Chinese Immigrant Experiences in New York City
Global Ethics Fellows Fifth Annual Conference, "An Ethical Dialogue between Asia and the West"
October 22, 2015
This roundtable was part of the Carnegie Council's Global Ethics Fellows Fifth Annual Conference, "An Ethical Dialogue between Asia and the West: Philosophical Traditions, Moral Contentions, and the Future of US-Asia Relations." The Conference took place in New York City, October 20-23, 2015.
DEVIN STEWART: We are really fortunate to have an incredible panel that Kavitha Rajagopalan has put together just for us, for an informal dialogue about Chinese immigrant experience in New York City.
To briefly introduce my good friend Kavitha, Kavitha, Josh, and I are kind of like co-conspirators in big global projects that we have done all around the world. While Josh and I have done a couple of trips to China, Kavitha and I recently were in Mandalay, Burma; we went to Yangon.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: We went to Yangon and Mandalay there, and then we took the very far-flung journey to Jackson Heights.
DEVIN STEWART: Jackson Heights, very exotic, in Flushing, Queens.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: We even had samosas for breakfast one day.
DEVIN STEWART: That was one of the most memorable breakfasts I have ever had in my life. Fresh samosas with tea. Oh my gosh, so good.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Hot chai, the only way.
DEVIN STEWART: Kavitha is a Carnegie Council senior fellow. She has written and lectured extensively on global migration, immigrant communities, and social cohesion in diverse, pluralistic societies. She is author of Muslims of Metropolis, which was a finalist for the Asian-American Literary Award, and worked as a journalist in the United States, India, and Germany, and most notably, as a columnist for PBS and Newsday. She has taught courses on migration and writing at New York University and is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship, and the John J. McCloy Journalism Fellowship.
Kavitha will now lead our discussion on Chinese immigrant experiences in New York City. Thank you very much.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you. Welcome, everyone. I am sure you are all stuffed full with ideas and sentiments today [this panel is part of a conference]. We are going to try to keep this a little more informal and free-flowing.
I have the great pleasure of introducing three extremely distinguished, knowledgeable, and thought-provoking, thoughtful thinkers on Chinatown today.
To my immediate right is Jiayang Fan, who is a local correspondent and editorial staffer at The New Yorker. In the magazine's latest issue, she has published a long-form piece that I encourage all of you to check out, which really explores some of the events leading up to and some of the consequences of the investigation into the Abacus Bank, which is a major financial institution in Chinatown. She has also written for The Paris Review, among other publications, and is working on a number of beautiful pieces about life in Chinese communities in China, as well as here in the diaspora.
Immediately to her right is Henry Chang, who is a native son of New York and of the Lower East Side. He is one of the key figures from Chinatown life, a lifelong resident of Chinatown. He is a poet and an author. His poems have appeared in the Yellow Pearl anthology, as well as in Gangs in New York's Chinatown. He has written for a number of magazines, including Bridge magazine. His fiction has appeared in On a Bed of Rice and in The NuyorAsian Anthology. His debut novel, Chinatown Beat, was praised highly in the New York Times Book Review and the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, among others.
His Chinatown Beat trilogy is actually now becoming a quintology? What do we call that, a quintology? He has just completed the fifth book in the Chinatown Beat series, which includes Chinatown Beat, The Year of the Dog, Red Jade, Death Money, and the next chapter, which we are going to hear about—
HENRY CHANG: It's a work in progress.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: He is a graduate of the City College of New York, and he has been a lighting consultant, a security director at major hotels, commercial properties, and retail businesses in Manhattan. He has several relationships and intimate knowledge of Chinatown underworld, which he is going to tell us about as well, hopefully.
Peter Kwong, who is our final panelist for today, is a distinguished professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and is also a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center at the City University, at CUNY. He is a pioneer in Asian American studies and is one of the country's leading scholars on immigration. He is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker and is a lifelong activist. At some point, if we are lucky, he will tell us a little bit about marrying those two paths, the life of the activist and the scholar.
He is the author of four books, including Chinese America: The Untold Story of America's Oldest New Community, Chinese Americans: The Immigrant Experience, and Forbidden Workers: Illegal Chinese Immigrants and American Labor, which was selected by Barnes & Noble as one of the Ten Best Nonfiction Books of 1998, and The New Chinatown and Chinatown, New York: Labor and Politics, 1930-1950.
He has been a syndicated columnist. He has written for many major publications, including The Nation, the Herald-Tribune, The Globe and Mail. His exposé of Chinese drug syndicates and L.A. racial riots has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. He has produced documentary films, and he is currently at work on two books, one of which explores the history of gentrification in Chinatown and one of which examines the history of Chinese American immigration to the American West in the 19th century.
I hope you will all join me in welcoming our distinguished panelists. I am grateful to have them all here.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: To kick off our conversation, I am going to ask all of our panelists to introduce you to some information here. The Chinese immigrant community in the United States is perhaps the oldest immigrant community here, with very, very deep roots, and it is nationwide. And Chinatown in New York is a place that resides not only in the American public imagination, but also in the global public imagination. It is a very well-known place. It is a place that is both real and a place of fantasy.
But at the same time, it is very, very poorly understood. Chinatown history in New York is characterized by many layers of hidden worlds, invisible worlds, parallel economies, parallel societies. There have been waves of immigration to Chinatown, and Chinatown in the last couple of decades in New York has spread to other areas as well.
What I would like to do is introduce, first, Jiayang Fan, who is going to talk to us a little bit about some of the investigation that she did for her latest piece for The New Yorker and explain a little bit about some of these parallel economies and some of these hidden financial institutions and practices in Chinatown, and what she learned there.
JIAYANG FAN: Just to start about my relationship to Chinatown, before I looked at this piece, I had always wanted to be better acquainted with Canal Street and that neighborhood. But growing up—I came to the States when I was eight and lived in Connecticut, which is only about an hour away—what I remember is taking monthly trips to Chinatown in New York to basically buy groceries, eat dim sum, eat Chinese food, and being envious of those who lived in the community at the time. I knew very little about the community, but I thought, how wonderful it would be to be able to wake up and eat authentic Chinese food and not have to commute an hour into the city to do this.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: They promised to take me on an eating tour of the off-menu places in Chinatown.
