2022 Scholarship Winner: Sharon Liu
Describe an event in Asian American history that parallels what we are seeing today with anti-Asian hate crimes.
Our Rock Against the Current
As I walked past Hong Kong Supermarket, hand in hand with my mom, the cha-ching of cash registers, the peculiar smell of fishmonger uncles, and the quiet buzz of overpacked freezers, all cascaded into my seven-year-old body. A decade later, my feet walk the same path, feeling like time hasn’t passed. The voices of the cashiers carry the same spirit they did years ago. The street is still packed with produce boxes, so much so that walking on the road is my best bet. I smile, satisfied that despite life’s roller coaster, at least the supermarket is a constant. I long to freeze Chinatown in time, like a rock in a flowing river, because I treasure the security it brings me. Nonetheless, the standing rock erodes as the water carries away a seemingly trivial amount of sediment until that rock is no more. I fear this for Chinatown. The thought of this intimate enclave suffering the same fate digs a hole in my heart.
Chinese-American immigrants first stepped foot in California, where they labored in unspeakable conditions and faced equally worse treatment from their non-Chinese counterparts. Mass lynchings and blatant racism reduced Chinese presence into San Francisco’s Chinatown. Unfortunately, being along the San Andreas Fault also meant destructive earthquakes. And what’s the most a family, undocumented and “permanent aliens,” struggling to make ends meet could do against Mother Nature? So when the great earthquake of 1906 brought ruins and fires, Chinatown was at a complete loss. The small businesses, opium dens, and tong houses reduced to ashes, literally. The most disheartening part of this was that city officials, who had been pushing for replacing Chinatown with a profitable business district, rejoiced at this. Nature did step one of demolishing the Chinese vice.
Luckily, Chinatown put up a fight. The neighborhood was valuable for merchant relations with China, buying them some time. Through rigorous crowdfunding and rebuilding, they revamped the image of the 16 square blocks of ruins. What used to be a heavily avoided zone became a bustling tourist attraction. Visitors quickly marveled at the new pagoda roofs and bright red decorations. Although such designs weren’t true to 1906 Chinese architecture, maybe adhering to the white lens of Chinese culture was necessary to save Chinatown.
Just down the stream, a newer rock strives to endure: Manhattan’s Chinatown. Tourists, immigrants, and families of many generations share this neighborhood. Like that of San Francisco, Manhattan’s Chinatown has suffered a long history of discrimination to the point of seeking safety within these blocks. COVID-19 only exacerbated the brewing hate. Not only did we endure countless physical hate crimes, the psychological turmoil from implicit racism was just as damaging. People avoided Chinatown like they did in California before the earthquake. What used to be tourist-filled streets became deserted businesses facing eviction. As we slowly recover from the pandemic, a proposal from 2017 manifests into reality. A multi-billion dollar plan to replace the current detention complexes, “The Tombs,” with a 40-story mega jail calls for the relocation of Chinatown residents and businesses. The city sees this through the lens of a greater jail system in the coming decades, like how California saw potential in a growing
business district. It’s ironic how Chinatown is so conveniently placed at their disposal in both instances.
Yesterday, I ordered takeout from Thai Son, across the street from the detention complex. Newly built construction fences now bordered The Tombs. As I walked out of the restaurant, bitterness and sadness boiled into an angry soup. This anger simmered into a screen of reflection. Though this plan had been developing since 2017, it took advantage of these recent vulnerable years for Chinatown to mobilize. The pattern of discrimation to hate crimes to relocation flows almost too perfectly. The relocation of businesses only foreshadows a similar future for the rest of Chinatown. With the unpleasant construction, many residents, all equally vital to Chinatown, are bound to relocate for better living conditions. After all, who wants to live in a cloud of construction waste?
I fear that in a few decades, my Chinatown will suffer a different fate than that of San Francisco. My gut tells me that we too will win. If it takes another visual revolution of Chinatown, so be it. But still, I fear for us. When I have my own family, I want to walk through the Chinatown that I grew up in and show my children my favorite restaurants, stationary stores, even my doctor’s office. When we walk along the streets of Mott, Doyer, and Pell, I pray that our eyes won’t be greeted by sleek high-rises. I pray that our rock is able to withstand the strong current for many years to come.