Brooklyn’s Chinese Pioneers
Hardworking Fujianese immigrants use the borough as a launching pad to the middle class.
While Brooklyn has gained international fame in recent years for its artisanal pickle-makers, hip-hop impresarios, and concierged condos, New York City’s largest borough has also undergone another—less media-friendly but (at least for longtime residents) equally unlikely—transformation. Over the past several decades, hundreds of thousands of mostly poor and sometimes undocumented immigrants from the Chinese province of Fujian have crammed themselves into dorm-like quarters, working brutally long hours waiting tables, washing dishes, and cleaning hotel rooms—and sending their Chinese-speaking children to the city’s elite public schools and on to various universities. The new Chinese immigrants are quietly having as great an effect on Brooklyn’s social, economic, and cultural landscape as are the borough’s hipsters and “trustafarians.” In turning a once-forgotten, now-overcrowded portion of Brooklyn into a launching ground into the middle class, they’re challenging new mayor Bill de Blasio’s portrait of New York as “a tale of two cities.”
The Chinese in America are often, and to their occasional irritation, described as the “model minority”: resourceful, college-going, entrepreneurial, and profoundly hardworking. Their success has been vexing for some, especially liberals, who fear that it can serve as a rebuke to less successful minorities. If the Chinese can make it in America, coming from a deeply alien culture and often speaking obscure dialects, why can’t Hispanics or, more painfully, blacks? Their characteristic diffidence has led the Chinese to keep their heads down, but clearly resentments have simmered. When Yale law professor Amy Chua, whose grandparents were born in the Fujian province of China before emigrating to the Philippines, published the mommy memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and the more recent The Triple Package, she faced a barrage of hostile articles about her “smug” success.
At least in some respects, the Fujianese immigrants won’t do much to lessen the resentment of model minorities. Many Chinese immigrants who arrived in New York after the 1965 immigration act were graduate students in math and the sciences, so the achievements of their children—Ivy-bound “whiz kids,” as a Time cover article called them as early as 1987—weren’t completely surprising. (As of 2010, Asian Americans’ median household income was $66,000, the highest of any demographic group in the nation, according to the Pew Research Center.) The more recent arrivals are a different story. In Fujian, a province on the straits of Taiwan, the population scratches out a living as farmers, fishermen, and laborers in sweatshop factories. Few make it through high school, let alone master graduate studies. Some Fujianese speak the widely understood Mandarin, but many know only a local dialect, making them unintelligible to anyone outside their small province.
Still, when their neighbors began showing off refrigerators—or, in rare cases, homes with wooden floors—purchased with money sent by relatives in America, or when they heard boastful stories from returnees, those Fujianese adventurous or desperate enough pulled up stakes and moved to the United States. The earliest arrivals, beginning in the early 1980s, headed for Manhattan’s Chinatown. Some Fujianese found space there, but the area was already crowded with Chinese from other mainland provinces, as well as from Hong Kong and Taiwan (and, eventually, with Wall Street traders and a club set enamored with a gritty downtown). Over time, the Taiwanese left Manhattan to create bustling Queens neighborhoods in Elmhurst and in Flushing, now sometimes called Little Taiwan; immigrants from Hong Kong scattered into other parts of Queens and Brooklyn. Not always admired by their more citified cousins, the Fujianese followed the N and R line from Chinatown to Sunset Park, a little-known swatch of Brooklyn between southern Park Slope—now famous as Mayor de Blasio’s home base—and Bay Ridge, the setting for 1977’s Saturday Night Fever.
Situated on the blocks sloping from Brooklyn’s harbor waterfront, with its hulking Army Terminal complex, up past the numbered avenues to Fort Hamilton Parkway, Sunset Park was once home to Irish, Polish, and, more uniquely, Scandinavian immigrants, most of whom worked at the nearby docks and piers. But with the waterfront’s decline in the 1960s, white ethnics moved out of their two- and three-story brick homes and abandoned Little Norway, the commercial section along Eighth Avenue, and headed for other parts of the city and the suburbs. This presented an opportunity for the Fujianese: the area not only was an easy subway ride from Manhattan’s Chinatown; it became dirt cheap, just what poor immigrants limited to low-paid work needed.
