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Oral history interview conducted by Mary Lui
March 26, 1993
Call number: 1994.007.22
LUI: Why don't you just start by giving us your name, where you were born, andthat sort of information.
MAK: My name is Paul Mak, and I was born in Hong Kong. I immigrated to theUnited States possibly 16 or 17 years. Since then, I been living in Brooklyn all along. I'm from Park Slope.
LUI: Would you say you grew up in Hong Kong?
MAK: Well, ah, basically, you know, I finished high school in New York, so in away, like half and half.
LUI: So you finished high school in New York City. Where did you go to high school?
MAK: James Madison High School, located somewhere in Kings Highway.1:00
LUI: Oh, Ok. So when you moved to - you immigrated with your family?
LUI: How many people are in your family?
MAK: Five members. Mom, dad and two brothers.
LUI: So you automatically just went right into high school?
LUI: What was that like? Did you know English, or -?
MAK: It was a little bit easier for the immigrants, especially from Hong Kong,being that in Hong Kong, there are bilingual education where there are schools where you would be able to learn English, like 50% Chinese and 50% English. So, in a way, you know for the people from Hong Kong, it's not that bad. However, compared with the ones that have been here for a long time, of course it's much more difficult.
LUI: So you moved right from Hong Kong to Brooklyn. What part of Brooklyn?
MAK: Park Slope.
LUI: So you moved in to Park Slope right away. Did your family have a house?2:00
MAK: Well, basically, we do own an apartment building in Park Slope.
LUI: Why Park Slope? Why did you go there and not Chinatown or somewhere else?
MAK: Well, I guess, you know, at that point, even though it was 16 or 17 yearsago. My father came here a little bit before us, and that was the point where my father decided to have a house in Brooklyn, instead of in Chinatown. I guess one of the reasons was because, even though we are talking about a long time ago, the real estate prices at that point in Chinatown were high compared to the prices in Brooklyn and some other boroughs.
LUI: When you first came here, did you have problems adjusting to theneighborhood in Park Slope?
MAK: In a way, I still recall that because at that point, in Hong Kong, they had3:00just set up the subway systems, so it was brand new at that point. And compared with the subway system in New York city, where it has been here for 60 years or even older, so basically, I was so surprised when the trains were riding on any of the bridges, like Brooklyn Bridge or Manhattan Bridge, where they were riding like two miles per hour. At the beginning, that feeling was really strange to me.
LUI: You say the transportation was more strange than the language?
MAK: Other than that, even though we learned English in Hong Kong. However, itwas limited. The way the English structure is a little bit different from the Hong Kong English to the United States, so basically, yes I did have some difficult time in joining into the mainstream.
LUI: Were there many Chinese students in James Madison High School?4:00
MAK: Well basically, at that point, no. Basically, it was maybe 50 or 60students. What was very interesting was that before I got into the high school, or maybe after I got out, it was different, because that was the point where there weren't so many Asians in Brooklyn. After I graduated from James Madison, the Asian population started moving into Brooklyn. So what happened was at the beginning, when I first went to James Madison, there was a handful, maybe 30 or 40 Chinese students, and at that point, the Chinese students were considered the best students of all. However, once I graduated, there were much more Asian students, and those students were involved in gang member activities. So actually, that was really a changing point, those two or three years after. 5:00
LUI: How many students at James Madison over all?
MAK: At the very beginning, when I first entered James Madison, it was about 30or 40 Chinese students, but by the time I graduated from there, there were maybe over 200. For a neighborhood that is in Kings Highway, that is not heavily populated by Chinese, so the changes were really rapid for the teachers.
LUI: Did you have problems adjusting to the American school system?
MAK: In a way, yes, because in Hong Kong, the education system is much more6:00straightforward than the American, because once you enter the schools in Hong Kong, everything is so straight. You wouldn't get a chance to go from one class to another. You stay in one class, and the teachers would rotate, and they would take attendance-- I'm not saying that at the high school system in New York City they don't take attendance and so on. I would say that the freedom that the Hong Kong school system has is much less than they have in the United States or in New York City. I went to the Catholic high school, so you had to sing some songs before the class could begin and so on, so the system is different, and it did 7:00take me a while to adjust. In Hong Kong, there was no way that any student would be able to join a class for first period, and then cut out until 9th period, and then they return for their homeroom. That is something that we would not see in Hong Kong.
LUI: Were most of the other Chinese students in the school also immigrants?
MAK: As I recall, yes.
