Chapter The Transformation of Chinese America: New York v. Los Angeles

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Revised June 23, 2010
Chapter 7. The Transformation of Chinese America: New York v. Los Angeles1
Min Zhou

University of California, Los Angeles

Margaret M. Chin

Hunter College - City University of New York

Rebecca Kim

Pepperdine University

Classic theories of assimilation have long stressed the transitory nature of ethnically distinct urban enclaves as springboards facilitating immigrants’ eventual integration into the host society’s mainstream. New York’s Little Italy and Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo are perhaps the best known classic examples of residential assimilation. The general belief is that new immigrants first clustered in ethnic enclaves and toiled to allow their children or grandchildren to “melt” into suburbia to become “indistinguishably” American. In the past three decades, however, this classical inner city-to-suburbia residential mobility model has been challenged. America’s largest metropolitan regions have witnessed trends of suburbanization not simply among native-born non-Hispanic whites but also among racial/ethnic minorities; the latter—the direct insertion of large numbers of new immigrants into white middle-class suburbs—does not seem to follow the patterns predicted by classis theories. Some of the suburban communities that whites once dominated have evolved into “global” neighborhoods in which native-born groups live side by side with middle-class native minorities and immigrants of different national origins. Others are rapidly transformed into “ethnoburbs” by new immigrants possessing higher than average levels of education, occupation, and incomes, as well as social capital networks that branch out to tap financial resources and markets offshore in creating their own ethnic economies.

In this paper, we re-examine the formation and development of sprawling Chinese urban enclaves and ethnoburbs in New York and Los Angeles to raise critical issues and to refine the classic notion of residential assimilation. How have Chinese immigrants of diverse origins and socioeconomic backgrounds negotiated their way into American metropolises and the suburbia since the turn of the 21 century? How have new Chinese urban enclaves and ethnoburbs developed that differ from old Chinatowns and from typical American suburban communities? What are prospects and implications of 21st centural ethnic community development for our understanding of socioeconomic and political incorporation of contemporary immigrants? We aim to highlight distinctive characteristics of contemporary immigrant settlement and to explain emerging patterns of residential mobility, based on the analysis of recent U.S. census data, data from prior case studies in the existing literature, and our own field observations. In New York, we focus on Old Chinatown in Manhattan and two outer-borough new Chinatowns (Flushing in Queens and Sunset Park in Brooklyn). In Los Angeles, we focus on Old Chinatown and the sprawling ethnoburbs in the San Gabriel Valley, which is a vast suburbia to the east of the city of Los Angeles. Overall, we seek to understand the ways in which globalization and international migration challenge the notions of assimilation, acculturation, and mobility.

The Changing Contexts of Exit and Reception of Chinese Immigration
Global economic restructuring has moved people and capital, leading to sweeping changes in local economies of both sending and receiving countries. In many of the sending countries, global economic restructuring has significantly altered the structures of local economies and opportunities for social mobility, causing people and capital to move and cross borders in ways that render neoclassical economic theories of international migration inadequate. Wage differentials and access to better employment opportunities are no longer the main forces that push people to move. Other compelling causes include access to formal and informal migration networks, access to well-established institutionalized credit and insurance markets, educational opportunities for children, and family’s risk diversification, as well as extreme hardships arising from war, political and religious persecutions, (de)colonization, and military involvement.2
As a result, the contexts of exit for contemporary international migrations have been substantially reshaped. Since the 1960s, international migrants to the United States constitute not only the poor and huddled masses, but also the affluent and highly skilled groups. Contemporary immigrants from China and the greater Chinese Diaspora, for example, include not only low-skilled urban workers, uneducated peasants, and penniless refugees but also urban workers and highly skilled professionals, most of whom received advanced degrees from universities in the U.S. or elsewhere in the Western world.3 The influx of large numbers of the latter resource-rich immigrants creates new modes of immigrant settlement, the most remarkable of which being the detour from the central-city ethnic neighborhoods to suburbia.
Globalization has also changed the contexts of reception. In the United States, economic restructuring divides urban labor markets into a dominant core sector characterized by knowledge intensive or capital-intensive jobs that offer high salaries with fringe benefits, good working conditions, ample opportunities for upward social mobility, and a marginal but sizeable sector characterized by low-skill, labor intensive jobs that offer minimum wages with no benefits, poor working conditions, and few opportunities for upward social mobility.4 The urban employment base of unionized, blue-collar manufacturing jobs that used to facilitate intergenerational mobility of the working-class is shrinking to a trickle. Consequently, the jobs available in local labor markets either require advanced education and skills or do not pay decent wages, and less skilled natives or immigrants living in the central city are trapped in the ranks of the unemployed or working poor.5 On the other hand, the US become one of the most attractive place for investment from overseas Chinese, as fueled by the rapid economic developments in China and other Chinese dominant countries in Asia, such as Taiwan and Singapore. Foreign capital influx in turn stimulates entrepreneurial development in the Chinese American community.6

