A Response to Bonnie Tsui’s “Atlantic” article, “The End of Chinatown”News Right Wednesday, November 16th, 2011
CORRECTION: A comment by OurChinatown reader Dennis Kao led me to reexamine the chart accompanying the article, and realize that there was an error in how one of the data points is graphed that weakened my point and strengthened Tsui’s. Mea culpa. That also sent me back to the numbers, trying to identify what combination of factors would be most likely to have correlative (maybe even predictive) value in determining Chinese immigration to the U.S. The answer is seen in the revised chart: Immigration tracks the difference between U.S. % Real GDP Growth and Chinese % Real GDP Growth with uncanny precision. That makes sense: Immigration varies with imbalances in economic opportunity. But that’s different from Tsui’s claim, which is that Chinese won’t leave China when their economy is growing so rapidly. The data shows that in a state where the U.S. economy is on track, even if it’s growing substantially more slowly than that of China, net immigration flows spike. There are other factors involved — which explains why, according to a report by Hurun Research Institute and the Bank of China, half of China’s millionaires want to leave.
UPDATE: Kirk Semple shared with me some more precise counts of foreign-born Chinese in New York City, provided to the New York Times via Andrew Beveridge’s Social Explorer. They show that foreign-born Chinese population in New York actually grew from 261,551 in 2000 to 348,474 in 2010, representing a 33% increase, almost exactly in line with the growth of the total Chinese population in New York. Which pretty much entirely kicks the legs out from under Tsui’s argument. Semple also points out that the foreign-born Chinese population is also a higher percentage of the overall New York population now than it was in 2000, up to 4.3% from 3.3%. In short, the rationale for Chinatown is growing, not shrinking — which explains why New York’s Chinatowns are proliferating, not disappearing, per Tsui.
Kirk Semple, the New York Times’s indefatigable immigration reporter, drew our attention today to a curious essay published last Friday by The Atlantic, titled “The End of Chinatown,” written by travel writer and amateur ethnographer Bonnie Tsui.
In the essay, Tsui notes that smaller Chinatowns — and even some larger ones, like those in Los Angeles and San Francisco — have shrunk in size over the decades, becoming in many cases not much more than glorified tourist traps or fancifully decorated strip malls. This is a prelude to what she argues is the imminent and inevitable “death” of the American Chinatown.
The problem is that virtually every fact she marshals to uphold that claim is either inaccurate or misinterpreted.
For example, she states that the primary factor behind the decline of American Chinatown is that, with the economy growing faster in China than here, there’s been a decline in Chinese immigration to the U.S. She cites as support the fact that over the past five years, the number of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. has declined from 87,307 in 2006 to 70,863 in 2010. This, she says, means that Chinatowns in America are condemned to disappear: “Because Chinatowns are where working-class immigrants have traditionally gathered for support, the rise of China — and the slowing of immigrant flows — all but ensures the end of Chinatowns.”
There are multiple problems with Tsui’s logic here, but before we get to them, let’s take a look at the questionable reporting it’s rooted in.
You see, Tsui cites as her primary statistical evidence a five-year decline in immigration from China to the U.S. of about 20%. However, a look at the year-by-year statistics — readily available as part of the Department of Homeland Security’s free 2010 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics — throws her conclusion into sharp question. Because while immigration did indeed drop betwen 2006 to 2010, the drop has been far from steady — it fell from 87,307 in 2006 to 76,655 in 2007, but then rose to 80,271 in 2008, fell to 64,238 in 2009, and spiked back up in 2010 to 70,863. With that added detail, the five year “decline” looks like it could be normal variation.
But that’s not to say there isn’t a variable that tracks the ebb and flow of Chinese immigration. That variable is the difference between U.S. Real GDP growth and Chinese Real GDP Growth. In short, when the U.S. economy is strong, Chinese want to come here, even if it’s growing an order of magnitude slower than that of China. This strongly suggests that when — if — the economy snaps back into a sustained period of growth, Chinese immigration is likely to return to its historical levels.
The bottom line is that even with China’s economy booming, Chinese have plenty of motivation to come to the U.S. — so long as there’s something to come here for. (There are other factors than just economic opportunity involved — which explains why, according to a report by Hurun Research Institute and the Bank of China, half of China’s millionaires want to leave.) As the U.S. tumbled into recession and China’s economy remained relatively strong, there was a sharp falloff in immigration; now that the U.S. has begun to return to growth, that falloff has already started to self-correct. Tsui’s claim that the “immigrant flows” are slowing just don’t hold water.
