wah deserted, the police said, “We were tipped that there were plenty of guns going to be there.”

The old men unsuccessfully tried to cancel the press conference formally announcing the “peace.” But, on August 12, Nicky and the other gang leaders read their joint statement. They didn’t expect to be forgiven, but then again they weren’t apologizing. They had become wiser; being a gangster wasn’t so great. Other kids shouldn’t get into it. It was moving; several of the old family association leaders wept. Even Nicky looked a little misty.

But time had run out on Nicky’s peace: the old Toy Shan forces of secrecy and mistrust were working overtime. The merchants had been soured by the tongs. They never believed the gangs were sincere and offered no support. The social service agencies, more interested in competing with one another than focusing on the kids’ cry for help, failed to come up with concrete programs. The cops didn’t help either. Figuring they were being good guys, they offered a 10-day amnesty period for the gang kids to turn in their guns. The gang smelled a lo fan rat. “I’m gonna turn in my gun so they can do ballistic and fingerprint check on it? No way,” said one. No weapons were turned in.

Some would say Nicky was a victim of his own history, but others knew warriors don’t give up their arms on a whim. Nicky’s peace held for nearly three weeks but tension flooded Mott Street. Cops said, “They might have called it peace, but they spelled it ‘p-i-e-c-e.’ ” Nicky knew it was over the night the Eagles ripped off a restaurant on the other end of Mott Street. He ran over to find Paul Ma and see what was up. An Eagle told him Paul was “out” and laughed. After that, Nicky kicked chairs in a Mott Street rice shoppe. Gang members say the sear was back in his eye.

By then it was just a matter of time. Within the next week the Shadows, Eagles, and Dragons were shooting at each other; the two-month-long war would prove to be the bloodiest in Chinatown history.

[related_posts post_id_1=”730344″ /]

The tongs used the madness to solidify their position. They promised the frightened merchants they’d get the gangs out of town. Big boss Benny Ong, backed by On Leong big shots, had the gangs over to Hip Sing and told them to ease off or they’d kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Murder each other and play extortion games outside Chinatown until the heat comes off. Just to make sure it worked, the tongs staged a little drama for the gangs’ benefit. It’s been common knowledge in Chinatown that a major new restaurant is the best extortion target around. Before it opened in December, gang kids were around asking $40,000 for a year’s worth of “protection.” When the place opened to brisk business, they came back, looking for more. This time, however, according to Chinese newspa­pers, the gangs ran into five smashnoses imported from Mulberry Street. Reportedly the kids wound up in a meat grinder, their remains dumped into a plastic bag and driven to Newark.

The tong plan worked. Except for a few gun violations, the cops say Chinatown’s been quiet for the past few weeks. But reports of gang extortions in exotic places like Massapequa and northern New Jersey have begun to come in. It’s a safe bet to say that there isn’t a Chinese restaurant in the metropolitan area that hasn’t been approached at one time or another for some kind of payoff.

But in fanning out of Chinatown, the gangs broke a New York City rule: Don’t mess with the rich people. The uptown cops have been laying an unwavering eyeball on extortion rings in the fancy midtown restaurants. Someone goofed when they rubbed out the young couple who run the Szechuan D’or on East 40th Street. It mobilized whole armies of cops. Determined to strike Chinese crime at its root, the police — even the public morals division — have shut down the gambling and extortion rackets in Chinatown. Every so often the cops bust a kid and claim it’s the key to the city-wide extortion game.

Word is big gamblers walk around in a daze at the OTB, trying to latch on to private pi gow games uptown. Nicky and the Shadows, seeing no percentage in hanging around for the onslaught, split for greener fields in the On Leong–run towns of Toronto and Chicago.

No one, of course, expects this to last. Some things are different. Just the other day the cops busted Mike Chen with a 12-gauge shotgun and 150 rounds of ammunition. Paul Ma, Philip Han, and Big Benny Ong are on their way to the slammer. And some even say the good people at Hip Sing could stage a takeover m Benny’s absence.

