One of Manhattan’s oldest civic groups, the Lee Family Association, is a six-story building on Mott Street that has helped countless Chinese immigrants.
The latest campaign: Makeover that begins with the movement of the mahjong table.
“It’s temporary, for the elders,” said Sonny Lee, 49, head of the group’s newly formed youth branch, overlooking a worn-out game set. He instead pointed to the new karaoke disco lights, pool tables and exercise bikes.
Lee, like many traditional Chinese associations based on family, profession, and region, needs new blood. The future of Chinatown, one of the few remaining working-class districts in Manhattan, may depend on replenishing the ranks of aging.
The importance of the group is related to their coveted real estate portfolio accumulated over decades to serve members of the Diaspora in China, from restaurant and shop owners to long-time low-income earners. ..
Although club membership has declined due to demographic changes in Chinatown, it remains one of the last breakwaters for gentrification in the Lower Manhattan area surrounded by luxurious developments.
The New York Times has identified at least 42 buildings owned by dozens of associations. This is a collection of commercial walk-ups and row houses that are home to numerous small businesses and tenants with stable rents of hundreds. The city estimates that it’s worth at least $ 93 million in total, but it’s probably two to three times more valuable in the open market.
While many groups have retained their property for decades, pandemics raise challenges such as rising taxes, unpaid rent, and increased maintenance costs that could force owners to sell. I am.
“Who will take over when we lose them?” Said Yang Lee, director of advocacy group New York’s small real estate owners. “It’s not another Chinese real estate owner. It’s probably a business entity.”
Fann Wong, 74, a former chairman of the local Wong Family Charity Association, said many groups are now taking time to come up with a turnaround plan.
“We are in a critical situation,” he said. “Unless we change, it will disappear in the next decade.”
“This area must be next”
Unlike wealthy areas like Soho and the Lower East Side section where real estate investors helped drive the wave of luxury development, Chinatown has been protected from most speculative transactions. This is partly due to longtime real estate owners, said Bob Knakal, chairman of New York Investment and Sales at JLL, a commercial real estate company.
“Many of the owners there don’t speak or pretend to speak English, so it’s very difficult to make a cold call to a real estate owner in Chinatown,” he said. “From a securities firm’s point of view, it’s one of the most difficult areas to break into.”
Michael Tortrici, executive vice president of commercial real estate agent Ariel Property Advisors, said zoning rules that support the concentration of low-rise and rent-controlled buildings have also discouraged investors. rice field.
Recent developments, including a luxury condominium tower approximately 850 feet high in nearby Toobridge, a low-income area, have tested price records and renewed interest in Chinatown.
“Before Covid, I always thought that this area had to be the next area,” Tortorici said.
Thomas Yu, leader of Asian-American equality in Chinatown’s housing and social welfare group, said no civic group has sold real estate for decades, but pressure is increasing. rice field.
“Some of them are sitting in 100-year-old buildings that require a lot of capital, but they don’t have deep pockets,” he said.
Changes in ownership of many small malls and apartments can be detrimental to landlords and tenants who have reduced rent during a pandemic.
The Ting’s Gift Shop on Doyers Street has had the same landlord since it opened over 60 years ago. The SunWei Association is a club headquartered above a store with members from the Guangdong district.
According to one of the owners, Eleanor Ting, the pandemic forced the store to close for six months, but the association decided to halve the $ 3,000 / month rent for the year it takes to recover. I agreed. Sun Wei’s building manager confirmed the arrangement.
“They are human about it-they are willing to work with us,” Ting said, adding that some nearby businesses were permanently closed due to inflexible landlords. I did.
Most associations rely on rent from commercial tenants simply to cover their costs. “The building is for the association, not the investment,” said Ericon, 72, a former accountant who also owns a fortune cookie and coffee business and is the former president of one of the most prominent regions, Hoisan Ninyoung. ) Says. group.
For most long-time members, property represents the sacrifice and labor of their predecessors, especially at home, and Justin Yu (76), the recent president of the China Integrated Charity Association (CCBA), said of many clubs. He said it was an affiliated organization. “They have a place to meet.”
During the pandemic, some groups became a lifeline in the neighborhood. CCBA hosted a food bank to coordinate coronavirus testing and vaccination. Some of its member groups have rallyed against the rise of anti-Asian violence throughout New York.
