Chinatown’s Reinvented Economy – New Businesses, New Immigrants, New Growth

A business in Chinatown. (Photo: Sarah Kate Kramer)

Weddings, bussing and buffets are Chinatown’s new major industries. The neighborhood’s economy is undergoing a transformation, and it stretches far beyond the narrow, winding streets of lower Manhattan.

The triple whammy of Chinatown’s garment industry collapse in the late 1990s, the economic fallout from 9/11, and the nationwide recession left many residents struggling.  Today, the Chinatown community is steadily reinventing itself said Peter Kwong, professor of Urban Studies at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center.

New businesses have replaced the old garment factories and eateries, and savvy residents are capitalizing on Manhattan’s high-flying real estate market, Kwong noted at an April 27 forum entitled “The Power of Place: Asian American Neighborhoods, Politics & Activism Today,” at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Despite its location close to Wall Street, Tribeca and Soho, “Chinatown is one of the last areas ungentrified,” Kwong said at the forum, organized by the Asian American/Asian Research Institute (AAARI).  Bu that is slowly changing, he said. New businesses are muscling in and entrepreneurs are eagerly awaiting changes to zoning laws before developing high-rise residential buildings for professionals and affluent families.

Kwong described businesses that supply fixtures to Japanese restaurants and wedding specialists who coordinate all the details from church, to dance hall, to photography and bridal makeup. Many $7.99 all-you-can-eat buffet restaurants in Upstate New York and New Jersey are being supplied with food (even sushi rolls!) and interior decor produced out of Manhattan’s Chinatown. All this movement of goods, services and people from New York to the larger metropolitan area has given rise to companies offering transportation services.

“We have a new situation now,” he said. “Chinatown is now the supplier of new businesses outside of Chinatown.” More importantly, he said Chinatown is following its own model of economic development, one that is labor-intensive but capable of growth.

Change is indeed coming to Asian American communities, and this is especially true of New York, the “epicenter” of Asian American populations, said Paul Ong, professor of Urban Planning, Social Welfare and Asian American Studies at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs at the forum.

While some residents generally respond to change by leaving the neighborhood or staying put and “feeling trapped,” Ong said many in Chinatown have shown their resilience by becoming “active participants” in change.

Yet Chinatown is now a community in transition as residents learn new skills and witness the entry of new immigrants who come to work in the new industries, and panelists warned that older residents are struggling to keep up.

“How do we sustain this community so the people don’t move out, and businesses remain viable?” Kwong asked.

“Change is always inevitable,” said Esther Wang, Director of the Chinatown Tenants Union at the Committee Against Anti-Asian American Violence. “Our problem is that it’s not something the residents want. Gentrification is something that erases history and erases culture.”

In the end, Kwong struck an optimistic note. “Chinatown is proving itself capable of change by reinventing,” he said.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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