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The Most Chinese of Chinatowns

A changing landscape in Flushing, New York.

by Mary Wang

Of all the Chinatowns in New York, Flushing, Queens, looks most like China. In Manhattan’s Chinatown, the fire escapes hovering over you are a constant reminder that you’re in the middle of New York. In Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, Chinese signs are stuck on red brick townhouses, which are spread out and a maximum of four floors high, conveying a spaciousness that has long disappeared from Chinese cities. Flushing, in Queens, is more like it. People here cross the street in a hurry even when it’s not busy; anonymous high-rises that look more manufactured than designed crowd the horizon; and the shops in the boxy mall on Main Street light the sidewalk with a fluorescent shimmer.

Sky View Parc is the largest high rise in Flushing, and a signpost of the neighborhood’s current real-estate boom. Like many developments in Flushing, its 1,189 units sit on a mega-mall that sells anything from discounted furniture to dim sum (albeit, adapted to the Westernized palette of second-generation Chinese offspring). The first two towers of the compound were constructed in 2012 but look more like faded-white office blocks from the 90’s, while the three remaining towers, which are still under construction, are covered with an all-glass facade that exudes a post-modern glory. The apartments are built for a specific clientele: Chinese customers willing to pay a few million dollars to live in a designer apartment, far enough from street level to not have to smell roast pork or the sweat of undocumented workers, yet close enough to a Chinese supermarket in case the soy sauce runs out.

Ms. Lee, one of Sky View Parc’s brokers, guided me through the showroom located in a pavilion above what will become the compound’s parking garage. Its straight lines and glass facade make it look like a toned down version of the Barcelona Pavilion. Its walls are adorned with images that feature an Asian couple strolling through the building’s tree-lined promenade, sunbathing by the pool, and hanging out by the fireplace in the common room. I spotted one white person in the back — at Sky View Parc, the diversity ratio is reversed. The prices of the condo’s range between $448,888 and $2,184,888. The Chinese lucky number 8 is used generously: the building’s floor numbers start at 8 rather than 1. Unlucky numbers 4 and 13 are in turn avoided, and the floors jump from 12 directly to 15. The compounds are linked by a rooftop park equipped with a tennis court and a basketball court. “The residents can practice their Tai Chi here too,” Ms. Lee assured me.

Gentrification often follows the same storyline. A neighborhood becomes more desirable once a group of lower-income residents has paved the way, resulting in an influx of higher income people. Rents are driven up, pricing out the original population. Brooklyn is undergoing such a process: richer, and whiter neighbors are slowly displacing its original residents. Chinese enclaves lend themselves to gentrification. Manhattan’s Chinatown attracts visiting tourists and moving New Yorkers alike. Even though local Chinatown associations have managed to keep much of the business and real estate in Chinese hands, its boundaries to the neighboring Soho and Nolita are too porous to keep the high prices and trendy clientele out. As a result, the Chinese population in Sunset Park and Flushing has been growing at much faster speeds, while Manhattan’s has stagnated.

Sky View Parc is only one amongst the many large-scale new developments cropping up in Flushing, many of which are developed by Chinese firms. Queens is the fastest growing outer borough of New York, after Brooklyn, and home sales prices in Flushing have increased by 51% over the past five years. Sky View Parc is at the forefront of this new direction. The cheapest studio apartment starts around Flushing’s median sales price, but its most expensive unit is four times more expensive.

Yet, Flushing has always been a bit upscale. Its origins as a Chinese enclave date back to the period between 1946 and 1951, when the United Nations temporarily took over some of the structures from the 1939 World Trade Fair in Flushing Meadows. The Chinese delegation wasn’t able to afford the prices on the more desirable Long Island, and as a result, the diplomats, translators, and their administrative staff set up camp in Flushing, where they remained even after the U.N. moved its headquarters to Manhattan.

According to Weishan Huang’s report for UNESCO, ‘Immigration and Gentrification – a case study of cultural restructuring in Flushing, Queens,’ it was Taiwanese immigrant Tommy Huang who gave Flushing its modern form in the 1980’s. With $500,000 in savings, Huang started developing Flushing’s Main Street with the type of commercial-and-residential combination housing that its predominantly Taiwanese population favored back home. By that time, the influx of Taiwanese immigrants to the neighborhood had caused its original white population to leave, earning Flushing the nickname of ‘Little Taipei.’ Korean immigrants moved in too, though in smaller numbers. By the end of the decade, Huang had constructed hundreds of buildings in the neighborhood, and its affluent immigrants had set up a Chinese enclave that was different from Manhattan’s Chinatown, which was mainly populated by lower-income Cantonese immigrants from the Mainland.

I ended my day in the office of Michael Tang, a lawyer from Flushing whose practice has handled the neighborhood’s immigration cases and real-estate transactions for the past twelve years. He has lived in Flushing for 10 years, and is about to move to a brand-new apartment himself. One of his clients was the first to close a deal on an apartment in Sky View Parc. She had rushed there in the morning of the pre-sale, betting on an increase of the property’s value that it is believed will start as soon as the construction is complete. In his office, he sees many Flushing locals who are reluctant to leave the comforts of their neighborhood, as well as international buyers who, for the same reasons, see Flushing as the ideal first stop in the United States. “There are good properties in Manhattan, but when people first arrive here, they’re not yet used to living with foreigners. Here, they can eat the same food and speak the same language as at home, so they feel at ease,” he explained.

He also saw many older residents and pregnant women moving into Sky View Parc. The retirees are moving back into town from the suburbs to be closer to Chinese amenities, whereas the pregnant women fly in from China, rent an apartment and deliver their baby on American soil so that their new-born will be granted citizenship under U.S. law. Yet, it is his lower-income and undocumented clients who prove that gentrification in Flushing doesn’t follow the same lines as elsewhere. “It’s especially those clients who have nowhere to go,” he explained. “They don’t know the world outside, and don’t speak the language. They’ll stay here, even if they have to share a room with others. They don’t dare to leave.”

As I walked out of Tang’s office on Main Street, I saw Sky View Parc stick out from behind the street’s lower structures. In the commercial renderings of Sky View Parc, the designer has taken care to always frame the image with Manhattan’s skyline on the background, whether it’s through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the apartments or looking up from the compound’s outdoor swimming pool. But Flushing is a state of its own. Its culture and architecture have remained distinctly Chinese. This leaves two competing forces at play: rising housing prices threatening to drive people out, and a coherent identity walling them in.