A Journey Through Chinatown

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Within Chinatown, a Slice of Another China

July 22, 2001. New York Times

Bi He Liu rested his head against the sun-baked window of the Happy Travel bus and tried to enjoy the rare sensations of motion and light. Six days out of seven, Mr. Liu works a 3 p.m.-to-3 a.m. shift as a cook in a suburban Philadelphia restaurant. He rarely sees the sun -- or much else beyond the kitchen stove and the two-room apartment he shares with six other men.

''The boss and the pots and pans and the other workers,'' said Mr. Liu, a stick-thin former farmer from Fujian Province on China's southeastern coast. ''That's it.''

But this was Monday, the day of rest for Chinese restaurants. From Philadelphia, and from other lonely outposts around the country where most toil as dishwashers and cooks, Fujianese immigrants like Mr. Liu were on the move.

Every Monday, they converge on the one place in their fragmented American universe where everyone speaks their dialect and businesses cater to their needs.

From cities like Miami and Chicago, Fujianese couples come to hold their wedding banquets in velvet-draped restaurants. Others come to shop, bank, meet friends, consult doctors, visit travel agencies and pay bills. Isolated by their lack of English during the week, they spend the day wandering, as Mr. Liu dreamily phrased it, among ''mountains and seas of people.''

This singular place is Fujianese Chinatown in New York City. And by midmorning, when the Happy Travel bus discharged its 40 Fujianese passengers onto East Broadway, the usual Monday spectacle was in full swing.

Since immigrants from Fujian Province began flooding into the United States in the fetid holds of smuggling ships like the notorious Golden Venture, they have built a vibrant refuge for themselves in a grimy corner of Lower Manhattan.

There is no fixed border between their neighborhood and the more gentrified Chinatown to the west, where the city's Cantonese-speaking population established a base more than a century ago. Yet the Fujianese Chinatown is as self-contained, and confining, as a rural village.

Its isolation is surely a temporary condition, a gathering of strength before the dynamic Fujianese claim a dominant place in the larger Chinese establishment.

They have already begun to exert political influence within the greater Chinatown, long the exclusive domain of Chinese from just one province, Guangdong, and particularly from just one county, Taishan. Social and economic power could soon follow.

For now, though, the Fujianese enclave is struggling with its own growing pains, brought on by the peculiar exigencies of the people-smuggling business.

Each change -- first the influx of young men after perilous sea journeys, now the arrival of single women and children on relatively safer air routes -- makes new demands on Chinatown. Once it tailored itself to the rough-and-ready needs of bachelors. Now families strain the neighborhood's housing and educational resources.

Fujianese leaders in New York estimate that at least 300,000 Fujianese are now scattered across just about every state. Precise figures do not exist because most of the immigrants entered illegally. Lacking even rudimentary English, they went straight into the least visible, low-wage jobs in restaurants and garment factories.

The smuggling business still casts a shadow. Passage can cost $40,000, a crushing sum in light of the poverty of Fujian Province, a mineral-rich area of farms and fisheries where only 9.8 percent of the 33 million people complete high school and the average yearly income for city dwellers is $785.

It can take five years of unremitting work here to break clear of the debt, leaving parents too little time to raise their children or learn English.

Their desperation, then, makes them highly desirable as laborers. And Fujianese Chinatown has created its own coded vocabulary to fit their circumstances. In the neighborhood's storefront job agencies, employers make clear their preference for the hard-working Fujianese. Most job postings include a notation in Chinese that translates as ''no north,'' meaning people from northern provinces need not apply.

While many people have now washed enough dishes and cooked enough meals to pay back the money they borrowed for their passage, some are finding themselves trapped by a lack of skills in the fierce economic competition among the Fujianese.

And so on Mondays, East Broadway explodes with the energy of frantic job hunters and sharp-elbowed street hawkers, along with courting couples, petticoated brides preening in rented finery, and a din of conversation -- intimate, conspiratorial and full of laughter born of familiarity.

