Mapping Voices in
Manhattan Chinatown

In this study, we explored notions of cultural resilience, amidst growing pressures of displacement from gentrification, through the stories of Manhattan Chinatown residents, workers, and shop owners. We conducted 8 interviews, observational research and attended a few community events to collect various voices that existed in this community. Insights were presented as a series of diagrams.
2 Months
Jenny Liu + Tina Qi
Course Project
My Role
Ethnographic Research, Qualitative Data Analysis, System Mapping, Graphic Design
Overarching Research Questions
  • What are the opinions of Chinatown inhabitants and business owners towards gentrification? What do they see as their contribution to this phenomenon?
  • How are younger Chinese-American generations facilitating the evolution of culture within Chinatown?
  • Where do individuals feel pressure to maintain Chinese tradition vs. adapt to mainstream western culture? How does this tension influence gentrification?
Research Methods

Observational Research

We focused on 3 elements in the observation: businesses, people and differences. The details of each one are listed below:

  • Business: the distribution of businesses, types of the businesses, their ownership and their customers.
  • People: The behaviors and distribution of people from different ethnic backgrounds.
  • Difference: the similarities and differences between Chinatown and the other (mainstream) neighborhoods of the city.

Semi-structured Interview

We interviewed 8 people who are involved in or influenced by the swirl of gentrification. To have a holistic view of the situation, we reached out to interviewees from 2 generations and cover both residents and business owners in Chinatown. We carefully drafted interview questions based on their identity and experience.


Be in the Community

We attended two events held by W.O.W project, an initiative based in Manhattan Chinatown that aims to sustain the ownership of Chinatown in the future. By participating in these events, we were able to be in the community to hear their voice and wishes.


3 groups of people and their interpretation of "American Dream"

A. First generation Chinese immigrant

  • They have low education level and limited English proficiency.
  • They can hardly leave Chinatown and are only able to work in small business in Chinatown because of a huge language barrier and limited skill sets.
  • Their attitudes toward gentrification are very negative, for the rising real estate price and the increasing living cost are big threatens for their living.

B. Second generation immigrants who left Chinatown

Many participants mentioned the phenomena of young people leaving Chinatown in the past years. We learned from the secondary research that the main reason people left Chinatown is financial difficulties led by gentrification. However, from our participant's words, we disclosed other layers of the story. The list below is several reasons we heard from the interviews.

  • Influenced by the notion of "American Dream" and want to blend in the mainstream.
  • Need larger space after started their family.
  • Eager to leave the place they grew up, where they consider as a comfort zone.

C. Second generation business owners

  • They are second generation Chinese American who took over their family business or began their own business in Chinatown.
  • Most of them are highly educated and better received western ideology compared with their parents.
  • Some of them once dreamed of chasing American dream and left Chinatown.
  • They more or less injected new blood to the traditional business in order to adapt to the changes or build agency to make changes happen.

Summary: interpretations of "American Dream"

People describe Chinatown as “American Dream in action”. This statement highly covers the history of Chinatown, from how it was originated to all the problems it is facing nowadays. It bonded people together in the community but the expression of American Dream vary for each individual.


Attitudes Map

With the project going on, we noticed that gentrification is a heated topic within the community and surprisingly, people had different attitudes toward this phenomena and are not absolute negative. Our participants told us about gentrification from different aspects and scales. We used information mapping to analyze and organize these narratives and attitudes.

After these organizations, we had this clear attitude map. Vertically, the four rows are four topics people brought up around gentrification. From left to right, attitudes aligned from negative to positive.

Major Insights

  • Participants had very diverse but relatively neutral attitudes toward gentrification and cultural identity in Chinatown. The main difference of these attitudes is if they consider culture is “forced” to change or “changing” is the nature of culture.
  • Some participants saw gentrification as an incentive that is able to boost the whole community to be better.
  • Most of the participants considered the increasing tourists and outsiders as a bad thing, for they made Chinatown more like a tourism site. Only Mike, the owner of Eggloo mentioned it was a great opportunity to introduce the charms of Chinatown to other people.
  • Individual level, participants who had high educational background turned to have positive attitudes toward gentrification and are able to think this issue at a higher level and large scale, like the cultural identity of the community.

Business Ecosystem Map

We abstracted the whole ecosystem of Chinatown into this inner-outer ring structure. The circle in the most inside part of the system is  local residents and it is divided into young and elderly, these two parts. We divided it because we noticed that young and elderly residents seldomly showed up in the same spot and they have very different life style. The most outside ring represents the outsiders and they are asians and non-asians. The businesses are located in the middle of these two rings. The color of the circles shows the ownership and the arrows toward the circles indicates what groups of people the business attract.

Major Insights

  • Most of the stores around east part of Chinatown ( along E Broadway) are geared to residents and stores around west part ( around canal st) are very mixed.
  • Upper-classed service or service owned by outsiders, like luxury dining and gallery, are less likely to be influenced by the location, their customers have online paths to know them.
  • Elderly residents tend to go to stores that have cheaper price and public space. In our observations, we found elderly people gathered in traditional bakeries as they were public space.
  • Young local residents and elderly local residents seldomly show up at the same spot.