Ippies Highlight: New York’s Chinatown Ten Years After 9/11

To showcase the best New York City journalism in languages other than English published last year, Voices of NY is running translations of articles that won Ippies at last week’s gala

This three-part article by Meng Fang, Tu Yichen and Law Wai Ki was published on Sept. 5, 2011 by the World Journal, and it won first place for best investigative/in-depth story at the 2012 Ippies Awards. The translation below was provided by the World Journal, and each section links to the original Chinese article in the World Journal.

Aftermath of September 11: New York’s Chinatown Ten Years On

The economic structure of New York’s Chinatown has gone through a major transformation in the decade following the September 11 attacks.

The major economic drivers prior to the attacks – the traditional garment factories, restaurants and jewelry shops – have entered an evident state of decline over the ten years.

During the two weeks following the disaster, garment factory workers could not get to their places of employment due to the street closures all around Chinatown. The factories could not deliver their merchandise on time and simply had no choice but to shut down. The impact of the 9/11 event on the factories is still visible today as there are very few left in operation.

The collapse of the World Trade Center towers and the decline in the number of visitors to New York as a result of the event caused Chinatown’s restaurants to lose their two major sources of diners and many had to go out of business.

Jewelry stores struggled to survive as the sector had been hard hit by a widespread recession in the market.

The businessmen and women of Chinatown who witnessed the rise and fall of Chinatown over the post-9/11 decade each have their own story.

The Garment Factories (original article in Chinese)

May Chen, formerly manager of Local 23-25, a labor union, and now serving in an advisory role, recalled that the garment industry experienced its biggest boom from 1982 to 1990 with more than an estimated 20,000 workers in Chinatown at the time. However, by the mid-90s, even before the attacks, the industry was already starting to exhibit the signs of decline, which, for the most part, was brought about by the US government signing free trade agreements with several countries as well as extending most favored nation treatment to China, and by China’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Chen said that the 9/11 event very much aggravated the situation for the sector. The subsequent downsizing, which failed to be reversed, was a clear signal of the globalization of the world economy and its effect on Chinatown.

Chen recounted that after the disaster, many streets in Chinatown were closed and security checkpoints set up. Only people able to show an ID proving residency within the area could gain access. This led to the vast majority of the factories unable to maintain normal operations and shutting down because of impediments to local transportation and the inability of workers to get totheir place of work. At present, there are only 1,000 unionized members working in Chinatown’s remaining garment factories.

Zhang Xiaoying, a representative from the same union, noted that most of the Chinese-owned garment factories at that time were gathered on both sides of Canal Street, between Broadway and Mott Street, including a stretch along White Street. She remembered that, within only four to six weeks following the September 11 event, around 50 garment factories closed, causing job losses for their workforces, for the most part female workers between the ages of 40 and 55.

A report from the Asian American Federation issued in 2008 bore out Chen’s projection. The report found that the garment factories in Chinatown saw their business volumes decline by between 60 percent and 100 percent over the two weeks after the attacks; at that time, Chinatown employed 33,658 people, of which, 24,500 temporally lost their jobs during the first two weeks following the attacks, including 13,000 garment factory workers.

Jimmy Cheng (Photo from World Journal)

Former president of the Continental Garment Manufacturers Association of Greater New York Jimmy Cheng, who opened a garment factory in Chinatown as early as 1986, has been involved in garment manufacturing for 20 years. He witnessed the rise and fall of the sector. Cheng said that garment factories in New York at their peak employed 100,000 workers, including 30,000 in Chinatown. At that time, Chinatown was home to more than 500 factories. He recalled that the new arrivals at the time couldn’t speak English at all. “What were you going to do”, he said, “you’ve got to survive, so the men went to work in the restaurants and the women got jobs in the garment factories.” He added that the best period for the garment business was between 1990 and 1995. After that, it became more and more difficult for local garment factories to hold on to the three to four dollars per piece cost advantage as a number of factories moved abroad, especially after shipping time from China to the US dropped from two months to 45 days.

