Last Season in Chinatown
On a warm, mid-October day in 2008, Danny Lee set out Oriental jewelry boxes close to the entrance of his store. Tourists filled the block, the backbone of New York City’s old Chinatown. Along this stretch of Mott Street, in between bubble-tea shops and Chinese restaurants, open-air storefronts teamed with kitschy, Chinatown souvenirs. Bright-colored robotic toy lion dancers blinked and squealed overlapping, disjointed tunes. Tourists bottlenecked around displays placed strategically on the sidewalk, enticing them linger and spend. Or so the vendors hoped.
Inside Lee’s 6-by-6-foot slice of the sidewalk in front of his store, J.S. Electronics, there was relative calm. The most eye-catching feature were bright green leafy coils of mini bamboos. The time was close to noon, and a young, Chinese teenage girl helped Lee transfer the bamboos from a bucket to a display tray filled with water. Customers wandered in and out of the store. He watched the merchandise outside, while his mother ran the cash register inside.
Next to bamboos, were the jewelry boxes on a table with glass doors that depicted a scene of a stork wading in a lagoon, constructed in finely carved bamboo. A sign exclaimed “final sale.”
Around the corner in Columbus Park, people practiced tai chi,played soccer. A woman sang Chinese opera. Her high, wavering notes projected through the speakers of a small, wheeled karaoke machine. Elderly sat on park benches listening. Children played staying close to chatty parents.
Markets displayed foam buckets full of blue-clawed crabs, fish with gaping mouths and black-shelled clams. Tables and baskets offered neat pyramids and rows baskets of bok choy, bitter melon, daikon, Chinese eggplant, and more. The sounds of a nearby lion dance rehearsal wafted over — rhythmic beating on hollowed, large drums, punctuated by bursts of crashing symbols. For those who came that day for a taste of the exotic, pulsing, authentic culture of Chinatown, it was served with flair.
Lee enjoyed the warmth and the crowds, knowing that days like this were becoming fewer with the economy beginning to sour. This was added to the fact that the neighborhood had yet to recover from the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Chinatown’s proximity to ground zero and police headquarters had led to closures of entire blocks of commerce and of streets, reducing the foot traffic that neighborhood vendors relied on. There were complaints and appeals made to the city but most were largely ignored, making many business owners like Lee wonder if New York City cared about Chinatown’s survival.
Lee’s store inhabited the small storefront at 71 Mott Street, and had been there for 40 years, passed down from his parents to him. Lee’s store originally sold vinyl records of Asian music and Zeniths, RCAs, SONYs electronics made in Japan. The name J.S. Electronicsstayed posted in yellow letters on the red awning outside despite the fact that it mutated into gift store, and then a flower shop. Lee was always quick to change or add merchandise to the store according to what he perceived as what was selling. His merchant’s instinct was usually right on.
Their store was the kind of place where people who knew the family for decades would slip inside and to the back to the use the bathroom, without even having to ask. The Lees, and their business, were part of the “old community” — a nook of lower Manhattan settled by the Cantonese Chinese. They became the major Asian ethnic group in New York, with their numbers climbing in New York in the 60s and 70s.
For J.S. Electronics and the Lees, being part of the old community, meant that on some days, a sack of rice sat near the counter, waiting to be retrieved by a friend or neighbor who couldn’t carry it around all day. Throughout the day, people of the generation of Lee’s parents would come in to chat, to pay back borrowed money, or share a few stories and laughs. Lee engaged the old-time visitors like they belonged in the store, as if he was waiting to pick up where he had left off in an on-going conversation.
One lucky bamboo plant sold. The jewelry boxes stayed put. Lee took the ups and downs of the market as a game of chance. If he didn’t make profit this year, usually he just assumed that he’d make it up the next year. But, the past few years had seen more downs than ups.
He was at least grateful that the parking agents seemed to have let up a little that day. A double-parked car sat in front of his store. On any other day it seemed that agents would descend on it, writing ticket with the driver waiting in the car. The chronic lack of parking and the subsequent steady stream of parking tickets were minor but made business harder for merchants like Lee.
That day he tried shaking off the notion that any more setbacks might be one too many. Not only was the survival of his family’s store unclear, but the future of Chinatown as he had always known it, seemed in limbo, as well.
* * * *
About a year later, on Columbus Day 2009, a blue sign hung in the window of Danny Lee’s store window that read “closing out sale.” The fate of his family’s business had become truly bleak and the store was slipping out of his hands.
