Every summer, Wellington Chen, director of New York Chinatown's Business Improvement District, dispatches interns to document all the businesses that have opened or closed in his neighbourhood. He has noticed an overwhelming number of empty storefronts being filled by independent pharmacies. At the same time, senior and adult day-care centres have been proliferating.
Chen says it's a subtle indication of a trend: as so many immigrants' children have left for college and never returned, and as other families have sought real estate in the outer boroughs (particularly in Sunset Park, Brooklyn and Flushing, Queens), most of the people left in Chinatown's historic core are the elderly dwellers of rent-regulated apartments.
How can this possibly be the state of one of the most desirable tracts of real estate in all of Manhattan? After all, Chinatown is hedged in by three of the borough's priciest neighbourhoods: SoHo to the north, the Financial District to the south and, to the west, Tribeca, where the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is US$5,100. Developers would eagerly replace Chinatown's tenement buildings with market-rate housing for young professionals or gut the existing buildings, leaving only the tea parlours and dumpling shacks.
A similar fate has already befallen the Chinatowns of Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, which have been reduced to ethnic theme parks where long-time residents have been priced out and new immigrants no longer come. And Manhattan's Chinatown is built on the graveyards of enclaves past: the Irish Five Points, the Jewish Lower East Side and Little Italy.
But Chen is right: so far, Manhattan's Chinatown has largely resisted the laws of the real-estate market. Often defined by the rough borders of Delancey and Chambers streets on the north and south, and East Broadway and Broadway to the east and west, the neighbourhood is still populated primarily by low-income Chinese, its storefronts are still dominated by Chinese mom-and-pop operations, and it remains a cultural and commercial hub even for expats in the outer boroughs. It has found ways to keep its internal economy humming even after its garment factories folded in the 1990s and early 2000s.
While the neighbourhood is not immune to pressures - some restaurants are shuttering because of rent hikes, hotels and luxury apartments are appearing on the periphery, and wealthier tenants are slowly filling vacancies in some of the old buildings - it is, broadly speaking, an exceptionally tight-knit and self-sustaining city unto itself.
Here are five reasons why:
1 They own the place
Eric Ng is known to practically every long-time resident as "the mayor of Chinatown". An entrepreneur who emigrated from Hong Kong in 1970, he was re-elected last year as president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), which represents the interests of some five dozen cultural organisations and "family associations", grouped by immigrants' last names. For decades, the CCBA effectively functioned as Chinatown's government, collecting dues and overseeing business transactions.
"If there was an argument, they didn't come to court," Ng says in his office at 62 Mott Street. "They came to us."
The most powerful community figures worked through the CCBA. As Chen says, "There are people behind the scenes who choose the Eric Ngs of this world." Those figures once functioned like a village council, providing stability and order. They're still around, and most are businessmen, many retired, some now living in the outer boroughs. But they no longer carry the authority they once did.
Still, the family associations' most enduring achievement is a momentous one. During the 1960s and 70s, they bought up about 60 buildings in Chinatown's historic core, mostly on Mott, Pell and Bayard streets, which they still own collectively. They rent out the bottom floors to stores and restaurants, and the rest they use as apartments, many for the elderly. They also retain community space, which they use for huge galas during Lunar New Year.
"They're sitting on a gold mine," says Margaret Chin, the city council member representing Lower Manhattan who was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Chinatown.
A similar mixed-use building on East Broadway, previously owned by a realty company, sold last year for US$20 million. But because dozens of people have shares in the family associations' buildings, they're almost impossible to sell.
Dwarfing the family associations in scale are the government-subsidised housing developments clustered around Chinatown's far-eastern edge. The Smith and Vladeck public-housing projects are just beyond Chinatown's traditional borders, but they now collectively house some 2,700 low-income Asian residents. And there are hundreds more in the Confucius Plaza skyscraper on Bowery and in the Two Bridges projects on Cherry Street.
All of this has helped create the conditions for a haven for poor immigrants, but the efforts of liberal charities are also critical to keeping it that way. The civil-rights group Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), run by Christopher Kui, is one of the most powerful forces in Chinatown's housing market. Since 1995, it has secured more than US$100 million in grants, donations and loans to buy tenement buildings and restore them - ensuring that developers can't raze them instead - and to build affordable housing. It also joins other advocacy groups, such as the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association and CAAAV (formerly called Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence), in protecting residents of rent-regulated buildings, filing lawsuits on their behalf when landlords try to evict them illegally.