What started with a few hundred Fujianese pioneers a few decades ago is now New York City’s most populous Chinatown—considerably larger than Manhattan’s and bigger even than Flushing’s. Sunset Park bustles with Chinese and Vietnamese restaurants and stores selling dried shrimp and scallops and a staggering variety of gnarly ginseng roots, medicinal herbs, oils, and powders. One rarely sees a non-Asian face there. Though official city numbers are considerably lower, Paul Mak, president of the Brooklyn Chinese American Association, estimates that Sunset Park and adjoining sections of Bay Ridge and Borough Park are home to at least 150,000 Chinese.
For all their gumption, the Fujianese don’t entirely conform to the model-minority image. Take, for instance, the way they come to the United States. Long-term visas are nearly impossible to get, at least for those without family already here. Among New York immigrant groups, the Chinese apply for the most asylum visas, many based on trumped-up complaints. Other Fujianese turn to smugglers, or “snakeheads,” to create fake papers and guide them through a nightmare journey that often involves dangerous weeks in the airless holds of barely seaworthy ships, long stretches in safe houses in Thailand or Guatemala, or treks across the Mexican desert. The grueling adventures can cost them $50,000 or more. (Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2010 book, The Snakehead, offers a powerful depiction of the multibillion-dollar Chinatown-based smuggling business.) A large number of Fujianese who come to New York these days do so through Canada, using the passports of relatives; they rely on border guards not being adept at distinguishing Chinese faces. There’s no precise number of the undocumented Fujianese who’ve arrived in New York City since the early eighties, but estimates run as high as half a million. Kenneth Guest, an associate professor of anthropology at Baruch College, says that as many as half the Fujianese in the city are here illegally.
The Fujians are poor—really poor, as in four-people-to-a-single-room, all-rice-diet, soda-can-collecting poor. All in all, about 20 percent of the Chinese in New York live below the poverty line; Mak figures that the number in Sunset Park is closer to 90 percent. At Sunset Park schools, now almost entirely Chinese, between 80 percent and 100 percent of students qualify for free lunches. Many one- and two-family dwellings in the area house six families or more, mostly couples with children, creating an overcrowding crisis in schools. And despite a reputation for self-sufficiency, the Fujianese are quick to sign their kids up for food stamps, Medicaid, and disability benefits. Some undocumented adults even manage to get themselves on the welfare rolls. “They find creative ways to beat the system,” says Mak.
For the most part, though, the Fujianese work like dogs, as do Chinese immigrants generally. In New York City, the Chinese are more likely than any other ethnic group to live in dual-earning households. Until five or ten years ago, women typically sewed in garment-factory sweatshops; today, they’re more likely to clean hotel rooms or take care of the elderly. Men typically bus tables and wash dishes in restaurants. Their hours are brutal: ten hours or more a day, six and often seven days a week. They’re less likely than unskilled native-born Americans to be unemployed. If they can’t find work in New York, they “commute” elsewhere. The Chinese restaurant labor market is an interstate business, says Guest, who has studied the community closely. Restaurant owners in the South and Midwest advertise in employment offices in Manhattan’s Chinatown, promising a salary and dormitory accommodations. Local Chinese entrepreneurs run bus companies that transport waiters and chefs to weeklong gigs in Tampa or Chicago, and then back for a single night with their families in Brooklyn. According to Guest, the agencies post area-code maps of the United States on the walls to help non-English-speaking workers identify where they might be going: 813 is Tampa, 630 is near Chicago, 404 is Atlanta, and so forth.
Lacking English skills and fearful of deportation, these workers often endure terrible treatment. Employers sometimes stall payments with bogus excuses or fire Fujianese workers on a whim. But the Fujianese aren’t likely to complain. According to Min Zhou (a UCLA sociologist and a leading expert on the nation’s Chinatowns), in China, they could expect an annual income of $500 to $750; the lucky ones working a factory job might make $1,500 a year. In the U.S., a busboy can earn $1,500 a month, plus room and board; a chef, maybe $2,500 a month.