JIAYANG FAN: As someone who felt, in one sense, very Chinese, but I lived in a very white town in Connecticut and also felt very Americanized, I wasn't sure what to make of this small city within a city. It wasn't actually until I moved to New York City in my early 20s and was working at an immigrant agency in Chinatown that I started understanding a little bit more about the community. Actually, one of the first really revealing, insightful books I encountered was The New Chinatown by Peter. That was my first time kind of understanding this community. Peter, who was kind enough to be quoted for the story that I ended up writing, let me understand that there was a lot underneath just my culinary expeditions to Canal Street.
This story about Abacus Bank, which is a small Chinese American community bank that was born the same year I was born, in 1984, really came into being at a time when there were a growing number of Chinese in New York City who couldn't quite navigate the mainstream city. The bank caught my attention when it became the first American commercial bank to be prosecuted for mortgage fraud in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when there were so many bigger institutions that had not been taken to trial for their misdeeds. So I was really curious. This was going to be the first bank that would be taken to trial. I wanted to better understand why this small Asian community bank ended up in this position. I followed the trial from the end of February to June. The bank ultimately was exonerated, as it should have been.
But during the trial what, to me, became most interesting was the way that Chinese immigrants dealt with their finances and how they had these really ingenious but very much, I think, hidden-from-common-view institutions to better navigate a very alien country that they didn't understand. The piece was about how these Chinese immigrants, who very much wanted to buy a house, because homeownership was a really important part, for many Chinese Americans, of their feeling that they have established themselves in a new country—they wanted to purchase homes, but they were primarily in a cash economy. They are waiters, seamstresses, and they are paid only in cash.
For better or worse, because they are not earning very much, they are not reporting all of their income. Some of them are not reporting all of their income to the IRS [Internal Revenue Service]. By the time it comes to purchasing a home and getting a loan, a lot of them do have the money, but they don't have a paper trail for this money, so they can't offer the paystubs, they can't offer the W-2s that are commonly required to buy a home.
This trial was about a lot of the falsification and the fraud that supposedly happened in the bank between the immigrants and lower-level bank employees who were facilitating this process.
What I learned was the many ways in which these Chinese immigrants would enroll in money pools, basically a proxy for the bank. They would gather together maybe 10, 15, 20 of their relatives or those people from the same village, and they would each put in maybe 200 bucks. One person would get to collect the whole pot, and they would be able to put that money as a down payment for their mortgage.
So much of what I learned about how these immigrants were functioning enlightened me to how they were able to establish an economy outside of the mainstream economy. They weren't putting their cash into the bank, but they had enough to be able to put down payments and pay their mortgage. That was really kind of revealing to me, as just one of the aspects in which there was so much hidden from view in this city within a bigger city.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Right, and these kinds of community banking institutions, money-sharing institutions—the sharing economy is really just an old immigrant construct—these we find in so many communities. But I think what your piece did was sort of scratch the surface into some of these hidden worlds in Chinatown that no one knows about.
Chinatown, of course, has been the site of a tremendous amount of curiosity about drug syndicates, crime syndicates, trafficking syndicates, and the underworld, and Henry has been one of the biggest narrators of this underworld. I wonder if you can maybe build on what Jiayang was telling us.
HENRY CHANG: This notion that there is this underworld in Chinatown goes back to the 19th century. By the time I arrived in Chinatown, it was already full-blown. I grew up in Chinatown during probably the most violent time in Chinatown history. That includes the Tong Wars and all the hype. I grew up in a time when the Chinatown gangs ruled the streets, gangs maybe a little before your time, with names like the Ghost Shadows, the White Eagles, the Flying Dragons—very ruthless gangs. More people shot and killed in violence in Chinatown than ever before.
This was a direct result of immigration and immigration policies. I am not going to speak too much about the history of it. I think Peter is probably going to touch upon that more. But the immigration policies of the 1960s, which allowed more Chinese Americans, Asian Americans to come to America and come to New York—those teenagers that came in the 1960s were, by the 1970s, young men, 18- and 19-year-old kids with not a lot of prospects. They couldn't speak the language too well. So naturally they were going to gravitate to the gangs, because it gave them a sense of family, a sense of identity, and also some walking money on the streets.
That was when some of the benevolent associations, which all started with good intentions—because they were helping the early immigrants against discrimination and racism, and whenever they needed—the needs of a bachelor society—and there were a couple of generations of bachelor societies where there were mostly men here. That was because the laws didn't allow the women to come over, didn't allow Chinese men to have families. So you had these bachelor generations.
So what are these guys going to do when they get off work? They have no families to return to. They are going to either go gambling or they are going to go to prostitution or alcohol or tobacco or gambling—all these vices which were served by the dark side of those benevolent associations, providing these services to these men.
By the time I arrived in the 1960s, this had all evolved. Those young men had grown up and they had taken to the gangs. They actually ruled the streets, because they were sponsored by some of the associations. I was going to college at the time. I would go to school in the daytime and come back down to the neighborhood, and there was all this violence.
By that time, I had already started hanging out in the bars and the pool rooms and the gambling houses of Chinatown. The stories I heard there were never before told. You wouldn't find this in mainstream media. All we were getting back then was the stereotypical kind of misrepresentation and racist images of what Chinese people were like in this country. I know my parents were not like that. My parents were not Charlie Chan. They were not Fu Manchu. They were not kidnapping white women off the streets and dragging them down into their basements and having white slavery. There was none of that. They were hardworking Chinatown people.
I wanted to tell these stories. So as I came of age in Chinatown, I started writing these stories about the gangs and crime. That seemed to be the most popular thing that people wanted to read. I wrote other stories, but that seemed to be the most popular. So I followed that trend. One book led to another, and now I have five.