But much more remains the same. Go tonight to a restaurant on Mott Street and look out the window. Across the street you’re likely to see a good-looking skinny guy in a green fatigue jacket pacing back and forth. Nicky Louie is back in town, vigilant as ever. Look into his eyes and wonder what he’s thinking. But, then, remember… it’s Chinatown.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721128″ /]


The Ghost Shadows got their name from The New York Times. It happened about four years ago when the Shadows were functioning as the “junior auxilia­ry” of the now defunct Kwon Ying gang of Pell Street. A Times reporter was in Chinatown to cover an incident in which some of the young Kwon Ying were involved. The reporter wanted to know what “Kwon Ying” meant. (It means “not the Eagles,” a reference to the rival gang, the White Eagles.) One wise guy — probably an Eagle — said, “ghost shadow,” knew that a “ghost” is a bad thing to call a Chinese tough guy. The Chinese have long called whites bak guey, or white ghost, and blacks hak guey, which means black ghost. The gist is that these people were incomplete — were definitely not all there. Being a “ghost shadow” went double. The reporter dutifully filed “Ghost Shadow” with his copy. The next morning, after reading about themselves in the paper, Nicky Louie and the rest of the Ghost Shadows decided they liked their new name. It was so born to lose.

Other Chinese expressions of interest:
Toy Shan: A district in Canton from which most early immigrants to New York’s Chinatown came in the mid-19th century

lo fa kew: Descendants of the original Cantonese immigrants

juk sing: American-born Chinese

juk tuk: Hong Kong-born Chinese

lo fan: “Foreign devils”

tong: Hall or association

On Leong and Hip Sing: The two major tongs

lo tow: A slang phrase for Chinatown

pi gow: A domino game


New York’s Other Mafia: Young Warriors in Chinatown

Part I: Young Warriors Fight for Their Place in Chinatown 

Late last year, the young Chinese couple who ran the Szechuan D’Or restaurant on East 40th Street were murdered. The incident sparked fear that the crime which had riddled Chinatown was moving uptown. Police launched a citywide campaign to wipe it out. The crackdown played havoc with established vice in Chinatown. Youth gangs, foot soldiers of neighborhood crime, were forced out of town. Venerable gambling houses were shuttered. Extortion rackets that affect every restaurant in the area were interrupted. Even the Chinatown Connection, one of the city’s most active heroin conduits, was blocked.

But it will take more than a few gambling raids to shake the historical forces at work in Chinatown today. The Mott Street gangs are back. This is the story of who controls that street, and how they got there.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721095″ /]

October 1976

Midnight in Chinatown, everyone seems nervous. The old waiters look both ways before going into the gambling joint on Pell Street. Ladies bleary from a 10-hour day working over sewing machines in the sweatshops are hurrying home and restaurants are closing earlier than usual. At the Sun Sing Theatre on East Broadway, underneath a hand-painted poster of a bleeding kung fu hero, a security guard is fumbling with a padlock. Ask him how business is and he shakes his head, “No good.” Ask him why and he points his finger right between his eyes and says, “bang!”

A Quiet New Year

Pacing back and forth in front of the coffee shop at 56 Mott Street, Nicky Louie has got a lot to lose if there’s any serious gunplay tonight. A good-looking skinny guy with searing brown eyes wearing a green army fatigue jacket, Nicky is the leader of the Ghost Shadows, the gang of 50 or so Hong Kong immigrants who’ve been terrorizing Chinatown for the past few years.

Born Hin Pui Lui in the Kowloon slums 22 years ago, Nicky came to “low tow” (Chinatown) in the late ’60s. The old Hong Kong people naively called this new slum “Gum Shan,” which means Gold Mountain. But Nicky is sharper than that. No way he would end up a faceless waiter headed for the TB ward. He was born for greater things. When he first got into the gangs half a dozen years ago, people say he had the biggest mouth in Chinatown. He was the gun-wielding wild man, always up for action, willing to do anything to get attention. It paid off. Nicky’s been the top Shadow ever since 1973, when the gang’s former big boss Nei Wong got caught with a Hong Kong cop’s girlfriend. The cop, in New York for a surprise visit, ran across Wong and his betrothed in the Chinese Quarter Nightclub beneath the approach ramp to the Manhattan Bridge and blew off both their heads with his police revolver.