"We're talking about fighting building by building - it's a little bit like Groundhog Day," says Paul Leonard, who works in Chin's office. "One tenant will give word that they're getting harassed by their landlord and it will turn into an attempt to clear the entire building."
In their totality, these little struggles keep Chinatown's affordable-housing stock from eroding.
Chin, who is the district's first Chinese-American city council member, helped found AAFE and worked there for 11 years. When I ask her why these advocacy groups hold so much sway in Chinatown, she chalks it up to simple logistics.
"The area is not that big," she says. "It's all right there. You're able to speak the language and organise."
2 No one ever truly leaves
Ethnic bonds are also responsible for the neighbourhood's economic resilience in the wake of the garment industry's collapse. During the '70s and '80s, clothing manufacturers provided tens of thousands of jobs to uneducated workers, and employees on the late shift kept the surrounding restaurants and markets buzzing until long past midnight. By the early 2000s, thanks to competition from overseas labour and the restricted access to Chinatown in the wake of 9/11, nearly all the factories had closed. At this point, Flushing was attracting middle-class families looking to buy houses, and Sunset Park was appealing to tenants who couldn't find space in Manhattan. It appeared possible that the original Chinatown would no longer be an essential part of their daily life.
But over the past decade, as other Chinese businesses keep people returning for day trips, Chinatown's contemporary role has come into focus. Neighbourhood banks such as Abacus and Eastbank still cater to Chinese immigrants looking to buy homes and start businesses. Sandra K. Lee, chief executive of Harold L Lee & Sons Insurance, on Pell Street, says her office helps newcomers understand how insurance works and why it's necessary in the litigious American culture, even if they never needed it in Hong Kong or Taiwan.
"It's sort of like social work," she says.
The Lau-Kee family built its law firm on immigration cases in the 1960s and now concentrates on business and real-estate law for Chinese clients. Sunset Park and Flushing have their own Chinese food markets and restaurants but, Chin says, the high concentration of accountants, real-estate agents and doctors - not to mention the old churches and Buddhist temples - keep Chinatown a regional capital for Chinese immigrants.
3 And more keep coming
Since the early '90s, a distinct and parallel Chinese community has blossomed in the neighbourhood. Unlike the primarily middle-class Cantonese-speaking immigrants who moved to Chinatown in the '60s and '70s from Hong Kong, the newcomers are arriving from the farms and fishing villages in Fujian province, where Putonghua is dominant. Two dozen employment agencies on East Broadway have networked with Chinese restaurants across the eastern half of the United States, so a young Fujianese immigrant with no working papers, knowledge of English or cooking experience can walk in and immediately land a kitchen job in some distant locale.
To transport them, there are now numerous Fujianese bus companies that make regular trips to cities such as St Paul, in Minnesota, and Norfolk, in Virginia. With a capacity of more than 1,000 people a day, they have expanded their clientele outside the neighbourhood, transforming Chinatown into a transport hub. In addition, there are now at least nine Chinatown print shops that supply menus for Fujianese-owned restaurants in other states; a Chinatown electronics store that supplies the restaurants with software and hardware; and a host of support services that cater to these transient Fujianese workers: money lenders, gambling facilities, wedding parlours, notaries and immigration-law offices.
"Chinatown has reinvented itself," says Peter Kwong, a professor at Hunter College and City University of New York who is recognised by many as the dean of Chinatown scholars. "That's why it's still here."
4 It feeds everyone
Chinatown's restaurant culture established itself more than a century ago, when early generations of Chinese immigrants were working low-wage jobs across the five boroughs. On Sundays and Mondays, they flocked to Chinatown restaurants for a reprieve from the exclusion and racism they felt in the diaspora, according to historian Jack Tchen, a co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America. Even before tourists discovered it, the food defined the neighbourhood.
These days, the restaurant owners remain a bellwether of Chinatown's modernisation. Young entrepreneurs are updating some of the oldest restaurants for their own generation. Wilson Tang, 36, runs the Nom Wah Tea Parlour, the neighborhood's oldest dim sum restaurant. It opened in 1920 and was purchased by Tang's uncle in 1974. Tang says he did the unthinkable by serving dim sum for dinner, rather than cutting it off at 2pm, like every other Chinatown restaurant, a move several of his peers have now repeated. Without altering the traditional menu, he brought in a wine expert to help him with pairings. He's also arranged parties with Vogue and promotional events with Nike. It's a balance of tradition and innovation also being attempted by Christina Seid, whose father started The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory in 1977. She tries to introduce her long-time Chinese customers to new flavours; pumpkin pie and rainbow cookie have been especially successful. After years of turning Americans on to durian and pandan ice cream, "it's like a reverse introduction", she says.
