The Chinese Are Leaving Chinatown

Article and photos by Richard Ng 

The identity of Chinatown is changing, as new condos and hotels are driving out the Asian population and the small businesses that provide for it.

The Asian population of Chinatown fell 18 percent to 30,559 in 2010 from 36,020 in 2000, while the white population increased 42 percent to 7,817 from 5,496, according to the U.S. Census.

“Many of the Asian population are moving out because they can’t afford rent,” said Peter Kwong, a professor of Asian studies at Hunter College. “In turn, the influx of high income residents motivates landlords to cater to them.”

Above a traditional Chinese business, a renovated apartment adds a modern, more expensive look to Chinatown.

According to the Census, rent in Chinatown increased 59 percent  by 2010 from 2000. The median rent for an apartment in Chinatown today is $851 per month, up from $534. That is still low compared with many neighborhoods in New York, but a steep increase nonetheless.

As Rent Rises, Family Businesses Are Pushed Out 

The median household income for Asians in Chinatown was $29,524 in 2006-10. For non-Hispanic whites in the neighborhood, it was $62,517, according to the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a Chinatown-based civil rights organization.

Gentrification is also affecting local businesses. Linda Thai said she closed her ABC Chinese Restaurant due to increased rent. “I think I was a good owner,” she said. “I managed my finances properly, but I still wasn’t making a lot of money. I bought out the original lease from the previous owner in 2011 and paid $4,000 a month.”

Thai’s lease expired in 2013 and the landlord increased her lease by 20 percent to $4,800 a month. The restaurant closed shortly after.

Now, for the first time in many decades, a majority of restaurants and food shops in Chinatown are non-Asian, according to Chinatown Then and Now, a report by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Traditionally, Chinatown’s small businesses, such as butcher shops, fish stores and convenience and variety stores provided everyday goods and services for residents and workers. Tourist-oriented businesses selling souvenirs and jewelry were a tiny percentage of Chinatown businesses. The many restaurants straddle both categories.

Along the Bowery, Chinese restaurants sit alongside a health clinic and a McDonald’s.

Thai said local stores had changed, pointing as one example to a Starbucks on Canal Street that had long lines of white people waiting to buy coffee. “In the ’90s they would have had nothing to do with this place and now they want to make a new SoHo,” she said.

The new residences and higher rents have also led to a drop in Hispanics and blacks in the area. The Hispanic population fell 14.9 percent to 6,240, and Blacks 2.6 percent to 2,285, Census data shows.

Jimmy Wang, co-owner of Big Wong King, a longtime local restaurant, said the demographic change had increased competition in his business.

“Yes, we are seeing diversity. In the past three years, my restaurant has been promoting to white people. Our main clientele was always the Chinese,” said Wang. “I had to ask my son to open social media accounts such as Facebook and Yelp to promote to the diversifying crowd.” New businesses are opening that cater to the new residents.

“Competitors such as 69 Bayard have established themselves as the late-night spot white people go to because they don’t provide the traditional dishes,” said Wang. “When someone from China eats their food, it doesn’t provide nostalgia, and they don’t come back.”

A statue of Chinese scholar Lin Ze Xu overlooks Chinatown’s Chatham Square.

Hua Xiao, a customer at Big Wong King, said through a translator, “I love this place. The food is good and the chefs use the talent that they learned back home. Sooner or later, we’ll begin to lose places like this and forget about old-fashioned food.”

Jian Tang, the manager at 69 Bayard, said the restaurant’s goal was to cater to the younger market.

“We knew that you couldn’t rely on the older generations to give out fortune. The mind of the American-born Chinese generation becomes more and more similar to white Americans. They bring their non-Chinese friends and then the friends come back with more of their own non- Chinese friends,” said Tang.

A Grassroots Effort

Several grassroots groups have established themselves to protect against gentrification in Chinatown. Li Hua, secretary of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, frequently protests these changes at venues throughout the boroughs. She has collected thousands of signatures to stop plans for more luxury condo development.

“I’ve been to public hearings, City Council and the City Planning departments. I sign petitions and raise awareness to help those being evicted from their homes. I do this because this happened to my parents. I see my parents’ image reflected on these people,” she said. Hua said that her family was evicted more than 20 years ago because of an increase in rent.

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund has outreach programs to help those affected by gentrification, providing legal support to those who feel they were unfairly treated and raising awareness of gentrification and unpaid workers.

Jonathon Hsiao, a member of the young professionals committee of AALDEF, said: “I believe that what we’re doing here really helps those in need. Not everyone that we help speaks English or makes a fortune, but they are the ones that need the most help. To most of these people, Chinatown is the only thing they know.”

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