Basically, it revolves around this idea of a Chinese detective. When I was growing up, there were no Chinese cops. Gradually through the 1980s and 1990s, and Giuliani, we started hiring more Chinese cops, because they couldn't deal with the crime. They had nobody to infiltrate the gangs. Nobody spoke Chinese. And meanwhile, the gambling houses were down the block from the precinct. This was where all the changes came, and that was what I was writing about, at a time when they wouldn't even let Bruce Lee be the male lead in the Kung Fu TV series, and instead used David Carradine, who was not Chinese at all. So this is what we were contending with.
I thought it would be great to tell these stories from the point of view of somebody who lived in Chinatown, somebody who was a cop, because then you have the skeleton of an investigation, which can lead you through a story. That is how I was pursuing it.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Right. Clearly we are not going to have to time to be able to get into some of these other things. But there is such a long, complex relationship between the Chinese community and law enforcement here. In fact, the Chinese community has been very vocally outspoken on issues surrounding the NYPD [New York Police Department] in the last couple of years. One of the police officers who was murdered in one of the high-profile cases—a lot of this was precipitated by the fact that one of the officers was of Chinese descent.
Riffing on what you are talking about, Henry, there has been this evolution in how Chinese identity and the Chinese community have been represented, from this mysterious, criminal, violent element to this model minority. That has in many ways evolved in parallel with the way that immigration to this country has evolved. I think Peter can tell us a little bit more about that.
PETER KWONG: What I would like to do today is going to be very, very different from what you usually hear. A lot of times we talk about illegal immigration, shadow banking, all that kind of stuff. I thought a lot of the detail is very confusing, mystifying. So what I would like to do is draw a big picture, and from the big picture, maybe some of the detail could fall in.
This big picture will be based on what I will call a materialistic approach. I came here for college. I went to Columbia engineering school, like all Chinese parents want. [Laughter] I came here right in the middle of the anti-war/civil rights movement. And right away I knew I didn't want to be an engineer. I got my degree and talked myself into the School of International Affairs—it is called something different now. I just wanted to understand the social sciences. I was studying Japan, Soviet Union, and China, comparative politics. The more I was involved, the more I was going to school, I said, "This is totally irrelevant." I quit graduate school. I became an activist and eventually decided, "If I really want to do something, I should go back to my community." You know about the Black Panthers. Black Panthers talk about, go back to your community.
So I went to Chinatown. Chinatown was not my community, because I grew up as what I would call "uptown Chinese," professional. Anyway, I was there doing all this radical, organizing work. After three years, I realized, this is not what I understand Chinatown to be. So I decided to study Chinatown. I went to my advisor and said, "I don't want to talk about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I want to do something about Chinatown." My advisor said, "Nobody is going to sponsor you."
But anyway, I did find a sponsor. Ever since that time on, I became an activist, as well as a scholar. One thing led to another. This is how many years now?
So what I want to do is give a big picture. The big picture is away from Chinatown. Since the 19th century, Chinese have emigrated overseas in huge numbers. In the 19th century, 9 million people left China. A few hundred thousand came to the United States. Others went to Caribbean islands, Southeast Asia, and other parts. This particular pattern of migration has continued since 1979, when China opened up. The estimate, of Chinese overseas, is about 40 million—it is the largest immigrant community in the world. This time it is quite different. It is not just about Southeast Asia. It is Africa. It is South America. You go to China and they always say, "We're everywhere," which is true—in Israel, 100,000 in South Africa, Argentina, all these places where previously Chinese aren't known to have emigrated. The estimate is 151 countries.
So the question is, what kind of migration system is capable of transporting so many people so many places in such a short time? Yet the people who are transported are basically impoverished, less educated—mostly not very well educated—semi-rural people. How do you explain this? This happened in the 19th century, when we wanted to build a transcontinental railroad, we wanted 10,000 people. Two months later, 10,000 people appeared.
Now New York City has the largest concentration of Chinese population outside of Asia. We are talking about a huge, very, very important motion.
What you will find out is that there is a very sophisticated migration system that not only provides efficient transport, leaving China to get to a country, but it provides associated services, facilitates job placement, and takes care of migrants' many, many other needs.
If you look at this system, what is the fundamental issue here, leaving all these details? This is a system that is actually a profit-making system. Let me explain to you.
If you are a rural population, you don't have any education, you don't speak foreign languages, if you want to go to a foreign country, where does the money come from? Sometimes family, kinship systems will provide for you. But we are talking about millions. That system is no longer able to provide. So then you tap into local merchants associations. Local merchants associations tap out. Where do they go? They go to Chinese international trading companies, many of them located in large cities—in the 19th century, Hong Kong. If you go to Hong Kong, you see all these go companies all over the place. Those companies—oftentimes their side business is providing loans. In other words, the incorporation of all these different kinds of systems helps to move the population.
I am generalizing this thing. I just want to give you the big picture.
Why do they do it? They make money. The term is basically, "You want to go to the United States. I advance you the loans, and you pay me back after you start making money." How do you make sure it is repaid? That becomes a very, very complex system. Basically, that is what the terms are.
Once you get there, you don't speak the language. Again Chinese brokers, Chinese merchants, will help you get jobs. Better yet, I open up my own company. I get financing to open up a shop. So you could employ oftentimes within the ethnic enclave.
Before the turn of the 21st century, there were all kinds of sweatshops in Chinatown, garment factories. You have garment factories in Italy, Chinese producing in Italy, selling Italian brands. You have shoe factories in Spain. In other words, there all these employers gaining their finance through all these financial networks. Some of them make money opening sweatshops, so they are able to refinance. This is the picture I am trying to show to you.
What is more important is, once a large population of Chinese come to a country, then they become potential consumers. Chinese want to have rice. Chinese want to have all kinds of stuff. Therefore, that helps to establish a whole group of merchants, and these merchants in Canal Street will get their supply from where? China, Hong Kong. So this gets into an international connection.
In addition, one of the last things has to do with the underworld, which has to do with the fact that in the old days, mainly men, you get trapped; you need entertainment. You need prostitution. You need gambling. You need drugs. In other words, you have a situation where the migration of Chinese should not be seen as one single class. It is not working people. We usually think of immigrants as the workers. The Irish come here to work. But in the Chinese situation, and in some ways the Jewish one, the merchants, the business class comes with the immigrants. So this is a partnership.