Lee was inside the store with his family for the three-day holiday weekend. In Chinatown, like elsewhere, shopping sales days were key. Lee’s 70 year-old mother, a calm retiree smiled easily and helped ring up customers on the cash register, as she had for decades. Even though both of Danny’s parents owned the store, his mother had been the primary storekeeper since its doors opened in 1968. After her husband passed away in 2006, she continued to run the store until retiring last year. She spoke little English, but in New York’s Chinatown, that was common and there were ways to work around it. She helped her son any way she could.
Lee’s grandmother gazed towards the door stone-faced and silent, her wiry frame bent on a chair. She hailed from a rural part of China, born to farmers. She had taken care of Lee as a child when the store opened.
He was born in New York in the 1960’s during a time when Chinatown was an impenetrable ethnic enclave, a Chinese ghetto, in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge. It was part of a historic area known for its tenements filled with poor immigrants who worked in garment factories and restaurants. As if to underscore the isolation, the city’s public transportation infrastructure skirted around the area — an issue that still plagued the area by 2009.
The sky was overcast gray, but that didn’t keep the sidewalks from buzzing with activity. A few customers came inside and glanced over the shelves packed with items like porcelain figurines, Oriental tea sets, glazed pots blooming with lucky bamboos. Like many store owners on this stretch of Chinatown, Lee knew that every inch of store space counted. Calculations ran through his head, as they did often. He knew that each square foot had to earn $40 a day just to cover the cost of rent. To make a profit, each square foot filled with Oriental figures, vases, mugs needed to earn $45 a day. Most items sold for $10 to $20. A steady flow of customers willing to spend a few bucks could have made the formula work.
A European couple shuffled in and out without spending a dime. A red-faced woman with a platinum blonde ponytail came in and asked if he had dishes that matched a small, pink teacup. Lee shook his head, a glint of remorse in his eyes. There wasn’t a chance that he could order the dish set that she wanted. No new inventory, just trying to move it all out,he thought.
A Chinese family came in and bought small ornamental dolls, lured in by the outside display’s sale sign, “2 for the price of 1” — $6 or the price of a snack.
Based on the mathematics, you tell me how you survive?Lee thought. A half dozen customers passed through, and one $6 dollar sale. He knew he had a long way to go to squeeze $45 dollars out of each square foot, to make $400 dollars worth of sales a day.
A Central American man entered carefully, implored Lee in halting English. He was looking for a kind of spiritual ball for the bath, to sooth a colicky baby. He was sent on a mission by his wife, and said he didn’t really know what he was looking for. Danny understood what he meant but didn’t know where to buy it. He explained vaguely that the baby shouldn’t sleep with its head to the north. The man apologized for asking and slipped out. The bell dinged once as the door closed.
Later, a young, white man in outdoorsy clothes popped in and asked Danny about where he could get a memory chip for his camera. “Two blocks down, Duane Read, “ Lee said.
With a thumbs-up, nod, and a “good man,” the young man popped out.
Lee was used to functioning as a cultural broker between the tourists and Chinatown. The area depended on outsiders driving in from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and, more recently, those who came for the favorable exchange rate of euros. Raised in a family of importers and exporters, Lee had a natural gift for knowing what people wanted and where to find it.
Increasingly, however, it seemed like Chinatown was becoming a harder place to find what people wanted. The last few years saw changes in the commercial landscape: banks and high-end merchandise started to compete with ethnic Chinese stores, touristy souvenir shops or for niche, wholesale markets of industrial goods.
Earlier that June 2009, Lee learned that his store was the next one to be replaced. The verbal assurances he got from his landlord that his commercial lease would be renewed, he realized, didn’t mean much. Since October of 2008, he had a feeling that the landlord wanted to raise the price after the landlord spoke to him about how bad the economy had gotten. Then, the following month, the stock market crashed, and January property tax shot up 7 percent.
He noticed more residential and commercial vacancies, too. Lee started to plot what he would do if his lease wasn’t renewed, where and how he would store his merchandise in the small warehouse space.
Then on May 20th, 2009 a few of his father’s old friends called Lee and told him that someone else had just closed on a lease for the commercial property at 71 Mott Street. They told him that he needed to be careful and to watch out.
On June 1st, the property management offered gave Lee the terms of a renewal, with a rental price that amounted to more than double what he used to pay. From $3,000 a month, the landlord now wanted $8,000. Adding in other monthly expenses, Lee knew that it would really cost him $12,000. The offer came last-minute from the property management, at midnight, not leaving any time for Lee to negotiate or borrow money. The only way he could save his lease was matching the price. Really, it was already a sealed deal.
