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Winnie Tam Hung on the Status of New York's Chinatown

I remember a time when I had trouble just walking down Canal Street, because it was so crowded. Back then, the streets of New York's Chinatown were packed, from people going to work at local garment factories, to tourists patronizing an assortment of souvenir shops featuring Chinese products. And of course, there were people like me - people who regularly visited Chinatown for its restaurants, inexpensive shopping, and even bus tours to local attractions.

But walking through Chinatown nowadays, it is a much different landscape. There are definitely nowhere near as many people around. Walking though the streets, it is very noticeable that many small businesses have gone out of business or relocated. For the retail businesses that remain, instead of being the packed restaurants and buzzing shops that they once were, many are now often empty, obviously struggling to stay afloat.

Also, you see more high end condominiums and developments in the area. On the surface, these new buildings may seem like progress, but what many people do not realize is that most local residents and businesses do not have the means to afford such luxury spaces. Hence, they are getting driven out of the community gradually, drastically changing Manhattan's Chinatown as we know it.

So how did all of this happen? What caused these changes, and how did 9/11 play a role? Recently, Winnie Tam Hung discussed this phenomenon at AAARI in her lecture "It's So Much Quieter Now: Post-9/11 Chinatown Small Business," which can be seen online at

Winnie Tam Hung is a Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies at UC Davis, where she is working on her dissertation, "Chinatown Rim: Chinese Subjectivities and the Cultural Politics of an Ethnic Space." Hung has been heavily involved in researching different facets of Chinese communities in the U.S. for years. She has been invited to make presentations on her research across the country, from New York to California. In addition, Hung is a member of GCCA's (Greater Chinatown Community Association) executive team. She was also awarded the American Dissertation Fellowship from the American Association of University Women for 2008-2009.

To explain the situation Chinatown is facing, Hung was nice enough to give Asian Loop the opportunity to ask her further questions about her comprehensive study.

Q: For the benefit of those who have not seen your presentation, would you please briefly summarize the main idea behind your research on the effect of 9/11 on Chinatown?
A: The main argument I made is that in order to understand how Chinatown has changed in the last 7 years, we have to go back 40 years and look at some trends in urban housing & development. After WWII ended, the federal government encouraged development of suburbs and suburban housing. This was a strategic method to disperse the population away from urban centers in case of an attack during the Cold War.

Government loans and post-war economic prosperity helped many Americans in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s to realize the dream of home ownership outside of urban centers. This outward migration away from the city left many urban neighborhoods in disarray as workers and businesses relocated to non-urban areas.

While many whites moved to the suburbs, poor people of color were prevented from borrowing money by banks and lending agencies using redlining to keep out low income and people of color from the suburbs. They were also barred from business loans which further exacerbated the decline of inner city neighborhoods and businesses.

Starting with the Koch administration in the 1980s, however, local developers were given incentives to bring back whites and wealthy people into the city. Developers were given incentives to reinvest in urban housing and “revitalize” downtowns to attract middle class professionals back into the city.

Private developers from NY and Asia poured money from the profitable finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE) industries into declining urban neighborhoods. By converting industrial spaces into condos and lofts, developers made money by driving up both commercial and residential rents. This pushed out low-income families, many people of color, and traditional Chinatown businesses such as garment factories and other manufacturing industries.

By the time of the attacks on September 11, 2001, you can already see the consequences of this development from the late 1990s. Therefore, what we see now in Chinatown is the rise of services and decline of manufacturing.
Q: With Chinatown's current financial difficulties, what demographic is affected the most and how are they coping?
A: Truth to be told, everyone is suffering. You don’t need me to tell you about the crisis that irresponsible speculators and lending agencies have gotten us into. Chinatown is no different. The so-called “Chinatown” economy is presumed to be an insulated and ethnic enterprise but Chinatown is deeply connected to the larger city, regional, national, and global economies. Small business owners, in particular, are suffering: they’re paying commercial rents that increase every year while getting less business because consumer spending is down. Restaurants especially are suffering because people are eating out less often but the cost of purchasing and transporting produce and other necessities like oil, salt, sugar, etc. are going up as a result of high gas prices.