LUI: Did you find yourself sticking closer to the Chinese students?
MAK: Yes. That is one of the Chinese traditions, that the Chinese people do wantto stick together. So at that point, yes. Of the 30 or 40 Chinese students that were there, most of them were from China and some from Taiwan. So as far as the 8:00language skills were concerned, the ones that were from Hong Kong would be the highest, the ones from Taiwan the second highest, and the last would be from China, because in China, a lot of them even at this point do not receive English lessons in their school years.
LUI: Why did you family decide to move to the U.S.?
MAK: That was the question that I had in my mind at that point. I guess eventhough we're talking so many years ago. One of the reasons was 1997. You know, we're talking 15, 16, 17 years ago -- one of the reasons, even though we are talking about so many years ago, China didn't really get involved with Hong Kong politics, and I think that my parents were a little bit concerned about the upcoming 1997. I guess that was one of the reasons that I can recall. 9:00
LUI: How did you feel about moving here? Were you interested in doing that?
MAK: I guess at the beginning, the answer definitely would be no. I was at anage where I wasn't able to make up my own mind, or I wouldn't be able to survive by myself. I didn't like the idea, but at the same time, I had no choice.
LUI: How did you think of your trip? Did you not want to go?
MAK: You mean, after I arrived in the United States or-- ?
LUI: When you were still in Hong Kong, right before you left.
MAK: At that point all my friends were in Hong Kong, so that wasn't a good feeling.
LUI: Did you know other family and friends already here in New York?10:00
MAK: Basically no. At that point, most of my family was still in Hong Kong. Wedon't have a large family.
LUI: So you didn't have other family here?
MAK: The relatives, basically, at this point most of my relatives are in HongKong; because we don't have a large family size like other traditional Chinese families. So basically at this point we don't have much relatives in United States.
LUI: Have you gone back to visit?
MAK: Yes, a number of times.
LUI: So you still feel pretty connected to family and friends in Hong Kong?
MAK: Uh, well, I guess to answer question would be yes and no, but mostly no.Because what happened was that I did go back and forth a number of times. However, probably at the very beginning as I arrive to to New York City, I was 11:00having some difficult time in moving into the mainstream, but after a number of years, I got used to the lifestyle in New York city, so even though I went back to visit Hong Kong, I had a difficult time in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, it's a small island, and there is a population of over 6 million, so no matter where you go, you see people. Every place is so crowded. Especially the last time I went back to Hong Kong, it was at the end of the Chinese New Year. All the streets were so crowded, you just stand on the street and people push you, and 12:00you would have to go along with the flow. That wasn't a good experience. The way I look at it, the difference between Hong Kong and the United States is that there are much more greater opportunities for people, especially at a young age, to be in the United States. One way to look at it is like the army commercial, "The sky is the limit" within the United States as compared to Hong Kong. As far as education in the university or colleges, in Hong Kong, there are only three colleges in Hong Kong at that point, and so many people are trying to get into them. So there is a very limited opportunity for anybody in Hong Kong to obtain high education. Whereas in the United States, you will see maybe 5 out of 10 13:00people on the streets have a college degree. So I suppose the opportunity for education enhancement is much greater in the United States. Another thing is in New York city, if you want to see a lot of Chinese, you can go to Chinatown, if you want to see movies or whatever. On the other hand, if you don't want to see any Chinese, you can go to places within Brooklyn or within New York City where you don't see any Chinese. So I guess that is the combination - something that you would not expect from countries like the China, Taiwan, or even the small island of Hong Kong.
LUI: So in other words, now you think that the move was a good idea.
MAK: Yes. At that point, when I start, after a number of years when arrived in14:00New York City I started feeling that way, maybe five years after I moved here.
LUI: Why do you think that was?
MAK: That's why I mentioned earlier that it is a wonderful opportunity for theyounger generation. I feel that I was lucky, because I got to New York City at an early age, where I was able to fit into the mainstream. Let me give you some history - once I arrived in New York City and I went to the high schools, at that point, being that there were so little Chinese students, at one point, I 15:00was 100% mainstream. Because there only were 20 or 30 Chinese, and you are dealing with hundred or thousands of non-Chinese. At one point I didn't mind any Chinese business - meaning I didn't read Chinese newspapers or go to Chinese movies. I didn't get to go to Chinatown that often, because my school was in Brooklyn, and I traveled from Point A to Point B in Brooklyn. I was not connected to the Chinese community at all, when I was in high school or college. Now I am at a point where I do have to read the Chinese newspaper to find things 16:00that are happening in the Chinese' community. 95% percent of my time is speaking Chinese to Chinese people, dealing with Chinese business. That is something I didn't think of, even when I was in college.
