My research began with the assumption that sometime in the future I am going to create a visual ethnography about recent Chinese immigrants in New York’s Chinatown. Living within close proximity to the enclave, I became fascinated by the motivation required to travel across the world for a better life and concurrently if when here, are the immigrants happy with their decision to leave their homes and families? To begin such a project requires an understanding of the history of Chinatowns across the United States, as well as knowledge of current trends in Chinese immigration patterns.
Mark Abraham’s book, Urban Enclaves, argues that within current ethnic enclaves today, there is no longer a desire for assimilation, nor does “social mobility…require movement out of the enclave” (Abrahamson 15). This is a major shift from the historical ideal assimilation and movement understood from previous generations. Min Zhou and John R. Logan explain that the reasons for the increased high numbers of Chinese in Chinatown, in contrast to the lower numbers of other ethnic groups who actually live in designated ethnic enclaves, results from specific factors—that “most of the Chinese immigrants entered New York to join their families, and they came disproportionately from rural areas of South China, bringing little education and few industrial skills with them. These immigrants provided the labor force for an ethnic economy” (Zhou 392). And yet, this answer doesn’t seem to explain or provide credible reasoning as to why such a thriving and self-inclusive Chinatown exists while, for instance, Korea town can barely be called an ethnic enclave. There does not seem to be any conclusive answer as to why Chinatown became so centralized as opposed to other immigrant communities.
Min Zhou and John R. Logan’s sociological study of Chinatown and its residents, although important for understanding the enclave’s history, is outdated. Almost all of the data cited census statistics from the early 1970s until the late 1980s. Migration patterns can change greatly in the course of fifteen years and a new study needs to be conducted to update and expand previous work. Christopher J. Smith conducted a detailed ethnography for his article Asian New York: The Geography and Politics of Diversity that was published in 1995. It is important to note that his article focuses on Asian immigration more broadly (not just on Chinese immigration) with an emphasis on Flushing, Queens as a destination for Asian immigrants. In fact, according to yet another outdated source, two-thirds of recent immigrants (not just Chinese) settle in Brooklyn or Queens (Edmondson 16). Flushing has, according to Smith’s paper, become an important cultural capital and destination for all Asian immigrants. As of the winter of 2007, there are more than twenty civic organizations of ethnic Chinese from main land China active in the Flushing Community (Haifeng 10). This shows that there is an incredibly strong community, but is the community only self-inclusive? Does the enclave understand the importance of representation in local and state government? In 2000, Chen Daoying became the first ethnic Chinese New York State member of Congress. (Haifeng 11) Such political participation perhaps reflects a dissolution of the enclave by opening a greater channel of communication between residents and the government. Are community leaders now more than ever required to abide by labor laws and housing codes in order to receive government funding?
It is important to note that the bulk of existing research, specifically the sociological studies which relied on data and numbers, does not include the undocumented population. The majority of recent immigrants from China are illegal (cite source). In order to get an accurate estimate of the number of illegal immigrants in the New York area (incorporating all Chinatowns such as the ones in Manhattan and Flushing), community organizations and churches within Chinatown seem to be the best way to not only get an accurate statistic of the number of undocumented Chinese immigrants, but also serve as a gateway.
Much of the existing research tends to use statistical analysis as the primary methodology. However, some studies used ethnographic means such as Kenneth Guest’s ethnography, God in Chinatown: Religion and Survival in New York’s Evolving Immigrant Community (2003), which uses religion and various churches in Chinatown to explain both the documented and undocumented Chinese immigrant experience. This book provides an excellent model for documentary work and for future research that is concerned less with sweeping statistical data and more with intimate stories. What must it be like to grow up in a household that includes several generations including recent immigrants and children born in the United States to these immigrants? This question is reminiscent of Joan Mandell, Andrew Shryock, Sally Howell and Dwight Reynold’s visual ethnography, Tales from Arab Detroit, which was – at its essence – about the assimilation and the dissolving traditional cultural practices with each generation within Dearborn, Michigan’s Arab enclave. This same subject, while focusing on Chinese immigrants in New York, could be a fascinating way to record a particular unique perspective on the immigrant experience.
