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A New 'Chinatown' Emerges in New York - 2004-06-30


New York City's Chinatown sits at the lower end of Manhattan Island, with its narrow, bustling streets and abundance of Chinese restaurants and shops, but only a short subway ride away is little-known Sunset Park, Brooklyn, a rapidly growing Chinese-American enclave. As Leah Krakinowski reports from New York, Sunset Park has emerged as a community where many new arrivals go to earn their share of American prosperity.

It is late afternoon in Sunset Park and Cheng Ming's bakery is teeming with customers noisily sipping milky tea, eating flaky egg custard tarts and chatting in Cantonese, a Chinese dialect spoken in Southern China.

Step outside the bakery onto Eighth Avenue, the hub of the commercial district, and you think you are in a crowded outdoor market of Hong Kong or China. The sidewalks of Sunset Park are lined with delivery trucks unloading fresh seafood, and produce sellers are hawking black mushrooms and ginger root, staples of traditional Chinese cooking.

Over the past two decades, the Chinese population in Sunset Park and the surrounding neighborhoods has mushroomed to more than 130,000 and has been credited with reviving a once crime-ridden neighborhood.

Paul Mak heads the neighborhood Chinese-American Association. He says Chinese immigrants have opened nearly 700 new businesses in the neighborhood, from travel agencies to computer stores to pharmacies.

"When I first started working on Eighth Avenue, 90 percent of the storefronts were empty and people were drinking beers on the sidewalk, and burning up garbage cans in the wintertime," he recalls.

Joe Salvo, a demographer who studies New York City's immigrant communities, tracked Chinese migration into Sunset Park, which he believes rescued this once failing neighborhood.

"Many Chinese take the train from Manhattan to Brooklyn since the service between the two cities has always been extensive," he says. "They take the train, and as the story goes, get off when they see blue sky or that is when the train comes up from underground and they get off in Sunset Park. Over time, more and more Chinese have made the trek into Brooklyn, especially as densities in lower Manhattan have increased."

Shiu Kam Leung owns a home electronics business he started 20 years ago in Sunset Park. He also remembers when then empty storefronts were being used as illegal apartments.

"The first time we came to Eighth Avenue we have no Chinese stores at all," he notes. "We are the first one or two to open businesses on Eighth Avenue."

When asked if doing business in Sunset Park is different from elsewhere in New York City, a smile spreads across Mr. Leung's face.

"If you want to survive in this area, you have to give very special and good service to the customers," he adds. "You have got to take the time to show them how to operate the equipment. It is a little different from American stores. People here need a lot of help."

It is a struggle for immigrants to tackle a new way of life and a new language, says Betty Chin Lee, a long-time Sunset Park resident who teaches a citizenship class to newcomers. That is why many flock to this area, where the rents are cheaper than in Manhattan, and the hum of their native language can be heard on every street corner.

"Many of the people who moved here are kind of new to this country," she says. "They can buy a house, or if they don't have a lot of money, they can buy a house with their relatives and live with their extended family, or they can rent an apartment that is readily available around here. And they work within walking distance to where they live."

Mrs. Chin Lee says it is not uncommon for Chinese people in Sunset Park to work six days a week, 12 hours a day. She says that does not leave much time for learning about American society.

"They want to learn everything in a week, but there's no such thing in this world," she explains. "They have a hard time learning the American way of life and they also have the pressure of learning so many things at once."

Still, the Chinese have managed to dramatically improve their lives in Sunset Park, and rebuild the community at the same time, says New York City's demographer Joe Salvo.

"What happens when neighborhoods change?" he asks. "Obviously, what you have is a changeover in the businesses that serve the community. As Asian businesses move in, businesses sponsored by the incoming immigrants take hold in the community and people try to serve those needs. As a result, businesses grow."

Mr. Salvo says Brooklyn's Chinatown has now begun to stretch beyond the borders of Sunset Park, into the neighboring communities of Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst, places mainly Italian-American immigrants once called home.

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