LUI: What changed all of that? Why are you working with the Chinese community now?
MAK: To tell you the truth, I do not really have an answer for that question --sometimes I even ask myself. I graduated from Hunter College with a degree in 17:00computer science and economics. Actually, that has nothing to do with social service or community involvement at all. However, after I graduated, I did get involved with some local development projects and also I entered into another non-Asian community based civil service organization I guess the turning point was when I first joined the non-Asian community social service agency. I learned a lot from there. At one point, when I was trying to deal with the computer science, with the degree, now when I look back, I am so glad that I made that choice, because with the computer science, what you do is programming. Even 18:00though my concentration was hardware programming, so you don't program the software, in hardware programming. What anybody would get do is looking at a monitor 6 or 7 hours a day and typing in whatever programming. On the other hand, when I am in the community service, where I would deal with almost anything that's related to the Chinese community, that I do have a chance to have a hands-on experience with, it seems that everyday is challenging to me. You would never know who will be dropping by to ask for assistance or whatever. 19:00I am not talking about regular social services like entitlement applications or things like that. Mainly, I am talking about Chinese that has been murdered, and the family wants our assistance -- Or the 72nd, the local precinct has arrested a suspect where he has been going after the Chinese community, and now, we have to try to convince the Chinese victim to go over and press charges, because within the whole community, we are talking about one or two small groups of people who are doing it, and we are trying to keep the whole community clean. Sometimes I will go into the District Attorney's office and do the translation, or sometimes I deal with politics. These things would not happen if I was just 20:00doing the computer programming.
LUI: How many years passed between when you graduated from Hunter and when youstarted the community-based organization job?
MAK: I guess, maybe-- basically, not long after I graduated from college.
LUI: So almost automatically you went right into community service.
MAK: In a way to look at it, yes. I can't remember whether that was because Icouldn't locate any other jobs other than social service at that point. I don't know - one thing that's interesting is, nowadays, we are expanded, and in our office, we do have over 20 workers. And a lot of them, actually - they did not 21:00come from a nonprofit background, and we do have people that are holding an MBA and teaching ESL, and so on and so forth. At this very moment the reason that a lot of people want to work in non-profit is because the non-profit world is growing within New York City. But I don't recall what happened at that point that made me get into this field.
LUI: How did your family feel about that? Were your parents disappointed? Theywanted you to be a computer programmer, or…?
MAK: I don't think we really discussed that, as a matter of fact. However, myparents are very open-minded, and I guess they felt that it was my life, and I was able to go on my own, to choose whatever work that I might be performing. 22:00But however, again, at that point, I didn't know that this was a so-called turning point, making civil service my career. Not only a job. That was not something I would ever expect that at that point.
LUI: So at this point, would you say that this is a career?
MAK: Uhh…This thing is not going to be heard by anybody until 50 or 60 yearsfrom now right?
LUI: No, people could listen to it soon.
MAK: Oh, OK! Uhh… Yes, yes..
LUI: You don't have to answer that if you don't want to. It's ok.
MAK: Yes. Well, yes, yes, yes…
LUI: So I guess in other words what I meant was when you first took a job -
MAK: I just don't remember, because I couldn't find any job related to computerscience, or anything else - I just don't remember.
LUI: What was the name of the organization you worked for?23:00
MAK: Before here? Council of Neighborhood Organizations. It is a community-basedorganization, based in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
LUI: What were you doing there?
MAK: I was the Project Manager, mainly who handles the local departmentprojects, that are funded by the city.
LUI: What part of Brooklyn was it based in?
MAK: Mainly in Borough Park, and a very small section of Sunset Park. Basically,the way we look at it is one side of 8th Avenue, from Waterfront to one side of 8th Avenue is Sunset Park, and the other side of 8th Avenue up to Bensonhurst is Borough Park. So basically we were concentrating on Borough Park with a small, small piece of Sunset Park.
LUI: At that point, was there already a Chinese community here?
MAK: No. Basically, a few Chinese merchants, and those were mom and pop stores.They were really dealing with Chinese business. They were candy stores and small 24:00grocery stores, dealing with the general population, not necessarily the Chinese population.
LUI: How did you manage to get yourself involved in this?
