Going back to January of this year, well before New York City as a whole began to see the coronavirus as a serious threat, Manhattan’s Chinatown was already suffering. Racist fears about the spread of the virus correlated not only with a spike in hate crimes against Asian New Yorkers, but in a general avoidance of Chinatown that decimated the local restaurant industry.
And yet, Chinatown remains very much a vibrant Chinatown. While many historic districts around the city have turned into condo-lined neighborhoods with a whiff of nostalgia — the median home sale in Little Italy last year jumped to $2.6 million — Chinatown has avoided both disappearing, and becoming a museum of itself.
For our New York City Tomorrow series, where we're asking New Yorkers for their utopian (but often realistic!) ideas of how the city could look, we spoke with three Chinatown luminaries — Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, Winnie’s Bar manager Teddy Mui, and 46 Mott Bakery manager Patrick Mock — about their ideas for the future of the neighborhood.
Their interviews have been edited and condensed.
Yuh-Line Niou, Assemblymember
Representing New York’s 65th District, which covers much of Lower Manhattan
Assemblymember Niou: In every single tourist brochure in New York City — and in our mind’s eye when we think of New York City — there’s not a single person who doesn’t think about Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Statue of Liberty. When people think of New York, it starts here in Lower Manhattan.
So one thing is, we should get a particular percentage of the tourism budget. That should be something given to Chinatown for bringing people into the city, because nobody thinks of New York without thinking of Chinatown. We’re on every brochure! You always see a lion dancer or a dragon or something going on in Chinatown.
But does the city consider us as the priority? No. We get so little of the city’s budget, and we get so little of the state’s budget. We get so little consideration when it comes to resources.
What would you do with those resources — if the state said tomorrow, “Yuh-Line, we’re doubling your budget,” what would you do? Folks don’t realize, we have so many different languages being spoken in Chinatown, and it’s important that we provide services that are accessible by everyone. People don’t really know how to get permits and access to things they need to know, and then they’re dinged for it before they knew they even had to go through a process.
Some people are not even able to express if they’re wrongly targeted — a ticket will be written for them, and they can’t say, ‘this is not the right address.’ It’s a small thing, but it’d be great if they didn’t scare our merchants to death. I think those things would be helped if there was true language access.
Also, it would be really amazing to see a robust night vision of Chinatown. We don’t have that because there’s just not the foot traffic or the same kind of incentive for some of the cool stuff going on elsewhere. It has to do with some permitting, etcetera. But it would be cool to have a kind of night market with fried chicken in a bag, tofu on a stick, curry fish balls — the food would be great and vibrant, it’d be so fun!
Regarding restaurants, I want them to be able to charge what they’re worth. I think there’s a lot of racism there, when it comes to the conceptualization of this cheap Chinese food, and being able to get things for a lot cheaper in Chinatown. But the rents are not different, and the food and quality are immense.
And by the way — there’s a love and a sadness to it. I survived in Chinatown during grad school — you can get a plate of 15 dumplings for less $4! It’s insane! You shouldn’t be able to get that quality and that much food for that little. That’s just barely scraping by. But that’s the expectation when people come to Chinatown, there’s just a weird stereotype that Chinese food is cheap food.
How do you think the neighborhood has managed to stay so active as a Chinatown, rather than turning into a neighborhood of Chase banks and high rises? I think it manages to stay that way because a lot of these buildings and properties were bought right after the Chinese Exclusion Act was lifted, and a lot of these were bought by families together. So it’s not so easy to sell a property there.
Also, when you’re first an immigrant and come to New York — even me, I gravitated towards Chinatown, because that’s where I would find family and friends, and a place to go. And that’s still the case for Asian immigrants, it’s still the place to find resources and a friend that will speak your language.
Teddy Mui, manager of Winnie’s Bar
And son of founder Winnie Mui
Teddy Mui: If we had our way, we’d be able to renovate our buildings — most of Chinatown is still in tenement buildings. Most of our restaurants and bars are in tenement buildings, where it’s tight. It’s hard to work out of.
Why can’t you renovate? Well, I have a cousin who just recently renovated her apartment. She’s a little bit older than me — I’m 41. She’s lived there her whole life, and until recently, her bathtub was still in her kitchen.
What we’re living in are true tenement conditions, still. It’s the 21st century, but no one notices because we’re not known for speaking up, or we’re under rent control, so the landlords don’t need to renovate our buildings and they don’t need to worry about how much the buildings are failing. Most of these buildings, the wiring is horrible — if they could get fixed, that would be the first step to a more perfect Chinatown. But it’s hard on the landlords too, they’re rent controlled buildings.
But as soon as an apartment with rent control – the bad way to say it is, “dies out,” where the tenant passes with no one to hand it down to — the landlords renovate these apartments and then they go back to way over market price. You’re looking at one-bedrooms in Chinatown for $2,000. And your neighbor is paying $300. But her bathtub doesn’t work.
When you look down the road 20 years, what kinds of big changes do you want to see? I would love to see a commingling of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, because it brings that much more community into our neighborhood. I grew up in Chinatown, but it’s not like I didn’t hang out at the Vladeck and Smith projects, because that’s where my friends were.