Again, I am going to skip a lot of this stuff.
What happens in the situation is, the more immigrants come, the more business created. The more business created, the more profit they are able to plow back in investment to ship out more immigrants. That is why you have, in other words, a ready system that is able to generate—continues to generate—immigrants.
This, however, is an interdependent system. Labor needs to leave their country and get all kinds of services. They depend on the merchants, the business, the investors. The investors, on the other hand, are dependent on the migrants to make money. So this is kind of interdependent.
This interdependence becomes tricky. "Without you, I can't come to the United States, so you are a good guy." On the other hand, "Just because you are Chinese, I know you better and I trap you in a Chinese community. I know how to exploit you more." The smuggler charges $70,000 to come to the United States. That is a lot of money. Then you have all these stories about Chinese garment factories. They say, "You know, all these Jewish manufacturers are unwilling to pay us for our products, so I have to pay you less." Therefore, you create these kinds of sweatshop conditions.
I am trying to tell you, this is where the two kinds of scholars—one kind of scholar talks about how Chinese love each other—mutual aid and all that kind of garbage, which is true. I am not denying that. But the other side is also true.
Precisely in this situation you are vulnerable. In this sense, the workers are in a much more vulnerable position. First of all, they don't have the skills. They don't have the language capacity. So they depend on other people. They don't have the money. On the other hand, when they come to a foreign country, oftentimes in a segregated market, in the United States you can't get into union jobs. You can't even get to jobs that are very competitive. You want to get into a taxi business? Nobody wants you. Therefore, you are left again to depend on Chinese merchants to help you out. For instance, "Let's start a taxi company. Better yet, let's start a bus company. You could go from here to Boston for $10," everybody knows. This now becomes a national kind of network.
Then there is the fact that it is very difficult for them to get out of this relation. It is what I call "warm bathtub." They say, "You don't need to learn English. Just come. Everybody is Chinese-speaking. You work for Chinese, work with Chinese. That is very convenient. Moreover, it is in Chinatown. It is bilingual. Everything is there. You want entertainment, Chinese entertainment—everything. You go to the bank, the Chinese"—so it is very easy to get into. Once you get into it, you never get out, because you never learn English, you never have a chance to break out.
This is the kind of pattern that I would like to provide. This is a very, very, very sketchy skeleton, but it helps to fill in and explain a lot of things. There are a lot of variations to it. But in any event, I would like to present to you—if you could look at the Chinese community, Chinese concentration, from this kind of perspective, it is not only that they socially interlock, but they also interlock spatially. "If I open a gambling joint, I want you to live here." "If I open a grocery store, I want you to be here." That is the spatially. That is the formation of Chinese community, not because Chinese love each other and they want to live together, but this kind of interlocking economic structures.
One other problem why the Chinese migrants are not able to get out of the situation is the lack of understanding of the whole society. They look at the Chinese as homogeneous. "Crime? Don't worry about it. They resolve among themselves." So many times somebody says, "I have not been paid wages." The labor department, they don't care. Police, the same thing. So the indifference, the ignorance of the large outside community also makes this kind of community become sometimes quite unhappily cyclically regenerating.
So what I like to do is put this to you, from the material point of view, not to think Chinese in some way is culturally different, culturally whatever, but it could be explained materially. Maybe some of the problems could be solved materialistically as well.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Very interesting. Of course, now in this whole conversation we are seeing that there are layers of things. I think it comes back around here to what Jiayang was saying, where she talks about how as a child she longed for this kind of home—the "warm bath," as it was. Being in this alien, hostile place, she was longing for this warm bath, but the warm bath is maybe not fresh water; maybe it has some poisons in there, too.
I think what you were talking about, too—all of you were sort of referring to this—these things don't emerge from a vacuum, these parallel societies and parallel economies. They happen as part of some sort of a thing that happens between these global influences and these local influences as well. I think this concept of a system is very, very helpful here.
I wonder if you all can talk a little bit about, moving from that history into the future, the interplay between the global forces that are driving people in an immigration system, the national immigration policies that are making it such that people aren't allowed to bring their spouses, or if their spouses are able to come, they are not allowed to work, or they must lean on these kinds of underworld service providers for things like that, and then into the next layer.
JIAYANG FAN: I think the narrative that Peter offered so lucidly really manifests itself in the case of Abacus Bank. For a lot of the immigrants who were the customers in this bank, as I said, they had the money. They could afford to buy the house. This bank had, I think, 1/20 of the national default rate. They were doing very well. Nobody was really unable to pay. But the Manhattan district attorney who brought the case ultimately said, "It doesn't matter that your customers are able to pay back these loans, they are able to pay their mortgages. The fact of the matter is they are falsifying their documents. Because they don't have W-2s, because they don't have paystubs, they are making up fake gift letters, trying to account for why they have the money that they have. So it doesn't matter that they can pay back the mortgage for this half-a-million-dollar house. They are breaking American law by the very fact of making up documents. That is a violation of this country's law."
I thought that was a really interesting way in which the culture of this immigrant community butts up against the wider mainstream country in which they are situated and what it means to be moral and what it means to be living the life that you should be living. For many of these immigrants, as waiters, as busboys, as seamstresses, it goes back to the warm bath. They don't speak English. They are not very well-educated. These are the jobs that they are able to find, and they have been able to find a certain level of comfort working in Chinatown, speaking exclusively in Chinese.
One of their life ambitions is to buy a house to give themselves and their children a sense of security. But to do so, they have to go a little beyond their comfort zone. They don't feel comfortable going to a Chase or Citibank, so they go to a small community bank, in which the employees are Chinese, and the employees themselves are saying—I mean, they have some sense—"We're probably not supposed to be doing this, making fake documents, but who ultimately are we hurting here? We are not stealing. We are not causing a default. This is all in the service of allowing you to buy a house," and for the bank itself, a community institution, to also make a profit in the process.
