Archways defining Chinese identity in New York

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/9 22:03:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

With about 500,000 Chinese living in New York, the city has the biggest Chinese population outside of Asia. This almost guarantees that you are able to find almost anything here that you can find in China - from delicious food like Peking roasted duck, steamed soup buns and fried dough and soy milk, to the latest Chinese films and literature, be it from trusted avenues or street vendors selling bootlegs. There are also popular Chinese business models like group purchasing, and even vices and frauds like the so-called "blessing scams" that specifically target Chinese seniors. But for a long time, Chinese here had been longing for an archway that would mark the territory of Chinese immigrants and make New York City feel more like home. It hadn't shown any sign of arriving until recently.

Archways are ubiquitous in China. Beijing, for example, has more than 100. And even in the US, many Chinatowns have their archway, sometimes called a gateway. An archway is a symbolic gate that leads visitors to a culturally appealing area with its own aesthetic allure.

But despite the big population and the long history of the Chinese community in New York, there is none. Last week, the city announced it will see the first archway within two years. The 40'-7'' high, 12'-4" wide structure will have the traditional nine roofs on the top, mythical creatures on the marble base, and the inscription in Chinese "One Family over Four Seas," on the beam. It will be shipped over from China by air and be installed by the city over the hustle bustle of Eighth Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. It's expected to make the neighborhood a landmark for tourists.

It may surprise many people that this archway will land in Sunset Park, rather than the more famous Manhattan Chinatown, which, with its history of almost 150 years, is still the only Chinatown in New York worth visiting in the minds of many tourists from China and around the world.

What's more, it has been begging the city for an archway over the past 40 years.

A simple explanation is that the archway is a gift from Chaoyang district, Beijing, a sister city of Brooklyn. But other than such "sisterhood friendship," the donation may also unintentionally serve as a crown to a new king.

Skyrocketing rents, the collapse of the garment industry amid the competition from cheap labor in China, and the increased security headaches resulting from the 9/11 attacks at the nearby Ground Zero area all worked together to drive people away from Manhattan's Chinatown in the past 15 years. The Census in 2010 found the population in the neighborhood had dropped 8 percent in the previous decade. And it won't be a surprise if the 2020 Census found the trend has been continuing.

In 2006, Chinatown was designated by the New York State government as a "Naturally Occurring Retirement Community," meaning young people are moving out over time and seniors make up a substantial portion of the population.

Meanwhile, other satellite Chinese communities have all been growing quickly, particularly Flushing in Queens and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. With 72,253 and 47,696 Chinese residents respectively, they have both grown bigger than the Manhattan Chinatown, which has 46,182 Chinese residents.

But it's not like the Manhattan Chinatown is going to keep aging and dying. When newly-formed Chinese communities attract new immigrants with their relatively reasonable rents and less established business ecosystem, the Manhattan Chinatown is quietly winning back the hearts of its own younger generation. As Amy Chin, an art consultant who grew up in the Manhattan version observed: "In the old days, kids in Chinatown all wished they could leave here when they grew up and find jobs in the mainstream. That meant you've made it," said Chin. "Now more and more young people are moving back here."

That may not necessarily mean they move back here to live, though some do. But many more set up their businesses here. Most trendy shops that sprang up in the past few years in the area are run by young Chinese. These shops bear little resemblance to the traditional shops in Chinatown. They look more like they belong in the fashionable SoHo or East Village neighborhoods. By some definitions, they may even be part of the gentrification that is devouring up the old Chinatown.

But this may be unavoidable, as Olympia Moy, one of these young people who moved back to Chinatown to take over Florentine, a music school her mother founded in Chinatown in 1982, once told me: "Either you gentrify or you are gentrified."

In Moy's view, Chinatown is no longer a settlement for new immigrants. And the silver lining is that this transition may help the neighborhood that has long been considered an exotic haven for aliens to finally become part of the mainstream US, as long as younger Chinese can help retain the hard working spirit of the old generation.

New York City is now working with community organizations to solicit designs for "gateways to Chinatown" for Manhattan. It's not likely to be another archway. But that might be the right choice. What best represents Chinatown now is not a symbol that reaffirms its traditions, but one that proclaims an old neighborhood has got its modern mojo.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

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