MagazinesPost Magazine

Genesis of a New York Chinatown

Chinese are increasingly moving to New York's idyllic Long Island - but will they get, or even need, a societal hub, asks Rong Xiaoqing.

 

When Lisa Wang and her husband decided to buy a home in New York, the family had a sleepover at a friend's apartment in Manhattan. It was a nice day, Wang remembers. They walked through Central Park, had dinner at the Jean-Georges restaurant, in the Trump Hotel, and went to a concert at the Lincoln Centre. All of these attractions are a few blocks from the friend's apartment.

"It's a very convenient location, where you can enjoy the best things in the city," says Wang, who had been renting in Queens since the family received their green cards through the United States' Immigrant Investor programme, and moved to New York from Shanghai a year ago.

Still, the Wangs didn't choose to nest in Manhattan. Early last month, they signed the papers for a US$2 million house in the hamlet of Jericho, on Long Island, which is known for the Hamptons - a beach playground for wealthy New Yorkers - and as the setting for F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1920s novel The Great Gatsby. The Wangs are not buying in a beach zone - for that price, it is difficult to get a property close to the water in the best areas of the island. But Jericho is an area of lavish greenery, and it is the best school district in New York state, if not the nation.

"Manhattan is too crowded, just like Shanghai. But the spacious and garden-like environment on Long Island is what you don't easily get in China. And my son will be getting into high school in September; the schools on Long Island are better quality than those in the city," says Wang, who, like the wives in many such investment-immigrant families, lives with her son in New York while her husband spends most of his time in China, taking care of business. (The name she uses in the US, and gives for this article, is not one that would be recognised by people who know her back in Shanghai.)

Wang is not alone. Many affluent newcomers from China, as well as earlier Chinese immigrants who have climbed the ladder to the upper middle class, have been eyeing up properties on Long Island in recent years. The influx is changing the demographics of the island and reshuffling the dynamics of its economy.

Furthermore, if a municipal government or a real-estate broker - or both - get their way, Long Island may soon see its own Chinatown, one that is very different to the others in New York City.

LONG ISLAND USED TO be occupied almost exclusively by European descendants, and agriculture and manufacturing were the main pillars of its economy. During most of the 20th century, it hosted a few dozen aircraft companies that employed tens of thousands, but after the cold war ended, in the 1990s, the aviation industry's presence shrunk, and population growth stagnated.

Whites still make up 75 per cent of Long Island's 3 million population, according to the 2010 census, but the Asian population - though it stood at only 5.5 per cent of the whole - had grown by 54 per cent in the previous decade, compared with the 36 per cent statewide growth recorded.

The Asian wave is even stronger in Nassau county, the more developed and affluent of the two counties on Long Island. Nicknamed the "Gold Coast", Nassau is where the mansion of the fictional Gatsby is located, as are those of the real-life "Wolf of Wall Street", Jordan Belfort, and the late Madame Chiang Kai-shek. Nassau attracted 40,000 Asians between 2000 and 2010. That is a 62 per cent jump and makes it one of the fastest-growing Asian communities in New York state. The census also found that among the Asians on Long Island, about a third, or 36,500, are Chinese.

The inflow of Chinese is likely to have accelerated even more in the past four years. And they have attracted much more attention than earlier settlers through their jaw-dropping purchasing power.

For Shawn Elliott, who has been running his own real-estate firm on Long Island since 2002, the realisation came in 2011. That year, five houses on Long Island were sold for more than US$10 million each, four of them to Chinese buyers. Elliott then took his first trip to China.

"Instead of waiting for the Chinese to come to me, I decided to go to China to meet them," he says.

Now his firm has opened an office in Shanghai and is planning to open another in Beijing. In its headquarters on Long Island, a team of six agents speaking a number of Chinese dialects has been assembled to serve a demographic that accounts for about 30 per cent of its business. By Elliott's estimate, half of the houses on the Gold Coast that sell for US$5 million or more are bought by Chinese.

David Lin, a Chinese-American broker who has been working on Long Island for seven years, has also been observing this trend with a sense of awe.

"In recent years, every year there are 100 or so houses sold to buyers with a Chinese last name in each of [Long Island's] top school districts," says Lin.

He says Chinese buyers are composed of two major groups - those who came to the US to either study or make a living and have now become upper middle class professionals or businessmen and the newly minted millionaires or billionaires coming directly from China. While those of the former group normally buy houses worth US$700,000 to US$1.2 million, the latter - about a third of the total - often focus on properties in the US$2 million to US$3 million range.

