Leong discusses gentrification of Chinatowns

Associate Professor in the College of Public and Community Service at University of Massachusetts Boston Andrew Leong spoke about gentrification of Chinatowns around the world last night in Braker Hall.

The presentation was hosted by Tufts Asian American Alliance and featured information from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund’s recent report called, “Chinatown Then and Now: Gentrification in Boston, New York and Philadelphia.” Leong was one of four authors who worked on the report.

Leong began his lecture by introducing background information about historical changes in Chinatowns. He read feedback about a tour of Chinatown, given to him by one of his students, to offer a living example of how locals observe change. “‘I do think Chinatown is trying to become more modern, but I also think that the community is trying to retain its past and culture,’” Leong read.

According to Leong, gentrification of Chinatowns is happening everywhere — even within Asia.

“When I go back [to China], I see the same issue happens in Hong Kong, in Shanghai, in Beijing where communities are just wiped out overnight,” Leong said. “And then boom, skyscrapers come out of nowhere. We are talking about communities in Beijing that have existed for centuries, all of a sudden, wiped out just like that.”

In understanding these changes, people must first wonder why Chinatowns are important, Leong said. To answer this question, Leong described their long histories.

Many Chinatowns were built partly as a reaction to anti-Chinese movements on the West Coast and partly to fulfill a need for cheap labor. At the time, racism toward Chinese was very prevalent. Leong described acts of violence against Chinese immigrants, such as the Rock Springs massacre of 1885.

“There were quite a few people that were actually killed,” he said. “There were some arguments that happened and then you had about 650 to 700 Chinese that were basically evicted overnight.”

Leong also spoke about the once-prospering adult entertainment scene in Chinatown. When no other neighborhood wanted to host adult entertainment, Chinatown adopted it, Leong said. Business owners profited in the short-term, but the money came at a cost. Drugs, prostitution and crime came with the adult entertainment industry.

“I recall when I was going to law school, a couple of decades ago, when we finish[ed] studying we would go to Chinatown at one in the morning,” Leong said. “We would be eating in the restaurant, but we would be sitting next to johns, prostitutes and pimps. What the business owners didn’t realize, or didn’t want to realize, was that with the short term profit you would also have to take the long term cost — the social cost that is associated.”

Despite the rise in crime, Chinatowns did not receive more attention from police or social aid programs.

Leong also remarked on Chinatown buildings and the ways that cities have allowed Chinatowns to become overdeveloped.

“It’s city hall that says, ‘We allow adult entertainment here in this particular area,’ but it’s also city hall that gives the exemptions for developers to build above and beyond the height limit,” he said.

At this point, Leong said, the exception has become the rule in terms of the number of floors that developers are allowed to add to buildings.

According to Leong, the white populations in Chinatowns are growing.

“The land in Chinatown has now become desirable, whereas at one point [in] time it was not,” he said. “Now all of a sudden, after decades living in this community, it is white flight back into the city.”

Leong ended his lecture with a reminder about the importance of historical context.

“We need to back up and say, ‘What’s our history?’” And we see some of the different issues that we are struggling with even today [were] back then much more prominent,” he said. “We see community health. We see [English as a second language] classes, we see storytelling here. We see community guard in here. We see struggles for housing and civil rights…Every distinctive city [has] its very special history.”