Into it, Mr. Liu, the Philadelphia cook, stepped happily. He mapped out a day that included a visit to a Fujianese herbalist to cure his stomach pains. Then a stop at the Bank of China branch to wire home most of his $1,900 monthly salary to pay down his smuggling debt. Finally, he said, he wanted an hour of ''relaxation'' with one of the prostitutes waiting for the Monday crowds.

''Today,'' said Mr. Liu, ''I feel alive.''

Monday, Monday
Cramming a Week Into Just One Day

Jacky Yeung, 35, is a man who lives by Mondays. On that day, when Fujianese Chinatown bursts with out-of-town shoppers, his mobile phone is always ringing. His beeper is always buzzing.

Based behind a countertop in the Triple Eight Palace on East Broadway, he sells phone cards to sidewalk retailers. Business has not been the same since a lot of other young Fujianese joined in.

A year ago, he could sell 100 minutes of calling time to China for $20. To sell a card for $20 today, he has to offer 300 minutes. Mr. Yeung now has to share his little niche in card sales with competitors who have a bit of cash to invest after repaying their smuggling debts.

''These Fujianese just want to start a business, any business,'' he said. ''They don't think they'll kill all the business.''

Mr. Yeung's strength and weakness is his territory. Fujianese Chinatown, barely four square blocks of century-old tenements and cubbyhole shops, has become a made-to-order enclave. The compact quadrant of Lower Manhattan is so comfortable that many may never develop the will or the skills to break from its embrace.

Here, business is conducted in the Fuzhou dialect, the most commonly understood dialect of Fujian Province but one that other Chinese do not speak. Thousands of Fujianese living outside New York wait until Monday, when they get to Chinatown, to do their banking, get their hair cut, buy videos, book a trip or buy groceries. Retailers live for Mondays, when they earn about 80 percent of their weekly income.

What drives this Chinatown are people like Yi Ni Lin, a chubby cook in a restaurant in Cleveland who speaks no English. His co-workers select one person each week to travel to New York to do their shopping.

Mr. Lin had his list in his head: three phone cards for himself and each of his four co-workers, two Chinese videos, some packages of ginseng for strength and a few Fujianese-style stuffed rolls that he knew would go stale on the bus ride home.

For himself, he wanted to wire money back home to Fuzhou, the provincial capital. He had borrowed most of the $28,000 he paid a smuggler. With his salary of $2,100 a month, minus money for his parents, he figures he will be free in three years.

For now, he permits himself one small luxury. ''I like to have tea in the restaurants,'' Mr. Lin said. ''I like to look at all the people.''

But the same factors that helped make New York's Chinatown a homey retreat for Fujianese have also made it a trap. Concentrated in a small area and largely dependent on the Monday windfall, the Fujianese businesses are beginning to feed on themselves.

Recently, several new buses have appeared to challenge more established ones for the business of ferrying Fujianese immigrants to East Broadway from up and down the East Coast. A ticket for the Philadelphia-New York round trip has been driven down to $10 from $26 just last year.

Sometimes, when business is slow, drivers who cannot wedge their buses into the front of the line offer a trip to Philadelphia for as little as $3, sometimes provoking fistfights.

''You see that?'' asked Qidan Chen, a bus driver, pointing to an empty bus parked in a prime spot just off East Broadway. ''It just sits there even though it's not in service. He just wants to hold that space and steal the customers away from the rest of us.''

The cutthroat economics have also intensified the demand for residential and commercial space close to East Broadway and pushed rental prices beyond the reach of most immigrant entrepreneurs. So landlords have now started to subdivide the available property -- and subdivide again.

Philip Lam, a neighborhood real estate broker, arrived from Fujian Province in 1984 and rose from dishwasher to developer. He is especially proud of his renovated apartment building near East Broadway.