Since then Nicky’s rise in the Chinatown youth gang world has been startling. He has piloted the once ragtag Shadows from the bleak days when they were extorting a few free meals and dollars from the greasy spoons over on East Broadway to their current haunt, Mott Street, the big time.

[related_posts post_id_1=”721116″ /]

Controlling Mott Street means the Shadows get to affiliate themselves with the On Leong tong, the richest and most influential organization in Chinatown. Working with the On Leong gives the Shadows a piece of the money generated by tong (the word means simply “hall” or “association”) activities. The gangs guard the gambling houses in the On Leong territory that operate in the musty lofts and basements along Mott Street. The Shadows also provide the muscle for their version of the age-old restaurant-protection racket (not to mention considerable “freelance” extortion on the side). The gangs also act as runners in the Chinatown Connection heroin trade, bringing the stuff across the Canadian border and spreading it throughout New York. The money filters down to Nicky and his lieutenants; they filter the spoils down to the younger Shadows.

For Nicky, working with the tongs means a premiere position among the other warlords in Chinatown, plus a weekly income that ranges from $200 to $2000, depending on who you talk to. In any event, it is enough to buy a swift $7000 Peugeot to tool down Canal Street in.

But tongs are fickle. If another group of Hong Kong teenagers — say their arch enemy the White Eagles or the hard-charging Flying Dragons, who take target practice on the pigeons down by the East River — should show the On Leong they’re smarter or tougher than the Shadows, Nicky’s boys could be gone tomorrow. After all, it’s happened before.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717703″ /]

Shootout on Bayard Street

Could again. Two years ago Nicky and the Shadows pushed the surly Eagles off the street. In September, after licking their wounds over in Brooklyn and down in Florida, the Eagles with their leader Paul Ma — Nicky’s main rival — returned. And they were not going to be satisfied with crummy Elizabeth Street. Soon the Eagles started appearing on Bayard Street, part of Shadowland. Then Paul Ma, a ballsy dude, set up his own gambling house on the block; it was a direct affront to Nicky.

On September 8, the Shadows struck back, shooting a bunch of Eagles, including Paul Ma and a gang member’s wife, in front of Yuen Yuen Snack Shop on Bayard. It set off the most hair-raising month of street-fighting in Chinatown history; no weekend went by without a major incident. The now infamous Wong Kee chopchop was the highlight of the war. According to cops, the Shadows, including Nicky himself, crashed through the door of the Wong Kee Rice Shop on the Italian end of Mott and carved up one Eagle with chef’s kitchen cleavers and stabbed another with a fork. Which is why Nicky is on the street “watch” tonight. His presence keeps things cool. Without Nicky pacing up and down Mott Street, the Shadows might as well go back to East Broadway. He’s a Chinatown legend.

The Scientific Killer

Fifty years ago, chances are Nicky might have been lying around the “joss houses” and street-fighting alongside the hatchet and gunmen of Chinatown’s “tong wars.” In those days, the two big tongs, the On Leong and the Hip Sing of Pell Street, battled on the sidewalks over the few available women and the opium trade, and out of sheer boredom. Back then, there were legendary “boo hoy dow” (warriors): like Mock Dock, the great gambler known as “The Philosophical Killer,” and Yee Toy, “The Girl-Faced Killer.” Most famous of all, however, was the plain-faced Sing Dock. “The Scientific Killer.” Once, after hearing of an outbreak of war in New York, he rode in the baggage compartment of a train (Chinese weren’t allowed to ride up front) for six weeks from San Francisco. That was when Pell Street was called “Red Street” and the crook in Doyers Street was known as “The Bloody Angle.”