Some association headquarters remain an essential campaign suspension for candidates, including when Mayor Eric Adams was running. The group has also voiced opposition to the construction of new homeless shelters and local prisons as part of the city’s plans to replace the troubled Rikers detention center.
Origin of the association
The association began in the late 1800s, during a period of intense discrimination, to protect Chinese immigrants. A man who emigrated mainly to send money back to his family in China. American Chinese.
Many groups were formed as a result of laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The law effectively banned or restricted Chinese immigrants until 1965.
Connected by a common name, village of origin, or profession, the group acts as a de facto government, arbitrates disputes, collects fees, determines where businesses can be opened, lends money, and members. Helped me find a job.
Early immigrants were “not welcomed anywhere,” Lai said, “we had to create a sense of their own place and the rule of law.”
The Wong Association provided the space for Mr. Wong’s family, he said.
Think!, A non-profit community group! Amy Chin, Chinatown’s genealogy scholar and chairman of the board, says the spirit remains strong. “You can go there and eat,” she said. “Some of these family groups are always cooking rice cookers.”
Today, the association’s struggle is partly linked to changes in Chinatown’s demographics.
China’s population in New York City has increased by 60% since 2000 from 357,000 to 570,000, mainly outside Manhattan. In Chinatown, China’s population has declined by about one-third over the same period, from 51,000 to 34,000. Indeed, many association members no longer live in Chinatown.
Part of the decline is caused by high housing costs. According to the list website StreetEasy, the average asking rent for Chinatown in the first quarter of 2022 was $ 3,000 per month compared to $ 1,950 for Flushing, Queens’ Chinese hub.
At the same time, the features once provided by the association are increasingly being provided by Chinese-speaking social welfare and nonprofits. To the left of the traditional group I will appeal more to young people.
Chinese immigrants are also shifting. Most associations are run by Taishanese speakers, but many newcomers from areas like Fujian speak different dialects.
And there is a political division. In honor of Sun Yat-sen, a politician who gave a speech in support of the overthrow of the Qing dynasty in 1911, some associations still carry the flag of the Republic of China, the flag of Taiwan. However, some recent Chinese immigrants consider Taiwan to be a separate state.
Many associations are also selective about who they admit. Family groups limit membership to people with the same name. Regional associations require families to be in certain Chinese villages or districts. In most cases, approval from current members is required. Some groups have not yet offered full membership to women.
However, despite their dilapidated rolls, many groups are wary of relaxing the rules.
Takwon, 76, a former chairman of the Linshin Association, which owns a walk-up apartment with a souvenir shop on the ground floor on Mott Street, said new members may question the need to hold real estate. rice field.
“They have no passion for property,” Wong reiterated a common copy among long-time members of the association. “They wait until they get enough power to join and then vote’Let’s sell!'”
Some associations have adopted rules that make it difficult to sell or refinance real estate, including requiring the approval of most of the board. (In 2010, a New York state court canceled the transfer of the association’s assets as a fraud, and the association’s leaders sued each other over the rental agreement and the processing of payments.)
It’s a slow evolution, but some groups are trying to update their practices. In 2018, one of the largest groups in Taishanese, Hoy Sun Ning Yung, is the youngest and first American-born president, Raymond Tsang, a 38-year-old funeral director from Staten Island who does not speak Taishanese. Was elected.
He found that modernization of the group was a challenge. “We don’t even email,” Tsang said.
He also became president of CCBA in March, and one of his first actions was CCBA Twitter account..
Virginia Wong, a former New York City civil servant who has been active in Chinatown for a long time, became one of the first female members of the Wong Association a few years ago. Her first mission was more violent while she and others were talking about how to attract younger members: digitizing a musty membership list.
Still, maintaining the support of older members is very important. “I can’t say,’Oh, I want to do this or that,'” Wong said. “take time.”
After becoming chairman of the Lee Family Association in 2015, Long Island Healthcare Executive Wade Lee, 40, will replace the old elevator in the building or expand the pool of student grant recipients. He said he met resistance from older members about the seemingly simple proposal.
“Most of my ideas weren’t supported,” he said.
However, Li eventually won, and the group’s latest effort, the new youth branch with a refurbished clubroom, aims to attract like-minded young professionals, the new group said. Said Sonny Lee, 49, a chemist who leads the club.
“It’s like an incubator,” he said.
This group had already set up a “junior” committee. Average age: 60 years.
Kitty Bennett Contributed to the research.