Where there were three rooms, Mr. Lam reconfigured the space to make five, each one rented out to a group of workers or one of the growing number of Fujianese families.

The pressure for commercial space is equally intense. In the Triple Eight building, a squat indoor shopping mall that has served as the Fujianese Grand Bazaar, a space measuring just two feet by four feet now rents for $800 a month. There is a long waiting list.

''All the Fujianese come here for the convenience and because of the language,'' said Mr. Lam. ''So, too, many people would like to live here. And prices are going up because the population is going up.''

American Dreams
Learning the Basics Of Restaurant English

In a cramped classroom two stories above East Broadway, aspiring waitresses learn survival English while waiting to find husbands. Steps away, in the public elementary school, Fujianese children learn about a world their parents have yet to discover.

These are Chinatown's newcomers, the building blocks of a community that will be based on families. They have turned the onetime bachelor haven on its ear, pressing it to look outside itself and, in small ways, forcing it to face its future.

''Everybody has a different American dream,'' said Keng Di Chen, curled into a child-size desk during a break in her class, Practical English for Chinese Restaurants. ''Mine is to get a green card and then go to Oxford University.''

No matter that Miss Chen, 24, had completed only the equivalent of junior high school back in her hometown, Chenle. After a few months in New York, she already looked every inch the confident American in jeans and pink T-shirt, red polish on her toenails and a defiant ''whaddayalookinat?'' tilt to her chin.

Miss Chen was unfazed when told that Oxford is in England. She just shrugged and went back to her textbook, sounding out useful on-the-job phrases like ''smoking area,'' ''Your food will be with you soon'' and ''It's nice to see you again.''

''We have to work and we can't learn English fast enough for other jobs,'' she said through a translator.

The demographics of the Fujianese immigration are changing in syncopation with changes in the mechanics of the people-smuggling business.

Instead of using the treacherous holds of ships, smugglers now arrange passage over the Canadian and Mexican borders or provide plane tickets, false documents and instructions for bribing officials in Asian and European airports along the way. Fujianese families have decided that those routes expose women and children to fewer dangers.

The women come with the encouragement of their families, whose tradition demands that they marry young. And given that many villages in Fujian Province have exported most of their young men to the United States, the potential husbands are here.

''It's like a soap opera,'' said Steven Wong, a Fujianese Chinatown political leader. ''We have females smuggled into this city with lots of hopes and dreams. Of course, the moment they step on the soil here they owe $40,000 to the smugglers. So they need somebody to lean on. They can easily fall in love.''

The community has long been divided by generation, not only in the sense of chronological age but also in the immigrants' place along the smuggling chain.

After the Tiananmen Square massacre, for example, Chinese immigrants who were in the country as of Dec. 1, 1989, were granted legal status. Some others who entered illegally have been granted political asylum. But those who came in the early days paid about $18,000 to smugglers and hold a special place in the Fujianese immigrant hagiography as a ''wan ba ge,'' or ''$18,000 brother.''

Some of the tens of thousands who came in the early 1990's eventually brought their wives, who then went to work to pay off their own debts. Now couples are bringing their children. But the youngsters and their parents are strangers.

Many of the children were left behind and lived almost all their lives away from their fathers. Some of the children were born here, making them citizens, but were sent back to China as infants to be raised by relatives.

''Parents feel guilty,'' said Sidney Sheng, a local youth counselor. ''And if they don't have enough time for the kids and they see the kids don't listen, they are overwhelmed.''

Or the parents find themselves preoccupied with work and debts.

''They often rely on the schools to socially, morally and academically educate the children,'' said Ann Hochman, the acting principal of Public School 2 on Henry Street in the heart of Fujianese Chinatown.

Young children are frequently cared for by siblings or other relatives. They often live in overcrowded apartments. The parents' peripatetic lives, searching out of state for the next good job or business opportunity, disrupt the children's schooling. Last year, 29 of the 153 Fujianese students at P.S. 2 were pulled out of class altogether because their parents had moved.