Today the Chinatown warrior has changed. The young gangs are not respected tong members, as Sing Dock was; they’re foot-soldier peons who are in it for the bucks. Nicky and the Shadows have given up black overcoats for fatigue jackets and puffy hairdos. (Asked if their hair is a Hong Kong fashion, the gangs say, “No, man, it’s ’cause we dig Rod the Mod, man.” Meaning Rod Stewart.) But the nicknames are still colorful. Hanging with Nicky tonight are old-time Shadows “Mongo,” the wild-man enforcer who got his name from Blazing Saddles, and “Japanese,” who shaved his head after he heard that things might go easier for him in jail if he looked like a “Muslim.” There are some guys with grade-B movie names like Lefty and Four-Eyes, but most of the kids go for names like “Stinkybug,” “White-Faced Tiger,” “Pointy Lips,” “Porkupine,” and “Nigger Choy.” There must be 20 kids named “Apple Head” running around Chinatown. Nicky, however, is just Nicky.

[related_posts post_id_1=”418976″ /]

The Ghost Legend

Some say Nicky has nine lives. The estimates of how many slugs he carries around inside his chest vary. According to an ex-gang member, “When he turn over in bed at night, he can hear them bullets clank together.”

Last May teenage hitmen from the San Francisco–based Wah Ching gang flew across the country just to kill Nicky. Some say it was on an Eagle contract. For whatever reason they pumped a dozen bullets into the middle of a Saturday afternoon shopping crowd on Mott Street while Nicky disappeared across Canal Street. The Chings missed everyone and wound up getting pinched by two drug cops who just happened to be eating won ton in the nearby Joy Luck Restaurant.

The “ging cha” (police) have arrested Nicky for everything from robbery to extortion to murder to rape, but he’s never been convicted.

Detective Neal Maurillo, who is assigned full-time to the Fifth Precinct’s Chinese gang section, is a smart cop. He realizes he’s got a crazy and hopelessly complicated job. Chinatown gangs aren’t like the bruisers fighting over street corners and ghetto reps up in the Bronx. There’s piles of money, history, and politics behind what Nicky and his guys are doing. And since it’s Chinatown, they’d rather do it quietly — which is why Shadows don’t wear dungaree coats with hard-on things like “Savage Skulls” emblazoned on the back.

But Neal knows all the faces on Mott Street. He memorizes gang members’ names and birthdays, walks down the street and says, “Hey, happy birthday Pipenose, seen Dice around.” That blows minds. Sometimes Nicky Louie calls Neal up just to shoot the breeze. Neal says, “That kid is okay really. But I’ve been chasing him for five years and I’ll nail him. He knows it, too. We talk about it all the time.” Neal remembers the time he came upon Nicky lying face down in a pool of blood near the Bowery. He said, “Nicky, come on, you’re gonna die, tell me who shot you.” Nicky looked up at Neal, his eyes blazing arrogance, and said, “Fuck you.” Of course, Nicky pulled through in fine shape and the two had a good laugh about it later.

Tales of this sort of exploit are enough to keep the Dragons and the hard-case White Eagles at bay. The On Leong like Nicky’s style and probably have him tabbed as a future officer. If not, he might go over to the rival Hip Sing tong, which backs youth gangs of its own.

But you have to step back from all this for a minute. There hasn’t been a tong war in Chinatown since the ’20s. And Nicky Louie is not a reincarnation of Sing Dock — he’s a disaffected ghetto kid growing into what most people would call a dangerous gangster. But you also have to remember that this is Chinatown. Down here the past and present are a little more difficult to sort out.

[related_posts post_id_1=”719883″ /]

The Tenement Tongs

Toy Shan is a village in the mountainous region of Canton from which the great majority of those who settled New York’s Chinatown came in the mid 1800s. It’s possible that the Toy Shan settlement in New York was as closed a community as has ever existed in urban America. Much of this is bound up in mutual racism, including the infamous “Exclusion Acts” that effectively banned Chinese women from the United States for more than 60 years.