MAK: I think I mentioned that a small portion of my projects were involved inSunset Park. At that point we were only talking about maybe 5 or 6 Chinese stores. However, there was some Chinese population that were living in the Sunset Park area, and that was because of the cheap rent, and because of the transportation. There's a B train and an A train that go directly into Chinatown.
LUI: What year are we talking about?
MAK: 1984 or so. 1983-198425:00
LUI: So some of your projects were here, and that's how you started to docommunity work?
MAK: Yes, yes. You could say that, yes. Actually, at that point, there wasn'tany organizing at all, because at that point the Asian population was so spread out within the Sunset Park community, until maybe 1986 or 87, when more and more of the Chinese stores were opening up on 8th Avenue. At that point, we saw that there was a need for more organization. We would provide bilingual services through the Asian population. At that point the community was in its early development stages, so basically there was no service. So the population at that point -- when someone got mugged or something, because of the language barrier 26:00they couldn't report it. There were no lawyers for the Chinese, no politicians or public officials, we did not get much attention from them at that point. It started, I recall in 1987, when we first organized a town hall meeting, we invited a lot of elected officials, public officials. Actually there was a town hall meeting for the whole general population. However, we had almost 50 Chinese people who attended the meeting. I think the total attendance was maybe 200 people. But out of that, maybe 50 were Chinese. That was the point that we saw so much of the Chinese involvement. That's why myself and a number of concerned 27:00citizens at that point, we decided to initiate the formation of a Chinese organization that was geared toward the bilingual system in the Chinese community, and at the same time, to act as a liaison between the Chinese community and the government agencies, as well as the public officials or the elected officials or the committee at that point.
LUI: Were some of the other people who were part of the organizing also insocial work?
MAK: Very interestingly, not really. [laughter] No - mostly, they were concernedcitizens. Some of them were professionals, like attorneys. One other was a public school teacher in Chinatown. They all lived in the surrounding area of 28:00Sunset Park. We had some church representatives and some representatives from the merchants. So basically it was a combination of almost everything that was behind the organization at that point. It was maybe 10 people, at that point. We got the idea sometime in 1987, and then on January 19, 1988, the organization was officially formed.
LUI: Can you give me some of the names of the people that you were working with?There were 10 people?
MAK: OK, yes, I can give you - names like [unintelligible], who is now ourchairperson of the board, who has been involved with the Sunset Park development, and the development of our organization all along. Also we have 29:00Willie Tang, she was one of the merchants that first opened the real Chinese restaurant geared toward the Chinese population on 8th Avenue. She was very involved with our activities. Also, Pastor Wong and Pastor Chang, who represent the church -- they really involved and develop programs a lot. Unfortunately, throughout the years, some of the merchants who were involved with the organization at the early stage, they have relocated to someplace else. Out of the 10 founding members, I think 5 or 6 are still within the neighborhood. The 30:00rest of them, some of them went back to Hong Kong, and so on.
LUI: The ones that are still in the neighborhood are still active?
MAK: Yes, they are still active, yes. Actually, we would consider that they arethe backbone of the community, because without their involvement as far as setting up businesses on 8th Avenue, or voluntarily helping the Chinese people - without them, I don't think the development would be like this at this point. And also maybe one more thing that I would like to point out is that in February, 1988, that was the first time when a number of different neighborhood groups got together and actually put together the first Chinese New Year celebration in Brooklyn. It is still considered the only Chinese parade in New 31:00York City, because we are talking about closing 20 blocks. It's a little bit different, because in Brooklyn, it's more like a parade, other than the ones in Chinatown or Flushing, where they close 1 or 2 blocks. And so it's a different environment. I guess at that point, before '87, before '88, no one -- no one, including the people from Chinatown or the American people -- were aware that there was a small, growing Asian population in the Sunset Park area, until we first kicked off the parade, and we involved the Asian media, especially the Chinese reporters from Chinatown, the local media as well as the mainstream media. After the parade, we drew a lot of attention from allover the city. At 32:00that point, we saw that the Chinese people were opening maybe like 3 or 4 Chinese stores per month on 8th Avenue. And that was the point, from 1988 to 1991, that was the major development period for the 8th Avenue community.
LUI: Do you get the sense that most of the people who seem to settle here areplanning to settle here permanently, or more as a temporary thing?
