Manhattan’s Chinatown, one of the oldest in the country, is constantly being reshaped by successive waves of immigrants from different parts of the diaspora (Guangdong, Hong Kong, Fuzhou and Macao to name a few), linguistic shifts (over the years the streets have echoed with Cantonese, Hakka, Fuzhounese-inflected putonghua, and of course, the Chinglish creole), and more recently, major socioeconomic ruptures. Now, youth in Chinatown with CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities are campaigning for tenants’ rights and beating back the talons of the city’s real estate industry.
In this short documentary (with subtitles!) about the struggle of Chinatown residents for housing justice. Global Action Project, which helped coordinate the production, describes the video as ” A docu-narrative that explores the struggle of working class Chinese immigrants in the face of escalating landlord harassment and abuse. ”
Despite the coveted downtown location, many local buildings are literally crumbling. And yet landlords are sometimes all too happy to let homes fall into disrepair, as low-income immigrant families are exactly the kind of folks that owners want to get rid of in order to make way for wealthier tenants and developers.
It should be noted of course that Chinatown has been changing ever since it started, so all those who grumble nostalgically about the good old days of overflowing sewers and gang brawls don’t seem to recall that no vibrant community can remain static. All of the city’s neighborhoods grow as they’re nourished by new waves of culture, industry and activism. The point is not to prevent Chinatown from changing, but to change it for the better, in ways that are inclusive and conscious of history and the future. Two longtime activists captured that idea in a recent report by Feet in 2 Worlds:
“Change is always inevitable,” said Esther Wang, Director of the Chinatown Tenants Union at the Committee Against Anti-Asian American Violence. “Our problem is that it’s not something the residents want. Gentrification is something that erases history and erases culture.”
In the end, [Urban Studies Professor Peter Kwong] struck an optimistic note. “Chinatown is proving itself capable of change by reinventing,” he said.
To learn more about youth campaigns on Chinatown gentrification, go to the website of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities.
Learn more about youth media activism at the Global Action Project.