The havoc these laws wreaked on the Toy Shan consciousness is difficult to underestimate. Drinking and gambling, both venerable Chinese passions, became endemic. There were numerous gambling houses in Chinatown (contemporary houses pull in from $40,000 to $50,000 on a good night), and Chinese faces became familiar at the city’s racetracks, probably the only place they were, outside restaurants and laundries, which prompted wags to dub the Belmont subway special, “The Shanghai Express.” Prostitutes from uptown were frequent visitors to Toy Shan back then. Chatham Square was one of the best non-hotel beats in the city. By the 1940s, when the laws finally began to ease, the ratio of men to women in Chinatown ranged as high as 10 to 1.

The Toy Shans were not eager to mingle with the people they called “lo fan” (foreign devils) in any event. Determined to survive, they built an extralegal society based on furtive alliances, police bribes, creative bookkeeping, and immigration scams. The aim was to remain invisible and separate. To this day, few people in Chinatown are known by their real names; most received new identities, such as the Lees, Chins, and Wongs from the family associations, who declared them “cousins” to get them into the country.

In place of the “Western government,” they substituted the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), an organization to which the neighborhood’s 65-odd family and merchant associations belong. To this day every other president of the CCBA has to be a “Toy Shan” descendant.

It was, however, the Hip Sing and On Leong that carried much of the power in the community. Originally formed as protection societies for Chinese without strong family ties, the “tongs” set themselves up as “night mayors” of Chinatown. They controlled the illegal activities in a community where everyone felt outside the law. Their spokesmen, with hatchet men behind them, grew in power at the CCBA. Between themselves, they struck a parity that still holds. On Leong has more money and highly placed members, especially in Chiang Kai-shek’s old Kuomintang party and the Nationalist government. The prole Hip Sing, which is known as “the friend of the seaman” for its ability to sneak Chinese off boats and into waiter jobs, has more members and branches.

But in 1965 the Toy Shan traditions were seriously threatened. The federal laws were altered to allow open Chinese emigration to this country. Since then more than 200,000 Hong Kong residents have emigrated; half settled in the New York area, many of those in Chinatown.

Which makes sense. The New York pace is similar to that of teeming Hong Kong, and the business possibilities seemed good. In Boston, the Chinese community borders on a honkytonk area. In Chicago, the black ghetto is everywhere. In San Francisco, the Chinese have always thought of themselves as more sophisticated than the Toy Shan, but there the Chinatown is neatly stitched into a tourist patchwork quilt that cuts expansion possibilities. In New York, however, the old men have played it close to the vest for so long, anything can happen.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718817″ /]

Toy Shan Changes

Chinatown is in the midst of a gut-wrenching change. The population is edging toward 75,000, a five-fold increase since the law change. It’s one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in New York and without doubt the most densely populated. Once confined to the familiar pentagon bounded by Canal Street, Worth, and the Bowery, Chinatown is now sprawling all over the Lower East Side. Already Mott Street above Canal up to Grand, once solidly Italian is 70 percent Chinese. To the east, Division Street and East Broadway, formerly Jewish and Puerto Rican, have become centers of Chinese business and residence.

But much of the old Toy Shan separatism remains. Most Chinatown residents do not vote; currently there are fewer than 3000 registered voters in the area. In marked contrast to the Asian communities in California, no Oriental has ever held major office in New York. The Chinatown Democratic Club has been busted as a gambling house. Peter Wu, the club’s leader, has been called one of the biggest gamblers in Chinatown. The political base of the community is so weak that activists feel powerless to do anything about the assembly lines that bisect the area and cut the potential Chinese vote in half. Chinatown activists say this neglect is responsible for the compromised stand in the zoning fight with the Little Italy Restoration Association, which is seeking toward off the Chinese influx and zone large portions of the area for the dwindling Italian population.

Yet changes are everywhere. Chinatown now functions for Chinese; it looks like Hong Kong. Investigate the brand new Silver Palace Restaurant on the Bowery — it breaks the mold of the cramped, no-atmosphere Chinatown restaurant. An escalator whisks you up to a dining room as big as a football field. Almost all the 1000 or so people eating there will be Chinese, many middle-class couples who’ve motored in from Queens to try a more adventurous version of Cantonese food than this city is accustomed to. (Many Chinese will tell you the “exotic” Szechuan and Hunan food is the “American” fare.)

