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Chinatown: Chinese in New York City

Jen Lam, Anish Parekh, and Tritia Thomrongnawasouvad


         This paper aims to study the use of Chinese in Chinatown. Chinese does not refer to a specific language but the many dialects spoken in China. Though China has one written language, it can be pronounced in a variety of ways (thus the various dialects).

         The first Chinese immigrants came to lower Manhattan around 200 years ago. Many came in search for the "gold" that America had to offer. The enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943) caused an abrupt decrease in the number of immigrants coming from China. The law forbade naturalization by any Chinese already in the United States; barred the immigration of any Chinese not given a special work permit deeming him merchant, student, or diplomat; and, most horribly, prohibited the immigration of the wives and children of Chinese laborers living in the United States. The Exclusion Act grew more and more restrictive over the following decades, and was finally lifted during the World War II. When the Exclusion Act was finally lifted in 1943, China was given a small immigration quota, and the community continued to grow, expanding slowly throughout the '40s and '50s. When the quota was raised in 1968, Chinese flooded into the country from the mainland, and Chinatown's population exploded ( http://www.ny.com/articles/chinatown.html).

         Most of the early settlers were from Toishan, Shanghai, and Canton. They formed what is known as "Old Chinatown", which is surrounded by Mott and Canal Streets. The later settlers, mostly from Fujian, formed the "New Chinatown", which is bounded by East Broadway. Today, Chinatown is contained by Grand Street on the north, Chrystie Street on the east, Broadway on the west, and East Broadway on the south. According the 1990 United States Census, 47,883 people from Lower Manhattan identified themselves as Asian or Non-Hispanic Pacific Islander. Today's Chinatown is a tightly-packed yet sprawling neighborhood which continues to grow rapidly despite the satellite Chinese communities flourishing in Queens (http://www.asiannyc.org).


         The obvious LOTEs spoken in Chinatown are the many dialects of Chinese. These include, but are not limited to, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Fujianese. Other LOTEs spoken in Chinatown are Vietnamese, Spanish, and other less prominent languages. Evidence of these languages can be heard as well seen throughout the neighborhood. In fact, most commercial institutions have employees fluent in one or more of the Chinese dialects. For example, all employees at the local Citibank (located at 2 Mott Street) spoke English as well as Cantonese or Mandarin. This reflects the linguistic composition of the Chinatown community. The usage of a variety of different languages on storefronts, billboards, restaurant menus, and other advertisements demonstrates a strong prevalence of foreign languages. Through observation, it can be concluded that English is spoken less than the Chinese dialects. Of the Chinese dialects, it seems that the prevalence of Cantonese and Mandarin is approximately equal.

         Another dialect, which is often overlooked as a major Chinese dialect by non-Chinese speaking people, is Fujianese. One explanation for this oversight is that Mandarin is the official language of China. Therefore, many Fujianese speaking people use Mandarin as their dialect of choice when communicating outside of the Fujianese community. However, this is changing due to the growing Fujianese population. The area surrounding Confucius Plaza is dominated by Fujianese immigrants. Evidence of this is seen in the rising number Fujianese owned and operated businesses.


         An interview with assistant principal of Yung Wing Elementary School, Mr. David Tom, gives insight into the linguistic situation of a typical Chinatown school. The Yung Wing Elementary School, P.S. 124, located on 40 Division Street, consists of pre-kindergarten through grade five. One thousand students are currently enrolled in P.S. 124, approximately 90% of which are of Asian descent and the remaining 10% are of various ethnicities. Of the one thousand students, 20% are in the bilingual program offered by the school. The teachers that participate in the bilingual program speak either Mandarin or Cantonese. However, the Board of Education does not differentiate between dialects. The program offers three different types of learning methods: team teaching, support model and "pull-out." Team teaching consists of two teachers (one bilingual, one English speaking) working together to teach a group of students that are part of the bilingual program. The support model offers assistance to bilingual students who are placed in regular English only classes. Finally, the "pull-out" method takes students out of their normal class schedules to participate in ESL classes when necessary. Students are given an exam upon entry and based on the test results the students are placed accordingly into either the bilingual or ESL program. If the students receive a score above 40% then they are exempted from having to participate in the bilingual program.