"The real-estate prices here are comparatively more reasonable than in China," explains Lin. "This makes the investment worth it. It is also a way for rich people to move money out of China, especially for those who might be affected in the current anti-corruption movement."

Lin is currently asking US$8.4 million for a house owned by a businesswoman in China. Within two weeks of the property being listed, in late June, he was approached by three potential buyers. Two were representatives sent by celebrities in China.

Lin says many brokers now meet their clients not in their offices but at New York's JFK International Airport.

"They go there to pick up the clients and show them the houses. Deals can be made in two days, with all cash payments," says Lin.

"Why they are buying on Long Island?" asks Elliott, rhetorically. "Because it is a lifestyle - the shopping, the restaurants, the proximity to New York City. And Chinese families more than just about any culture really value education."

Yuan Zheng, a lawyer who moved to Jericho from the Chinese-dominated Flushing, in Queens, in 2012 to enrol her then four-year-old into an elementary school, has seen the demographics in her daughter's class change quickly. "At first, there were only three Chinese students among the 20 students in her class. Now half of them are Chinese."

Chun Shan, who works for a hedge fund on Wall Street and moved to Jericho from Manhattan last year to get a better school and more play space for his six-year-old twins, says, "In the top school districts, the elementary schools have about 50 per cent Chinese students, and the high schools about 30 per cent, or so. This means Chinese with younger kids like us are quickly moving into this area.

"A lot of parents seem to be new arrivals from China. They don't speak English. My wife often interprets for them at school."

At Americana Manhasset, a high-end, Long Island shopping mall that contains about 60 brand-name stores, there are Chinese-language webpages and a Putonghua-speaking concierge has recently been hired. The shops have given cultural training to staff and all of them accept credit cards that work on the China UnionPay system, the Beijing-sanctioned bank-card network.

At the Long Island School of Chinese, a supplementary school that offers Chinese language and cultural classes to children at weekends, student numbers have increased exponentially from just a handful in 2000, when the school was formed, to 400 now.

"We get a few dozen more students every year," says Yong Luo, the school's volunteer principal, who is a practising doctor. "We have 30 teachers. We plan to hire five more."

Luo's wife, Yingqiu Xia, also a doctor, has recently been hired by ProHealth, one of the largest health care organisations on Long Island, as its first Chinese-speaking physician, to serve an increasingly important sector of its clientele.

It is in some ways a familiar story in New York. Skyrocketing rents and traffic issues caused by additional security since the 9/11 terrorist attacks have been squeezing residents and businesses out of the traditional Manhattan Chinatown - its population has shrunk 8.7 per cent according to the 2010 census. By the count of community group Asian Americans for Equality, there are now nine New York Chinatowns - defined as neighbourhoods with a population made up of 25 per cent or more Asians with businesses predominantly run by Chinese. The Chinese populations in some of the new Chinatowns, such as those in Flushing and Sunset Park, Brooklyn, have surpassed that of the Manhattan original.

But Long Island doesn't have a neighbourhood that can be called Chinatown - yet.

"It will come in time," predicts Mona Ng, co-president of Long Island's Chinese Centre, a community organisation that has been staging cultural events and activities since the 50s. Ng says her organisation has seen an annual 25 per cent increase in its members in the last five years. And she has noticed the springing up of Chinese restaurants and grocery stores in the area.

Nevertheless, she says, "Long Island is a very 'long' island. People are scattered. To have one Chinatown? I don't know if that will work. There need to be more."

And perhaps there will be.

Lin was recently hired by a Jewish landlord to solicit developers for two lots of land located next to each other. And he believes this is where the seed for a Long Island Chinatown should be planted. The landlord's proposals include 25 townhouses and a commercial building housing a medical centre and other businesses across four hectares. The plans have been approved by the authorities and Lin has been trying to find developers who are interested in bringing residents and businesses to the complex to make it a "China centre".

The land, located in Garden City, is only a few minutes drive from Great Neck and Jericho, both of which have large Chinese populations. And it is beside Grand Central Parkway and Interstate 495, which connect Long Island to New York City.