Crucial to the success of Chinatown's restaurant scene is its diversity: there's a wide spectrum of culinary ambition, as many holes-in-the-wall as there are famous institutions, and varying degrees of self-consciousness and tourist-coddling. (Even among the places that cater to tourists, Tang says, there are sometimes secret menus accessible only to Chinese speakers.) There are now Vietnamese, Malaysian and Thai restaurants, as well as Fujianese and Shanghainese, reflecting shifting immigration patterns. And some of its least-authentic establishments have also become institutions.
Wo Hop, which opened in 1938, has stayed in business by adapting its menu for non-Asian palates.
"The Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong, they won't eat here," says Ming Huang, who manages the restaurant on his family's behalf. "But the ABCs - American-born Chinese - they like our style of food."
5 It is engaged in an argument with itself
Neighbourhood leaders from every sector agree that they need to orchestrate some kind of change to keep Chinatown thriving, but prescriptions vary widely. There are those who want disruption. Some of the developers most active on the neighbourhood's periphery belong to the Chinatown community, including Alexander Chu, chairman of Eastbank, who has drawn criticism for the boutique hotel he's building in the area. Another developer, Shing Wah Yeung, opened a luxury-condo building on the periphery in 2006, and earlier this year he announced plans to build a 13-storey tower of office condos and retail space at Pike Street and East Broadway, in the south of Chinatown.
Others see the neighbourhood's best future as a continuation of the past.
"It's the spirit of old New York," says Tchen. "A port culture of people coming on, coming off ships and intermingling with people of different backgrounds. The neighbourhood still embodies that history of just regular people."
Some believe the best way to retain regular people is to agitate against development. Wing Lam, head of the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association, is pushing the city to pass a rezoning plan that would require about half the units in any new building to be affordable, limit building height and grant special protections to small businesses. He plans to demonstrate in front of City Hall. The promotional fliers read, "No More High Rents, No More Displacement, Rezoning NOW!"
As newcomers, the Fujianese typically have less investment in preserving the neighbourhood's old character, so many of them support the building of mixed-rate high-rises in order to increase the overall supply of housing.
"Let the people grow up," says Jimmy Cheng, president of the United Fujianese American Association, as he lifts his hand to suggest a vertiginous height, "and make their money."
This kind of debate over growth is taking place all over New York. What makes Chinatown's future distinct from, say, that of Little Italy, is the degree to which gentrification can be controlled by the ethnic group that runs the neighbourhood. Chinatown's future may not resemble the Chinatown we know today, but it will probably be hashed out among the Chinese-American residents currently living, eating, shopping and praying there.
"Chinatown will always be here," Chin says. "It's just a question of what kind of Chinatown we want."
New York magazine
The people who have kept Chinatown New York going
Margaret Chin, the first Chinese-American councillor to represent Lower Manhattan, elected in 2009.
"The preservation of affordable housing is important. But we're also looking at fixing up our parks and open space. It's amazing how immigrant families cope with [a lack of] space. Nowadays, there's a lot of sharing of apartments and multiple families living in tiny spaces, so the park is like their living room. On summer nights, people sit out there and talk to their friends because they don't have space in their own home."
Eric Ng, president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.
"Most people now coming from Fujian cannot afford to buy houses in Flushing or Brooklyn. And so, when the Chinese move into an apartment in the buildings owned by family associations, they don't want to move out - the rent is so cheap! Here, associations bought the buildings many years ago. If you try to sell them, the whole family will jump on you."
Baayork Lee, former Broadway performer, co-founder of the National Asian Artists Project and director of an elementary-school theatre club and a choral workshop for the elderly.
"I'm teaching senior citizens English through songs and trying to bring them into the American society. A lot of the songs they've heard in Chinese, but now they're hearing them in English. They're singing Frank Sinatra's My Way and loving it."
Carl Shan Leung, third-generation practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine and founder of Kamwo Herbal Pharmacy.
"A lot of people still come to see me because their families have been using our herb shop. But our business has changed to adjust to the reality. If we only did Chinese business, we wouldn't survive."
Christopher Kui, executive director of Asian Americans for Equality, an organisation focused on affordable housing.
"Unlike Little Italy, we have a vibrant small-business community. And as we move toward the globalisation of the world, I think New York Chinatown could be the international capital of the Chinese and Asian-American immigrant experience."
Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District and the Chinatown Partnership.