         The school also provides assistance for parents of the students. This assistance includes translators and various community programs. The school sponsors the Chinatown Planning Council, which organizes community events. P.S. 124 also offers night classes to help adults in various subjects including English.


         Through telephone calls to various agencies, we found that some government services are available in LOTEs. For example, the Department of Motor Vehicles offers many of its services, including the written exam and registration in Chinese. In addition, voting registration forms and ballots are available in Chinese. For services that do not offer publication in LOTEs, translators are available. This is seen in the court system and police departments.

         With the advent of the disaster that occurred on September 11, 2001, government agencies are providing more services in LOTEs. From talking to a representative of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), we found that their agency is working with the New York Immigration Coalition in assessing community needs related to disaster relief. To accomplish this FEMA has hired more Mandarin and Cantonese speakers.


         Dr. Bo Chen is one of many doctors who offer services in LOTEs. He is representative of doctors who are practicing in Chinatown. His office is located on East Broadway. He speaks Mandarin, Chinese, Fujianese and English. Publications in both English and Chinese can be found in his office.

         Hospitals located in the area, such as Governeur and New York Downtown Hospital, provide translators for speakers of LOTEs. The program is supported by AT&T where patients and doctors are connected to a translator via telephone (http://www.ci.nyc.ny.us/ html/hhc/home.html).

         Community health serivices such as the Chinatown Health Clinic, located on 125 Walker Street, provide further health care, aid, and education for the local population. According to the Chinatown Health Clinic's Mission Statement their aim is to:

  • Provide access to quality and culturally sensitive health care and health education services to the Asian community in the greater New York metropolitan area;
  • Advocate on behalf of the Asian community who, due to cultural, language, education or financial barriers, may not have access to basic health care services or health education activities;
  • Recruit and train future Asian-American health care workers, develop their understanding of Asian community needs and problems, and encourage an interest in community involvement upon completion of their training.

         Services they provide in health education patient workshops, audiovisual materials, bilingual pamphlets, and presentations for Chinese language media. The social work department provide bilingual and bicultural services to clinic patients (http://asianweb.net/news/java/chc/htm).


         Religious institutions in Chinatown offer services in LOTEs, English, or both. The Mahayana Buddhist temple on Canal Street functions only in Chinese, primarily Mandarin. All of the temple's publications are in Chinese with limited English. The Scriptures, however, contain no English.

         Christian services can also be found in Mandarin and Cantonese. The Church of Latter-Day Saints located at 401 Broadway holds sermons only in Cantonese and Mandarin. However, their publications are completely bilingual. One interesting note is that the congregation is composed mainly of Fujianese immigrants; however, no sermon is offered in Fujianese. Elder Kong, a representative of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, stated, "Fujianese is to Cantonese as Spanish is to Portuguese." This shows the need for the church to include Fujianese sermons.


         In Chinatown, there are many organizations dedicated to particular groups. The following is a list of just some of the many organizations: The Chinese Society, The Fujianese Societies, Museum of the Chinese in the Americas, and Asian Americans for Equality.


         The prevalence of Chinese owned and operated stores and restaurants can be easily observed. To get an "insider" prospective, we spoke with Henry Lam, Restaurant Contractor, and Rita Lam, Restaurant Architect. Both have over 15 years of experience working for restaurant owners in the Chinatown area. According to them, the majority of currently operating restaurants are owned by Fujianese speakers. Even the various non-Chinese ethnic restaurants are maintained by the Fujianese people. Stores are mostly run by Cantonese and Mandarin speakers. Their advertisements, handouts, and signs are multilingual in both English and Chinese.


         Publications in LOTEs can also be found in the area. There is a public Chinese library and many Chinese bookstores. Newspapers, such as Sing Tao Daily News and World Journal, are only published in Chinese. They contain both American and Asian news and current events. Imported Chinese magazines can also be found in newsstands.


         In conclusion, Chinatown is very immigrant friendly. Life can easily be conducted without speaking English since many services and organizations use Chinese in business. However, it is also conducive to English only speakers because jobs requiring inter-group communication are generally occupied by bilinguals; hence it is a popular tourist attraction.