So it really comes down to that question of what it means for Chinese Americans to be surviving in that community and how their cultural practices conflict with the laws of the greater society in which they are now trying to assimilate into.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Right. I used to write about immigrant communities in Europe. I remember at the time, in 2007, when I was working on my book about Muslim immigrant communities in the West, there was all this talk about parallel societies. I think this goes back to what Henry was talking about, and also Peter. When so many people arrive and then immigration laws prevent them from having families, from organizing politically, from learning the language, from integrating into society, from attending the same schools—when that is there, who is responsible for creating the parallel, is really what happens. We see time and time again in the creation of ethnic enclaves, as Peter has talked about, that there is a lot of reason why people hide behind some of these invisible structures and how they are both created and necessitated by the systems that are in place.
What I would like to ask you, Henry—I thought it would be interesting to hear back from you—you have been on the ground now in Chinatown for 40 years. You are bearing witness to all of these changes. Of course, Chinatown is right now on the razor's edge, on the spear tip of this new debate about gentrification and embeddedness. Peter has told us a lot about what has allowed Chinatown to remain embedded within itself and to create this warm bath. What changes are you bearing witness to now? What are you seeing?
HENRY CHANG: I don't think it is a fight we are going to win, but I think we are slowing the forces of gentrification down a little bit. Manhattan is the last frontier for gentrification. Everybody wants to come to Manhattan. Everybody is in Manhattan. Manhattan is the playground of the rich. One of the last neighborhoods that has any cultural history is Chinatown, and it is one of the last affordable areas that can be gentrified. So you see where Community Board 3, the Lower East Side, is already inundated with so much gentrification, so many bars and clubs, every six cubic feet, that they are just overwhelmed. So their community board will not allow any more liquor licenses, no more clubs, because of people getting drunk, and it is just a madhouse. So now they are coming toward Chinatown, Community Board 3.
Every time a club comes up, Webster Hall wants to open something in the middle of Chinatown, clubs with $25 cocktail drinks, the big bouncer at the door, the velvet ropes—you can't get in if you are Asian unless you are a foxy chick—we don't need any more of that. We need senior services. We need affordable housing. We need so many things. We don't need another hipster club.
So gentrification is something that we go to community board and fight against. We don't give them their liquor licenses. They are going to get them in two years anyway, we know that. But we can slow them down a little bit.
You see how in Chinatown now, the surrounding areas—Tribeca, Lower East Side—it is all needle skyscrapers, 50-story buildings just all around, encroaching in, creeping in, the seaport area. Everything is just creeping in. If you stand on the roof of my building, you just see skyscrapers going up all around, 40, 50, 60 stories—buildings that were never there 10, 20, 30 years ago, when you could see the horizon over the rooftops. No more.
That's what is happening. I think the gentrification has found a way. It is not just people coming in on the Golden Venture and they are in the hull of the ship and it hits ground and they are drowning in the surf. They are getting visas now. Your $50,000 invested is in a condo that is going up on the West Side Penn Yards and you get a green card. You get a visa.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Maybe you can talk a little bit about that. I don't know if you feel comfortable going into that.
PETER KWONG: I actually want to address two questions, first on your question and on the gentrification later, because these two issues are very important to me.
This whole thing about investigating Abacus, a bank, for violating laws that have to do with the subprime rate—Businessweek interviewed me years ago. They wanted to talk about this. I said, "Why are you asking me?" He says, "Well, you know"—billions of dollars being cheated out of American people from the subprime rate, and you pick a tiny little bank. Mozilo, the guy who sold Countryside to Bank of America, his parting shot was $250 million. This stupid bank's asset is $250 million.
So the question here is perspective, introspective. This is where I would ask all of you what you think of the Chinese, and what about yourself? How dare the district attorney's office go into Chinatown to investigate this as if this is a big deal. What about all these other things?
Twenty years ago, New Yorker had a story. Again the reporter talked to me for three or four hours. She came up with an article which basically talked about how Chinese don't want to talk to anybody. She wrote this big long piece. She says, "You know, if you think Hong Kong is violent, you haven't seen anything in Manhattan's Chinatown."
Is Hong Kong violent, in terms of homicide rate, in terms of crime rate?
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: No.
PETER KWONG: Is Chinatown really violent in terms of the perspective of the crime rate in every other part of New York City? We are talking about 1980s, 1990s. A whole year's crime rate, the murder rate of Chinatown is less than a day or a week in many parts.
This is kind of trading into the stereotype—"Oh, these people are violent. This is the kind of underworld society you perpetuate."
HENRY CHANG: Her bank is responsible for causing the collapse of the housing industry. [Laughter]
PETER KWONG: Another perspective I always want to talk about—yes, Chinese love to gamble. I know a lot of Chinese gamble. You see this phenomenon. It is really, really terrible. People working for all day and then go afterwards, 11 o'clock, drive to—whatever. But the point is, you are telling me Chinese gamble more than Americans? Nowadays you watch a football game. A football game is not supposed to be gambling. With the fantasy stuff, it is gambling.
On gentrification, yes, gentrification is happening in Chinatown. But Chinatown is a little bit different. Gentrification usually happens in a place where there is already decline. There is some empty space. The economy has already declined. That is not what Chinatown is. Every storefront is occupied. Every apartment is occupied. There is no empty space. The economy is thriving. You have so many different new businesses coming up.
Yes, people are trying to get in, pushing the rents up. But at this present time, you are paying higher rent, but you are still trying to make a living, because this is where everything goes on. I was talking to you about it. This is a community. If you want to open a business, where do you get the capital? Where are you going to learn the knowhow? Where are you going to get the food supply? All that stuff. It's here.
Yes, gentrification is everywhere. Why should Chinatown be different? I am making an argument that it is different. It is different because this is a thriving community. This is a place that so many people's livelihood is dependent on. People talk about, "Oh, you know, Harlem is already"—all these other places. But we are talking about real people, real business, real life. Replacing them means what?
There is a natural inclination of Chinatown people—they may not be very educated—they have proved themselves willing to fight. Business improvement district is one of those gentrification tools. You declare this area—streets are clean. What is it? Making the real estate value more attractive. Landlords like it. What about business? What about people living there?
