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usaNew York Chinatown

usa chinatownsNew York Chinatown is almost 140 years old. It is the largest Chinatown in the US with a growing population of 150.000.

It is the heart today of thriving and prosperous satellite Chinatowns in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. It is a port of entry for a healthy flow of emigration and increasing tourism from mainland China, Taiwan, and the Chinese diaspora from Southeast Asia and the Caribbean.

Birth and expansion of New York Chinatown

The original 200 sojourners from South China who carved out a small enclave in New York's infamous Five Point district, which Martin Scorsese brought to world attention in 'Gangs of New York', would have been surprised at the dynamic growth of the Chinatown that they knew.

It has already absorbed Little Italy to its north and extended more or less between the East River and the Hudson River on its west; from there Chinese would fan out to the East Village, penetrate the Jewish Lower Eastside, and live in small clusters throughout New York's 5 boroughs.

Today's New York Chinatown has 23.000 housing units, 600 restaurants, humming garment factories, and 20 banks with total assets of US$3,6 billion.

The original Chinese immigrants, who clung together in ghettos to escape mob violence, objects that they were of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act [the only piece of legislation which targeted a particular ethnic group], even though New York offered them a wider freedom of movement than the pronounced racialism that California nutured.

Unlike most American ghettos, the Chinese exemplified the virtues which the US idealizes, namely, self reliance and getting along among themselves. They set up their own 'government' composed of an umbrella group of benevolent family associations, tongs, and businesses which provided protection, work, social services, and financial help.

Slum or exiotic?

New York Chinatown had the outward appearance of an urban slum; it was a bachelor society for the Exclusion Act forbade bringing brides from China [yet this was circumvented], and a more or less self-contained society with fierce attachment to Imperial China. Its tenement buildings took on the features of a Bowery flop house, with rooms divided up into anthill like compartments for 25 men, with minimal health conditions.

New York Chinatown flattered the American imagination for the exotic; it fed stereotypes of the nefarious evil Chinaman in the guise of Dr. Fun Manchu or the petite maiden with bound feet, or the servile houseboy with a long queue; to the American imagination, the mere mention of Chinatown provoked a frisson of danger and the exotic, the closest ordinary Americans would come to the mysterious East and the inscrutable Chinese.

Chinatown had its tong wars, its opium dens, its fan tan or gambling houses, its bawdy houses, its temples, clouded in the smoke of joss sticks; Chinatown was synonomous with cheap labour, inexpensive restaurants, hand laundries, herbalists, fish and meat markets, green groceries, and schools.

Although the law kept an ironclad quota on emigration from China, there appeared 'paper sons' and wives and through clandestine emigration and births, New York Chinatown's population began slowly to grow. And although racialist sentiment reasoned that this 'despised race' couldn't assimilate, assimilate they did.

The indemnity that China had to pay the US for the Boxer Rebellion went into an education fund for Chinese to study in American universities and so to the working classes of New York Chinatown came a stratum of educated Chinese, as well as children born here who went to New York public schools. Despite all obstacles the soujourners remained in New York as a source of cheap labour and in every neighbourhood sprang up hand laundries and a Chinese restaurant catering to American tastes.

Legal restrictions obtained till the outbreak of World War 2, to counter Japanese and German propaganda, that the America fighting for democracy practiced racialism towards the Chinese in America, the more especially since China was an ally and Generalissimo Chang Kai Chek enjoyed the full support of the US government. The Exclusion Act was lifted but the Chinese quota for immigration remained woefully low.

Loyalities and identities

Saying this, Chinese Americans displayed great loyalty and courage fighting for Uncle Sam during the war. 1949 sent a shiver of the Cold War in New York Chinatown; it tested family loyalties split along the fault line of sympathy for the China of Mao Tze Tung or the China of Chang Kai Chek on Taiwan. The long hand of paranoia of the McCarthy witch hunt and the pressure exerted by the Kuomingtong nurtured a quietism in New York Chinatown.

New York Chinatown began fracturing along class, caste, and educational lines, thanks to a healthy post-war American economy, re enforcing the process of Americanisation. Ultimately under the Johnson administration, a change in the law of immigration quota opened the floodgates of opportunity in the US not only to the Chinese but to unwanted Europeans, Latin Americans, and Africans.

Thus from 1968 onwards, New York Chinatown's population grew geometrically, and its boundaries stretched to the breaking point. In consequent, Chinese settled in new Chinatowns in Brooklyn and Queens, or more prosperous families emigrated to the suburbs thereby joining the mix of the US melting pot.

New emigration sharpened the language divide; originally Cantonese prevailed but now Mandarin is widely spoken, but the tension from China's south and the official language of China and Taiwan remain. Thus in the new world, the old world rivalries and pride have taken on new life.

Ever changing New York Chinatown

Nevertheless, the original New York Chinatown, now sprawling and prosperous, and undergoing gentrification, remains a magnet of attraction to American born and immigrant Chinese. It offers an ambiance of familiarity and for new arrivals services to navigate the whys and wherefors of New York.

On any weekend you can find Chinese from Cuba, the Caribbean, Mauritius, Vietnam, Burma, Malaysia, and Singapore rubbing shoulders with Chinese from China and Tawian, not forgetting 6 or 7 generation American Chinese.

The statue of Confucius benignly looks on Chinatown and on Chatam Square where the memorial to Chinese Americans who died fighting for the US stands, and with his eyes looking down East Broadway the pround Commissar Lin watches over the growing community from Fujian.

New York Chinatown suffered from the dust and smoke and economic decline from 9/11, as it was in the shadow of the World Trade Centre. Yet, it has not lost its vibrancy; its sons and daughters are in government and New York politics and more importantly demographically speaking, one out of every 10 New Yorkers is Asian, and 80 per cent is Chinese.

New York Chinatown is a symphony of the sounds which reflect American capitalism, self-reliance, hard work, and respect for the law. Nostalgically, no matter where Chinese live in New York, New York Chinatown is a Mecca. Here food and language that certain feeling evoke a shared history and values.

Sadly, owing to DVDs, Chinese picture houses are no more; Chinese opera companies perform uptown at Lincoln Centre; Canto pop singers from Hong Kong throne in Atlantic City casinos. New York Chinatown has two bi lingual schools where non Chinese are on the waiting list because Chinese are models for good study habits and achievement.

As New York Chinatown grows its presence and importance on the New York scene in every sphere of City life becomes more pronounced.

Article contributed by Dr. Jak Cambria

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