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The 3 Chinatowns In Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens, the constant immigrant influx fills the neighborhoods, schools, markets and sweatshops with an air of wonder, fear, resentment and promise.

NEW YORK — NEW YORK -- The morning's copy of the Ming Pao Daily News is on a shelf in front, and the eight aisles of the Hong Kong Supermarket are packed with shoppers. Up the street -- past the Chinese video stores, some two dozen markets and Mandarin Cultural Enterprises, where they sell pictures of Chairman Mao -- some of the old men are playing a spirited game of mah-jongg in the back room of an old bakery.

The signs bear Chinese characters, but no English. The scene could be from a smaller village in south China, or maybe from the heart of lower Manhattan's thick Chinatown. But this is someplace else. Sabrina Gao, 32, sweeps the bakery floor and says: "I love this Brooklyn."

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Yes, Brooklyn. Tourists and moviewatchers know Manhattan's Chinatown, a tightly wound caldron of dark alleys, office buildings and hundreds of restaurants on Manhattan's Lower East Side. But with the arrival of 85,000 legal Chinese immigrants in this decade -- and tens of thousands of others who have come illegally -- two other large Chinese communities have grown up in Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

"With the growing communities in Brooklyn and Queens, it is now correct to say that New York has three Chinatowns," says Ellen Young, president of a Chinese-American voters group in Queens and a native of Taiwan. "And, because of the constant influx, these are three of the most dynamic neighborhoods in New York."

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Such dynamism carries a price, however. In the three Chinatowns, a visitor finds the full spectrum of the New York immigrant experience -- from crowded, fly-by-night sweatshops that prey on the least able to the fine homes of entrepreneurs who have prospered in their new country. This dynamic has led to tensions and turmoil among people that, at face value, might seem a homogeneous group.

And, at a time when immigration laws are changing and policy-makers speak of "immigrants" as if they were a monolithic group, New York's Chinese community shows the reality of immigration today could not be more complicated.

Although shuttle buses run among all three areas, "they are distinct Chinatowns, and not much communication exists among them," says Ko-Lin Chin, a Rutgers University scholar. "The people in Queens do not have the same lifestyle, or even speak the same language, as the people in Brooklyn." Queens is Mandarin-speaking, more Taiwanese. But you walk through Brooklyn, and you feel like you're in mainland China."

As significant as their impact has been on the old-line neighborhoods of Brooklyn and Queens, the arrivals from mainland China, Taiwan or Hong Kong are only the third largest group of newcomers to New York. A full third of all New Yorkers are foreign-born, and another 20 percent are the children of immigrants. The Dominican Republic and the former Soviet Union send more immigrants here than any other country.

Not included in the official count of Chinese immigrants, of course, are tens of thousands of the newest arrivals, illegal immigrants, mostly from poor areas of Fujian province. With few English skills, many of them take jobs in New York's notorious Chinese garment factories.

After just a few years, the Fujianese have gained a reputation as the scourge of Brooklyn's Chinatown, the youngest of the three communities. Residents blame them for trash, traffic, even the rise in gang-style extortions of small businesses. And like every new wave of immigrants, they are looked down on by those who preceded them, even their own former countrymen.

"The Fujianese are more aggressive," says Sam Lo, a Realtor in Brooklyn's Chinatown. He whispers: "And they drive like maniacs."

Lo is a pessimist, but a look at the growing Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn highlights benefits and costs to neighborhoods of a stream of newcomers.

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While most Chinese arrivals to New York start in Manhattan, the vast majority move quickly to Queens and Brooklyn. Despite expansion of Chinese businesses into nearby Little Italy, Manhattan Chinatown is overcrowded and rents are prohibitive. New immigrants talk about it with scorn, as a tense mix of Fujianese, Taiwanese and Vietnamese in too-close proximity.

"[Manhattan's] Chinatown has become unlivable," says Dan Ma, a student in Queens. "It's just a place for doing business." Danny Pao, who owns five garment factories in Flushing, says his business left Manhattan because "so many of the factory and office buildings there are in poor shape."

Following the subway line

Flushing was a natural location for expansion. Immigrants simply followed the No. 7 subway line (now dubbed the "Orient Express") to its last stop at Main Street and Flushing Avenue, the center of Queens' Chinatown. Chinese businessmen, mostly from Taiwan, began moving there 15 years ago, and their employees have steadily followed.

These days Jimmy Meng, a lumber salesman and president of the Flushing Chinese Business Association, is fond of complaining that commercial rents are higher in Flushing than in Manhattan. And, unlike in Brooklyn, where Chinese businesses have been said to drive white-owned firms out, in Flushing they co-exist.