He spoke to other business owners on the block and all were astounded at the price the landlord asked for, considering the space was so small. The restaurants next door and across the street were three to four times as large as Lee’s store — and they were paying the price that Lee’s landlord wanted. The asked him, how was he going to survive?They were much bigger and still struggled to pay the rent.
Lee finally came face to face with the person that had out-priced him on the commercial lease. In June, a young man had come into his store, flashed a new lease with the landlord’s signature at the bottom, and demanded that Lee hand over the keys.
“Do you know where you are?”Lee asked the young man, who looked back at him, unsure of what to say. From his mannerisms and accent, Lee believed that the young man was an undocumented Fujianese immigrant.
“This is not how you do business here in the US,” he told the young man. “This is not China.”
But Lee knew better. This was exactly how business was done in Chinatown. It was where bribes of thousands of dollars, called key money, made it possible for anyone to open a store. Backed by ethnic or family associations the undocumented were able to vie for a piece of the action, too as officials often turned the other cheek.
Another woman, with brightly dyed crimson colored hair and matching glasses came in and asked for a mandarin orange tree. His lucky bamboos weren’t lucky enough to depart with her. “Walk down Mott, turn left.”
So the day went. Despite a mind full of calculations, he had yet to find the golden formula. Lee knew he wasn’t the only one barely scraping by, making around $30,000 dollars a year. He knew that many of the small mom-and-pop stores like his had leases due to expire in three or four years. Then, huge banners advertizing office space would fill the vacuum, and hang in old, iconic Chinatown buildings. Rental prices in New York City only go one direction and after those stores went out, Lee felt that Old Chinatown would be going out with them.
Lee closed up by 3 PM. Customers weren’t spending, and he had work to do, like moving the merchandise to storage in Queens, banking and meeting with his lawyer — a friend of the family — in an effort to delay his eviction. He knew he had to leave, but Lee just needed time.
* * * *
On October 25th, a few weeks later, Lee did not know how much longer he could fend off the eviction. Lee and an older man rearranged the items in the store, so that whenever the impending day arrived that the landlord would insist that he had to leave, everything would be within hand’s reach for easy packing.
“So then I can do it,” he explained to his friend. Boom, he said with a sweep of his hand: he would have to be quick and efficient. “You know, I’m a one-man show.”
The man was Chinese American with paint splatters on his pants. He perched on top of a ladder and replaced a blackened changed fluorescent tube for a new one. Then the two men moved around boxes and rearranged white, porcelain figures of Kun Yum — a deity that resembles Virgin Mary statues with a long, draping veil and Asian features. From their high perch on top of a display case overlooking the store and facing the door, four Kun Yum statues came down — the older man passing them gently to Lee. The two men moved around white and blue bamboo potters and tall round vases along the adjacent wall to fit the statues.
The man left and a few minutes passed before a Dominican woman walked into Lee’s store. In her hand was a magazine clipping that she showed Danny, asking where she might find a similar decorative ring that wrapped around a fork or spoon.
“It’s not that type of market,” Lee explained to her. “More like a wedding market. Try JCPenny’s. Try Hallmark.”
She said that she thought she saw something similar in Chinatown. Danny knew why, and explained that Grand Street used to be where the stores were packed with merchandise and accessories for special occasions.
“But it all faded out,” he said. “Forget about Chinatown. You’re going to drive yourself crazy, I can tell you off the bat.”
It seemed that Lee was coming to that conclusion more and more, as Chinatown transformed from one kind of market to another.
The sunny, brisk day proved better than Columbus Day for shoppers because friends — past residents of Chinatown — drove up from Washington D.C. to do some Christmas shopping. They were customers since his parents ran the story. They had moved to DC — part of trend that Danny saw often, resulting in smaller Chinatowns that sprang up around other cities, draining out of the original one, mostly because it had become too expensive.
A young woman in her 20s, a spry, white-haired mother, and a father who looked well past retirement age all gathered in Danny’s store, smiling and speaking warmly with Danny in Cantonese. The mother eyed the Oriental jewelry boxes, up for final sale. She opened and closed the glass doors and drawer. The small drawer jammed.
“That’s just the sample,” Danny told her and then pulled out a fading, withered box with the same model protected inside. On this one, the drawer slid smoothly. He told her they were from 1976 and she decided to buy three of them — for her daughter, sister and one for herself. “Just stocking up early,”she said to Danny and her daughter.
She laid out three crisp 20-dollar bills and Danny took just two of them — charging her for the price of two.