Parallel to this economic restructuring is the trend of accelerating suburbanization. Most of the country’s large metropolises have witnessed the massive exodus of middle-class Americans, mainly whites, from the central city to the suburbia. In Los Angeles, for example, non-Hispanic whites as a proportion of the metropolitan population declined from over 85% in 1960 to less than a third (31%) in 2000 [and to ?% for 2010]. Now many of the country’s major urban centers constitute a clear racial minority majority, native or foreign born alike.7 While central-city ethnic enclaves continue to serve as places where immigrants would first settle, they are now becoming more diverse and concentrate only a fraction of the total coethnic inflow. Enclave-bound immigrants may have much less contact with native-born whites today than they did in the past due to rapid white flight. On the other hand, because of increasing numbers and increasing class variations of contemporary international migration, many immigrants have settled directly in suburbs that used to be exclusively white middle-class. Moreover, rather than following a linear pathway to assimilation into a single mainstream, new immigrants are more likely than those in the past to experience varied pathways to assimilation.

Changing contexts of exit and reception thus lead to varied modes of immigrant incorporation, which defy conventional notions of straight-line assimilation into the white middle-class. In the following section, we unfold the processes and consequences of contemporary Chinese immigration to highlight new mechanisms for immigrant settlement and community development, which further challenge prevalent understandings of residential assimilation.

Chinese Immigration: Rapid Growth and Diversification
Chinese immigration to the United States occurred several decades before the mass migration from southern and eastern Europe. But unlike early immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who were expected to assimilate into the mainstream society as quickly as possible, and have done so in the course of two to three generations, early Chinese immigrants were legally barred from immigration, naturalization, and assimilation by the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943). They were forced to take refugee in Chinatowns, creating their own means of survival via ethnic economies and organizations—to avoid direct competition with native workers while keeping alive their sojourner’s dream that one day they would return to China with gold and glory.8 Sixty years of legal exclusion confined Chinese immigrants to Chinatowns and prevented them from living elsewhere, hence reinforcing the stereotypes of their clannishness and unassimilability.

In the wake of the new millennium, the Chinese American community still remains largely an immigrant community despite its long history of immigrant settlement and its current phenomenal population growth. Between 1960 and 2000, the number of Chinese Americans grew more than ten-fold: from 237,292 in 1960, to 1,645,472 in 1990, and to 2,879,636 (including some 447,051 mixed-race persons) in 2000. The estimates from 2006 American Community Survey, indicate that the ethnic population has broken the three million mark. Rapid growth is largely attributed to international migration as the first generation comprises the overwhelming majority (about 70%) and more than three-quarters of the foreign born has arrived in the United States after 1980.9 [need to update from 2010 census]