And there’s a huge Chinese community within a lot of Latino countries — if you ask a true Cuban what is the best Cuban food, they’ll tell you Chino-Cubano is the best Cuban food. Cuban food cooked by Chinese people! It’s this commingling — Chinatown is great, but we realize Chinatown is not going to last the way it is. These little ethnic enclaves around the city, they’re going to slowly get gentrified. And that’s fine with us, as long as we’re able to keep our culture there, to show where these neighborhoods really came from.
Landmarking some of the Chinese landmarks around Chinatown would be great, too — if you walk around Chinatown right now, there’s landmarked buildings for Italian-Americans, there’s landmarked areas from when the Irish were there, and where Jewish people were there. But there’s no landmarks for the Chinese, and we’re the last ones here, we’re the ones keeping the condos from rising up into the sky.
To the extent that the culture of the neighborhood has remained intact, why do you think that is? What’s kept Chinatown Chinatown — there was a fear of going into Chinatown. ‘It’s that neighborhood where they don’t all speak our language.’ I had friends growing up who wouldn’t come to Chinatown back then, because they wouldn’t know what we were saying, if we were planning to kill them behind their backs, when literally we were just asking each other what we were gonna have for dinner.
It’s that xenophobia that kind of kept Chinatown Chinatown, but that has been changing. When you can offer a one-bedroom for $1,500 when across the street in Little Italy, it’s $2,500, people will start not caring about it being Chinatown.
If you go all the way back to the beginnings of Winnie’s Bar, and talk to native Chinatown sons and daughters, you will hear that back in the day, Winnie’s Bar was a Chinese gangster bar. And it was! A lot of Chinese gangsters hung out during those days at the bar, but they were the only ones there, because everyone was afraid of them. But in the 90s after they took down John Gotti, they went after the Chinese gangs, too. So for a period of 3 years or so, we were very close to closing.
And then we noticed young professionals from the Financial District coming down and singing karaoke, it was starting to hit Western culture. And our crowd grew from there. College students. The bridge-and-tunnel crowd. And now we have — I don’t like labeling them hipsters, but we have the hipsters. But we have a beautiful mix! It’s some tourists, some young professionals, but we also have our Chinese regulars sitting there playing dice games while you’re singing your Shania Twain song. Every weekend, I see the perfect mix of what my customers should be.
What makes you feel optimistic about the future of the neighborhood? What’s making me feel optimistic about the future is the younger generation that's starting to step up and voice their concerns and opinions on how things should be done.
Chinatown is very traditional, almost to a fault, where we’ve let our elders take over. And we need to learn from our elders, but young people need to be making decisions now, and move Chinatown further. And seeing people like Patrick Mock start standing up and speaking out on the injustices we’ve suffered, it gives us a hope for the future.
Patrick Mock, manager of 46 Mott Bakery
And a local advocate who’s been providing free meals during the pandemic
What do you want to see change, coming out of the pandemic? I want Chinatown to be as vibrant as it ever was, but I want it to be more accepting of the younger generation, too.
In Chinese culture, we’re always taught to respect our elders. And I always have — I always listen to them. But in times like Covid, even their experiences aren’t enough to make them deal with what’s going on. Our younger generation adapts faster, changes faster — but explaining it to our elders, they don’t understand. Or they feel like we’re trying to take power away from them.
What’s an example where that conflict comes up? Well one of my ideas that I’ve been trying to talk about is to just close the streets for the weekend. Or just Friday night and Saturday night, no vehicles, from Bayard Street down. Just to set up outdoor dining, lights, entertainment. Any way we can attract people coming down to Chinatown on a weekend night, to bring foot traffic and revenue back into the neighborhood.
But some of my elders have voices concern about Access-a-Ride, not being able to find parking. And then they bring up, ‘Oh, you guys are gonna make it a rowdy nightmare like the East Village.’ But on Mott Street, there’s only one place with a full liquor license, out of the whole street.
Me trying to explain it to them, and they’re coming up with one reason after another. I respect all my elders, but right now, we need more business down here and more foot traffic. I understand they’re not comfortable with it, but doing nothing doesn’t help at all. Just finding ways of explaining, talking, and having my elders think the way I’m thinking. Because I understand where they’re coming from, but they don’t understand where I’m coming from.
I know you’ve expressed ambivalence about how Chinatown relies on tourism... Yeah, I really hate that We rely on it so much, and look where it’s taken us. With tourism done, we don’t know what to do. I want Chinatown to be more local, more friendly, more of a city destination for New Yorkers, where you want to take your kids during the weekend, or you want to take your family out for some type of special occasion.
Our neighborhood is very rich in culture, it’s very rich in history, and at the same time, we have so much youth — the best thing I see about Covid is that it shows the younger generation has interest in Chinatown. We can use that to our advantage. Just because some of us are not working doesn’t mean we don’t have the creative talent to get things done. We can see it in new nonprofits started up by people my age. There’s so much that our younger generation could help with. But we need elders to be more accepting of our help, instead of fearing that we’re going to take power.
What’s a big idea you have for something new coming out of this? You know how we lost Lunar New Years? That’s our biggest festive holiday. There’s another one coming up October 1st, the Moon Festival, the Autumn Festival. That’s another big festival for being Chinese, because it represents family and unity. I want to promote that as the second big holiday for the neighborhood. [Because large events were canceled through September 30th, the hope is to have a street festival when October arrives.]
And I want it to be something elders can be proud of, where they can be proud of the younger generation for giving it our all. Young people have to be respectful, but it doesn’t hurt to speak your mind and ask questions. Everything is not okay.