There is one passage in Guest’s book that diverges from the positive images that predominate stories of Chinese immigration found in other works on the subject. He writes, “For while Chinatown is a gateway into America for most Fuzhounese and the beginning of their pursuit of the American dream, for many Chinatown is also a trap, an ethnic enclave manufactured by the economic and political Chinatown elites to keep them [recent immigrants] isolated and thus vulnerable to labor exploitation” (Guest 17).
Ko-Lin Chin, in his book Smuggled Chinese: Clandestine Immigration to the United States, surveys and interviews several hundred illegal immigrants, community workers and social workers in the New York area. These immigrants primarily come from Fuzhou, “a city in southeastern China [that] has overtaken Canton as the leading ethnic community origin of immigrants from China” (Guest 4). Both Chin and Guest chronicle the human smuggling business that has evolved to accommodate the many Fuzhounese who wish to leave China. While documenting their struggle, Chin also asks the question of why such a mass exodus seems to be occurring. He concludes that it is because of both the myth of the American dream and the established immigrant network that provides jobs and support for a new life (Chin 34).
There seems to be confusion as to whether the smugglers are part of organized crime rings or work on their own. This could be an interesting question to address in future research. Smugglers, also known as snakeheads, charge anywhere between $30,000 up to $60,000 (US dollars) per person (Chin 20). They provide false visas and passports for flying as well as accommodation on ships to Mexico where the immigrants are brought across the border into the United States by the same routes that Mexicans use to cross over illegally.
Once in America, it is usually the extended family within the United States that pays the smuggler, leaving the immigrant in debt to the family. The debt, which in many ways resembles indentured servitude, is normally paid off within several years (Sawoski-Smith 794). The enclave and religious institutions provide the necessary network for immigrants to find places to live, food to eat and jobs. The new illegal Chinese are subcontracted, along with recent immigrants from across the world, to provide services at the bottom of the social ladder: construction, kitchen, factory etc. And yet, more than other immigrant groups, the Chinese tend to subcontract within their own enclave; the recent immigrants working long hours and for less than legal pay for the business leaders of Chinatown (Light 1345). “The business leadership has actually attempted to prevent the American public from gaining access to information about crime, housing, poverty and disease in Chinatowns…which has led to a failure to attract federal welfare funds” (Light 1355). Does the recent representation of the community in government (as I wrote earlier) have any effect on this lack of welfare? And yet, even with the previously noted crime, cramped housing conditions and poverty found in Chinatown, the area is still able to remain a tourist destination.
Greg Umbach and Dan Wishnoff’s article, Strategic Self Orientalism: Urban Planning Policies and the Shaping of New York City’s Chinatown, 1950-2005, examines how and why New York’s Chinatown never evolved into the tourist spectacle characteristic of other major Chinatowns. They argue that Chinatowns across the United States (and even in Canada and Great Britain) were built in such a way as to promote exoticism and authenticity as means to increase tourism – the mainstay of most Chinatowns. The economy of New York’s Chinatown was never based only on vice or tourism. It was a true immigrant ghetto instead of a manufactured quasi-reality. The reality is that recent immigrants are forced to work so hard that it seems as if there isn’t even enough time for assimilation. While I wasn’t able to find any numbers or first hand accounts to support this claim, it is a subject that I plan on tackling when I begin interviewing immigrants.
Annette Bernhardt conducted extensive research on workplace violations in New York City. Her research took the form of interviews with 326 individuals ranging from workers to supervisors in unregulated and semi-regulated industries. According to her own research, the Department of Labor “found that in 1999, only 35 percent of apparel plants in New York City were in compliance with wage and working-time laws” (Bernhardt 137). The apparel industry is a major employer of recent Chinese immigrants. Even employment agencies exploit new immigrants by, after charging for their services, sending workers to jobs that do not exist or to jobs that violate labor laws (Bernhardt 153). The articles on exploitation state the problem in a detached manner, but never are the stories heard of those who are facing such exploitation. Future research could provide an outlet and bring the issue to the forefront of academic circles.