Popular gathering spots, such as the Homefood Restaurant, have strong Chinese and American clienteles. St. George's Episcopal Church, just across the street from a Chinese mall with everything from a food court to an auto parts store, offers services in English and Mandarin. Above the subway station, the Singhai Real Estate office shares a building with a Benetton outlet.

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Flushing's largely middle-class Chinese immigrants seem relatively open to things American. At the Taiwan Center, a chorus of senior citizens follows the Taiwanese national anthem ("San Min Zhi Yi" or "The Three Principles of the People") with the theme from "Doctor Zhivago." In September, people of all colors gather at Corona Park to watch Chinese teams race dragon boats.

"When I moved into the community almost 20 years ago, it was like a farm town, and the streets were quiet after 5," says Meng. "Now you can't find any store space, or space on the sidewalk, and I wonder: have we had too much success?"

In some ways, yes. Trash piled up so quickly in downtown Flushing last year that Chinese businesses got together and hired their own sanitation crew. The No. 7 train is so jammed in the morning people have to wait in line just to get to the platform. Schools are badly crowded. The street outside a local middle school is closed during the day to give its 1,300 students space to play.

Chinatown in Brooklyn

Many Chinese parents in Queens, who mostly are professionals with jobs in Manhattan, have the wherewithal to put their children in private or magnet public schools. That's not the case in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

"You always hear people say to the Chinese newcomers, 'If you go to Brooklyn, you'll get stuck in Brooklyn, and never get out and make it to Queens,' " says Helen Leung, a business counselor in Brooklyn. "And often it's true."

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To an outsider, Sunset Park's main street, Eighth Avenue, feels like a closed community. For 25 blocks, the corridor is almost exclusively Chinese-owned; many stores do not bother putting English words beside the Chinese characters on their signs.

The sense of isolation is reinforced by poor city services. Many of the side streets need repaving, and trash pick-up is unreliable. In a city where police officers are ubiquitous, it is possible to go days without seeing any of New York's finest in Sunset Park.

By pooling their money, many new immigrants have managed to replenish the neighborhood's decaying housing stock. Realtors report a 50 percent increase in prices over the past five years; a three-bedroom home goes for $300,000. Several Chinese businessmen say they will buy any property that comes up for sale near Eighth Avenue, sight unseen.

Peter DiGiacomo, who runs a sandwich shop, is one of the hangers-on from a decade ago, when the neighborhood was a much more dangerous area for its population of older Italian and Scandinavian immigrants. "This neighborhood was dying," he says. "But I'll never leave as long as the Chinese are here. They are good working people, and I think things are slowly getting better."

Struggle for jobs

But it is a struggle. The only jobs available to many of the newest immigrants, particularly the illegal Fujianese arrivals, are in the garment factories.

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Open the door to Kenny Lee's place off Eighth Avenue anytime from dawn until 8 or 9 in the evening, and the harsh fluorescent lights illuminate the workers. Some 170 Chinese immigrants, most of them women who speak no English, sit hunched over shirts and jackets and rows of sewing machines, trying to make that day's quota.

These workers have no health insurance, and the pay barely amounts to minimum wage. The boss provides white rice for lunch, which is eaten in view of the statue of the Chinese God of Justice.

"The god is saying to my employees, 'No cheating,' " says Lee.

After 12-hour days, the workers typically return to bunk beds in squalid apartment houses known as "gong si fong." In one such place along 59th Street in Sunset Park, young men live three to a room, and robberies are common.

With few work alternatives, many Fujianese have turned to lives of crime, say law enforcement authorities and community leaders. Fujianese gangs are deeply involved in illegal smuggling of immigrants, though many Fujianese deny it.

"I disagree," says Chen Lin, who works in a restaurant. "We Fujianese are not trouble, or dangerous. We work hard and stick together because the Cantonese-speaking people resent us."

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Pay problems

Still, for those in the factories, the simple act of collecting a paycheck can be a challenge. Many garment manufacturers change their company's names once a year, to avoid debts and taxes. Companies disappear in the middle of the night so frequently, says one Seventh Avenue resident, that he makes a living by hiring himself out to workers to hunt down their vanished bosses and collect unpaid wages.

On a recent afternoon, an investigator from the Brooklyn district attorney's office listened eagerly as a female factory worker proudly described her pay: $26 for a 14-hour workday. Dan Yun Feng, who works for a garment union, listened, too, and rolled her eyes when asked about the prospects of organizing garment employees.

"I just want to see people paid on time," says Feng, who immigrated from Beijing. "I'm not sure we'll ever organize. You have all these Chinese people together in New York, but in many different ways, we're all very separate."

Pub Date: 5/07/97



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