Unlike the old-timers who were mostly unskilled laborers from the southern region of Guangdong Province, new Chinese immigrants come from diverse origins and socioeconomic backgrounds. The three main sources of Chinese immigration are mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. Since 1980, Chinese immigrants from Southeast Asia and the Americas have also been visible. Immigrant Chinese from different origins or different regions of the same origin do not necessarily share the same culture or lived experiences. Language is perhaps the most significant cultural barrier, creating a subtle social distance to separate coethnics who speak Cantonese or other regional dialects from those who speak Mandarin. The new Chinese immigrants have also been disproportionately drawn from highly educated and professional segments of the sending societies. The 2000 Census showed that young foreign-born Chinese (aged 25 to 34) with four or more years of college education were more than twice as common as young U.S.-born non-Hispanic whites (65% vs. 30%).10 [need to update from 2010 census]

Neighborhood Transitions
Divergent origins and socioeconomic backgrounds of contemporary Chinese immigrants, combined with global developments in the Pacific Rim region, have drastically changed the Chinese American community from homogeneous Chinatowns into global ethnoburbs and relatively affluent urban Asian communities. Residential patterns of the Chinese are now characterized by concentration as well as dispersion. Geographical concentration, to some extent, follows a historical pattern: Chinese Americans continue to concentrate in the West and in urban areas. As of 2000, one state, California, by itself, accounted for 40% of all Chinese Americans (1.1 million). New York accounted for 16%, second only to California, and Hawaii accounts for 6%. Other states that historically received fewer Chinese immigrants also witnessed phenomenal growth, such as Texas, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Illinois, Washington, Florida, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. New York City, San Francisco City, and Los Angeles City had the largest numbers of Chinese Americans of all major cities. [need to update from 2010 census]

At the local level, traditional Chinatowns continue to exist to receive newcomers and attract economic investments from coethnics, but they no longer serve as primary centers of initial settlement as the majority of new immigrants, especially the affluent and highly skilled, are bypassing inner cities to settle into suburbs or as in New York City, in the outer boroughs, immediately after arrival. As of 2000, only 2% of Chinese in Los Angeles, 8% of Chinese in San Francisco, and 14% of Chinese in New York lived in old inner-city Chinatowns. However, demographic changes impacted by international migration do not appear to be associated with the disappearance or significant decline of old Chinatowns, which have actually grown and expanded.11 In New York City’s Chinatown, for example, all 10 out of 14 census tracts contained 25% or more Chinese, and five of these tracts had a Chinese majority as of 2000. Likewise, all four census tracts in L.A.’s Chinatown contained 25% or more Chinese, and two tracts had a Chinese majority.12 [need to update from 2010 census if possible]

The majority of the Chinese American population is spreading out into the suburbs outside of traditional immigrant gateway cities as well as in new urban centers of Asian settlement across the country. As of 2000, half of all Chinese Americans live in suburbs. There are few new urban Chinatowns in the country where more than half of the residents are coethnics. For example, in New York City’s Flushing, known as the “second [urban] Chinatown,” only two of the 11 census tracts contained 25% or more Chinese and none had a Chinese majority. In Los Angeles’ Monterey Park, known as “the first suburban Chinatown,” 10 of the 13 tracts contained 25% or more Chinese but only one tract had a Chinese majority.13 Small suburban cities in Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area have witnessed extraordinarily high proportions of the Chinese Americans in the general population and the emergence of a new and distinct phenomenon—“ethnoburbs.” [need to update from 2010 census]

Ethnoburbs refer to the hybridity of inner-city ethnic enclaves and middle-class suburbs, or suburban ethnic clusters of people and businesses.14 Based on the ethnoburb notion, the suburbanization and residential re-concentration of an immigrant group may not necessarily be accompanied by complete assimilation as predicted by the classical theories of assimilation. Instead, such drastic spatial transformation is affected by a combination of global and local forces, including the movements of people and capital and the dynamics of community and networks. The contemporary development of the Chinese immigrant community in the United States is a case in point. Next, we unfold this dynamics in immigrant gateway cities in New York and Los Angeles.