Under these conditions, what happens to the famous Chinese family values? You won’t find many Sunset Park parents reading Goodnight Moon to their pajama-clad two-year-old or munching microwaved popcorn with the kids while watching Toy Story on the living-room flat screen. In fact, the Fujianese immigrants don’t have a family life, or at least not one that middle-class Americans would recognize. “I never saw my parents,” Mandy Wong told me. Wong graduated from Brooklyn Tech High School and is now a junior at Hamilton College. Her parents “worked from 10 AM to 1 AM.” Her grandparents, who spoke no English and could neither read nor write their own dialect, took care of her. She had many chores, and by third grade, she was serving as primary caretaker for her younger brothers. She had few friends—not because she was unlikable but because friends were deemed an unnecessary waste of time.
Stephanie Yu, a Sunset Park–raised recent graduate of SUNY Binghamton, was also largely supervised by her grandmother, though she was more fortunate: her mother walked her to school every morning. But that was all she saw of her until nine or ten at night, including weekends. “I was considered one of the lucky ones,” she says, “because I had grandparents to take care of me and didn’t have to spend all my time in the sweatshop.” She was referring to the many poor Fujianese kids with nowhere to go after school but their mothers’ steaming workplaces. Stephanie remembers being at her mother’s worksite one afternoon and noticing several children with glitter in their hair. They had been hiding from inspectors in a large box, filled with glitter-embellished dresses. Guest says that children sometimes get enlisted as reduced-fee or even free labor.
Fewer of the sweatshop factories remain in the Manhattan and Brooklyn Chinatowns. But with smugglers to repay and families back home in dire need, parents see no choice but to work ferocious hours. Some poor young couples put their kids in local “boarding schools,” of uncertain quality. Others send their babies back to grandparents in China until they’re old enough for school. Not unexpectedly, says Ken Kwong, a professor at Hunter College School of Social Work, who has studied this “reverse migration,” as he calls it, the arrangement often leads to problems for children and parents. When a five-year-old whose only memories are of Chinese village life with his grandparents arrives back in Brooklyn, he’s probably not going to run into the arms of his self-sacrificing mother—or, for that matter, his English-speaking first-grade public school teacher.
Uneducated, poor, and absent parents: to most people, it sounds like a formula for troubled kids. Inequality and economic immobility are often traced to the resource gap between low-income and affluent children. Rich kids, the thinking goes, get trips to Europe, swimming classes, fancy schools, and valuable social connections, not to mention two doting parents; poor kids, at best, get unhealthy food on the table, a bed to share with siblings, and lousy public schools. For many, the future looks dim.
That’s true for some Fujianese, too. Mak says that about 15 percent of the preschool population qualify for special education, though almost all these are distressed children, recently come from China to reunite with their parents. Teenage boys arriving in the U.S. have a particularly hard time. Adapting to high school peer culture after spending your first 14 years in rural China is wildly disorienting, and young adolescent immigrants are at great risk of dropping out.
But in general, the Sunset Park kids appear on track to achieve the upward mobility that some say is no longer possible in New York’s bifurcated economy. An analysis by New York public radio station WNYC showed that Sunset Park and Borough Park zip codes had among the largest number of acceptances at the city’s specialized, competitive high schools. “Most of the other admissions to the elite schools,” the report noted, “came from middle to upper class neighborhoods like the Upper West Side and Fresh Meadows.” Some fortunate strivers—like Mandy Wong—get scholarships to a first- or second-tier college; others, like Stephanie Yu, go to one of the SUNY campuses or commute to CUNY campuses such as Brooklyn College or Baruch. Several CUNY professors I spoke with didn’t rave about the language skills of these students. But it’s a safe bet that, unlike their parents—not to mention their gender-studies-majoring peers—they won’t be waiting tables.