Cheng said that he kept struggling with his factory as he was loath to part with his workers and clung to the idea that tomorrow would be better. However, the only advantage the New York- based garment factories had was the shorter lead time when competing with their counterparts in China. The factories operated around the clock until the order was filled so that an order that would otherwise take 45 days to ship could be completed and out the door within two weeks. The events of September 11 were the straw that broke the camel’s back. What remained strongest in Cheng’s memory was that of his workers, a week after the attacks, pushing wheelbarrows full of clothing all the way to 14th Street to deliver goods despite the traffic restrictions. He struggled on for five years after 9/11 but finally had to throw in the towel and shut down his operation. He switched to the restaurant business with the opening of an eatery on East Broadway.

Cheng said that the September 11 attacks changed his mind as well as the minds of many of the people in the community, as they realized the power behind a vote, when the garment factories north of Canal Street received less compensation than those on the south side of the street. In addition, Chinatown lost an opportunity to enjoy a number of tax breaks as an impaired zone in 2002. “Why? The answer is that we have no votes.” The situation has since changed, “Chinatown now has its own council member, yet we need even more cohesion.”

The Restaurants (original article in Chinese)

Mott Street General Store in its early days. (Photo from World Journal)

When it comes to the shuttered stores after the September 11 attacks, more than any other establishment, what stands out is the closure of the 112-year-old Mott Street General Store at 32 Mott, which ultimately threw in the towel in August of 2003. Paul Lee, the owner of the store, to this day cannot forgive himself for having lost the family heirloom. His great grandfather established the store in 1891 as a dispensary for traditional Chinese medicines. As communications in those days were poor at best, immigrants from Guangdong province’s Taishan area who were illiterate came to the store to get help in reading their letters from relatives or in writing back to them. At some point, the store evolved into a cookware shop and then a store selling ceramic products and traditional Chinese souvenirs and gifts.

Lee revealed frankly that business was already struggling before the attacks, but the final nail in the coffin was his own errors of judgment. “After 9/11, there were hardly any customers and I had to borrow money from friends and relatives just to keep the store open. I kept going back to them again and again for further loans, and, in the end, I didn’t even know how much I had borrowed.”

“Until one day two years later, the city marshal showed up and served me with an eviction notice. By then I realized that it was too late and that I should have sold the store at the first sign of trouble, as that certainly wouldn’t have been as bad as having been forced out.” Lee suffered the same fate with his apartment when he was thrown out for falling behind in the rent. The Small Business Administration declined his application for a mortgage when he couldn’t produce any collateral . Now, Lee is very active in the community. Lee knows he will never leave Chinatown for the rest of his living days, and with what the ten years of hardship has taught him, he has decided to put his heart and soul into working for the Chinatown community, and in pursuing and protecting the rights of its residents.

The September 11 attacks put Hong Ying, the restaurant with a long history in the basement of 11 Mott Street, out of business. Yui Shing Lee, who managed the business for 31 years, reflected on the days back in the 1970s, when the restaurant was opened and the streets were chock full of foot traffic day and night. “Many restaurants served customers well into the wee hours of the morning. People who wanted a table waited in line for at least a half hour. In contrast, how many restaurants are there now still doing business in the small hours despite so many people in Chinatown?” Lee characterized today’s Chinatown with the words “fall and decline”.

Just like most of the stores and restaurants in Chinatown, the restaurant looked deserted after the 9/11 attacks. Lee was paying out well over $10,000 a month to his employees, and piling up losses between $80,000 and $100,000 a year. Finally he decided to hand the keys back to the owner in the spring of 2003. The restaurant then changed hands several times over the next eight years. He said to himself that it would be better to call it quits and take a trip around the world, rather than continue to lose money every month. He paid one and a half month’s salary to each employee and started his retirement, putting his career as a restaurateur behind him.

There are many like Lee who had been counting on the bright prospects that Chinatown offered. For instance, Chen Liang, one of the three shareholders of Ruby Restaurant, an establishment that had operated for ten years at 31 Division Street, closed his untenable business after the September 11 attacks.

Ruby Restaurant was founded in 1991, and went out of business a few months after 9/11. The shutdown was the result of the street closures which prevented tourists from coming into Chinatown. The three shareholders had been thinking of selling the store before the attacks happened, however the event put an end that that idea. They ended up paying out between $7,000 and $8,000 in severance to over 20 employees, and started an early retirement.