In Chinatown, when the business improvement district came through, there were more people signing up, 500 landlords—why should landlords be signing up?—landlords opposing it. That shows that the people don't want to be replaced.
Right now, following Bloomberg, de Blasio is no better. He is allowing this huge building right next to Chinatown along the river. It is in the middle of nowhere. It was one of the most abandoned parts. They are going to build an 80-story building, just giving the community so-called affordable housing, 10, 20 percent. This is Extell. Extell is the company that built 157. You know about that building. They are getting federal subsidies, tax breaks, all that kind of stuff. They are going to build a building selling condominiums, $1 million to $3 million, right on the side of Chinatown. They will have a pool house for the people who—so this is the biggest threat of gentrification. If you don't have limits to high-rises, then you are gone.
What is the difference between 50 percent of the apartment buildings is affordable—there is still that other 50 percent who makes a lot of money. When they move this area, they don't want to shop at Chinese stores. They want to have—whatever.
This is what we are against. The Chinese community, in mobilizing, tried to stop zoning laws that would allow high-rises. We have been very vocal about it. De Blasio and all these people are not listening, but there have been demonstrations. Next week, the 28th, there will be a major demonstration.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Right. The urban planning issue—a number of the people who have spoken out on this affordable housing the way that it is—it is exactly what Peter is saying. If you set aside X percent of a high-rise building but you are still infusing 75 percent of a different type of consumer base to that neighborhood—
We have touched on a lot of different things here. We have talked about migration systems. We have talked about parallel economies, how they are both created and necessitated by immigration laws and immigration structures that are in place. We have talked about systems of exploitation, how your warm bath can also become your toxic pool that is suffocating you a little bit. We haven't really been able to get into certain other things, like some of the different ethnicities and diversity within diversity, some of these communities that are there. But I want to give the audience a chance to ask our great panelists some questions.
DEVIN STEWART: I want to be rude and ask the first question, because it just popped into my brain, and I am being spontaneous. I am happy that this panel cast a little bit of skepticism on the past lecture, which was basically celebrating the virtues of Confucianism wholly and unabashedly and 100 percent, without any reservations whatsoever. But the professor also made the claim that Confucius, and specifically Chinese philosophy, is singular in its use of being able to harmonize opposites, which I have seen in both Greek philosophy as well as Indian logic. It is in German logic, Hegel. The marriage of opposites is a common human motif. Yet he insisted that it is uniquely Chinese.
I am hearing from this panel that the gentrification that is happening in the Chinese community is also unique. My family has been pushed out of Yorkville, and we are hearing the same thing from shop owners, which is, "You are destroying community." Do you think that is a similar phenomenon or not?
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Peter, would you be comfortable talking about some of this, how agents within the community are also vehicles of gentrification, to some extent? Then, of course, your own thoughts.
PETER KWONG: I am sorry if I gave you the wrong impressions you need. I study urban planning. One of the things that—gentrification is most acceptable if the economy is declining in the area or there are already abandoned stores and shops like that. Also, gentrification is much easier if the community does not have any kind of coherent opposition. In this unique sense, I am just saying, comparatively, right now there seems to be this force of opposition.
On the other hand, a lot of Chinese would love to have Chinatown be gentrified, in the name of development. They say, "Well, you know, we need poor people's housing, affordable housing." Government does not give money for housing. Nobody is building public housing. So where is the housing going to come from? It has to come from private sources, a developer. A developer would only build for poor people if they get some advantage for it. So the kind of combination—basically, inclusion zoning. "I am going to build a skyscraper. I would have 20 percent of the building for affordable housing." A lot of the non-profits would say, "Great. That is 20 percent more than what we never had." So what they do is work with these developers.
This is where I am saying you are basically introducing a Trojan horse. Once that happens, high-rises happen like this, then you are gone.
Everybody knows that. Woody Allen is opposed to the rich community, opposed to high-rises. The East Village used to be a mess. This is all drugs and terrible—some of you are too young to know about this thing. Giuliani forced this community—kick out, arrest all these people who are "unwanted" and you have this pitched battle. Finally, the East Village becomes really respectable and gentrified. What do the East Village people do, the first thing they do? Go to the community board and say, "We want the change of zoning." What is that zoning? No high-rises.
Rich people know how to protect themselves. The Chinatown people say, "Hey, what's going on? You guys restrict zoning the city allowed. Well, we want it too." The city goes "Ah, well, it is too complicated. We are going to study," all that kind of stuff.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: I also think it is interesting, what you were talking about, this representation. What we are hearing is this repeated theme: Why is Chinatown being demonized—this tiny bank, these gambling practices—when really there are so many other, bigger issues at hand here? But I think one of the reasons why your work is so interesting is because this kind of complexity of the Chinese identity or of the many layers of the community aren't really seen in the wider national narrative about Asians as a model minority. I wonder if that is why you feel compelled to write these stories a little bit, to show some of the other sides of this Chinese experience.
HENRY CHANG: I am just trying to bring a little balance to the picture. If you are a model minority, you get attacked. You are criminal element, you get attacked. You just have to shake all these negative stereotypes about who you are. You are coming here just to give birth to your child so you have an anchor baby, and there is a whole system to accommodate that. You pay $100,000. You get a 10-year visa to come in. You invest in a condo.
There is just really no way you can win. I just wanted to add some balance to it. Okay, we are not the stereotypical—yes, we are these hardworking immigrants, but that is not all we are. Yes, we have a lot of students who like to achieve and overachieve, but that is not who we all are. Yes, we have a lot of immigrants in poverty, but that is not who we are.
So I wanted to tell all these stories in my books. It is not just about gangs and Tongs and killing each other, but you balance it with a rendition of regular people, people who work in the restaurants, the sweatshops, like my parents did—giving it a balance. We are not what you see on TV. We are real people. We may not all speak English, but if you come into the neighborhood—if you read my books, you are not going to get that on the dim sum tour. You are not going to get that in a gift shop.