Furthermore, we should remember that all of these statistics being cited refer only to documented immigration, which doesn’t represent the entirety of the Chinatown population. Because there aren’t reliable statistics on Chinese undocumented immigration, the real status of the stream feeding American Chinatowns remains opaque.
But that doesn’t stop Tsui from claiming that New York Chinatown is depopulating — citing 2010 U.S. census results that showed a drop in population in Manhattan’s Chinatown “for the first time in recent memory—almost 9% overall, and a 14% decline in the Asian population.”
It’s not clear why Tsui is pointing to numbers for the overall population (or even the overall Asian population) when she could have found and cited the more relevant numbers of the Chinese population of Chinatown, which over the past decade has fallen about 17%, representing a reduction of about 6,000 individuals. So does that even larger drop support Tsui’s assertion that Chinatown is dying?
In June of this year, WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show did a fascinating series of segments on what it called the “New Littles,” using the work of Queens College sociologist Andrew Beveridge to explore the emerging ethnic population clusters that have sprung up across the city. (I was lucky enough to be asked to guest on behalf of OurChinatown for the first episode, which focused on new pockets of Chinese population in the five boroughs.)
The Brian Lehrer Show subsequently offered public access to the dataset produced by Beveridge to everyone via a pair of terrific Google mashups on the WNYC website. The Google Maps visualization I’ve taken a screengrab of tells the real story: The red area represents a region whose population is at least 20% Chinese, which now stretches from the Eastern edge of Manhattan to Centre Street, and from Frankfort Street to Houston — a chunk of geography that goes well beyond Chinatown’s conventional boundaries. And the accompanying raw data shows that the number of Chinese residing in the areas adjacent to, but outside of, core Chinatown more than makes up for the core’s 6000-person drop in population, with 8400 Chinese now living in the Soho/Tribeca/Little Italy/Civic Center areas, and another 3000 in the area traditionally called the Lower East Side. That’s not even counting the huge Chinese populations living in New York City’s five other “Chinatowns,” two of which — Flushing, Queens and Sunset Park, Brooklyn — now boast populations that are larger than Manhattan’s.
So Chinatown hasn’t shrunk — it’s expanded its footprint, which has caused a spreading-out of its population. And you know, that’s something you can tell just by walking around the edge of the neighborhood and noting the proliferation of Chinese signage far beyond historical Chinatown, reflecting the dynamic continued growth of New York’s immigrant Chinese population.
That’s right: Growth. Tsui misleadingly uses the fact that the percentage of foreign-born Chinese New Yorkers fell from about 75% in 2000 to 69% in 2009 as evidence that “the influx of migrants who need the networks that Chinatown provides is itself slowing down.” And yes, it is — percentagewise; it’s a basic law of numbers that the larger your base, the harder it is to grow it on a linear basis. Over the past decade, the number of foreign-born Chinese New Yorkers rose by almost 25%, from 262,000 to 327,600. That’s a lower jump than the nearly 60% growth from 1990 to 2000, but it hardly represents stagnation.
(UPDATE: Kirk Semple shared with me some more precise counts of foreign-born Chinese in New York City, provided to the New York Times via Andrew Beveridge’s Social Explorer. They show that the population of foreign-born Chinese population in New York actually grew from 261,551 in 2000 to 348,474 in 2010, representing a 33% increase, almost exactly in line with the growth of the total Chinese population in New York. Semple also points out that the foreign-born Chinese population is also a higher percentage of the overall New York population now than it was in 2000, up to 4.3% from 3.3%.)
And meanwhile, the overall number of Chinese New Yorkers has grown by about 33%, from 357,243 in 2000 to 474,900 in 2010. Chinese now represent about 6% of the city population as a whole. And that points to the most bizarre thing about Tsui’s determination to sing a dirge for Chinatown: She’s the author of a book called American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods, a work that celebrates the continued meaning and importance of Chinatown even to second and third-generation Chinese Americans. “Before we hit school age, our parents move us to Long Island, where good public schools are a selling point,” she writes in the book’s introduction. “But it’s not where we go to be Chinese — Manhattan’s Chinatown is. My personal history with Chinatowns begins here, where we have wedding banquets, christenings, grocery shopping, daily life with my extended family of aunts, cousins, great-uncles, fake-uncles.”
That’s an experience that I and many thousands of American-born Chinese share: Chinatown is where we’re taken as children to be immersed in a culture that is a part of us no matter how many miles or generations away we might be. It’s where we go as adults to reconnect with the things we discovered and experienced as kids, the tastes and sights and sounds that remain rooted in our memories no matter how many years have passed us by.
It is the place we go to be Chinese. And even if Chinese immigration did slow to a trickle, it’s unimaginable to me that we would allow Chinatown to simply fade away.Tweet
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