MAK: I guess in the beginning, around 1985, at that stage, the people who weremoving in, they were taking advantage of the cheap rent. However, the Chinese tradition is that the Chinese people like to stick together, and when they stick together, the real estate prices, the rent would be sky high. That's how it is. 33:00What happened was at the very early stage, the population was new immigrants from China, people with no language skills, not much of the educational background. However, since the late 1980'S, the people who were moving in, they were the people who have been here for a longer period of time. Their family income level is higher, and the reason they were moving into the neighborhood was not to take advantage of the cheap rent, but they were taking advantage of the convenience of the community. Even though at that point, almost all the basic needs that anybody would need can be taken care of on 8th Avenue. Maybe late 1980's, the Chinese have stores, Chinese dentists, Chinese medical doctors, 34:00travel agencies are Chinese, so many Chinese restaurants, grocery stores, and so on. So basically they were moving in just for those -- not just for the cheap rent. The same reason people are moving into the neighborhood today -- it would be a mix. Nowadays, since the early 1990s, the people that are moving into the Sunset Park neighborhood are people who were maybe living in a good neighborhood in Flushing, in Bensonhurst, in Sheepshead Bay for a number of years, and the reason that they are moving in is because Sunset Park is much closer to Chinatown than Bensonhurst or Sheepshead Bay. And of course they are also taking advantage of the convenience of 8th Avenue Chinatown circle. 35:00
LUI: You get the sense that the growth is as large as it's always been, or is itslowing down? What's happening now?
MAK: I guess as far as the real estate prices are concerned, due to the economicdownturn, basically the real estate prices have dropped a little. However, also consider, among all of the so-called Chinatowns within New York city, actually, the real estate activities have been happening the most in the Brooklyn Sunset Park area, compared to main Manhattan, Chinatown, or Flushing. So we do see that more and more Chinese people that are coming into the area.
LUI: Ok. So is the population large enough to sustain all the businesses thatare on 8th Avenue right now, or is there fierce competition going on?
MAK: I guess at this point -- it's going to be a yes and no answer, because36:00basically, we are talking about 60 to 70,000 Asian population, of which the majority, 90% of them are Chinese. So if you do some calculations, yes, supposedly they should support all the Chinese businesses in that area. But unfortunately, due to the limited job opportunities, most of the people, especially the immigrants, they do travel to Manhattan, Chinatown to work, because of the language barrier and so forth, they do go for the traditional Chinese work, such as garment factories or Chinese restaurant work, so basically maybe 70 to 80% of the Chinese population from Sunset Park, travels to 37:00Manhattan. They spend 12 to 14 hours or even 15 in Chinatown in Manhattan, so if they need get a [unintelligible] or if they want to purchase whatever, they would purchase whatever they need in Chinatown, because usually, they will leave the community for Chinatown at say at 8:00 in the morning, so that's a point when most of the businesses are not still opened yet, and by the time they come back it's 8:00, and they would be rushing home to cook their meals. So that golden time of the day is spent in Chinatown, so they would do their shopping in Chinatown. So that's why, in conjunction with local elected officials, we are trying to kick off a project where we will be kicking off campaigns to promote 38:00the industry parts of the Sunset Park area. And hopefully -- well, we do see more and more Chinese garment factories that are moving into the neighborhood, I guess for a number of reasons. Because of the high rent in Chinatown commercial buildings, because of the environment that is much better in the Brooklyn area, and I guess the most important of all, a lot of them, they are trying to stay away from the garment factory unions. We do see more and more garment factories are moving in, and what we are trying to do is mobilize some of the existing smaller ones to move into one of the industry parks down on 3rd Avenue in Sunset Park. By doing so, actually, we will be able to free more of the commercial space on 8th Avenue, because all of the buildings on 8th Avenue, they are 39:00considered commercial and residential, but remember, it's commercial and residential == not manufacturing and residential. I'm aware of the fact that there are over 20 garment factories that are on 8th Avenue, and the majority of them are Chinese owned. But most of them, according to the city planning zoning law, they are illegal, because they are occupying commercial storefront, not in the manufacturing zone. We are trying to assist those people to relocate to an industry park where the environment is better, and the rents so cheap. Being that all the industry parks, they do a program, being those are the subsidized government projects, so they do offer a very attractive benefit packages. For 40:00example, the rents are so cheap, could be as low as $3.50 per square foot, per year, compared with maybe $15.00 per year around 8th Avenue or maybe even higher. Maybe for the first year, anybody who moved in, they would reimburse you $3.00 for the moving, so for the first year, anybody moving in there would pay $.50 per square foot per year for the space that they are using. Things like that are a very attractive way to relocate because we do see more and more people coming. One limitation that 8th Avenue has is that the size of the building is usually maybe 18 by 6 feet, so basically on one level the storefront 41:00would be 1,100 square feet. The basement would be less than 2,000 square feet, and it has created a lot of limitation for the expansion of any of the factories that are operating within that setting. And by moving in, by joining together, they don't even -- you know, the packages are so great. So I think in the long run, they will enjoy that, and I think more and more people will be going in that direction. That would be the first stage that we would do. The second stage is that we will go out into the Chinatown are and do some promotions to try and assist more garment factories that have the intention to move into the Brooklyn area, and it doesn't matter to them if they move into the 8th Avenue area or if they move into one of the industry parks, because I don't want to run into any conflict with the Chinese community based in Chinatown, because we all 42:00understand how important the garment factory workers are in supporting the economy of any of the Chinatowns. So definitely, we don't want to take away the backbone from Chinatown. In the long run, we will be targeting the ones that are moving into the Brooklyn area, no matter -- they have in the intention of doing it, and are doing it voluntarily. We don't want anybody in Chinatown to have the impression that we are going into Chinatown and trying to pull their backbone into Brooklyn. We don't want that to happen and we are definitely not going to do that. But we just assist the ones that do have the intention to come over.