Viewing Chinatown through Chinese-American eyes:

         When I chose to study the Chinese population in New York, I thought it would be relatively easy for me. Although Chinatown is foreign place to me, evaluating it for research made me realize there are many things I overlooked or took for granted. The screaming of the vendors in the streets and the loud noises coming from the Chinese women trying to buy groceries for the day's meals all of a sudden became important to me. A normal day in Chinatown before this research project for me would be for me to stroll down the streets without taking note of the many dialects that the residents of Chinatown use, unless I needed to ask for directions. It wasn't until now that I realized that it is more comfortable for me to use Cantonese, or other dialects of Chinese, when I am in Chinatown while communicating with a resident of Chinatown. Being a Chinese-American allowed me to view Chinatown in a different point of view from my partners. My command of the language in several dialects (Cantonese, Mandarin, and Fujianese) enabled me to make an observation of what dialects are prominent in certain areas of Chinatown. The most interesting observations would be the preferred use of Chinese among the population. Limited English is necessary because the population of the community consist of a congregation of people that speak Chinese. The vendors and restaurant employees speak more English than the residents because they have to cater to the large tourist community in the vicinity. Even though I am not a resident of the community, most of the residents assume that I know Chinese because of my physical features. There was one incident where I stepped into a Fujianese restaurant and automatically the employee assumed that I understood Fujianese. She asked for my order in Fujianese even though I communicated with her in a combination of English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

         Even though I am Chinese and understand several dialects of the language, I still feel like a foreigner when I step into Chinatown. Unlike Chinatown where the majority of the ethnic makeup is Chinese, the town that I grew up in consist many of "WASPs." Seeing Chinese people living the way they would probably live "back home" was an unusual site for me. Researching the area opened my eyes to a completely different type of lifestyle as compared to mine. In my neighborhood, the Chinese community either blends in with the others or become "invisible." Screaming in the streets, negotiating at the market, burning incense outside for the ancestors, blasting Chinese opera, playing the Chinese xian and drums and other Chinese traits are non-existent, while it is the way of life in Chinatown. The noise created by the clashing dialects coming from the community may sound like nonsense to foreigners but to me it represents a home that I never knew.
-Jennifer Lam

Thoughts From a Former Chinatown Resident:

         My first experience in Chinatown during my freshman year was, like for many who are unfamiliar with it, in the form of dining excursion. Two of my Chinese-American friends guided me through back streets and narrow arcades of Lower Manhattan. To me it seemed a piece of China had been oddly misplaced between the trendiness of Soho and the bulliness of Wall Street. I was awe-struck as we walked passed numerous fish markets and herbal pharmacies totally consumed by Chinese people. The only English I heard was from my two tour guides. At the Vietnamese restaurant we ended up in, Pho Viet Huong, I felt even more isolated from the local culture when the waiter only spoke Cantonese (I was told that Chinese-owned but non-Chinese food restaurants were common in Chinatown) and only spoke to me through my Cantonese-speaking friend. Nonetheless, the meal was amazing and I had vowed to return; little did I know that my next visit would last eight months, the duration of my stay in NYU's Chinatown dormitory.

         New York University's 80 Lafayette Residence Hall was for me, and for many other sophomores, an unwanted housing assignment. When I received the notification that I was to live there all I could think of was the painful commute to campus. Reflecting on it now though, I consider living in Chinatown one of the best experiences of my life. Lacking a meal plan and steady income, I had to find "cheap eats." I soon realized that there is no better place than Chinatown to find a great meal under five dollars. During an average week, I ate out 5-7 times in Chinatown. I think this is the best way to see the neighborhood. At these restaurants is where I got the most exposure to the language and the communication struggles that all people face. However, I feel that most of Chinatown is negotiable to the non-Chinese speaker. I found the people welcoming and accommodative, for the most part.

         Aside for dining, I truly felt like a member of the community when I began using more of the local services. For example, I went to a local optometrist to get new glasses. While in his office, I was always the only non-Chinese person and all of the placards and brochures were written in Chinese. I thought language would be a problem but all the employees' English skills were proficient enough for a smooth visit.

         Although I had many worries when I first moved to Chinatown, engaging in the people and culture made it hard for me to leave. Today I live on fourteenth street but I still make my weekly pilgrimage to Big Wong, Sun Lok Kee, or Pho Viet Huong for some extraordinary meals on a budget.
-Anish Parekh

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