''I know this is home base,'' said Ms. Hochman. ''I'll hear people say they went down to Florida and the business didn't make it and they'll come back. Sometimes they take their children. Sometimes they leave them here.

''So we have some kids who are very emotionally vulnerable,'' she added. ''They're young, and they need Mommy and Daddy.''

Family Prospects
Starting a New Life In Rented Clothes

Her sparkling white stretch limousine waited outside, purring at the curb. Her new husband fidgeted with the red bow tie as a team of attendants buckled a red cummerbund around his waist. Her bridesmaids, sneakers peeking out under the hems of their nylon gowns, regarded her with open envy.

Jing Lin had reached the summit. Five years after leaving her hometown, Fuzhou, as a frightened 17-year-old, Ms. Lin was married. And not to just one among the multitudes of illegal Fujianese immigrant bachelors, but to a newly minted American citizen with prospects.

''In Fuzhou, not much gentlemen,'' said Ms. Lin in the hesitant English she learned during years of waiting tables in Hartford. ''They all come to America. My Fujianese people all here. I got a lot of choice here. If I still in China, no.''

Here is the future of the Fujianese immigration, dressed up in a cloud of white sateen and sequins. Propelled by economic necessity or youthful enterprise, the Fujianese are starting families outside the nestlike comforts of the Fujianese enclave.

Chinatown's preoccupation now is weddings. Each week, 30 to 40 couples descend on the neighborhood from around the country for a day of hairstyling, makeup and picture-taking in settings like Central Park. East Broadway is lined with white limousines, as if an entire Hollywood studio of stars had descended on its dingy expanse of stores and offices. Basement florists fill up with roses and chrysanthemums for wedding dinners.

A small army of Fujianese part-time singers, comedians and magicians has emerged to entertain at receptions. There is a three-month wait to reserve a banquet hall.

Carol Law's wedding-planning shop on East Broadway, one of many, looks like backstage at a costume drama. Racks of white wedding dresses and a rainbow of gowns in chiffon, velvet and organza hang from the ceiling and crowd the main floor. Upstairs, a bevy of women wield cans of hair spray, mascara wands and powder puffs. Three Fujianese immigrant brides -- Ms. Lin and two waitresses from Florida and North Carolina -- sit frozen in place.

Just about everything they and their husbands will wear on their wedding day will be rented from Ms. Law, a Hong Kong-born businesswoman who anticipated the Fujianese wedding boom six years ago and opened a shop on East Broadway. She provides four changes of clothes for the women, including an American-style white gown and the tight-fitting mandarin-style ''cheong sam'' dresses in deep purples and red. Her photography studio offers fantasy backdrops for soft-focus wedding pictures to send home to China.

Xi Leung -- ''Call me Jay,'' he said jovially -- chose Ms. Law's $4,000 Fuzhou Special, which includes a tour in an Excalibur limousine, for his wedding to Ms. Lin. The couple especially loved posing against a studio backdrop that made it look as if they were standing on the deck of a luxury yacht.

Mr. Leung emigrated from Fujian Province 10 years ago and now owns a takeout restaurant in Hartford. He met his bride on one of the rare occasions when he went out to eat. ''I work seven days a week and don't really have time,'' Mr. Leung recalled. ''But I went out to eat at a friend's restaurant and she was there, working as a waitress.''

The wedding reception -- 10 tables, each with 10 friends, and heaps of soft-shell crab and shrimp -- had to be in Fujianese Chinatown. ''It's a Chinese area,'' said Mr. Leung. ''In Connecticut, you've got to do like the white people do.''

After the wedding, the couple would leave Chinatown and return to a less protected life where their children, when they come, will have to be more nimble at assimilating.

Ms. Lin blushed under her makeup as she described her plans. ''I maybe will have a baby,'' she said. ''Maybe I will have babies.''


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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