The Jewelry Trade (original article in Chinese)

Chinatown jewelry store (Photo by World Journal)

In addition to the physical and psychological damage, the jewelry sector in Downtown and Chinatown had also been dramatically derailed by the attacks. Cen Zhuohuai, with a 38-year track record in Chinatown’s jewelry industry, said he witnessed the huge changes both before and after the attacks. The impact of September 11 on the economy of Chinatown was huge. “The jewelry sector is the real measuring stick for knowing when a recession is coming and when it is truly over as it will be the first to be affected and the last to recover when the economy takes a dip.”

Cen said that Wall Street lost tens of thousands of jobs as a result of the attacks. These were his main customers. Prior to September 11, many of them placed orders for several diamond rings and watches on a weekly basis, however, post 9/11, this business just about totally disappeared.

Wall Street took a nose dive, with just virtually every company and individual taking major hits to their portfolios. The quality of life significantly declined, and people worried about just meeting their basic living expenses. They were brought back to reality, and luxury items were something that got completely crossed off the list.

Another jeweler with the last name of Lei, who ran a store on Canal Street for more than twenty years, concurred. He said most of his customers were women who worked in the garment factories before the attacks. “They worked hard to save money and when they had accumulated a certain amount they would come into the store to buy a gold bracelet or ingot. Though they bought only one or two bracelets at a time, over time, it would account for a significant amount of business.”

He lost most of his customers when the garment factories closed their doors after the attacks. To add to the pain, the city and the department of transportation decided to impose traffic controls, including closing streets and reducing the number of parking spaces, which, in turn, had an indirect impact on the flow of customers, further hurting his business.

More recently, he opened a new store in Flushing. “The Flushing store outperforms the one in Chinatown. Our existing customer base allows us to keep the Chinatown store open.”

Turning Crisis into Opportunity

In general, the September 11 attacks had a huge impact on the economy of Chinatown. However, some merchants turned the crisis into an opportunity, overcoming the difficulties brought on by the event.

Huang Qiao Zhen, the owner of a small eatery specializing in Teochew cuisine, said that a half year after the disaster, she began placing advertisements in English-language papers, inviting mainstream media to come and interview her. She offered special price deals to attract more diners. Through these efforts she managed to turn around her business. For the Vietnamese businesswoman of Chinese extraction, the September 11 attacks were one of the biggest shocks to the restaurant during its 25 years of existence. Her family, though, had lived through the Vietnam War during which one of her newborn sons lost his life. “The 9/11 disaster was nothing in comparison.” She firmly believed that she and her business would overcome the difficulties. With that firm belief, her business survived and has now become one of the most popular restaurants in Chinatown.

Liu Yikuang, owner and operator of Cathay Jewelry, took a very entrepreneurial approach to dealing with the aftermath of the attacks. He opened an additional six stores in addition to the original two, and became the most successful of the jewelry shops that line Canal Street. Liu said that, at the time, he had two stores on Canal and was in the process of opening the third when the event took place. Despite a two-week closure after the attacks, sales at the two stores bounced back to where they had been quite quickly. A third store was opened soon after. Ten years on, he now own eight shops along the street. As for the other shops which had been affected by the loss of customers, he said: “I apply modern management methods in running my business. We have our own jewelry appraisers and designers, we offer somewhat more trendy products, we quality assure every item that we sell, which may be the reason why we have been able to keep our foothold.”

Turning to the garment factories, the prospects looks grim. Wang Yingxiang, who had opened a garment factory in Long Island City prior to September 11, explained that the garment factories are unlikely to return to Chinatown due to the high cost of leasing the needed space. It just makes more sense to move the factories to Brooklyn or Queens. Space rents out at $7.50 a square foot in Queens whereas the same space fetches $12 in Chinatown and $15 in midtown. With the appreciation of the Chinese currency and the increased costs of opening up a factory overseas, his garment factory has not been doing badly since 2010, but he also mentioned that it

is hard to find workers as young immigrants now prefer to work in a nail salon or take courses in nursing. The factories are willing to offer the necessary training, but few people these days are interested learning how to produce garments.

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