The mass migration has transformed Chinatown into an odd amalgam of boom town and ghetto. Suddenly half the businesses here are no longer in the hands of the old “lo fa kew” (the Cantonese Toy Shans). In their place have come Hong Kong entrepreneurs and Taiwanese investors, who are fearful of the future of their island. A Taiwanese combine, the Summit Import Corporation, has already done much to change shopping habits in Chinatown by opening two big supermarkets, Kam Wah on Baxter Street and Kam Kuo on Mott.

The Taiwanese money is an indication that even though the Nationalists appear on the verge of international political eclipse, their influence in American Chinatowns is on the rise. A Taiwan concern is also behind the proposed block-long Golden Pacific National Bank on Canal Street. It’s one of the several new banks opening in this neighborhood of compulsive savers. The gold rush, prodded by extraordinary greed, has pushed real-estate values here to fabled heights.

All this has the Toy Shan posers hanging on for dear life. The newcomers, filtered through Hong Kong, come from all over China. The old Toy Shan loyalties don’t apply. These people got here without the help of the associations and owe them little. The tongs and the CCBA are beginning to feel the crunch. They’ve begun to see more and more store owners break away. Suddenly there are publicly funded social service agencies, most prominently the Chinatown Planning Council, to challenge CCBA rulings. And the younger Chinese, sons and daughters of the “lo fa kew,” have been openly critical.

[related_posts post_id_1=”718730″ /]

The Old Men Act

But 100 years of power isn’t something you give up without a fight. On November 3, the CCBA held a meeting to discuss what to do about Nicky Louie and his Ghost Shadow buddies shooting up the neighborhood. Chinatown has traditionally been one of the safest areas in the city; it still is. Crime figures are remarkable low here for a place with so many new immigrants. That’s what made the recent violence all the more shocking. Especially in a neighborhood so dependent on tourism. Although the battles were being waged among the various Shadows, Dragons, and Eagles around, merchants were reporting 30 per cent drop in business. Places that stay open late were doing even worse.

The street fighting is “disfiguring” Chinatown, said one merchant, referring to the April shootout at the Co-Luck Restaurant on the Bowery. That night, according to the cops, a couple of Shadows roared up in a late-model blue Ford, smashed through the glass door, and started spraying .32 automatic slugs in the general direction of some Dragons who were “yum cha” (drinking tea and talking) in the corner. One of the Dragons, who may not have been a Dragon at all, got clipped in the leg. For the rest of the people in the restaurant, it was grimmer. By the time the Shadows were through, they had managed to hit three New York University law students, a waiter, and a lady from Queens who later died on the floor, her daughter crying over her body. The cops said, “The place looked like as slaughterhouse; there was blood all over the linoleum.”

Since then Co-Luck has been considered bad luck for prospective buyers. It remains vacant, rare in a neighborhood where no storefront is empty for long. On the door is a sign: “Closed For Alterations,” “Perhaps we keep it that way,” said a merchant, “as a scar to remind us of our shame.”

Restaurant owners say there won’t be so many wedding banquets this summer because of an incident in the Hung Gung a few months ago. Gang members crashed a banquet in the restaurant, stationing sentries outside to make sure no one came or went, and instructed a hundred celebrants to drop their valuables into shopping bags. “It was just like the Wild West,” says someone close to the wedding guests.

The police don’t see things looking up. In October they made 60 gang-related arrests, the most ever in a single month. They say there are more guns on the street than ever before and estimate gang membership before the recent crackdown at about 200, an all-time high. The gang kids are younger, too. 14-year-olds from Junior High School are common these days.

Pressured by editorials in the Chinese press, the CCBA swung into action. They called a public gathering at which the community would be free to explain its plight to Manhattan district attorney Robert M. Morganthau.

