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Spring 1993
City Journal Spring 1993.
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  I deas and Observations

Letter From Flushing
Keith Elliot Greenberg
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The story of Flushing, Queens, is one of decay and rebirth. In its heyday, downtown Flushing was a bustling shopping district, home to Gertz’s and Klein’s department stores and RKO Keith’s Flushing Theater, its domed lobby a replica of the solar system. But by the late 1970s, Flushing was being deserted, its residents lured away by Long Island’s better schools and shopping malls. As more storefronts stood vacant, a general air of neglect was making Flushing residents uneasy. They worried that their neighborhood would follow in the path of Jamaica, another urban shopping district in Queens, where crime drove away the customers.

Then immigrants began to arrive. Chinese, Koreans, and Indians, drawn by the rock-bottom rents for storefronts and apartments, flooded into the area. They opened shops and kept them open late at night. They put up bright signs and watched the sidewalk through picture windows. Those unnerving, empty stretches of downtown Flushing were now filled with crowds of people; chatting away in Chinese, Korean, and Hindi. The neighborhood had come to life again.

Flushing—a vast stretch of Queens bounded by 20th Avenue on the north, Union Turnpike on the south, Francis Lewis Boulevard on the east, and Flushing Meadows-Corona Park on the west—officially has about 233,000 residents, about half of whom are Asian. But to listen to the Asian business associations in the area, the census figures are way off the mark. The Chinese claim to be 120,000 strong, half of them undocumented, while the Koreans boast 70,000 and the Indians 30,000. There are other ethnic influences in the area as well. Almost half of the 18,000 students at Queens College in Flushing are immigrants, coming from 120 nations.

Flushing is undeniably doing well. According to the 1990 census, 44 percent of the area’s households earn more than $40,000 annually. Eleven Asian banks have offices in Flushing, and total deposits exceed $3.5 billion. "For a middle-class, residential neighborhood, that’s incredible," says Yungman Lee, first deputy for the New York State Banking Department. "This is a deposit-rich community."

The No. 7 train has been dubbed "the Orient Express." Virgo Lee, director of the Mayor’s Office for Asian Affairs, describes downtown Flushing as a "Pan-Asian business district." Each group has staked out its own territory: Chinese on Prince Street and 39th Avenue, Koreans on Union Street, and Indians on Bowne Street. Each has its own story of prosperity and community in the New World.

The Chinese in Flushing call the neighborhood "the second Chinatown." But they insist that the Flushing Chinese, many of whom came from Taiwan, are on the whole better-educated than their Chinatown counterparts. A large percentage of the Taiwanese immigrants came to New York as students and decided to remain after their visas expired. The mainland Chinese started arriving in 1979 and, along with Hong Kong natives fearing the impending transfer of power to the communists, comprise the largest wave of new arrivals.

The Chinese in Flushing are less insular than those in Chinatown: While a Chinese immigrant can get by here without learning English, not all his neighbors are Chinese, so he has the opportunity to understand and blend with other cultures.

Although some 25 Chinese dialects are spoken in Flushing, the majority of Chinese in the area know Taiwan’s official idiom, Mandarin. (In Chinatown most people speak Cantonese.) About 40 percent of the Flushing Chinese hail from Taiwan and another 30 percent come from Mandarin-speaking mainland cities like Shanghai and Beijing. The remainder of the ethnic Chinese come from places as diverse as Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, and South America.

Richard Hsueh is president of Chinese American Voice, a local radio station that broadcasts mostly in Mandarin. Hsueh was a radio reporter in Taiwan who came to America and began working for the World journal, one of Flushing’s Mandarin newspapers, in 1979. The Chinese were just beginning to settle in the area, and Hsueh spent a lot of time in Chinatown gathering news. But each year he found himself taking the subway into Manhattan less often, as he found more to report about the burgeoning Chinese community in Flushing.

Hsueh remembers watching the growth of the Chinese influence in the neighborhood. First, authentic Chinese restaurants started up, then a Chinese Voters Association was formed, then the first Chinese bank, Golden Pacific, opened its doors. "Soon," Hsueh says, "you didn’t need to leave." By 1986, Flushing had become a neighborhood not only of Chinese restaurants, but also of food wholesalers to supply them. Frozen items are flown in daily from Taiwan, and fresh vegetables and fish are available everywhere. Local florists, bakeries, and grocery stores are owned by Chinese immigrants, as are insurance and real estate agencies.