LUI: You mean your organization.
MAK: Right. Our organization in conjunction with the local departmentcorporations that are managing the industry parks, as well as with the local 43:00elected officials as well as the Brooklyn [unintelligible] Project. So we have that plan, and hopefully, we may be able to kick off the project at the beginning of next year. We foresee that we are able to implement the plan, maybe within the next four years or so. Eventually, what we would like to see is that, most of the people, or at least 30% of the Chinese population in the Sunset Park are, they will be able to take advantage of the garment factories that are located in the surrounding area, as well as the industry parks that are now on 3rd Avenue. And by doing so - if 30% of the Chinese workers don't have to travel to Manhattan, they will be spending their hard-earned money back in their own neighborhood. Of course, they will still go to Chinatown, because Chinatown in 44:00Manhattan still is the center for all the Chinese living within in the tri-state area, but however most of their day-to-day needs, like for example groceries, or their meals, or their basic stuff, they would be able to. Being that they worked in Sunset Park, and they live in Sunset Park, they don't go to Chinatown anymore, so most of their spending would be back in their neighborhood. Hopefully, by doing so, all the Chinese businesses will be able to more support than at this point from the Chinese residents. At the same time within the community, we attract a lot of the Chinese population from Bensonhurst, Sheepshead Bay and even Staten Island that will come over and do their grocery shopping, and on Sunday for their dim sum, and so on. A lot of people are coming from other neighborhoods.
LUI: When you say the industrial parks, that's at the Brooklyn Army Terminal?45:00
MAK: Well actually there are three. There is one at the Army Terminal, BushTerminal and Sunset Park industry parks.
LUI: All three are located very close to here?
MAK: Actually, they are all by the waterfront. So the entrances are all on 3rdAvenue. The Sunset Park industry park is on 32nd Street. They are basically on 3rd Avenue, from 32nd Street up to 65th Street. There are three industry parks within that area.
LUI: Aside from manufacturing that's coming in from Chinatown in the garmentfactories, are there are other kinds of industry that are coming in, which will probably employ Chinese in the area?
MAK: For the last couple of years, we do work with the non-Asian factory owners,not necessarily to be garment factories, any type of manufacturers. A lot of times, they will contact our agency when they are trying to recruit Chinese 46:00workers. One thing that we have is that Chinese workers are being considered as the best workers compared with some other ethnic groups, so a lot of the non-Chinese people that are based in the industry park, they do tend to look for Chinese workers, and a lot of times they would come into our office. What we do is we put out a press release, and we will make some contact. We assist them to recruiting the Chinese workers. By doing so, actually we are trying to create more and more job opportunities for the Chinese, not necessarily to have the employers as Chinese, as long as they are happy with the Chinese workers, we are more than happy to assist anybody.
LUI: Where do you think that they are getting the idea that Chinese workers aresuch wonderful workers?