They are afraid to raise prices for fear of scaring away the few customers who come in for lunch or dinner. While some are lucky enough to break even and even make a small profit, most are just waiting; waiting and hoping for things to get better. In the end, it is the small businesses owned by individuals that will bear the brunt of this recession; restaurants owned by corporations that have franchises in other areas will not suffer as badly.
Q: Do you think 9/11 is the sole cause of the situation? If not, what other factors come into play?
A: 9/11 is most definitely not the sole cause of economic decline in Chinatown but its aftermath continues to exacerbate the downward decline. Chinatown's post-9/11 problems are also due to street closures which made it impossible for many businesses—especially garment factories—to send or receive deliveries for months after 9/11. As a result, many garment factories (a major industry in Chinatown and large employer of women workers) either closed or moved out of Chinatown.

Many businesses are hoping that Park Row will be re-opened to allow more traffic into Chinatown and that parking becomes more available to lure people from the outer boroughs back into Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Q: Would you please explain the current re-zoning laws controversy and what the possible outcomes are?
A: The controversy is not about rezoning laws, but a proposal to rezone a 111-block portion of the East Village that did not include Chinatown and the Lower East Side. This plan was approved by the Department of City Planning on October 14th and will now be sent to Mayor Bloomberg and City Council.

The new East Village/Lower East Side zoning district extends between the east side of Third Ave. and Bowery to the west side of Avenue D and between E. 13th St. on the north to Grand and Delancey Sts. on the south.

The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund have opposed the plan, which excludes most of Chinatown, on the grounds that the zoning would steer high-rise developers to Chinatown and displace low-income residents and local merchants there. A report by Hunter College’s Center for Community Planning and Development critiques the job done by City Planning on the draft environmental impact statement, or D.E.I.S., a document required before a rezoning can be made into law.

According to the Hunter report, the D.E.I.S. drew “inaccurate conclusions” about the impact on neighboring areas by limiting the secondary study area (the area surrounding the rezoning area’s boundaries) to only one-quarter mile outside of the perimeter. Instead, Center for Community Planning and Development urges for an increased secondary study area of a half-mile—two times the current distance—to properly assess the impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

Since it seems likely that this rezoning plan will become law, a separate group has already been established to begin work on a Chinatown-specific rezoning plan that may take up to five years and in this case, as with historical precedents, separate does not appear equal.
Q: With the multiple building developments planned for Chinatown, what do you think will be the positive and negative impacts on the community?
A: People talk about gentrification as if it’s just a “whitening” of a neighborhood but in actuality, gentrification by people of color has been taking place in Chinatown and the Lower East Side for decades. Wealthy Chinese developers, investors, and residents are reshaping Chinatown’s built environment with luxury condominiums, hotels, and banks. They’re able to do so with the encouragement and aid of Mayor Bloomberg’s legacy of development-driven “revitalizations.” By offering tax breaks to developers and rezoning entire portions of Lower Manhattan, the Mayor, City Council members, and the Department of City Planning are continuing a legacy of displacement of low-income residents.

While it is certainly nice to see developments like the Allen Street Mall a la Paris’ Champs-Elysee boulevards, the question to ask as one admires the shiny new structures is this: who are the inhabitants and residents of Chinatown and are they the same immigrants, workers, and families who compose the neighborhood’s working class fabric? No one wants to see an elderly woman struggling up 3 flights of decrepit stairs in a dilapidated tenement building. However, once that building is renovated, no one wants to see the elderly woman displaced to another borough because she can no longer afford to live in Chinatown. Neighborhood residents should not be placated by promises by developers to include “affordable” housing in new residential buildings because that is a subjective term. Chinatown needs straight up low-income housing to ensure that those families, small businesses, and immigrants who give Chinatown its vibrant character are not pushed out by high rents.
Q: What can the average person do to help?
A: We have to remember that our institutional, organizational, and governmental representatives are made up of “average people.” Therefore, the first (and perhaps hardest) step is to get informed about the different issues in Chinatown and the grassroot actors involved. The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side (, the Chinese Staff and Workers Association (, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (, Committee Against Asian-Asian Violence (, and the Chinatown Working Group are just a few of the main actors involved in Chinatown labor, rezoning, housing, legal, and environmental actions. There are also innumerable other groups, such as the Greater Chinatown Community Association and the Charles B. Wang Center working in Chinatown who address other important issues such as community building and healthcare.