In 1991, Sheraton opened a 14-story hotel in Flushing. Although guests include visitors to the nearby U.S. Open tennis championship and Shea Stadium, the hotel’s Chinese menu is an indication of its primary clientele: traveling business executives from Hong Kong and Taiwan who prefer to stay near their countrymen rather than in Manhattan.

The Flushing Chinese Business Association has tried to ease the process of assimilating to life in a new country by offering new immigrants English classes, free medical services, and job training. Of all the Asians in Flushing, the Chinese have the most developed civic and political organizations. They are able to command the attention of local politicians and school boards, and have begun to run for office themselves.

"I’m moving," says a character in a Korean TV show. "Where?" he is asked. "America." "Where in America?" "Flushing." This is a common scenario on Korean television programs, now available on video in Flushing for Koreans homesick for the Old Country.

Flushing has become home to the largest concentration of Koreans on the East Coast with the help of an impressive system of community support. Family members and friends pool money together to float an undertaking, confident that down the line the borrowers will make their own capital available for the next project.

Financial backing also comes from Korean-American churches—a practice developed in this country. One Korean Catholic congregation in Flushing has a credit union for its parishioners, with assets of more than $17 million. There are approximately 250 Korean churches of all denominations in Queens, many of which are active in bringing over new members from Korea. Some 65 percent of Flushing’s Koreans are Christians, compared with 20 percent of South Korea’s population. Many immigrants become Christian after they arrive here, for communal as well as religious reasons.

Sung Soo Kim, president of the Korean-American Small Business Service Association, attributes the high success rate of Korean businesses to the cultural dread of losing face by returning to Korea a failure. Status in the Korean-American community is measured by how many relatives one can bring over and by the size of one’s financial contributions to the community.

The first Korean immigrants to Flushing were nurses who came to work at nearby Elmhurst Hospital in the 1960s. At that time, there were only about three thousand Koreans in the entire city, and many were involved in the wig trade. Straight black wigs imported from Korea were popular sellers in African-American neighborhoods around New York. The immigrants eventually branched out into beauty parlors and then nail salons. After years of watching Korean manicurists ply their craft in other people’s shops, a Mr. Yoo is credited with opening the city’s first independent Korean nail salon in 1983. Others followed his lead, and now Koreans are said to have the market cornered, along with the produce and much of the dry cleaning business. Those starting out in these fields can seek advice from the Korean-American Nail Salon Association of New York, the Korean Produce Association, the Korean-American Grocers Association, and the Korean-American Dry Cleaners Association.

The largest surge of Koreans into Flushing occurred between 1975 and 1985, just as the neighborhood was losing its base of Irish, Italians, Jews, Greeks, and Germans. Although some came as students and some were fleeing South Korea’s military, the majority came in search of economic opportunity.

Most found it. The average Korean immigrant can afford to send for relatives within three years of arriving in Flushing. But although immigrants continue to come, their overall numbers may be shrinking. Many successful Koreans have left for the suburbs, while others have returned to Korea to start international businesses.

The Indian immigration pattern mirrors that of the other Asian groups in the neighborhood. When immigration laws were relaxed in the 1960s, Indian students started to arrive, attracted by Flushing’s accessibility to Manhattan and its cheap rents. After the students became U.S. citizens, many sponsored their relatives for citizenship. Then, between 1975 and 1980, a large number of Indians swept into Flushing from the southern provinces of India and from East Africa, where Idi Amin had expelled them from Uganda in 1972. Indians began businesses in Queens with capital they had amassed from ventures in Uganda and Kenya or with loans from the State Bank of India, which has a branch on Main Street in Flushing.

Indians, however, do not perceive Flushing as their most important center of commerce in New York City. Parts of Jackson Heights, Queens, and Manhattan’s East Village have larger Indian communities; each has been dubbed "Little India." But Flushing has been the spiritual center for New York’s Hindus since the construction of a Hindu temple, the first in North America, in 1971. Fifteen thousand worshipers visit each month.

