Finding Chinatown Through Oral Histories

Open City member Konrad Aderer and family in Sunset Park. MetroFocus/Daniel Ross.

More than three decades ago, May Wong Lee, 49, attended Chinatown’s PS 42 in Lower Manhattan, where she is now assistant principal.

“The school feels the same, but maybe it’s because I’ve been here for 25 years,” said Lee. “But all along Grand it was all linen stores, from Orchard Street up to Forsythe. They did upholstery or they sold linen. It was sort of deserted then, and now it’s packed. You have cafes, Asian grocery stores, bakeries…”

Lee can recall working alongside her mother in what she described as a sweatshop in Manhattan’s Chinatown. In her teens, Lee and her mother moved from Hester Street to Queens. But shortly after the birth of her first son 15 years ago, Lee decided to move back.

Lee is one of the storytellers for, “Open City: Blogging Urban Change,” a multimedia website that showcases personal accounts of life and neighborhood transformation in New York’s Chinatowns.

The project, created by the the Asian American Writers Workshop in the spring of 2011, seeks to answer the question: Where is Chinatown?

Geographically speaking, everybody knows that Chinatown is an ethnic enclave in Lower Manhattan, just below Delancey.

A good chunk of metro-area residents know that Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and Flushing, Queens also house bustling, ethnically diverse Chinatowns.

Substantially fewer people know that smaller Chinatowns exist in both Homecrest, Brooklyn and Edison, N.J.

But for Open City, a solely location-based answer to the “where is Chinatown” question is insufficient.

The idea is to gather and collect as many stories as possible about Chinatown, and Chinatown as an idea, Chinatown as a series and set of memories and spaces and associations.

Lena Sze, coordinator for Open City

In May, Open City partnered with the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) to host the event “Where is Chinatown? Narrative Remappings” as part of the New Museum’s “Festival of Ideas for the New City.”

People who have a personal connection with Chinatown were invited to share their experiences orally for half an hour each. The aim was to illuminate the hardships of first-generation immigrants struggling with rising rents and aggressive rezoning, and the complexities of identity and belonging that second- and third-generation Asian Americans face in the city’s Chinatowns.

Filmmaker and Sunset Park resident Konrad Aderer, who is of mixed Japanese, Austrian and English descent, participated in the storytelling.

“I feel a sense of solidarity with Chinatown, but I still feel kind of distanced from it,” said Aderer, whose wife is a first-generation Taiwanese American. Despite his residency in Brooklyn’s Chinatown, where he’s raising a son whom he considers to be basically ethnically Chinese, Aderer acknowledges that he could be classified as a gentrifier.

If Manhattan’s Chinatown is any indication of what Sunset Park might become, it’s easy to see why that classification troubles Aderer.

Hostile treatment by landlords, dangerous building code violations, the redevelopment of historic buildings into condos and questionable land grabs are frequently documented problems in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

A 2008 Urban Justice Center/Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence report found that the number of new building permits in the area rose from just 40 in 1990 to 970 in 2006. Seventy-five percent of residents were living with one or more serious housing violation and prices for multi-family homes rose 42 percent between 2005 and 2006, among other startling statistics.

But the organizers of Open City believe that firsthand testaments of people living in gentrifying Chinatowns are more powerful than the statistics.

“I think that even if you aren’t specifically Asian American or interested in Chinatowns, what’s happening in Manhattan Chinatown, as well as Flushing Chinatown and Sunset Park, in their own very different ways, is an example, is kind of a window on to what is happening to the New York metropolitan region as a whole,” said Sze.


MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


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