Posted on November 10, 2011

The End of Chinatown

Bonnie Tsui, The Atlantic, December 2011

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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.”

In the past five years, the number of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. has been on the decline, from a peak of 87,307 in 2006 to 70,863 in 2010. Because Chinatowns are where working-class immigrants have traditionally gathered for support, the rise of China–and the slowing of immigrant flows–all but ensures the end of Chinatowns.

Smaller Chinatowns have been fading for years–just look at Washington, D.C., where Chinatown is down to a few blocks marked by an ornate welcome gate and populated mostly by chains like Starbucks and Hooters, with signs in Chinese. But now the Chinatowns in San Francisco and New York are depopulating, becoming less residential and more service-oriented. {snip}

The exodus from Chinatown is happening partly because the working class is getting priced out of this traditional community and heading to the “ethnoburbs”; development continues to push residents out of the neighborhood and into other, secondary enclaves like Flushing, Queens, in New York. {snip}

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