As Chinatowns around the world reel from racial and economic injustice, young women are organizing to save these iconic neighborhoods.
For 17-year-old Audrey Chou, Flushing, Queens — home to one of New York City’s largest Chinese communities — has always been a special place. One of her favorite childhood memories is passing the food vendors that lined the neighborhood’s bustling Main Street — especially the vendor selling fresh yóu tiáo, a Chinese breakfast food made of fried dough.
Now, Audrey rarely sees any vendors at all. In 2018, the city passed a bill banning street vendors in Flushing, citing that they were “sidewalk obstructions.” The gradual disappearance of street vendors isn’t the only change the community has seen. In recent years, small local businesses have been pushed out in favor of large companies and retailers. A shiny new mall — complete with luxury condominiums — now sits just across the street from public housing reserved by the city for low-income residents. The number of new boba shops has increased, but so has the price of rent. Traces of what made Flushing’s Chinatown such a culturally rich and unique community are slowly disappearing because of gentrification — the process by which wealthier newcomers move into a historically working-class and low-income area, increasing the cost of living and forcing longtime locals to move out.
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• Support Flushing Project, Chinatown Community for Equitable Development, Welcome to Chinatown, besea.n, and Asian Americans United in their efforts to unify the community and protect Chinatowns.
• Donate to campaigns to help small businesses, Chinese seniors, and a free public library in Flushings.
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Throughout history, Chinatowns around the world have served as important cultural havens for Chinese immigrants in predominantly white countries to shelter from racial discrimination, which later survived by catering to visitors searching for a glimpse of Chinese and Asian culture. But these communities are quickly disappearing because of displacement and growing anti-Asian racism that have drastically lowered tourism.
Flushing is not the only Chinese immigrant community at risk. Regular immigration raids hurt shops and restaurants in London’s Chinatown. Redevelopment is forcing out essential businesses that serve the residents of Toronto’s Chinatown. And Montreal’s Chinese community faces similar threats from real estate developers.
As Chinatowns around the world reel from racial and economic injustice, read on to hear from the young women organizing to save these iconic neighborhoods. These interviews have been condensed. You can find the full version here.
Audrey Chou — Flushing, New York, U.S.
What does Flushing mean to you?
For a lot of the Chinese diaspora and first-gen Chinese kids in New York City, Flushing is that place for them — whether it be where their doctor’s office is, where the orthodontist is, where their favorite restaurant is. Most young people growing up in Queens feel a really strong connection with Flushing. And I think that’s also what makes people want to fight for it so much.
Have you witnessed the firsthand effects of gentrification and displacement in Flushing? If so, what do those look like?
The biggest thing is the changing food landscape in Flushing. People often know Flushing as a kind of “foodie” place; people that come here for restaurants and stuff. But a lot of the shops that have been in Flushing for decades have been relegated to really small hole-in-the-wall-type restaurants, while there’s been a lot more space made for more trendier restaurants that have been getting a lot more traction. Although they’re still Asian foods, it’s a very catered taste made by transnational corporations and these developers who come in and try to curate Flushing as a more “high-end” dining place now as opposed to what it used to be.
Project Flushing is a youth-led initiative to stop luxury development — gentrification — in parts of Flushing, and many high schoolers are involved. What advice do you have for others on balancing school and activism?
I think the biggest thing is rooting yourself in why you are organizing because if you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, it’s always going to feel like a chore, tiring, and a burden on top of your schoolwork. But as long as you place yourself in these groups that you are genuinely, genuinely enthused about, you’ll have all the time in the world.
Amy Phung and Mai-Anh Peterson — London, U.K.
Why is London’s Chinatown so important to you?
Mai-Anh: One thing I do really like about London’s Chinatown is that it’s become a space that’s not just for Chinese people; it’s become a place that’s really important for the ESEA diaspora. “Chinese” probably isn’t even really the appropriate designator because there are so many Hong Kong, Cantonese, and people from mainland China. There are Taiwanese places. There are lots of Malaysian-Chinese [people] in London. Increasingly, Chinatown has become a place where there are Japanese, Indonesian, and Vietnamese restaurants. It’s become more of an inclusive space.
While London’s Chinatown has been subject to discriminatory immigration raids in the past, do you think racism against ESEA people — from xenophobia and COVID-induced racism — in the U.K. has amplified prejudice against Chinatown?
Amy: I think it’s had two different kinds of effects. There have obviously been instances of overt racism towards residents and businesses in the area. There have been vandalism happening and increased reports of hate incidents within the area. It has caused a kind of reckoning among the community there because there are almost two sets of people living there. The new businesses that have come in are run by younger business owners who are not necessarily from China but from lots of different parts of East and Southeast Asia, and they are really on social media. They can talk about [anti-ESEA racism]; they’ve been spreading news about what’s happening. And then there are the people who are the original people who have had businesses for a long time in Chinatown and actually don’t really want to address it, don’t really want to talk about it. They may know that these things are happening — the increased uptick in racism — however, they would much rather put their head down and carry on.
Mai-Anh: I think the intergenerational aspect is a really important one because we see that most of the organizing is coming from the children of people who own restaurants and takeaway places in the U.K. They’ve been raised in the U.K. and that experience during their formative years is very different to that of their parents who were preoccupied with running a business, with putting food on the table, with survival. For the kids who grow up in a majority-white society, it’s a very, very different experience, and they’re also of an age and a demographic that uses social media much more, so there’s more exposure to the ideas that are circulating.
What has an organization like besea.n done to bridge the generational divides between newer, younger ESEA residents in Chinatown and older ESEA immigrants?
Amy: We have actually been part of a workshop [for Chinatown residents] that we [are running] where we [are] talking about building advocacy skills, talking about finding collective voice, acknowledging intersectionality, and how we can help each other in different ways, because I think people view advocacy and even activism as people holding banners and signs and protesting and causing a ruckus. That’s why there are so many different ways to do it, and there are definitely efforts to try and get businesses — people who are within the Chinatown community — to really start taking advantage of using their voice to help people in the area to make it a more inclusive space and a safe place to visit and allow them space to talk about any issues they have going on.
Mai-Anh: One of the most amazing moments was with one of the older women who attended the workshop at the end of the feedback session. We had introduced the term “microaggression,” and we weren’t sure how that was going to go down with older generations, who typically are a bit resistant to talking about racism and tend to have more of an approach of “just get your head down and get on with it.” But she stood up and said, “I finally have a term to describe this thing that’s been happening to me all my life that’s been really upsetting to me. But I never had the language to talk about it. And so now I know what that is.”
This article was originally published in October 2021 on Assembly, Malala Fund’s digital publication and newsletter for girls. You can find the full version here.