From The Far East To Flushing
And Growing In Number
Montefinise, Chen Hsiang-Shui
and John Kuo Wei Tchen
the first Chinese immigrants came to Queens in the late 1880s, they
were few in number, were almost all men, lived in Western Queens, and
focused their efforts on the laundry and wet washing industries.
herb stores can be found all over downtown Flushing selling similar
goods to the Chinese farmers who first settled here.
Photo by Ira Cohen
were farmers, like Shen Ho Joe, the first Chinese farmer in Queens as
documented by the New York Times.
to an article written in the late 1880s, Joe realized that there was a
market in the borough for exotic fruits and vegetables, and rented
several acres of land from an Astoria florist to grow Chinese produce.
sold bitter melon, white turnips, Chinese broccoli and hairy squash
with success in Chinatown, and was soon followed by five more Chinese
truck farmers who operated out of Astoria, the article said.
Chinese immigrants were somewhat successful, but they were small in
number, although an exact count is not available.
1920, Chinese people were placed into the category of “other” by
the United States Census, along with any other group that was not
“white” or “black.”
1900, there were only 153 “others” in Queens; in 1910, there were
152, and in 1920, there were 261.
a Chinese symbol for good luck, is often sold at shops in downtown
Flushing, along with sculptures
and plants that capture
a sense of the
Photo by Ira
these humble beginnings, Chinese immigrants have grown and prospered
in the City’s most diverse borough, owning thousands of businesses
in Queens and turning an economically deprived Flushing of the 1980s
into a thriving business epicenter in the 1990s.
2000 Census counted 139,820 Chinese people in Queens, making the
Chinese the largest Asian group in the borough.
elected their first councilman in 2001, have moved into the
professions, and have organized to become successful entrepreneurs.
have overcome exclusion acts, immigration quotas and racial
discrimination to succeed, and now they are giving back to the borough
in full force.
the 1880s to 1943, the number of Chinese people living and working in
Queens was small.
of them were from mainland China and were brought to the United States
as cheap labor, unable to bring their families with them.
Chinese people and signs line the streets of downtown Flushing,
Chinese stores offer a variety of Chinese goods, from produce to meat.
Photo by Ira Cohen
no education, the immigrants usually lived in Astoria and Long Island
City – close to Chinatown without the real estate prices of
Manhattan – and opened Chinese laundries and wet wash businesses.
to records from the time period, Chinese people would work 12, 16, and
sometimes 24 hour days at least six days a week to make money to
either send back to their families or save for the day that their
families would finally come to the United States. Some even lived in
their businesses to avoid paying rent.
number of Chinese immigrating to the United States remained small
until 1943, when The Chinese Exclusion Act, which kept America’s
doors closed to Chinese immigrants, was repealed and replaced with a
quota of 105 immigrants per year from both mainland China and Taiwan.
next generation of Chinese people in Flushing will be more
“Americanized,” according to Chinese leaders in Queens, who expect
the population to lessen, but prosper.
Photo by Ira Cohen
it was still difficult for mainland Chinese people to immigrate
because of the country’s government, so the full 105 people often
still did not get to America.
1946, the War Brides Act allowed Chinese Americans who fought in the
war to bring their wives to the United States, and they began working
in laundries and in factories to help make ends meet.
Chinese Americans began pooling their loan monies and opening large
wet wash factories in Long Island City, which employed hundreds of
Chinese Americans for extremely low pay.
hand washers protested a price increase by the wet wash ownership, and
in 1946, after a strike, formed the Wah Kiu Wet Wash in Queens
alliance, which kept prices down.
the 1950s, as more children came to the United States, they started
attending public school, including Newtown High School, which had a
handful of Chinese students. In 1964, the quotas on Chinese
immigration were increased to 20,000 immigrants per year from mainland
China and Taiwan.
End, Immigrants Move to Flushing
1965, the quotas on Chinese immigration were removed, and by 1970,
15,000 Chinese immigrants lived in Queens.