"It's a perfect location. We are trying to bring the best of the Flushing Chinatown here. So at the weekend, people can come here to send their kids to a Chinese-language school, bring the seniors to the clinic, play ping-pong or mahjong with their friends and enjoy a good Chinese meal, all at once," says Lin, who adds that a few developers, all Chinese, have shown interest.

Meanwhile, Nassau authorities have their own ideas. The county formed the Asian-American Economic Advisory Commission last year and appointed Michael Limb as the chair, to facilitate the development of Asian businesses in Nassau. A veteran adviser who has helped a number of municipal governments on the east coast understand how to develop relations with Asian communities, Limb, who was born in Hong Kong to Korean parents and brought up in Japan, says he has always wanted to establish an "Asian town" in the county.

"When I moved to Long Island, you could only count a few Asians. Now the population is growing like a mountain fire. We are trying to bring more Asians to Nassau," says Limb, who has been living on the island for 30 years.

Limb's vision includes at least a shopping mall that features Asian products and hosts cultural activities, a seniors' centre, a hotel and a studio that would produce movies with Asian themes.

"If Asian businesses or manufacturers would like to move to the area, the county can help them relocate," says Limb.

And his "town" would be different from the traditional Chinatowns in New York City.

"This is one of the richest and safest counties in the US. The Asian town here will be more classic. I am trying to make it better than any others."

Limb also plans to take advantage of the EB-5 Immigrant Investors programme the US offers to solicit investment for the project from individuals from China, who, in recent years, have acquired more green cards through investing than people from any other country.

The only thing standing between Limb and his Asian town is the fact that there is little available land in Nassau.

"We have talked to some private owners. They only want to lease [land] and don't want to sell. That's not going to work unless it's a 90-year lease," says Limb.

Now he is eyeing some distressed properties.

"The county is eager to buy," says Limb. "Once we have the land, the project will start very quickly."

Not everyone thinks a Chinatown or an Asian town is necessary, or even feasible, on Long Island. Indeed, five years ago, a group of developers pitched a similar idea to the Long Island Association (LIA), the major business development organisation in the region.

"We thought about it for a while. Then we realised it won't work out," says Chris Xu, a developer who was involved in the original discussion. "It only takes 20 minutes to drive from Great Neck to Flushing. And you can find all you need there. Why do you need a Chinatown on Long Island?"

"We supported it," says Kevin Law, president of LIA. "If we had a Chinatown here it would be a tourism attraction. It would be cool. But, meanwhile, developers cannot just build a Chinatown and only allow Asians to live there. The Asian population is already dispersed in our region. Long Island is a better place if we are more integrated."

Frank Shih, who was the president of the Long Island chapter of the Organisation of Chinese Americans (OCA) until recently, says an integrated life might be easier for the Chinese on Long Island than anywhere else, thus reducing the need for a Chinatown.

Although OCA is known as a rights organisation, the Long Island chapter operates more like a cultural branch. There have been racial issues on Long Island, but very few involve Asians. The only recent issue OCA has had to get involved with was in 2011, when the Adventureland amusement park placed some distorted Asian images in a haunted house. OCA complained and the images were immediately taken down.

"If you have a Chinatown, when you need to protect your rights, it's easier to find people to help you," says Shih. "But a lot of Chinese here have higher income and are more educated. They haven't got big problems.

"I don't see a need for [a Chinatown]."

Lin, of course, does not agree: "We are all immigrants to this country. We have some common topics and we help each other to settle. That's why we feel the need to stay together," he says, pointing out that "hundreds" of Chinese living in Great Neck and Jericho have already formed their own online community on WeChat, to share information and organise outings and picnics. He plans to persuade his future developer to consider the fung shui when building the Chinatown houses and to promote them in China after they are built.

Says Limb, in support of a Chinatown: "Asian people get along with anybody. But Chinese, Korean, Japanese, we are all the same family. Why can't we work together to show the American public how Asian people are?

"People are really realising the Asian power now," says Limb, of why the idea of a Long Island Chinatown might finally have arrived. "You've got to be in the system at the right time."

"I would move my Chinese school and my doctor's office to a Long Island Chinatown immediately," says Luo. "Chinese like to follow one another. If we have such a place where many Chinese visit, our Chinese school will grow even more quickly."

 

Share

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive
 
 

 

This article is now closed to comments

53d88d22-bf60-4a02-9523-74390a320969
Yeah, and where did all this cash come from to buy this lifestyle - the Chinese People!

Login

SCMP.com Account

or