Urban Enclaves in Transition: New Development beyond Chinatown
Demographic Shifts

Flushing, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn are both suburban-like neighborhoods located in a central city. Since the 1980s, these areas have grown into visible satellite Chinatowns, each with their own distinctive flavor. In the 1970s, two demographic trends – accelerated white flight and rapid Asian influx -- contributed to the demographic transformation. Both Flushing and Sunset Park emerged as multi-ethnic neighborhoods as native-born whites either moved out or “aged” out and new immigrants began to pour in. Between 1970 and 1980, the non-Hispanic white population of Flushing fell by 55%, and in the following decade the number declined by another 42%. The rate of Flushing’s white flight far exceeded what was occurring at the same time in the borough of Queens, and in the city as a whole. The proportion of whites in every census tract decreased drastically, and in most parts of central Flushing Asians became the majority group by 1990. Only one tract on the outskirts of Flushing still maintained a white majority. Non-Hispanic whites in Flushing now make up only 24% of the neighborhood's population, compared to 48% in Queens, and 43% in the whole city of New York. [need comparable info for Sunset Park here]

According the New York City Dept of Planning 2000 data as shown in Table 1, immigrants from mainland China and Hong Kong were concentrated in Queens, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. Over one-third lived in Queens and Brooklyn, and one quarter lived in Manhattan. The Taiwanese were distinct in that three-quarters lived in Queens, with close to a quarter living in Flushing. Field work at the sites—indicate a further breakdown—with Fujianese living more so in Brooklyn rather than Queens. While the number of Chinese increased in New York City, Manhattan’s Chinatown witnessed a much smaller growth over the past 20 years as compared to rapid growth in Queens and Brooklyn.

Table 1 about here

As for commonalities, both Flushing and Sunset Park are easily accessible by subway lines which connect to Manhattan’s old Chinatown. The two neighborhoods both have relatively good housing stock including single family units as well as numerous mid- and high-rise apartment buildings. Flushing has pockets of affluence with old stately homes on large grounds. Sunset Park has many more two or three family homes built for the working class. Both have become full service communities offering and array of retail and services for the Chinese. The growth of both of these satellite Chinatowns can be traced to the increase of Chinese immigration during the 1980s.

The Chinese immigrant community in Flushing was initially built by foreign capital from Taiwan and Taiwanese immigrants. Many Taiwanese came to Flushing because they had few ties to Manhattan’s old Chinatown and did not identify with the old timers and their family-sponsored immigrants who were predominantly Cantonese. Their superior educational background and abundant economic resources enabled them to build their own enclave away from the existing center of Chinese settlement. Once the movement to Flushing began, other co-ethnic Chinese soon followed suit; some moved in from Chinatown as a step up the socioeconomic ladder while others moved in directly from abroad. Thus, Chinese immigrants in Flushing are more diverse in the places of origin and class backgrounds than those in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Prior to the Chinese influx, Sunset Park was once a thriving industrial waterfront with thousands of entry level jobs in the American Can Company, Bethlehem Steel, as well as many other maritime occupations. The construction of the Gowanus Expressway and its expansion in the 1960s created a physical barrier that severed the waterfront and waterfront industries from the community. As typical of many urban neighborhoods, Sunset Park experiencd sharp deindustrialization—loss of industrial and manufacturing jobs as well as population. The decline in shipping and manufacturing, accompanied by white flight, led to the designation of Sunset Part as a federal poverty area.15 Ninety percent of the storefronts on 8th Ave were vacant during those times.

By the late 1980s, Asian and Latino (Puerto Rican and later Mexican) immigrants have begun moving into the area because affordable housing. Initially, Chinese immigrants who depended on jobs in Chinatown discovered Sunset Park for its easy access by subway. The N train goes from Chinatown to Sunset Park with the “blue sky” stop easily recognizable as the first stop after the subway train leaves the tunnel. Many of those who moved to Sunset Park continued to work in Manhattan’s Chinatown at the time. Not only did the train take them to work–but Chinese operated vans started to pop up to drive workers to work as well at cheaper rates.