So what accounts for the poverty-defying trajectory of the Fujianese kids? The answer is fourfold. First is a cultural trait that has become a cliché in the model-minority discussion: a zealous focus on education. For Chinese immigrants, education for the next generation is close to a religion. It opens the path to a good life, which, given past hardships, means financial comfort and stability. One recent college graduate, now a public school math teacher, told me that his mother would wake him at 5 AM to go over math problems—when he was in the first and second grade. Slightly more than half of the student population at P.S. 971 on Fourth Avenue, at the western edge of Sunset Park, is Chinese. Principal Ruth Stanislaus was amazed when one kindergartner’s mother said, in faltering English: “My son must go Harvard.”
If, as sometimes appears the case, “Harvard” is the first English word that immigrant Chinese mothers learn, the second is probably “Stuyvesant,” the name of one of New York City’s most competitive public high schools. Fujianese parents tend to be young and poorly educated; they arrive in the U.S., Mak says, knowing almost nothing about the school system and its role in their children’s future. They learn fast. Gossiping with other parents, reading—if they can—the Chinese-language newspapers, and watching TV, with its ubiquitous ads for test-prep companies, these parents quickly get an education of their own in words like “Brooklyn Tech” and “Bronx Science.” These premier high schools test for admission. No matter how poor they are, parents find a way to get their fourth- or fifth-graders into test-prep classes. WNYC found one Sunset Park family who put aside $5,000 for classes for their three sons out of a yearly household income of just $26,000. Several years ago, New York began offering free prep classes for underrepresented black and Hispanic kids. A legal challenge forced the city to include other minority ethnic groups. According to the New York Times, 43 percent of the students in the program are now Asian; it’s a good bet that most are Chinese.
CUNY professor Philip Kasinitz offers another example of the importance of education for these immigrant parents. Surveying second-generation immigrant groups in New York, he discovered that Chinese kids had the longest commutes to high school. Most parents would be uneasy about an hour-and-a-half trip every day from the middle of Brooklyn, say, to Bronx Science. Kasinitz found that Latino parents, in particular, like to keep their high schoolers close to home. Chinese parents weren’t deterred by distance—or by much else.
The second reason for upward mobility among the Sunset Park Chinese is that they still believe in that troubled idea: the American dream. Chinese families aren’t Pollyannaish about America; they maintain that they have been discriminated against, and they tell their children to expect discrimination as well. Only about a fifth of the Chinese-American respondents in a Pew study believe that Chinese-Americans and whites get along very well; even fewer say that Chinese-Americans get along well with blacks or Hispanics. Tales of school bullying are commonplace. And some recession-battered immigrants try to return to China.
But most seem to maintain immigrant optimism. The earliest Fujianese settlers dubbed the Eighth Avenue subway station as the “blue sky” station. They meant not only its outdoor platform but also its symbolism for their hopes in America. The Fujianese influx into Sunset Park shows no sign of slowing. For them, America remains the Golden Mountain, a term that originated when the first Chinese came and sought gold in the California hills. The Fujianese are not just looking for jobs; they want to live the dream, which they see as owning their homes, being their own bosses, and sending their kids to top schools. Upward mobility isn’t just personal for these immigrants; it is familial and multigenerational.
The Chinese parents of Sunset Park may not have time for family movies or school-night dinners, but they have their own way of creating intense family ties and obligations—and that thick community is another explanation for Fujianese success. Couples frequently share living space with their children’s grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Children aren’t expected to follow their passions or explore their individual talents. Instead, they learn to equate their destiny with their family’s destiny. Parents work for their kids and extended kin; the kids work—go to school, do their homework—for their parents and extended kin. Their parents’ sacrifices—the 12-hour days, the six- or seven-day workweeks, the money set aside for relatives in Fujian—have instilled in the children a belief about the good life only superficially shared by most middle-class Americans: to succeed is to compensate for past familial suffering. “You try to make up for their hardships,” one Bangladeshi student told the New York Times, a sentiment many Fujianese children would recognize.