[related_posts post_id_1=”717604″ /]

Getting the Lo Fan Involved

This was quite a change in tactics for the CCBA. Until quite recently one of its major functions has been to keep the lid on Chinatown’s considerable and growing urban problems. That Chinese women sew garments for 12 cents a piece, that more than one third of the area’s males work as waiters, that Chinatown has the highest rate of TB and mental illness among city neighborhoods, all that was dirty linen better kept under wraps. But Nicky and the Shadows, they make noise. They get picked up for killing people and get their sullen pictures in what the Chinese still call “the Western press.” Keeping that quiet can make you look awfully silly. So, when Joseph Mei, the CCBA vice-president, told The New York Times, “We have no problem at all about youth gangs in Chinatown,” the day after Nicky’s people allegedly shot five White Eagles in front of the Yuen Yuen Snack Shop a policy change was in order.

The meeting was held in the CCBA’s dank auditorium (underneath an alternating string of American and Nationalist Chinese flags). Yut Yee, the 70-year-old CCBA president, who reportedly has been known to fall asleep during meetings, was unusually awake that night. He said, “Chinatown will become a dead city” if the violence continues. He urged residents to come forward and “report cases of crimes: we must be witnesses.” This seemed unlikely, for in a culture where the character for “revenge” means literally “report a crime,” the act of informing tends to be a complicated business. It confuses and angers the Lo Fan cops, who say that even though just about every restaurant in Chinatown has been robbed or extorted from in the past few years, the incidence of reporting the crimes is almost nil. Despite the fact that gang members have been arrested for more than a dozen murders in Manhattan there has been only one conviction: that, of Yut Wai Tom, an Eagle who made the mistake of putting a bullet through the throat of a Shadow in front of a couple of Puerto Rican witnesses.

Morganthau sighed during the debate of Chinese businessmen, looked at his watch, said he’d “help,” and left. But this time however, many people were openly restive. “My god, when will this bullshit stop?” asked a younger merchant.

No one talked about the tongs and their relationship to the gangs. H0w could they? Of the seven permanent members of the CCBA inner voting circle, one is in the On Leong, another the Hip Sing. No wonder people tend to get cynical whenever the CCBA calls a meeting at which the tong interests are at stake. Perhaps that’s why, when a Chinese reporter asked what the D.A. was planning to do to help the community, one of the Morganthau’s people said, “What do you want? We showed up, didn’t we?”

But, really all you had to do was watch Benny Eng. Benny is the director of the Hip Sing Credit Fund (which drug cops figure is a laundry room for dirty money). He is also an officer of the Chinese-American Restaurant Association, an organization that deserves blame for keeping waiter wages in Chinatown at about $50 a week for the past twenty years.

As people entered the CCBA hall, Little Benny, as he is called in deference to Big Benny Ong, the old Hip Sing bossman who recently got caught sneaking out the door of the gambling house at 9 Pell and spent the next day teaching cops how to play Chinese poker, greeted everyone with a hopelessly drawn face. He said, “so happy you are interested in the security of Chinatown” to everyone entering the meeting. But later, you could swear you say Benny nod respectfully to the skinny-legged kid pacing up and down Mott Street.


Year of the Takeout Day 164: Ma Ma Na NY Bakery Inc.

Cake from Ma Ma Na NY Bakery Inc. (70 B Canal, 212-274-8188)

Flour power indeed!

This $1 treat has the vibe of angel food, but without as much sugar. Spongy, moist, and just a little bit buttery, a perfect pairing for this dessert might be sweetened, black tea.


Year of the Takeout Day 163: Quickly

Green Tea With Pudding from Quickly

Quickly is analogous to the Starbucks of bubble teas — they are scattered throughout the City and can be found in other boroughs and have a strong presence in Chinatown.

Not huge fans of boba, we decided to go for the green tea with pudding. The tea, while strong, has a slight sweetness and air of jasmine. The pudding seems like a mango jelly of sorts, and features just a hint of fruitiness. The vibe is more gelatinous than candy like.

Overall, the 2 buck beverage is refreshingly weird. And weirdly refreshing.