Chinese immigrant aspiring to become home owners saw the opportunity in this neighborhood in that it was not only accessible from the old Chinatown but also had significantly lower home prices. Many of the early Chinese who lived in Sunset Park remarked of the lucky symbolism behind 8th Avenue (as the number “8” is an euphemism for prosperity), the identifiable “blue sky” subway stop, and of course, the easy commute to and from old Chinatown. In 2000, about 25% of the neighborhood was Asian, mostly of Chinese descent. Today, Sunset Park becomes known as the third Chinatown that is anchored by 8th Ave and runs from 36th Street to 61st Street. The neighborhood has clearly been revitalized by new Chinese immigrants who have opened numerous retail, service, and manufacturing firms where they and their coethnics work and/or shop. Many of the 1-2 family houses have been bought by and rented out to Chinese immigrants. Sunset Park’s Chinese are mostly from mainland China with diverse places of origins.
Ethnic Economies and Neighborhood Revitalization

Before the urban transformation, the retail scene in Flushing and Sunset Park was dominated by an amalgam of small specialty shops and services, most of which were operated as typical “mom and pop” stores. There were a few large department stores in Flushing, but few in Sunset Park. New York City’s overall economic recession in the early 1970s hit the business community in outer boroughs heavily, causing many small shops and commercial enterprises to close down, commercial vacancy rates to increase, and property values to drop. White flight and the loss of manufacturing jobs in the city during the late 1960s and early 1970s exacerbated the trend of deterioration and economic downturn at the neighborhood level.

This trend, however, was dramatically reversed with the arrival of immigrants from different parts of Asia since the 1970s. With the injection of massive amounts of immigrant capital and entrepreneurship from Taiwan, and to a lesser extent from Korea and India, Flushing experienced economic revival in the service, commercial, and consumption sectors. Since 1975, new retail and office development has sprung up regularly in Flushing’s downtown area—a significant sign of the neighborhood’s rejuvenation. Property values in Flushing increased 50% to 100% during the 1980s, and commercial vacancy rates have plummeted from 7% in the late 1970s to less than 1% in the early 1990s.16 Flushing’s commercial development today is extraordinarily active with new businesses ever enlarging the commercial core. In the very heart of the downtown commercial and transportation hub, the multilingual signs of several mainstream bank branches and Chinese-owned banks stand at the busiest intersection (Korean and Indian businesses were also quite visible there). In the immediate vicinity of the subway station, upscale Chinese restaurants and full-service supermarkets, interspersed with small cafes, green groceries, drug stores, and fast food restaurants, give the area an unmistakable look and feel of Chinatown.

The visibility of Chinese faces and businesses turned Flushing into the second Chinatown. But it was not quite a Chinatown. There were modern office complexes that house banks and service-oriented firms owned by Taiwanese immigrants and transnational Taiwanese, as well as subsidiary firms from the Asian Pacific. The commercial core was also filled with Korean, Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi restaurants and stores, packed into the shop fronts along the main streets.

The expanded downtown is now a bustling, vibrant commercial area attracting suburban Chinese to return on a regular basis. Suburban Chinese come to Flushing for multiple purposes. For example, many Chinese families come in from the outer suburbs to bring their children to the Chinese Cultural Center for Saturday afternoon language classes, academic tutoring and college prep programs, and recreational activities. While children engage in these activities, parents usually do shopping at the local grocery and specialty shops or get ethnic-specific services. Others come to Flushing to study or browse at the crowded public library that possess books, magazines, and newspapers in different Asian languages, staying afterward to do some shopping, and perhaps to eat at one of the many ethnic restaurants. The development of Flushing as a comprehensive ethnic business center means that suburban Chinese residents no longer have to go into the Manhattan Chinatown to visit a restaurant, to do their shopping, or to satisfy their cultural needs.