MAK: It's very interesting - most of the time, the ones that are telling me the47:00story are the Jewish American owners. It's a very interesting question. I guess Chinese workers give out the impression that once they go into work, they will keep working, not like other people, that they have to take a coffee break every hour. I guess that's the general feeling that the non-Asian population have with the…
MAK: OK for example, the Chinese students for example in the Brooklyn areaactually have a high school dropout rate of over 20%. However, a lot of people still consider the Chinese student are the best student of all. The way to look at it is a social service problem, and we do have a concern in that too. By keeping the image that the Chinese people are the best workers or the best students, actually we create more pressure to the Chinese workers or the Chinese students. In a way, it has a negative impact, so these are the things that I believe we should address.
LUI: Do you sense any sort of tension or resentment from other groups?
MAK: You mean within this community?
LUI: Let's say specifically regarding this idea that Asians are good workers,49:00Chinese are good workers, so people are trying to hire Chinese and not others in the area. Do you sense some of that?
MAK: Yes, a number of factors. Yes, do agree with you, but let me give you anexample. Unfortunately, I am still the only Asian community board member within the Brooklyn area, unfortunately, so that is how much voice an Asian has in Brooklyn. I still recall at one of the committee meetings, being that I was the only Chinese, I was yelled at by maybe 7 or 8 different Latino Americans at one of the community board meetings. They were racially attacking me, and so on and 50:00so forth, in front of a reputable community meeting, and they were complaining that a lot of the Latino American population are being robbed by the Asians in the neighborhood, and that a lot of the Latino Americans are being illegally evicted by Chinese landlords, and so on. They were complaining about how dirty the Chinese are, and how they take care of their own garbage, you know, and so on and so forth. And so in response - so I guess in some way I do agree with some of the concerns that they mentioned. I am aware that the Chinese people do have large families, so a lot of times when they purchase a home, they think that they do want to stick together with their own relatives, so a lot of times 51:00after they purchase a home from anybody, they will tend to take over the whole house and live with their relatives. And sometimes with the new immigrant population, sometimes they do not understand housing laws that they are not able to just purchase the building and try to take over the whole house, and sometimes, some of the Chinese people I agree that they do it intentionally, and some of the people, they do it because they don't understand the housing laws. That's one thing. And I also agree with the fact that that some Chinese, especially the immigrants, they don't know how the sanitation laws work. For example, at a number of sanitation-related meetings, you know, I personally got yelled at again, as always. That was back a few years ago. Now we are considered 52:00one of the mainstream groups in the neighborhood -- something that we should all feel good of. At that point, some Chinese, some immigrants, especially from China, they don't understand the society, so what they do is, when they return from work, they usually purchase their groceries with the small plastic bags. Usually, what they do is they will do their cooking and then put it pack into the same red plastic bag. And what they do is when -- when they go out to work the next morning, what they will do is putting the garbage in their own garbage can or in front of their house, what they will do is just walk up to 8th Avenue and dump those into the public corner basket. A lot of complaints came from the 53:00merchants because what it is is that I think the Sanitation department only cleans up once a day, in the morning. Then by having a number of full bags of garbage in any one of the corner baskets -- so basically, maybe within a half an hour, because we do see tens of thousands of Chinese population that are going to work between the hours of 8 and 9 every morning, so all the baskets will be full. From what I understand, 8th Avenue in Sunset Park was the only neighborhood that we had maybe 4 or 5 inspectors from Sanitation that would wear the gloves and what their job was to stand in front of the corner and actually 54:00open up the garbage to see if there is any address related to the garbage. And what they would do is that they would write a summons ticket and leave it on the door, according to the address. That was the only neighborhood that I am aware of, that had that type of attention from the sanitation department. So who complained? I'm not sure who complained. I do look at it as a whole picture. Of course, we hope that everybody would like the Chinese, but in reality we don't think - we cannot expect that everybody will like us, but at the same time, there are some of the bad things that the Chinese have been doing, I think, you know, in the long run we do have to find ways to educate them, and hope that you 55:00know they will not consider that they are still Chinese and living in a Chinatown area, that they can do the Chinese way. Because at this point, we are still talking about in Sunset Park, even though we are still talking about a third Chinatown, we are still talking about a combination of Chinese and non-Chinese residents that are occupying the Sunset Park area, and in order for them to get into the mainstream, or to work within the whole community, there are certain things that they cannot do. But however, we do have residents that have moved in from other Chinese areas where they have been carrying on the so-called bad attitude of how to handle the waste, the Chinese way of doing business, for example. We do get complaints a lot from the residents especially 56:00near the Chinese