Photo-Illustration: Lined; Photos: Getty
In the diaspora, they are called the gates of Chinatown; in China they are paifang or paila. They’ve appeared in most major American Chinatowns: an ornate gate that spans a road, inscribed with Chinese calligraphy and topped with a flared roof of golden tiles, a design believed to date back around 2,000 years.
But you won’t find any in New York. Manhattan’s Chinatown has never had one in its century and a half of existence. Neither Brooklyn’s Sunset Park nor Flushing, Queens, which are also Chinatowns in their own right. Not that New Yorkers haven’t tried. In the early 2000s, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, one of Chinatown’s oldest community organizations, tried to get one in Manhattan, and in the 2010s a group of locals tried to build a walkway “of friendship” on Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn with the support of Beijing. , even paying for then-borough president Eric Adams, visit china. But neither project took off, due to a mix of local red tape and long-running divisions within the immigrant community over proximity to the Chinese government, according to people familiar with the story.
Now a new effort is underway, this time with $2.5 million in funding from Governor Kathy Hochul’s office. It’s part of a roughly $20 million state grant for Manhattan’s Chinatown, out of a larger $700 million that Albany has given to downtowns across the state since 2017 in a program aimed at economic development and urban pedestrian potential. Longtime community leader Wellington Chen, who has been involved in efforts to build an arch in Chinatown since 2006, calls the paifang a kind of Chinese “totem pole” and says getting one would be a vital gesture of support from New York State. But not everyone in the neighborhood agrees — and this time the divide seems less geopolitical than generational.
There’s no denying that Manhattan’s Chinatown badly needs a boost: the once-thriving neighborhood has seen a steady exodus of Asian residents since 9/11 closed the area for months, and the subsequent impacts of the Hurricane Sandy, the pandemic, hate incidents, and rising rents have only accelerated the decline of the immigrant neighborhood. A recent study showed visits to the area halved between 2019 and 2021. This gave a sense of urgency to a committee of neighborhood leaders last year as they reviewed more than 100 grant proposals – from fixing the crumbling East Broadway Mall to opening an “influencer smart kitchen” that would make bubble tea using AI.
In the end, the local planning committee submitted 20 projects to the state’s downtown revitalization initiative, and the Hochul office narrowed that number down to 11 winners. Of the $20 million, the state gave about 80% of the money to the arch and other beautification-related projects — such as a proposal to add foliage and other “ capital improvements” to the Park Row pedestrian corridor, while only 13% of the funding went to expanding community services, such as a health and wellness centre, day care center and building renovation fund. Among the proposals rejected by the state: a small business training center, a performing arts center and a soup kitchen. A New York State Department spokesperson said its criteria included “alignment with national and local goals, project readiness, catalytic effect, and what could drive future investments, co- profits and profitability”.
But young members of the Chinatown community familiar with the grant process who spoke on condition of anonymity say the gate is a waste of money. “The arches were created as part of a strategy to make Chinatowns less intimidating to the Western visitor,” said a Chinatown resident in his mid-30s. “Manhattan’s Chinatown has established a deep-rooted heritage and arch-less cultural influence. Instead of funding this project, shouldn’t we make investments that would really help sustain and grow Chinatown? A neighborhood artist in his thirties agreed. “What exactly Chinese culture means is very datable, and instead of preserving a 2,000-year-old memory in Chinatown, I prefer to preserve something more tangible.” They mentioned their favorite bakery on Eldridge Street. “I just want to keep that instead of having a new arch.”
Chen, who co-chaired the local planning committee and has decades of criticism, dismissed the pushback as a kind of premature “culture of cancellation.” “Before we even start, they say, ‘Who needs it? We don’t need that, it’s orientalism. It’s decorative. Hello? You don’t even understand your own culture. He believes a gateway would attract much-needed tourists and help make the area more welcoming after the closure of Park Row, a road that was turned into a police checkpoint after 9/11. “Bin Laden is laughing in his grave,” he said. “He wanted to isolate us so that we lived in fear, and the only place he succeeded was Chinatown.”