Then the father came in from outside, and told Danny that he wanted to buy the pair of Chinese porcelain lion statues. They were the size of a small dog, in a rusted red glaze and covered with a pattern of gold-leaf, round Chinese symbols for luck. The daughter said that they looked old but Danny said that the rusted color was original hadn’t faded at all since they were from an era when such things were made with quality.
“Giuliani era,” Lee said smiling. The young woman rolled her eyes but smiled, resigned to the fact that her parents were determined to get her a traditional Chinese wedding gift. Under her breath she said that they would look out of place in their modernly decorated apartment. The price was $128 dollars but Lee charged them $100.
The mother said it was sad to see him go — their store was a symbol of the Chinatown of their past and the reasons they made the 4-hour trip by car. With bags full of large items, they promised a visit soon before he closed for good. The door closed after them, with a ding of the bell.
Once in blue moon.That’s how often Lee knew that the families that loyally shopped at his store turned up, and bought harder-to-come by items that the he kept in old, dusty boxes from past decades.
Lee had watched these customers come ever since he was a 9 year-old running the cash register, attending P.S. 23 a few blocks over from the store (and now the Museum of Chinese Americans). There, Chinese American kids outnumbered the Italians.
His junior high school was more racially mixed with mostly white and black kids, but he still hung out mostly with other Asians. He learned to speak Cantonese from them.
The fact that Lee is more fluent in Cantonese than his English is one of the reasons Lee described himself as all mixed-up. Half-way between Asian and Western, he translated for people like him who never left Chinatown. He was born and raised in New York City all his life, but in a neighborhood so thoroughly isolated from mainstream culture, that people often assume he’s emigrated from China.
Far from the tourist information pagoda on a concrete triangle island abutting Canal Street of Chinatown 2009, the neighborhood was a dangerous ghetto in the 70s and 80s. Lee remembered the 1976 national bicentennial, when he with friends in Queens when a car drove by, and shots were fired in his direction. He remembered weekly funerals of boys and girls. Every single block in Chinatown was somebody else’s turf. For awhile, Lee was left alone because his grandfather was a veteran of the 1949 Chinese-Japanese civil war and gangsters respected him. But it wasn’t long before gangs wanted Lee to choose sides. Knowing that joining, or not joining a gang was a death sentence, Lee went to high school for a year in Memphis, Tennessee and lived with relatives.
What Lee also remembered, with nostalgia, was the order that used to exist back then. Every few blocks had one candy store and one barbershop. It was a time period when ethnic and family associations in Chinatown, acting as small neighborhood lawmakers and enforcers, struck deals with Chinese gangsters — in the absence of trustworthy police force. A kind of mafia propped up the social order, allotting everyone a place and protection. Small businesses thrived. In the days of his parents, the store was profitable. It was the only gift store on the block. It was a time when pizza cost 50 cents and tokens for the subway were a dime. Chinatown looked after Chinatown. Lee saw the mafia-like arrangement as acceptable.
Then, Giuliani cleaned up the corruption, and in Lee’s eyes, that was when Chinatown began to come apart at the seams. What he perceived these days was in stark contrast to the order that once existed. Business in Chinatown was crumbling and all the mom-and-pop stores were being out-priced by new businesses that simply aimed to undercut the next one. There was an unchecked flow of immigrants from China who didn’t know or understand the old order, or laws he thought. In his eyes, this created a Chinatown rife with lawlessness and disorder, and even worse: no one was invested in making sure Chinatown thrived. The practice of key money added a sense of irresponsible greed and that everything was being thrown away for making a buck. All these things, Lee thought, were slowly bleeding the life out of Chinatown.
* * * *
On Friday, November 6th, Lee was outside of his store when he got an offer. The owner next door, of Singapore Cafe was outside, and struck up a conversation with Lee. Rocky, a Malaysian man in his fifties was also there. Rocky was a martial arts instructor, and five years ago, he started extracurricular training for 13- and 14-year-olds in the art of dragon and lion dance. His team, known as the New York United Lion & Dragon Dance Troupe, performed at and won many competitions.
Rocky asked Lee to help him promote the troupe. A local family association had been housing Rocky’s team, giving space for rehearsals, and for storing their instruments, costumes and props.
“They want the lion dance, but they want it for free,” Rocky told Lee. He said that he was thinking of giving up on it because for the last five years he had been covering the costs of transporting the troupe, feeding them, buying the costumes and the props — all out of his own pocket. Rocky felt that they needed to find a way to support themselves, and instead of performing for free, the troupe could charge. He knew that Lee had a mind for business, was fluent in how Chinatown worked, and the rest of New York.
