After moving to Sunset Park last August it wasn’t long before I noticed the white passenger vans flitting around dropping Chinese people off individually at various places along 7th Avenue. Soon I learned there were private van lines connecting the three main Chinatowns in Manhattan, Flushing and Sunset Park. These companies filled a need for Chinese immigrants to get back and forth to work safely, especially late at night. The sociologist in me was intrigued, but as a regular person I felt envious of a convenience I assumed I was excluded from somehow as an outsider.
Being a non-Chinese speaker I thought I might be greeted with incomprehension or suspicion if I walked up to one of these vans and asked where it was going. I had a vague feeling these private van lines might be reluctant to let on a pampered, possibly litigious non-Chinese U.S. citizen. Then there was just general shyness and not wanting to look stupid, some of the same tendencies that keep language and cultural barriers in place in general.
It was only when Open City made transportation the topic for April that I was essentially shamed into following through on my curiosity about the inter-Chinatown vans. Last Thursday MOCA held a “town hall” panel discussion called CHINATOWN 2.0—BRINGING CHINATOWN INTO THE FUTURE (new post on this coming soon). It felt appropriate to be taking this little step of integration to attend an event that promised to explore “what Chinatown means today, how it’s evolving, and how to ensure it can rebound and thrive for generations to come.”
I felt compelled to snap a picture of my Taiwanese American in-laws and wife taking care of our 9-week-old son as I set out to catch the van. My own hybrid identity can be summed up as a Japanese-Austrian-English American native New Yorker. On May 7 Peggy Lee interviewed me at the oral history open house and I had a chance to reflect on how Chinatown, once a place I traipsed through all the time but never thought about, has steadily moved into the foreground of my consciousness, as it has for many Asian Americans, since September 11. In my sociology research I’m seeking a coherent understanding of the ways the dynamic social reality of the urban enclave of Chinatown both infuses and transcends the physical space it occupies.
I walked to 8th avenue and 51st Street and found a white van waiting, almost full. The signage on the door was all in Chinese so I had no clue where this one was going. I asked the guy sitting in the passenger street if he could direct me to the bus to Manhattan Chinatown and he said that was it. I climbed in and when I hesitated over where to sit the driver said “take a seat” and cleared some items off of the most uncomfortable-looking seat, the left-most one right up against the driver’s seat, crammed in with a youngish male passenger who had to get up.
I realized this was not a good seat from an observational standpoint: I had to ostentatiously turn my head towards the passenger four inches to my right to quickly survey the other passengers without appearing to stare at them. Quickly I estimated six males and three females, who appeared to be Chinese and ranging from 20s to middle age. The youngest-looking woman looked dressed as if she might be going out, the rest were plainly dressed. Many of them slept for at least part of the ride.
There were letter-sized posters taped to the windows, apparently printed from a home computer, in color and black and white. Most appeared to be ads; the only English words I saw were “Eldridge Street,” on a color poster showing a woman playing pool. Another poster on white printer paper evidently said the fare had gone up to $2.50 as of 3/31/11.
Considering it was rush hour, we got to Manhattan Chinatown pretty quickly, in half an hour. It stopped right by the entrance of the Manhattan bridge. Everyone paid their fare, getting a brown business card for the company (again, all-Chinese), and clambered off. I asked where to get the van back, he said it would be at East Broadway and Market. Neither the driver nor the man in the passenger seat had any problem with English at least as far as those brief conversations went.
I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer to try taking the inter-Chinatown van! It was so easy, the experience itself didn’t give me much to ponder until I looked for writing elsewhere on the subject. The most resonant article I saw was written in 2005 by Loretta Chao (who now works for the Wall Street Journal). Chao imparts the grueling challenge the van owner-drivers face in making a living, as well as violent “bus wars” between companies that resulted in a string of murders in 2003.
At the Chinatown 2.0 town hall, the same themes of vulnerability and struggle overshadowed the discussion. What for me was a short trip was made cheap and convenient by the disparities of the enclave economy, just like the $4.50 Banh Mi sandwiches I can get down the street from where I live. My destination was a stopping point where I could gather with a community trying to overcome the social distances between successive generations, to close the circuit of globalization made local in Chinatown.