These qualities make Chinese immigrant marriages remarkably stable, which, in turn, strengthens children’s family ties and accelerates their upward mobility. Along with the smaller population of Russian immigrants, largely settled in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach, the Chinese boast the highest proportion of married-couple households among immigrant groups. As economist Raj Chetty has shown, communities with high proportions of married-couple families also have higher rates of economic mobility.
Not that everything is rosy in the Fujianese family. By American standards, Chinese immigrant couples could use some counseling. Kasi- nitz says that the Chinese respondents often told him that their parents barely talked to each other. Many fathers had girlfriends on the side. The Chinese family, including husband and wife, is better seen as a working partnership, bound together by mutual necessity and some deep, generationally transmitted sense of loyalty and duty. There are probably very few “soul mates” in Brooklyn’s Chinatown. But lots of the kids of these families are graduating from high school and college.
The fourth reason for Chinese upward mobility is the ethnic enclave itself—in this case, Sunset Park. To spin a familiar phrase, it takes a Chinatown to raise an immigrant child. On the most practical level, the Chinese hire their own and work for their own. Newcomers who can’t read the Eighth Avenue subway station sign or don’t know the difference between a dime and a silver dollar are usually able to find jobs, anyway. They may be pitifully low-paying jobs under exploitative bosses, but the way the Chinese see it, they’re jobs nonetheless. The community also helps promote social ties. Mak notes that many social groups in Sunset Park organize around hometowns or family names. People with the last name Lee join the “Lee association,” for instance, where they can find tips on jobs, advice about test-tutoring centers, and fellow mah-jongg players, while gossiping about their children’s endeavors. (The Chinese happily brag about their kids’ successes.)
Successful second- and third-generation immigrants sometimes look down on their country cousins as loud and crude, much the way American Jews from Germany turned up their noses at the rural Eastern European Jews who followed them. But, observes Kasinitz, the Chinese attitude is that “we’re all in this together.” Mak, whose family is from Hong Kong, founded the Brooklyn Chinese American Association in 1982 and has turned it into a 24-site provider of after-school programs, day care, senior centers, legal advice, and mediation with the police and other government officials.
Scholars often worry that ethnic enclaves lead to isolation and reduce assimilation, which actually may be the case for adult immigrants in Sunset Park, where one can generally manage without ever learning English. Few Fujianese adults aspire to get college degrees themselves or to rise above their station, except, perhaps, by owning their own restaurant or shop. Many stay poor.
But when it comes to children, Sunset Park’s social and economic isolation is a boon. It’s no secret that mainstream American culture these days isn’t the best recipe for educational success. In Sunset Park, Chinese kids are part of a counterculture, reinforced daily by family members, by neighbors, by Chinese television shows, by local test-prep centers, and by more established Chinese residents. Shopkeepers might ask a child whether he has done his homework. They don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up because the correct answer is assumed. “The role models for the poor [Chinese] are not basketball players and rap stars but successful businesspeople and professionals who they see up close,” Min Zhou has written.
The poor Chinese of Brooklyn eventually do assimilate. Second-generation Fujianese tend to marry in their early twenties. These couples frequently move to nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods such as Bensonhurst or Borough Park, places that have a bit more space and air, while providing easy access to the familiar Chinese shops and restaurants of Eighth Avenue. Somewhat older adults might move to Queens or Long Island, where, inevitably, they will become less attached to the enclave—and to stories of old-country hardship. Stephanie Yu still lives in Sunset Park and has noticed that some of her younger cousins are now taking dance, violin, or tae kwon do lessons after school. “My parents needed money to send back home and saved every dime,” she told me. “Now, some parents with a little more money want a ‘well-rounded kid.’ ” Let’s hope that’s a good thing.
As the Fujianese story shows, immigrants arrive in the United States with ingrained cultural habits that determine how they navigate new economic and social conditions. Those habits appear to be working for the Fujianese, but that doesn’t mean that it’s either possible or desirable for less successful groups to remodel themselves in their image. It does remind us, though, that for all their problems, New York neighborhoods still boast some blue-sky stations.
Research for this article was supported by the Brunie Fund for New York Journalism.next>>