In addition, Chinatown is divided into Community Boards 1, 2, and 3 which have monthly meetings (check on each board’s website for scheduling) where residents and concerned citizens come together to discuss issues affecting the community. Particularly if you are bilingual Chinese and English or Spanish and English, it would be immensely helpful to attend these meetings and act as translators for those who may want to express an opinion and follow the proceedings but don’t speak English. You may also attend and bring back information to others who can’t attend meetings so that more members of the community stay informed.
Q: What factors made you decide to research this topic of 9/11 and Chinatown?
A: As a native New Yorker and child of first generation immigrants, I know it’s cliché to say that I spent many weekends in Chinatown as a kid. Now that I live in California, I look forward to coming back to Chinatown and am always shocked at the new stores and renovated buildings popping up in corners where I’m used to seeing smaller structures and family-owned businesses. I wanted to do a project that charts the rapid—and sometimes disturbing—changes I’ve witnessed in Chinatown in the 7 years after 9/11.

Also, the changes in Chinatown’s demographics are very interesting to me because I see it as part of a citywide trend to draw middle-class professionals into downtown urban centers and displace people of color—but low-income residents in general—to the outer boroughs. This has reshaped the historically working-class character of the neighborhood and surrounding region. Therefore, I feel it’s imperative at this critical moment in Chinatown’s history to intervene and try to examine what makes Chinatown unique from, but also similar to, other parts of the city which have also been rezoned and experienced rapid gentrification such as Williamsburg and Harlem.
Q: What other Asian/Asian-American related projects are you working on right now or would like to work on?
A: As part of my current research on Chinatown, I am also looking at the development of Fuzhounese youth culture and identity. As a more recent immigrant group than the Cantonese and Toishanese, Fuzhounese have gotten a bad rep in Chinatown and elsewhere for being “illegal,” rude, and uneducated. My research addresses the effects of these categorizations on how Fuzhounese youth shape their sense of self.
Q: One of the biggest global changes recently is China's rise as a economic power. From your research, do you see that causing any changes to the Chinese/Chinese-American community? For example, are there those who may want to move back?
A: China’s social, political, and economic conditions have always played a huge role in Chinese immigration to the U.S. and other parts of the world. While there are certainly people making a very good living in mainland China, the reason for a lot of people to immigrate continues to be family reunification and dreams of a better future for their children. Those who “move back” to mainland China tend to be those international students who have advanced degrees (MBAs, PhDs, MAs) from the U.S. because they have the language skills and cultural competency to operate in a globalized economy.

For American-born Chinese, it might be difficult and unfeasible to “return” to China because they were never there in the first place. Their parents, friends, and social networks are here in the States and they have no deep roots to China. Thus, when we talk about “returnees” to mainland China, we have to remember the diverse class and educational backgrounds of Chinese living in the U.S. to avoid broad generalizations.
Q: Realistically, how do you think Manhattan's Chinatown will be different ten years from now?
A: Before the recent economic instability, it would’ve been easier to say I see continued luxury development in Chinatown. Now, as we wait for the financial turbulence to settle down, I would say upscale developments will continue but at a more measured pace as investors take a closer look at the real estate market. However, I think it is safe to say that these developments will continue to threaten the ability of long-time Chinatown residents to stay in the neighborhood.

Renewed efforts after 9/11 to institute a Business Improvement District (BID) intensify pressures on small businesses and pave the way for chain stores and displacement of low-income residents by requiring additional taxes on small businesses. This may lead to further displacement of small businesses and push others to leave Chinatown altogether for other “satellite” Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn.

I really hope community and government leaders can come together and work to protect Chinatown’s working families who’ve maintained the neighborhood’s vibrant immigrant history and mixed-use character.
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