You are not going to see a lot of these things, because you have to come after midnight. A lot of these places no longer exist, and that is a good thing. There are no more knuckleheads on the street shooting at each other. You can't get down to the gambling houses. It is all behind closed doors now. Giuliani took care of all that. And I am not saying I missed it, but if you read my books, that is what was. We are happy it no longer is.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for your presentation. This is incredibly interesting to me.
I have been living in the United States for about 20 years. I think it is long enough to think of myself as an Asian American immigrant.
First of all, before forgetting all these things, commenting on your concept of model minority, I think that the concept of model minority has been made by mostly white people. If you have that kind of concept of model minority, it is pitting Asian Americans against other racial Americans: "Look, these Asian Americans are doing great. What about you guys? It's your fault when something happens." So it's a justice problem at best. The dominant discourse is made by the white people. I think model minority, that is just a myth.
Also I want to talk about Peter's comment about what is going on in Chinatown. I really agree with you, but one thing that I recognize—you are talking about all these issues without saying the dreaded "R" word. I see a lot of racism going on here. Because I identify myself as an Asian American, I studied all these Asian American histories. In the 19th century and all these kinds of discrimination against all these Asian American immigrants. Still a lot of racism going on. Then the Japanese Americans in the 1940s and Japanese internment—they were American. They were sent to concentration camps. Two-thirds of all these people, 120,000 people, they were Americans, actually.
But the interesting thing that I would like to talk about is, beyond the Chinese American community, I am interested in the concept of Asian American as a racial role. Three years ago I was researching all these kinds of immigration issues, particularly Mexican Americans and Latin American immigration. There is a huge difference between Asian American immigration and Latin American. Latin America—there is a lot of international, free trade agreements that affects a lot of people. All of a sudden farmers lost their jobs. They had to cross the border. That is very different from Asian Americans.
For example, I talked with Filipino Americans—there is a long history of American colonialism. Vietnamese—they had a lot of connection with the Vietnam War. I see a lot of complexity and differences among Asian American immigrants. But I want to have some kind of a common theme among these different kinds of Asian Americans, given the fact that there is so much diversity of their historical background.
So from my perspective, two things. The first one is, they are from the Asian continent. They are the Asian descendants. That is one commonality. The other one is racism. They were victimized by this kind of systematized discrimination. So the complexity between this ethnic group and then race—how do you understand about the concept of Asian identity? How do you find that identity in your studies and your experience? I want to know something more about it—or some sort of solidarity among the Asian Americans. I am interested in that.
DEVIN STEWART: Maybe racism against migrants could be a common motif, against all of us here. It could be Irish, Italian.
PETER KWONG: The question you ask about race is exactly why I am writing this book about the 19th century. In the 19th century, as you know, the Chinese came here for the gold rush, and 37 years later, in 1882, there was the Chinese Exclusion Act. All we understand is there is racism. All we understand is how we built the railroads. But it does not address something specific. How does it work? When does it come up?
If you want to use the word "racism," there is nothing to talk about. It is totally ambiguous. Yes, it is racism. But you need to locate what exact situation that racism comes in.
Let me give you an example. A lot of white workers were very much against Chinese, but they were also against Irish. They were also against anybody who was competing with them. That is a material base. In other words, the workers fear competition—it's a material base thing. But what becomes racist is, instead of addressing those issues, they use racial structure to deal with it.
For instance, European immigrants come to the United States. Many of them use the same system as the Chinese I just mentioned. "I borrow money, and when I make money, I pay back." But nobody talks about Europeans. They talk about Chinese. They say Chinese are different, because Chinese merchants use slavery methods to force these—so we gain the name of coolie. Have you heard the name coolie? Chinese coolie. Coolie is not what this kind of relation is, but rather it is indentured servitude.
It doesn't matter how much you explain to the world our system is the same as yours. It doesn't matter. "Chinese are different. Chinese are just like slaves. They are not free. Therefore, we cannot allow them to be in the labor force." So that is where race comes in. They have to be very specifically located.
Race also becomes very complicated. African Americans in many ways were the most discriminated against, other than the Native Americans. When the Chinese came, a lot of times the whites identified us similarly as the blacks. But then you get into a very interesting understanding. But we only talk about black-white, yellow-white, Latino-white relations. We never talk about the crossover. What do we think of the blacks? What do the blacks think of me? What do the Koreans think of the Chinese? What do the Chinese think? These things then become a much more complicated picture.
Therefore, there is an issue of racial, national hostility among all these Asian groups. At the same time, there is understanding that it doesn't matter that you are Korean, it doesn't matter that I am Chinese; we are all "chinks." Therefore, we might as well work together. So from a pragmatic point of view, we want to build an alliance, but that doesn't mean it would happen or that doesn't mean it does not happen.
These are political things.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: For those of you who are not familiar with immigrant community organizing in this contemporary era, the post-9/11 era has been a period of tremendous—non-white communities trying to find common platforms, alliance building and activism. In some ways it has failed; in some ways it hasn't. A very, very long topic, like all of the other ones we have.
QUESTION: I am Josh Eisenman from the University of Texas, Austin, LBJ School.
This is just a fantastic panel. I think there is so much we can talk about here. There is one point that I wanted to mention to Ms. Fan. I am curious if you have looked into this. Maybe you haven't. Right now, especially in southern China, a lot of these lending institutions where people are putting money together are collapsing. It is kind of the hidden story of China's economic downturn that you are not going to read about in The Wall Street Journal. My question to you is, have you looked into this issue and done any comparative work? Is it actually worth comparing these things? I just haven't read anything about it in the Western press, but I know that this is going on.
I actually have one additional question that goes to what you were talking about, which is these different cleavages within the community. My wife is from Fujian. We were over in Avalon, New Jersey, the whitest place on earth, and there is a Chinese restaurant with other people from Fujian. She was so proud—"We're everywhere." I study China-Africa relations, and I can tell you there are a lot of Fujianese in Africa, too.
There is also a pride that I think you started off with that goes along with being able to—it would be the equivalent of me finding a white Jewish guy in Shandong. It is just not going to happen. But she is able to make that linkage.
