The 30-Year Saga of the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association

Seniors partaking in BCAA activities in Sunset Park. (photo via Sing Tao Daily)

“Winston Churchill said, ‘You make a living by what you get; you make a life by what you give.’ In the 30 years we have been serving the Chinese community in Brooklyn, we have grown from the organization that only had a table and a chair into an organization that serves 3,000 people a day. We witnessed the changes in this community,” said Paul Mak, the founder of the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association (BCAA), matter-of-factly. [Editor’s note: According to the International Churchill Society, the quote is misattributed to Churchill.] But Mak was talking about a big surprise in his own life. After majoring in computer science in college, he never expected a sideline, part-time job to change the course of his life and make him the leader of the biggest Chinese community services organization in Brooklyn.

Since the Brooklyn Army Terminal ceased operation in the 1980s, many Polish and Norwegian immigrants who used to work there had been moving away. When Mak came to the U.S. from Hong Kong with his family in 1984, Sunset Park was a desolate place where there were few shops with fewer customers.

Mak studied computer science at Hunter College. The first job he obtained after graduation was to help a nonprofit run by white people to conduct a survey about the redevelopment of Sunset Park. At a town hall meeting held for the survey in 1987, Mak found close to 50 Chinese among the more than 200 people who showed up. He realized a Chinese community was taking shape right there.

In January 1988, Mak borrowed an office space from other people, equipped it with a table and a chair, and launched the Brooklyn Chinese-American Association to help recently arrived Chinese immigrants. In February that year, the organization held its first Lunar New Year parade. It was not a large-scale event, but it helped the fledgling organization get its name out there. In 1989, the organization finally had its own office in a small basement.

But in 1991, during severe government budget cuts amid a financial downturn, the BCAA lost a lot of funding. It was so tough that, for a period of time, it was not able to pay the utility and phone bills.

Mak said he thought that since he had been working to help people, they would offer a hand when he was in need. But he was wrong. Help was scarce. By April 1991, the organization was on the edge of being shut down. But a U-turn came in July that year when a job training program to help nurses from China enter the field in the U.S., hosted by the BCAA, together with the Chinatown Manpower Project, received $100,000 in funding. The BCAA was resurrected.

“That was a turning point. The organization has been experiencing ups and downs since then due to the fluctuation of government funding. But that was a time that I will never forget,” Mak said.

Since then, Mak, who is ambitious and persistent, has been working humbly in Sunset Park. Now, with four senior centers, eight pre-K programs and eight after-school programs, not to mention the adult literacy classes and welfare application services, the BCAA has become the biggest organization serving the Chinese community in Brooklyn. What was once a one-man operation now has 400 part-time and full-time staff members. Mak had a proud smile on his face when he talked about this.

The rapid growth of the BCAA in the past 30 years is also tied to the growth of Sunset Park into a major Chinatown in New York. Mak said that in the past, the residents in Sunset Park often went to work somewhere else, mostly in Manhattan’s Chinatown. But gradually, as the rent increases in Chinatown drove many shops to relocate to Sunset Park, a full-fledged community was established.

Now many residents in Sunset Park go to school or work or do business in the same neighborhood. Many of the older-generation immigrants from Canton, who used to account for a large proportion of residents there, sold their houses during the boom and moved out. Current residents are mainly immigrants from Fuzhou and new immigrants from other parts of China. So the demand for social services is bigger than ever.

Mak said the real estate market in Sunset Park has jumped up astonishingly in the past 20 years. Buildings, which used to cost $100,000, could easily cost $2 million now. Rising with it is the popular trick among Chinese people of paying part of the transaction under the table (Note: So that the sellers can save on tax). And many Chinese buy a house and divide it into small rooms to rent out. These help boost the already scorching real estate market. But they drag down the quality of life of Chinese residents. Social workers at the BCAA were sometimes verbally attacked for not helping non-qualified Chinese apply for government welfare. These are things that keep Mak awake at night.

Currently, rent makes up 25 percent of the BCAA’s budget, and it has been rising and will continue to do so. So a few years ago, Mak started to look for a permanent home for the BCAA. He said in the future the organization will move in to two new buildings at the intersections of Eighth Avenue and 52 Street and Eighth Avenue and 40 Street. The buildings, to be finished in 2020 and 2025, both have six floors, and they are 50,000 square feet in total.

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