“ I can’t answer nothing until this gate goes down and I lock this door,” Lee responded. He knew that troupe was good. Every Lunar New Year, Lee watched the huge lion puppets dance and balance on elevated poles, making the crowd gasp and he had a lot of respect for what Rocky did by teaching the kids that the pure, traditional form of lion and dragon dance. “ Lee had seen enough of what he thought as bogus troupes bang around on cymbals and jump around in elaborate lion costumes, but not know what they were really doing.
Lee told Rocky not to give up. “Let me close up the store and let me think about it,” he said.
Lee saw the potential of the troupe — Chinese American teens who commuted in from Brooklyn and Queens every weekend to train. As a kid, he had Lee watched a lot of Jackie Chan, and loved martial arts. In his mind, the art of the lion and dragon dance had disappeared, until Rocky had come along. He liked that Rocky was teaching young people the traditional art, music and discipline. Most troupes were made of adults, so he felt that this group had exceptional talent, energy and potential.
Lee had heard one of the lion and dragon schools shutting down on Canal Street a few months before November. It was one of the original ones but Lee thought that its purpose had long ago been corrupted. Although the man who started it was the first to bring the artform to Chinatown, more than half a decade ago, the training got away from him. In the 70s and 80s the students became street fighters, involved in the gangs that subjected the community to bloody turf wars.
He pushed the thought to the back of his mind, knowing he the store to think about first. He could only muster one battle at a time.
But, like Rocky’s battle, similar forces were at play. Lee spent much of his energy trying to figure out formulas for serving up and selling what people wanted in Chinatown. These days, few were willing to pay for it.
* * * *
In the first week of November, Lee spent half of most days moving his inventory to a warehouse in Queens, using his car to ship things pile, by pile, box by box so that he would avoid renting a moving van. If he didn’t he feared that he would have to leave everything behind.
But, he was slowed down when his grandmother got sick, preventing him from working and moving as quickly as he could. He felt a weight on him, like a brick. He questioned the timeliness of her sickness and felt like it was his turn that fate had dealt him a bad card, and it wasn’t just a coincidence that it seemed that everything was stacked against him.
By the second week, on Monday, November 9th, Lee received the eviction notice from the court marshal. Lee’s hope to make it through Thanksgiving came up short. The landlord couldn’t wait anymore. The new business owner didn’t want to wait anymore. The landlord said told Lee that he wanted no trace of him by Thursday. Lee’s lawyer pushed back and said his client had a full week to vacate the premises.
That Wednesday was the last day J.S. Electronics was open for business. The day was sunny, and customers circulated. Few sales.
The following two days rained. Bit by bit for the past few months, Lee had been packing and moving his merchandise to Queens, plotting how to make it all fit. Now, with the store now closed, Lee he picked up the pace, filling his car with boxes and making multiple trips a day. His mother wrapped the remaining items in newspaper, putting them in boxes. His grandmother helped with what she could, moving slowly and deliberately around the store.
Friday had sun and Lee was doing the final push working at a feverish pace. That afternoon he rented a 14-passenger van and transported the bulk of his inventory to Queens. He returned to the store, stayed up all night, and kept packing.
By Sunday, twenty or so boxes were left. The shelves were missing, leaving marks on the now bare walls. The porcelain vases, Kin Yum statues, figurines were gone. The lucky bamboos were gone. The older man returned that day, and another Chinese woman showed up in the afternoon, also to lend a hand.
Lee was supposed to be out by midnight. But no one was there to push him out. His friends had long since left him alone in the store. He filled his car with the last items. At 3 AM he turned the lock to the glass storefront door for the last time. He put the remainder in storage, went home and went to sleep for the first time in the last four days.
* * * *
Two weeks after he closed his shop, on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, Danny Lee saw Rocky’s troupe make Mott Street their impromptu stage again. It took Lee five minutes to see their marketability. He imagined himself arranging performances at birthday parties, and festivals. There would be CDs and DVDs. He envisioned gigs at the Museum of Chinese Americans, a step up at the Asia Society uptown on Lexington Avenue. And then, Washington D.C.
His mind was spinning with what ifsas he watched the young lion dancers leap and twirl, lighting up the holiday crowd. Far from his mind was the closing of the store. He wasn’t sentimental about it, and really neither was his mother. To them, the end of an era, when Chinatown was a viable commercial center had passed its prime a long while ago. Both knew that Lee had to find something else.
Far from his mind also was the demise of Chinatown. It was indeed changing, and would continue to push store owners like him out, as it had been doing ever since 2001.
But in that moment, Lee’s mind was made up about what he wanted to do, drums beating, cymbals crashing.