By Suzanne Ma
CHINATOWN — More than 100 residents had gathered in P.S. 130's cafeteria for a town hall meeting about the future of the Chinatown and Lower East Side neighborhoods, and organizers from the Chinatown Working Group staffed the event with volunteer translators for English, Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese speakers.
They didn't anticipate the need for Fujianese translators, too.
"Where is the Fujianese table?" shouted Steven Wong, a local business owner and advocate for the Fujianese community. "You have a Spanish table and not a Fujianese table. This doesn't make sense."
Cantonese has been the dominant dialect in Manhattan's Chinatown for years, after an influx of Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong and Guangdong Province began in the 1960s.
But since the late 80s, most of New York's Chinese immigrants have come from mainland China's south-eastern province of Fujian. The Fujianese speak Mandarin, but feel most comfortable with their regional dialect, and they have populated the eastern side of Chinatown with their own shops and restaurants.
The Fujianese/Cantonese divide is a sensitive one. The differences lie not only in linguistics and cuisine, but in socio-economic status. Many Cantonese families are well-established, having lived in the U.S. for generations. The Fujianese are newcomers, and many are undocumented immigrants with little education.
"All these people, are people with money," said Zen LaZhang, an immigrant from Fujian who attended last Monday's town hall. He pointed to the Cantonese and Mandarin groups gathered in different corners of the room.
"Our most important concerns are rent and affordability," Zhang told DNAinfo. "Anywhere you go in Chinatown rent is easily over $1,000. How are we supposed to live?"
The relationship between the groups has never been confrontational, said Hunter College sociologist Peter Kwong. "They operate in different spheres," he said.
But the spheres are merging. Fujianese shop keepers are moving into the old parts of Chinatown, while Cantonese families are moving out entirely.
"Many of the Cantonese don't want to live in Chinatown anymore," Kwong told DNAinfo. The "conditions are pretty rough. Jobs have very low wages. The tendency therefore is to have poor people living in Chinatown. That has always been the history of Chinatown."
Kwong said it will take a few generations for the Fujianese to establish the kind of roots the Cantonese have put down.
"It's diversifying," Kwong said. "In that sense, you will see less and less Cantonese speaking people coming to Chinatown."