Although Umbach and Wishnoff state that the economy was never based on vice, this does not mean that illegal activities do not exist in New York’s Chinatown. On the contrary, prostitution seems to be thriving. There is a lack of academic articles specifically adressing the sex trade in Chinatown. However, Denny Lee’s New York Times article Immigrants Work in Parlors Offering More Than Massages does offer a journalistic view. This article, although from eight years ago, noted that the New York police department does not keep track of massage parlors that act as fronts for prostitution in back rooms. Lee also references two community groups: the Chinatown Planning Council and the Better Chinatown Association as sources for realistic statistics on illegal sex workers in the area.
James McKinley and N.R. Kleinfield wrote several articles, also for the New York Times, about a specific brothel on the Bowery in Chinatown that had trafficked women from Thailand to New York and kept them against their will. It seems that the majority of women who are trafficked come from Thailand, a country that specializes in the business of prostitution. Even though Siddharth Kara’s book, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, is about prostitution and slavery in Thailand, his methods (surveys and interviews of young women forced into prostitution) provide excellent guidelines for future research. He would actually go to the brothels and instead of engaging in sexual acts with the girls he would talk to them. Perhaps my gender will be a hinderence to conducting field studies, but it is nonetheless important to try to get a dialogue started. By using resources available, such as community advocate and health organizations, I think that it would still be possible to conduct research on a subject that is inevitably cloaked in secrecy.
I was struck by the lack of academic writing on the subject. From the numerous massage parlors I pass daily where I have noticed men entering and exiting, it is obvious that prostitution and the exploitation of women occurs in the enclave. Why isn’t this part of any academic discourse? Perhaps sex trafficking and prostitution are separate issues that deserve their own ethnographic study. But there needs to be a defining text on Chinese immigrants in Chinatown that provides a detailed account of real life, just as Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle did in it’s representation of Chicago’s immigrant community working in meat processing factories. My ethnography could be this text.
Abrahamson, Mark. Urban Enclaves : Identity and Place in America. New York: Worth, Incorporated, 1995.
Bernhardt, Annette. “The state of worker protections in the United States: Unregulated work in New York City.” International Labour Review 147 (2008): 135-62.
Chin, Ko-lin. Smuggled Chinese: Clandestine Immigration to the United States. Philadelphia, PA: Temple UP, 1999.
Edmondson, Brad. “The Newest New Yorkers.” American Demographics 19 (1997): 16-17.
Guest, Kenneth J. God in Chinatown : Religion and Survival in New York’s Evolving Immigrant Community. New York: New York UP, 2003.
Haifeng, Zhu. “Self-Balancing of New Immigrants in Social Ecology.” Chinese Studies in History 41 (2007-8): 8-14.
Kara, Siddharth. Sex Trafficking Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. New York, NY: Columbia UP, 2009.
Kleinfield, N.R. “Five Charged With Holding Thai Women Captive for Prostitution.” The New York Times 5 Jan. 1995: B1.
Kleinfield, N.R. “Former Office in Chinatown Admits That He Took Bribes.” The New York Times 14 June 1995: B2.
Lee, Denny. “Immigrant Work in Parlors Offering More Than Massages.” The New York Times 12 Nov. 2000: CY9.
Light, Ivan, and Charles Wong. “Protest or Work: Dilemmas of the Tourist Industry in American Chinatowns.” The American Journal of Sociology 80 (1975): 1342-368.
McKinley Jr, James C. “Woman Testifies on Weeks Held Against Her Will in a Brothel.” The New York Times 6 June 1995: B2.
Sadowski-Smith, Claudia. “Unskilled Labor Migration and the Illegality Spiral: Chinese, European, and Mexican Indocumentados in the United States, 1882-2007.” American Quarterly 60 (2008): 779-804.
Smith, Christopher J. “Asian New York: The Geography and Politics of Diversity.” International Migration Review 29 (1995): 59-84.
Umbach, Greg, and Dan Wishnoff. “Strategic Self-Orientalism: Urban Planning Policies and the Shaping of New York City’s Chinatown, 1950-2005.” Journal of Planning History 7 (2008): 214-38.
Yee, Shirley J. “Dependency and Opportunity.” Journal of Urban History 33 (2007): 254-76.
Zhou, Min, and John T. Logan. “In and Out of Chinatown: Residential Mobility and Segregation of New York City’s Chinese Author(s).” Social Forces 70 (1991): 387-407.