When you go up the massive escalators into Jing Fong, a dim sum restaurant and staple of the New York City Chinatown food scene, you know you’re ascending into something extraordinary. The dining area occupies over 20,000 square feet and has the capacity to sit up to 800 people. Despite the sheer size, on a typical weekend, customers are still found amassing at the entrance, waiting for their chance to have pushed carts of food bob and weave around them. For Jing Fong first timers, it really isn’t until they have reached the top of the escalator and set their sights on the banquet hall, do they even have a taste of the awesomeness of Jing Fong.
Restaurants like Jing Fong serve as a window into the culture and energy of New York City’s Chinatown back when it was first settling its roots. Jing Fong was originally situated on Elizabeth Street, back in 1978, only three decades after the Chinese Exclusion Act (prohibiting the immigration of Chinese laborers) was lifted.
For many Chinese immigrants, New York City’s Chinatown serves as the beginning of their American dream, and the origin story of the generations of Chinese-Americans that are now witnessing the evolution of their very neighborhood.
“Most Chinese immigrants have lived or worked in Chinatown at one point in their lives,” said Richard Tam, a long time resident of Chinatown and co-founder of 10Below, an ice cream shop serving Thai-inspired ice cream rolls, located right in the heart of the neighborhood. “For my parents’ generation, they view Chinatown as the landing spot for most immigrants.”
New York City’s Chinatown is still a tightly-packed neighborhood, sprawling with grocers, restaurants, and mom-and-pop shops, but now, it’s experiencing a fast crawl towards a more contemporary future. This kind of transformation is often a harbinger of incoming wealth and affluence, as well as the positive infrastructure changes—cleaner streets, construction and more proper repairs—that come with wiping out the culture of a neighborhood and displacing its veteran residents.
Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a dim sum restaurant that first opened in 1920, sporting a vintage aesthetic that channels 1960s Hong Kong, has found the sweet spot of having history and a stake in the culture, while also making Chinatown accessible to tourists, young professionals, and the like. For Nom Wah’s head of marketing, Barbara Leung, Nom Wah is “a living reminder of the history in the neighborhood.”
More contemporary restaurants like Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese and Jeff Lam’s Chinese Tuxedo are the kind of establishments that are a marker of the changing neighborhood’s clientele—shifting away from the cheap eats crowd and their demand for heaping bowls of BBQ Roast Pork Noodles that go for under $6, to one that can drop over $20 on an appetizer or salad.
Chinese Tuxedo’s proprietor Edward Buckingham understands the impact commercialization has on a historic neighborhood like Chinatown, as well the imperative to sustain its culture.
“Price points, offerings, and the values of food and beverage ventures can go a long way in impacting a neighborhood or community’s identity,” said Edward. “Change is a constant, particularly in NYC, but there is a difference between thoughtful and thoughtless change. All of our decision-making is inspired by the simple informing principles—does this honor the traditions and history of Chinatown, and does this represent a positive move, born of love, for our favorite neighborhood moving forward?”
Much of Chinatown’s burgeoning modernization can be attributed to increasing rent costs and property values, pushing out residents and businesses that have called Chinatown their home for decades.
According to a 2016 report from the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy, the Lower East Side/Chinatown sub-borough area experienced a 50.3 percent change in average rent between 1990 and 2014, whereas the average percent change for all of New York City was only 22.1 percent.
Soaring rents, an aging population, and younger, more educated generations moving out of the area, is causing growing concern that the neighborhood is losing its character, and even potentially, its future.
“Things aren’t how it is was back in the day, and if we want Chinatown to still be ‘Chinatown,’ we need to make sure that local mom-and-pop shops, restaurants, and signages must be kept as part of history,” said Truman Lam, general manager for Jing Fong. “It’s sad to say this but, Chinatown might not be around for the next 5-10 years if we keep modernizing it this quickly.”
Richard Tam’s ice cream shop, 10Below, dons a clean, sleek and minimal design, obviously contrasting the neighborhood’s busy, crowded interiors, but as a local, Richard wants to preserve the culture and history of the community while helping it grow. “This is our home and this is where my grandparents, parents, myself, and my future children will frequent, and I want to be able to share with them the rich Chinese-American history,” he said. “It is important to my own cultural identity and I think that it is important to share that with the next generation.”
Header image courtesy of Wes Hicks on Unsplash.