Some of our respondents described what happened as the “Flushing miracle,” in which a once struggling neighborhood was revived economically with capital imported from Asia, and the entrepreneurial spirit and hard work of Asian immigrants. Ethnic entrepreneurs, however, often attributed the boom in ethnic enterprises to persistent attempts to achieve the American Dream and the cultural fear of losing face. Aside from cultural norms, investment in Flushing is continually being stimulated by the prospect of a growing Asian community, which in turn perpetuates confidence in the neighborhood, and ensures further population growth.

Unlike Flushing, Sunset Park was something in between the old and new Chinatown. Sunset Park was the bedroom of old Chinatown—Chinese owned services grew there to offer basic services but few touristy type stores were located there to attract suburban Chinese or visitors. There were also fewer upscale or luxury stories and fewer Chinese schools and after schools for children. So many families still had to go to Chinatown or Flushing for these services. As immigrants move into to Sunset Park in large numbers, small retail shops as well as garment shops have moved in as well to escape rising rents in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Recently, larger scale developments have taken place in the area, including the building of hotels and luxury apartment complexes. Speculators are buying because of the development of Bush Terminal Waterfront Park Area—making the place attractive and very livable.

This third Chinatown caters to the Chinese community with low priced groceries, hair salons, herbal medicine shops, appliance stores, insurance and travel agents, and building construction concerns. There are few shops with tourist items for the tourist to buy.

As far as community groups, the largest and longest established is the Brooklyn Chinese American Association which supports children to senior citizens and everything in between. They were established in 1987 and have grown to be a main staple of support for the sunset Park Chinese. They are located in the heart of Sunset Park Chinatown on 50th Street and 8th Ave. The Chinatown based Chinese American Planning Council also has a branch here—which caters to a variety of age groups, including children and senior citizens.

Housing was much more affordable than that in Manhattan and Flushing. Residents say that rents and even housing prices were half that of Queens and Manhattan in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Retail shops were also less expensive. The Hong Kong supermarket opened in the late 1980s—and served as an anchor which led to many more Chinese moving into the community. By the mid 1990s, housing prices start to increase but not at the clip as that of Manhattan and Queens. For most of the Chinese, Sunset Park was still affordable. [This part needs to be fine-tuned]

Political Participation

Historically, Chinese immigrants were denied the right to become naturalized citizens and were thus indifferent to politics. Much of the political activity in Chinatowns across the nation was oriented either toward the homeland or toward the defense of ethnically defined interests within the immigrant community. New York City had a segmented political system that was organized along ethnic lines and was used as a vehicle for the expression of ethnic interests.17 Because of their small numbers, early immigrant Chinese were not only economically marginalized and socially isolated, they were hardly visible in local politics. In recent years, more and more immigrant Chinese have become naturalized citizens and have become more actively in local politics than ever before.

In Flushing, immigrant Chinese have formed various civic organizations serving multiethnic interests in the local community rather than narrowly defined ethnic interests. These new ethnic organizations work with other ethnic organizations in the neighborhood to mediate inter-group misunderstanding and conflicts. They also routinely mobilize local business owners and residents to participate in productive activities, such as street-cleaning campaigns, voter registration drives, lobbying the Community Board and City Hall on urgent neighborhood issues. However, the scale and the effectiveness of Chinese immigrants’ participation in local politics have remained limited. For example, the electoral numbers in the 20th Council District are far from favoring Asian challengers. In 1990, Asians made up almost a third of Flushing’s population but only 7% of registered voters. Councilwoman Harrison, was twice challenged by Asian American candidates. But she won both elections in the 1990s, even though she was depicted as an “anti-Asian bigot,” publicly referring to the influx of Asian immigrants and Asian-owned businesses as “invasion” and making a calculated effort to gather white voter support by attacking the Asian immigrant community (Dugger 1996; Lii 1996).

In Sunset Park, … [to be developed]

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