In the temple, women in colorful saris stand next to teenage girls in designer jeans and men in business suits, their foreheads decorated with red dots, representing wisdom, and ashes, reminding the faithful of the brevity of this life. Shirtless Brahmin priests show reverence by pouring buttermilk and orange juice on figurines of their deities. There are ornate images of Lord Ganesh, the temple’s elephant-headed "presiding deity"; Sri Brahma, the four headed "creator"; Lord Shiva, the "destroyer"; and Lord Vishnu, the "protector." Each Hindu chooses which god to pray to and brings the associated fruits and flowers. Downstairs, youngsters purchase comic books based on the ancient Indian epic The Mahabharata.

Like any house of worship, the temple has a social as well as a religious purpose. Indian children study math, Indian languages, music, and dance, and almost every other day a wedding is held. Parents arrange marriages for daughters at age 18 and sons at 21. Next door to the sanctuary, bulldozers are clearing away land for a banquet hall and community center.

As is common among recent immigrants, many of the Indians toiling away in Flushing arrived with a college education. Dinesh "Danny" Patel, for instance, came to America in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree from an Indian university and postgraduate credit from England’s London Polytechnic. For three years he worked at a New York accounting firm as a CPA, then gave it up to put in 72 hours a week at his card store on Union Turnpike. Why the shift from the office to the stockroom? "Independence," he answers without flinching.

Many of Flushing’s Indians own dry cleaning shops or gas stations, but the card store seems to have a special appeal to natives of the subcontinent. "A card store is only for American people," says another owner, Surinder Katsuria. "Indian people are not in the habit of buying cards for any occasion. Americans are helping me earn money for my lovely home."

As bloodshed increases in India among Hindus, Sikhs, and Moslems, immigration from the south Asian nation is likely to continue. But the hard edge of ethnic conflict has been dulled in Flushing, and India’s caste system is not observed. "In America, everyone’s making money," Katsuria explains. "No one’s thinking of violence."

Like other New Yorkers, the Asians in Flushing have their complaints: crime, higher commercial rents brought on by increased demand, and ill will from longtime residents who feel overtaken by the Asian surge. Chinese and Korean business associations are urging their members to list products in English, in response to an effort by Councilwoman Julia Harrison to pass a law that would require all merchants to display English-language as well as foreign signs.

The Asians brought some problems with them from their homelands. Flushing has youth gangs, a staple of Asian-American culture, and tongs, long-established fraternal organizations linked to organized crime. Owners of new restaurants have been visited by gang members seeking "lucky money" or inaugural extortion fees, and Asian landlords have unknowingly rented apartments to gang members before being forced to pay a monthly rate themselves.

Asian immigrants, frightened of both organized thugs and American authorities, have generally given in to gang demands. To break this pattern, Flushing’s 109th Precinct has assigned more Chinese- and Korean-speaking officers and may create a Gang Task Force similar to one that has enjoyed some success in Chinatown. Queens District Attorney Richard Brown has established an Asian Advisory Committee to coordinate his office’s efforts with those of the police precincts.

Like their counterparts around the city, small merchants in Flushing complain about poor municipal services and confusing and onerous regulations. These concerns have led Chinese, Korean, and other ethnic organizations to work together, staging street-cleaning campaigns and lobbying the city to clarify sanitation codes and Department of Consumer Affairs requirements. The business associations have provided merchants with literature about city regulations in their native languages. Asian political power is on the rise: Seven of the 48 members of Community Board 7, which includes downtown Flushing and Whitestone, are Asian.

The negatives notwithstanding, Asians have been an absolute boon to Flushing. Formerly foreboding blocks are now filled with welcoming restaurants and shops. New jobs have been created, and the tax base has risen. To their American neighborhoods, the immigrants bring a refreshing enthusiasm to excel at school and in business, and enviable ethics concerning family and community. The Asians are flourishing, as is their new community. "It’s so crowded and loud," exults Roger Raja, a lawyer from Madras, India, who settled in Flushing to be near the Hindu temple. "We have the feeling of home here."

 

 


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