1980, there were 39,000 Chinese immigrants, most of them from Taiwan
and Hong Kong, according to Flushing Chinese Business Association
President Fred Fu, who moved to Manhattan from China 20 years ago and
moved to Flushing in 1985.
said there were only three Chinese restaurants in all of Flushing in
1980, and explained that economic downturn had made Flushing
unprofitable to chain stores, and decreased land values.
said, “There were no Chinese banks there. There were no businesses
there . . . Taiwan students who were here bought up the cheap land and
of Chinese restaurants can be found in Queens giving residents the
chance to sample exotic cuisine,
from the Szechuan to Dim Sum.
Photo by Ira Cohen
Bernadette Li of St. John’s University agreed, and added that
Chinese people chose Flushing because the land was cheaper than
Manhattan and the subway was easily accessible.
said, “Flushing had opportunity. It had cheap land and stores, and
it had the #7 line nearby. It would take people straight into
Manhattan, where a lot of them worked.” Fu added, “At that time, a
house in Flushing was $50,000. For new immigrants who can’t afford a
car or a big home, the subway and cheap land was a good deal.”
the Chinese moved into Flushing, there were many African Americans
there, Fu said, and added, “There were also some Japanese and
Koreans there. They mostly moved out . . . Chinese people wanted to be
comfortable. If they want to go out to eat, they want a Chinese
restaurant. I’m a travel agent, so Chinese people like to book trips
with a Chinese travel agent. Everything goes by the market, and at
that time, the market was open for Chinese businesses.”
1986, the economy of Flushing started to turn around, and there were
60,000 Chinese there – more than one-half of Queens’ Chinese
group didn’t stick to laundries or farming, but ventured into dozens
of professions, and many went to college.
the 1980s, Li also said that Chinese investors sent money to Flushing
because of the potential for growth, building up the area with
1989, there was a jump in immigration, according to Fu, who said the
United States government allowed any person with a Chinese passport
who was already in the United States to get their Green Card.
said, “In 1989, there was Tiannamen Square, and the government said
Chinese people couldn’t go back. So with a Green Card, people
brought their families here.”
in Large Numbers
the number of Asians increased in the nineties, so did their success.
is currently filled with Chinese signs and businesses, and major chain
stores are taking an interest in opening in the area. The Flushing
Mall opened in 2001, and members of the Flushing community are
currently exploring the possibility of making Flushing a Business
Improvement District (BID).
resident John Liu (left) shown here with (l-r) son Joey, wife Jenny
and chief of staff Ellen Young, became the City’s first Chinese
Councilman in 2001.
Photo by Stephen McGuire
there are still some vibrant Chinese communities in Ridgewood and Long
Island City, the Chinese mostly congregate in Flushing.
was in that area that controversy came to light in the 1990s, when
Councilwoman Julia Harrison was quoted in The New York Times as
making negative comments about Asians. Although she said she was taken
out of context, and was only talking about certain Chinese business
people, the Chinese community became angry and unified.
said the reaction in the Chinese community was mixed, but said,
“Everyone knew of it . . . It’s in the past now. Not important.
What’s important is that business is good in Flushing and we’re
addition to the mall and new business, Flushing has become a cultural
center, with the emergence of Flushing Town Hall and the International
Resource Center at the Flushing branch of the Queens Borough Public
Library. It is also the home of the Asian American Center at Queens
said Chinese people as a whole are becoming educated and “more
Americanized . . . . Chinese people focus on education. They send
their children to school and many succeed.”
added that Chinese people are adapting to American life.
“People that are born in the United States are American.
They’re not Chinese . . . They speak English, so they’re
American,” he explained, “In 50 years, no one will ask a Chinese
person, ‘When did you come to America?’ We will have few new
immigrants, but mostly Chinese Americans.”
merchants often sell goods
on the street, taking their products
straight to the customers.
Photo by Ira Cohen
gave an example of Flushing Councilman John Liu, who was elected in
2001 to be the New York City Council’s first Chinese member. “You
hear John Liu speak? He’s not Chinese,” Fu said, “He’s
American . . . We are growing here in the country.”
also said Flushing is a “first stop” for Chinese immigrants, and
said, “Flushing is expensive and so crowded. When people make money,
they move to New Jersey or Nassau County. Some are moving to Little
Neck and Douglaston . . . I think China’s economy is booming right
now, and we’re going to see many Chinese people go back to China. I
think we’ll see less immigration from there, too. Now I think
Chinese people in America will mostly be American, not from China.”