Cities December 2011

The End of Chinatown

Does China’s rise mean the end of one of America’s most storied ethnic enclaves?
David Leventi

As the manager of a Chinatown career center on Kearny Street in San Francisco, Winnie Yu has watched working-class clients come and go. Most of them, like Shen Ming Fa, have the makings of the quintessential Chinese American immigrant success story. Shen, who is 39, moved to San Francisco with his family last fall, an English-speaking future in mind for his 9-year-old daughter. His first stop was Chinatown, where he found an instant community and help with job and immigration problems.

But lately, Yu has been seeing a shift; rather than coming, her clients have been going—in pursuit of what might be called the Chinese Dream.

“Now the American Dream is broken,” Shen tells me one evening at the career center, his fingers drumming restlessly on the table; he speaks mostly in Mandarin, and Yu helps me translate. Shen has mostly been unemployed, picking up part-time work when he can find it. Back in China, he worked as a veterinarian and at a school of traditional Chinese culture. “In China, people live more comfortably: in a big house, with a good job. Life is definitely better there.” On his fingers, he counts out several people he knows who have gone back since he came to the United States. When I ask him if he thinks about returning to China, he glances at his daughter, who is sitting nearby, then looks me in the eye. “My daughter is thriving,” he says, carefully. “But I think about it every day.”

Recent years have seen stories of Chinese “sea turtles”—those who are educated overseas and migrate back to China—lured by Chinese-government incentives that include financial aid, cash bonuses, tax breaks, and housing assistance. In 2008, Shi Yigong, a molecular biologist at Princeton, turned down a prestigious $10 million research grant to return to China and become the dean of life sciences at Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “My postdocs are getting great offers,” says Robert H. Austin, a physics professor at Princeton.

But unskilled laborers are going back, too. Labor shortages in China have led to both higher wages and more options in where they can work. The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank, published a paper on China’s demography through 2030 that says thinking of migration as moving in just one direction is a mistake: the flows are actually much more dynamic. “Migration, the way we understand it in the U.S., is about people coming, staying, and dying in our country. The reality is that it has never been that way,” says the institute’s president, Demetrios Papademetriou. “Historically, over 50 percent of the people who came here in the first half of the 20th century left. In the second half, the return migration slowed down to 25, 30 percent. But today, when we talk about China, what you’re actually seeing is more people going back … This may still be a trickle, in terms of our data being able to capture it—there’s always going to be a lag time of a couple of years—but with the combination of bad labor conditions in the U.S. and sustained or better conditions back in China, increasing numbers of people will go home.”

Presented by

Bonnie Tsui is the author of American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods.

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