Life and Death in Chinatown

by

11/22/2020

Neighborhood: Chinatown

I didn’t know Chuen Kwok, an 83-year-old homeless man bludgeoned to death last year while sleeping in the entryway of a Chinatown store. Chances are, I wouldn’t have, since I speak neither Cantonese, Fujianese nor Mandarin. I am one of a growing cadre of non-Chinese moving into the neighborhood and contributing to the area’s gentrification. Still, our worlds began converging, at least a little, when four years ago my husband and I bought a co-op apartment across the street from Kimlau Square, where Kwok spent a fair bit of his time and near where he died one chilly October night.

Kwok had no reason to pay me any mind. Here in Chinatown, the classic New York averted gaze feels especially reserved for non-Chinese. It is practiced with precision by women dragging shopping carts or guiding ancient mothers along East Broadway narrowed by sidewalk barrels filled with wriggling crabs. 

Like many New Yorkers, I slink past the homeless, giving them something or feeling guilty when I don’t. True, the sad whine of the stringed erhu, played by a tiny man often cross-legged on cardboard at the corner of East Broadway and Catherine, always has me dropping a bill onto his plate. But Kwok played no instrument. He never subjected anyone to the solitary rants one sometimes hears from the homeless. And then one day he was gone, the victim of another homeless man who, before beating Kwok and three other homeless men to death, had threatened to cut his own mother’s face after she threw him out of her house. People chipped in for the funeral, attended by Assemblywomen Yuh-Line Niou and Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez.

Uncle Kwok, as he was known, was a short man with a fringe of grey chin stubble and a mustache. He accepted offers of food, but only when hungry. Once he collected enough change and could clean himself off, he liked to treat himself to pork chops over rice. He knew better than to try for a table at the uber-trendy Noh Wah Tea Parlor, one of the few Chinatown establishments around longer than he, contenting himself instead with sips from his bottle of Green Bamboo Leaf liquor. He’d been in the neighborhood long before I was, yet his face registered only after a picture had been propped up among the flowers and flickering memorial candles in a corner of Kimlau Square after his death.

We might have both found ourselves at Great N.Y. Noodletown, just south of Canal, where he sometimes feasted on one of the shiny, stiff roast ducks that hang by hooks through their gullets in the window. I may have glimpsed him sitting in the Taiwan Pork Chop House on my way to the post office, with its wall map of Chinese postal districts. Or I could have seen him on a bench on Kimlau Square, beneath the stern gaze of Lin Zexu’s statue, while on my way to pick up Sunday morning pastries at the Tria Diner, which faces the Square. But I’d grown so accustomed to the homeless on the Square’s benches that I had ceased seeing them.

Even before Kwok’s death an air of mortality hovered over Kimlau Square, a pigeon-splattered bulge of sidewalk designed to slow down East Broadway traffic as it approaches the Bowery and prevent it from surging straight through to St. James Place, where a slight downhill makes for a dangerous speedway. 

Directly south of the Square the weathered graves of Jews descended from those expelled from Spain in 1492 peer down from a little promontory at Chinese men and women who look far too old to be heaving the great sacks of empty five-cent deposit cans and bottles strung from poles that are balanced across their shoulders. 

In the nineteenth century, bloody gang wars between the Bowery Boys and Dead Rabbits erupted near the flophouses and brothels that once lined the Bowery here, and criminals and vagrants comingled at the nearby Tombs jail.

Kimlau Square is named for a young Chinese-American bomber pilot killed in the Second World War; every Memorial Day a wreath is laid below an arch honoring American soldiers of Chinese ancestry. Chinatown’s funeral parlor row—including the flower shops serving it—is on nearby Mulberry Street, a starting point for bands hired to fend off evil spirits during funeral processions. The uniformed musicians pass the Square just before turning down East Broadway, cymbals and trumpets doing battle with the rumble of trains overhead on the Manhattan Bridge. The police checkpoint thrown across Park Row, south of the Square, is an East Bloc-style reminder of 9/11, forcing southbound Bowery traffic to swerve either east or west, leaving once-busy Park Row often empty.

Kwok was not only a casualty of New York’s homeless crisis, but a reminder of the divide separating established Cantonese-speaking business owners on the western half of Chinatown from less secure, recent arrivals, waiters and seamstresses, many from Fujian province, who get by on the scruffier east side, which was Kwok’s haunt. When my middle-class Queens College Chinese students living in Flushing tell me that they consider Chinatown dirty and smelly, it’s mostly the east side they’re imagining, even if private buses shuttle their grandparents in for day visits to the old neighborhood.

Chinatown’s economic rifts have a political dimension. The statue of Lin Zexu was erected by Fujianese immigrants, not only to celebrate a local son but also to assert their place in the community. He stares down a statue of Confucius put up thirty years earlier, a gift of Taiwan. These two statues represent two different visions of China, one modern and aligned with mainland China and the other, Taiwan-leaning and traditional. Lin Zexu, a Viceroy during the Qing Dynasty who opposed the British during the second Opium War, is an anti-imperialist hero, while Confucius embodies older values. 

Uncle’s trajectory was not that different from that of many immigrants working long hours for low wages in non-union jobs, at the mercy of economic forces beyond their control. He did not speak English, and, according to people who knew him, he once worked in restaurants.

Renovation plans—perhaps reducing the number of benches for sleeping—once envisioned a leaner Kimlau Square. Lin’s statue was to be moved to my corner—farther from rival Confucius—and the memorial arch was to command a new patch of green across the street. But business interests feared a protracted shutdown like that following 9/11, and the plan has been mothballed. In the meantime a cyclist was recently rear-ended in adjacent Chatham Square and a cab jumped the curb, plowing into a building just south of the Kimlau Square. Crossing Chatham Square often means dodging cars swerving east or west at the Bowery dead-end, and even the traffic cop sometimes makes a run for it. A recent proposal to increase the height of the Manhattan Detention Complex, the modern name for where the Tombs once stood, has met resistance with angry community meetings and bilingual flyers decrying Chinatown’s lack of input. The City was blocked from proceeding with demolition or construction at the site pending a lawsuit from Chinatown locals, but the mayor is hoping to revive the proposal.

Metal barricades ring Kimlau Square these days, left over from June’s BLM protests that brought demonstrators down Park Row to Police Headquarters. They signal the NYPD’s fortress mentality, as well as its inability to protect the lives of the city’s most vulnerable, including homeless men such as Uncle Kwok. Every night headlights from cars heading southbound along East Broadway startle those asleep in Kimlau Square beneath the protective gaze of Dr. Lin. Then the cover of darkness temporarily returns as drivers steer toward the Bowery, leaving those there undisturbed, hopefully until morning.

***

Eric Gabriel Lehman’s work has appeared in the New York Times, Brooklyn Rail, Raritan, and elsewhere. He lives in New York with his husband and two turtles and teaches at Queens College.

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