Joanne Kwong, president of Pearl River Mart and a member of the planning committee, also thinks the arch will attract more people to the area. “As a business owner and as someone who grew up in the neighborhood, nothing was scarier than when no one was coming,” she said. “Some people might say an archway is a bit fancy, unnecessary, or expensive. But there’s no denying that it’s an easy tourist attraction. So if an archway helps get people into restaurants and shops, I’m Totally agree. “
While previous attempts to set up a Chinatown paifang collapsed due to political divisions within the community, Chen says he has unprecedented support from them this time. The allegiances that divide Chinatown run deep and vaguely reflect the opposing sides of China’s civil war: the 140-year-old Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) historically aligned itself with the defeated Kuomintang, which fled to form a new government in Taiwan, and he doesn’t often work with the Fukien Benevolent Association of America, an 80-year-old group that supports the ruling Chinese Communist Party in mainland China. But because funding for the gate comes from New York State, they avoided disputes over whether to seek help from a foreign government.
For many, it was time. At the last planning meeting last July, a group of local residents showed up to support the ark, holding signs in Chinese and English that read, “If not now, when?” Nolan Cheng, a lawyer on the board of the Chinatown Business Improvement District, held a stack of papers he said contained hundreds of signatures supporting the gateway. “The reason we want an ark is because we’ve been asking for it for decades,” he said.
Erica Allen-Kim, an architectural historian at the University of Toronto who has studied Chinatown arch projects across North America, said arch splitting is common in urban development, where beautification proposals are often opposed to less photogenic social projects. But since the power in business improvement districts “is really in the hands of the owners,” who invariably prefer the former, she says, “I’m not surprised the younger ones didn’t win.”
In the Chinatowns she studied, she also found that older generations do not view arches as frivolous. “From my conversations with them, they don’t think it’s stereotypical or Orientalizing,” she said. “They really feel that this type of architecture is an important part of their heritage.”
What remains now might be even more difficult: what the ark looks like and where it is built. Kim warned that there is no single arch design that is a “guaranteed win”. Some minimalist and modern arches, like those in Chicago and Los Angeles, have proven less popular with tourists, she noted. But that doesn’t mean an ornate is better. “There are other arches, like the one in Washington, DC, which is incredibly decorative, ornamental, traditional – but people laugh at that one, because there’s nothing left in DC’s Chinatown, so it feels like a bridge to nowhere.” The location of the arch is also generally controversial. “In New York, I think that’s where there’s going to be a lot of argument,” she said. “That’s probably going to lead to an interesting question about the boundaries and the official entry point to Chinatown. And what’s around it, because when you’re photographing it, it’s always about what it frames.
The New York Arch does not yet have a proposed design – the state’s announcement included a “renderingwhich appears to be a picture taken from Wikipedia of the traditional-style Philadelphia Chinatown gate. There’s also no confirmed location, although Councilman Chris Marte, whose district includes Chinatown, told me the most likely locations would be at the intersection of East Broadway and Pike Street. or at an intersection on Canal Street. The latter would require massive reach, increasing its cost and complicating the likelihood of approval by city agencies. At any location, an archway should be high enough to accommodate trucks or double-decker buses.
Marte acknowledged that he had heard mixed reviews about the ark. “There’s always a question of where else that money could have gone, especially since Chinatown is hurting and residents and small businesses need a lot more help,” he said. declared. “But the people who want to have it have been vocal and have been organizing and advocating for a long time. So I think the hope with that is now that it’s been awarded, that the arc can actually happen. And hopefully we won’t need additional resources to fix this.
For now, it looks like the Gate’s detractors will accept this happening, whether they like it or not. “We are not going to take to the streets to protest the arch,” said a resident in his 30s. “We just roll our eyes and know this is a misallocation of much needed funds.”