"A neighbourhood in transition is like a bus. The Germans got on and then they got off. The Jewish population, same thing. The Italians succeeded and moved out to Howard Beach [Queens]. So if you view Chinatown fundamentally as a bus, there's nothing wrong with the current situation. The battle we are fighting right now is: can we stay on a little bit longer? Now, that is a trickier riddle. No group so far has managed to hang on."
Gigi Li, chairwoman of Community Board 3 and, at 33, Chinatown's youngest political representative.
"I expect continued development of high-rise buildings will further pressure families to move out, resulting in rent-subsidised apartments transitioning to market rate. My hope is that the Chinatown and the Lower East Side community will come together to support a rezoning plan that can slow down some of these forces."
Peter Kwong, professor at Hunter College and the City University of New York.
"Some rich Chinese don't stand beside the poor ones and many nonprofits are not against high-rises at all. But there are certain forces that congeal to try to protect the community, because Chinatown from the start is a place where immigrants reinvent themselves to survive."
Jimmy Cheng, president of the United Fujianese American Association.
"The second generation of Fujianese immigrants, like my son and daughters, won't be involved in restaurants, because they have the opportunity to expand their career choices. My son is studying engineering and my daughters are in finance and marketing. The future of Chinatown will be a much more diverse neighbourhood, with working professionals in tech, finance and banking."
Wilson Tang, inheritor of the Nom Wah Tea Parlour, now in its 95th year of operation, and co-owner of Fung Tu.
"When my dad first came to America, the thought process was: work hard and try to acquire some real estate. So he did. Now we have a building on Allen Street, the storefront at Nom Wah, another building on East Broadway. And in 30 years, I hope to be living on Allen Street. The real estate will be booming, and it will be our pad. We'll fix it up and make it look really dope."
Christina Seid, co-owner of The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory, which her father started in 1977.
"Chinatown is one of the hardest places to buy real estate, because Chinese people don't move. That's just how we are. It's too much trouble. Plus, why would you want to sell? If the Italians still had property in Little Italy, they'd probably be holding tight to it. But the Italians don't own the property. Now the Chinese own their property."
Glenn Lau-Kee, attorney at Kee & Lau-Kee, one of Chinatown's oldest law firms, which his father founded in 1956.
"You'll have the occasional new buildings, some hotels, but, by and large, I can't see any tremendous change."
Wing Lam, one of Chinatown's most prominent left-wing activists and head of the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association.
"There are a lot of forces trying to push our people out, but we organise. Not just to keep the current situation, but to build more housing and a better economy. Other communities have already been destroyed. We're still here, because people know that our community has fought for a long time."
Thomas Sung, founder and chairman of Abacus Federal Savings Bank, which since 1984 has helped Chinese immigrants get loans, and owner of a large real-estate portfolio.
"The growth of Chinatown has reached its peak because it's geographically very much limited. On Henry Street, even the Chinese who buy and renovate properties are renting to non-Chinese at rates that the Chinese cannot afford to pay."
Virginia Kee, who in 1965 co-founded the Chinese-American Planning Council, which now provides 8,000 people with social services, including child care and English instruction.
"We are our own market. Walk around Chinatown, you will see so many hairdressing salons. Who are the clients? Chinese women. We have built our town, our families, our businesses by lifting our own bootstraps."
Sandra K. Lee, first female chief executive of Harold L Lee & Sons Insurance, which Lee's great-grandfather opened as a trading company in 1888.
"Other folks in the city have come to see Chinatown as a new kind of destination. There are new hotels, fashion boutiques, medical care. It's controlled gentrification."
Philip Lam, Fujianese-born real-estate mogul, owner and founder of Green City Realty, active for more than 25 years.
"Old Chinese say they like to keep the traditional Chinatown. But my kids' generation, they'd like Chinatown changed. You look back to Shanghai, to Hong Kong, to other Chinese cities - they have a lot of new buildings coming up."
Ming Huang, manager and server at Wo Hop, one of Chinatown's oldest restaurants still owned by the original family.
"A lot of American-Chinese style restaurants have closed down. Our business is still doing well, because we're in the basement. The rent is cheap. And during Christmas, people come back to visit their old neighbourhood and remember, I've been to Wo Hop. Because after 70 years, we're still doing the same food."
Jack Tchen, associate professor at New York University and co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America.
"If people want to see the way 19th-century New York had been, the closest you can come is Chinatown."
Charles Lai, co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America and executive director of Immigrant Social Services, which offers programmes for children.
"Real-estate-property folks, they're making a killing. But if you don't have enough of a mixture of people to be part of that economy, it's going to die on its own. People can't afford it."