I wonder if you could talk a bit about the pride of being able to be connected to so many people around the world. This goes to the final part, which is, I am a Jewish New Yorker. Every woman in my family can play Mahjong. They get together. I thought Mahjong was a Jewish game, growing up. Why can my mother and all of her friends play Mahjong? I know my family dates back to the Garment District. You mentioned the Jewish community a couple of times. We know there is not only a Chinese bus to Boston; there is also the Jewish bus to Boston.
Can you talk a little bit about not only the cleavages within the Chinese community—Fujianese, Guangdong, etc.—but also the relationship between the Chinese community and the Jewish community that you mentioned a couple of times in your talk?
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Right, and, of course, this goes back to your point. In some ways, this model minority thing allows us to erase some of the differences. We turn against our own as well.
JIAYANG FAN: I am not terribly familiar—I think I have heard a little bit about the collapse of these informal lending institutions in southern China. But I think they do speak to the way—in my piece I talk about how there has really been an evolution in lending practices in the United States in the past 30 years. Whereas before people from a single community would be lending to each other and there would be the community bank and everyone would more or less know the banker, and the banker would have this, I think, intuitive trust of everyone in the community just because he or she would know everyone in the community—
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: The community bank.
JIAYANG FAN: Right. It is a community bank. "Not only do I know you, I know your parents, I know your children, so I know there is a small risk that you are going to flee from this community." Then, as the world becomes more globalized, as people move away from their communities, I think then institutions become much more reliant on paper documentation, because there isn't this trust between the community banker and the community members. The paper documentation becomes that symbol of trust, because the W-2 and the paystubs are the only things you have to ensure that this person is going to pay the institution back.
I think in China—it is developing rapidly, but these traditional village communities are undergoing breakneck transformation. I think a lot of these communities are really under a lot of pressure, because community members are just fleeing from these lending circles. They can buy a ticket to the other side of the country or even out of the country.
So I am not surprised that these lending institutions are collapsing, because that trust that used to inform the practice of lending is no longer there, as people are migrating much further to work or taking their families with them. I think that sort of trust just is deteriorating.
QUESTIONER: That is happening exactly in China. People are fleeing.
PETER KWONG: Actually, I quite disagree with this analysis. You have to understand, as I mentioned, this is a huge financial network. I made a calculation. Let's say Fujianese coming here in the last 30 years—let's just say 200,000. Everybody pays—let's forget about $70,000—$30,000. You are talking about billions. That money is going somewhere. Some of the money goes back to China. Some of the money goes to a bank. Some of the money—in other words, this money is not stationary.
Yes, when you borrow money, "I know you personally." But there are so many other things. If I show the money, I am going to find sources which will go to very, very large financial sources. It could be one of those shadow banks and all that stuff. You cannot limit—my point to say is, migration is a huge, huge business. You cannot just look at borrowing money just to do this thing. You open a store, you—all these things are in this big, big slush.
Chinese overseas are very much involved in a lot of these businesses and connected. Certainly some of that business is impacted by this thing. We don't know the detail. In other words, this is just part of the overall situation.
I think we need to look much larger at this framework, because, as I say, Hong Kong banks are making money out of this thing. Obviously, the direct interaction at the very, very bottom is trust. But beyond that, it goes to—
So the second question is about Jews and Chinese. Jews and Chinese have a lot of similarities. One of the similarities is that in the migration community, the class coexistence is quite common. Irish, other European immigrants go straight to Detroit to look for a job. Jewish immigrants might end up working for a garment factory in the Lower East Side for a Jewish employer. That is where the similarity comes in. In other words, there are a lot of ethnic businesses that tie the community together. That is where the Lower East Side lasted so much longer than other immigrant groups. I think this is one of the common, shared aspects.
I haven't done enough about all these things. But Jews are everywhere also.
The second point is—and this is a stereotype—Chinese really respect Jews.
PETER KWONG: In the sense that they know how to make money, they have thrift, they respect education, etc., etc.
From the lower-class Chinese to the upper-class Chinese, they have this thing. I have done a lot of work about where the Chinese upper class—I am talking about professionals—where do they live? In New York City. Professional Chinese don't live in Chinatown. They are more likely to live in integrated areas. But the Chinese also like to live in the suburbs. But which suburbs? The suburbs where there are good public schools. Where do you have good public schools? Where the Jews are.
In 1950s, 1960s, all the Chinese professionals tried to find a place in Scarsdale, Great Neck. This is where the interaction comes in.
I tell this story many times. People would give me all these more stories. In Texas, the Chinese concentrated in this particular neighborhood with the Jews. West Hollywood, Jewish community, Chinese moving there. There is a high rate of interracial marriage between Jews and Asians in general, but Chinese—
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: My mom used to tell me, "If you're not going to marry an Indian, marry a Jewish guy." [Laughter] They are the upper caste, they are the high caste. So stereotyping works in both ways, a double-edged sword.
PETER KWONG: In that sense, there is a shared experience of—well, they have been discriminated against—at least they—anyway.
QUESTIONER: You have to mention that it is true also that Jewish people and Chinese people all love Chinese food.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you guys so much. This has just been so wonderful.
If I could just put two words out there to you that I think really tie together the many themes that we have heard here, I think the two words that really stick in my mind are "trust" and "systems." One is that trust is a complicated thing. You put all your trust perhaps as an immigrant in a person who will exploit you. You put your trust in a system that may not work in your favor. You have trust for certain dreams or opportunities that may not actually be real or pan out. Then the other side of this is that there are systems at work here. Any kind of hidden, invisible, underground system within an enclave or an immigrant community is also backed up by broader hidden forces that are at play on a global level in the financial system.
I think no place captures this complexity, this duality of systems and trust more than Chinatown. I have been studying immigrant communities now for about 15 years. I think some of the forces that we are going to see in the next 10, 15 years about investments and flows and the movement of money, the movement of people are really going to play out in some very interesting ways.
I think we have gotten a lot of food for thought here. I want to thank you guys again so much. And I am going to hold you all to my secret Chinatown food tours. I am not going to take the bus tours.
PETER KWONG: That is a different story. Chinatown—you no longer have very good restaurants.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: No. You are going to take me to Sunset Park and Flushing.
Thank you guys so much.