fish stores, what they say is that even during the summertime, 80, 90 even 100 degrees, some Chinese fish stores they don't utilize their air conditioning systems. And what they do is they just keep the doors open, and you know a lot of waste waters, and they just store the waste in their backyard for overnight, or sometimes even two nights before, you know-- That's why a lot of non-Asian residents don't get used to it. They don't get used to having somebody put their waste, especially the meat waste or seafood waste in the backyard 57:00during the summertime, for two or three days. But whose problem is that? I don't know, to tell you the truth. Why? Because that is not the Chinese merchant's fault, because the private sanitations don't do the pickup every day on 8th Avenue. I guess it's a lack of communication or a lack of understanding. A lot of times it's not that the Chinese merchants don't want to throw it out someplace else. It's just that the private sanitations don't pick up every day. Why is there a conflict? Because there is no communication. If the Chinese merchant would explain to the non-Asian resident their situation: Yes, I'm going to do whatever to place the garbage in somewhere else, only if you can find another way. By you know, by not communicating, they feel that Oh, Chinese, they are cheap, so that's why they don't want to pay for the every day pickup or 58:00because they don't want to spend money, so that's why even during the summertime they don't utilize the air-conditioning inside their store. But a lot of times because of the miscommunication, they don't really communicate, so they don't understand each other's concerns and problems. You know, I am so sure that I would get upset, as a Chinese or as a non-Chinese, whatever, it doesn't matter if I am Chinese or not, I would still get upset if someone would just store the meat waste or the seafood waste in the backyard next to me for two or three days, even though it's 100- degree weather. I'll get upset - anybody would. However, if the next door neighbor would tell me that the reason is happening 59:00because the public sanitation didn't do the pickup, there's no where they can place the garbage. Maybe they could make some kind of arrangement or compromise that from now on, even though they would have to pay more money, they would use their air-conditioning. They would keep their door closed so at least the smell would not come out or or go to the next store or they would clean the sidewalk more often, with clean water, because when they are cleaning the fridge and seafood, the water are so smelly. They usually just [unintelligible] the sidewalk, without washing or cleaning it. I would get upset if I lived on the second floor of the fish store. I would get upset - but I guess most of the 60:00Chinese merchants would be willing to do that extra step of cleaning the sidewalk more often, or to make whatever arrangements, or to have something to cover the garbage you know in the backyard, so that the smell would not really go up to the second or the third floor. I think they would be willing to do that, only if they know how, only if they are willing to communicate.
LUI: So this is a problem that is still going on right now.
MAK: Yes, yes, yes, yes, and back to your question. And later on, what we foundout was that -- I was talking about the yelling and screaming at one of the community board meetings -- and what happened was that later on some of the Latino Americans they went up to the Mayor's office, Asian Affairs to complain. Actually what they went up there to seek for Asian Affairs of the Mayor's Office's assistance in dealing with the Asian population. But later on we found out that everyone of them that went up to the Mayor's office they were the 61:00candidates of the city council after the re-districting. Everyone of them they were the candidates of the city council race back in 1991. Is it 1991? Two years ago.
LUI: Yeah, '91.
MAK: 1991. Every one of them that went up to that office, every one of them thatwere yelling and screaming at me -- they were all candidates from the Latino community that were running for the city council seats you know that were created for Sunset Park. OK so, later on, there were more and more discussions with the mainstream society within this neighborhood. Later on, we can communicate calmly. That was at a point when those Latino Americans they were with their special interests were trying to draw more attention from within their own community, Latino community, and maybe they were acting as a fighter 62:00on behalf of the Latino community in Sunset Park. So basically they were making a political move more than anything else. However, we do agree with the fact that it's a purchasing power problem, it's an economic problem more than anything else, more than racial, because the Chinese do stick together and have large size of family. And usually, the first thing they would do is purchase a house, so that the whole family that they would have a place to stay for the long run. So that is something that -- that is something that other ethnic groups might not have that attitude. They might - you know, I'm aware of the fact that some people, even from the mainstream society, once they receive their paycheck they might want to go on vacation and spend their money, or they would just enjoy their life, spend all their hard-earned money. Where Chinese they 63:00would save their hard-earned money and purchase a house. And that is something that not everyone could do. And I guess that is the conflict that is created within the Sunset Park community, not because we are Chinese, just because the Chinese people do have buying power if you call it that. If you don't have money, you can't purchase the building. If you could purchase the building, there would never be never be a thing as eviction. I think it's more like a money business than a racial problem within the Sunset Park community.
LUI: You said that now the Chinese are seen as one of the mainstream groups inthe community. One of the main groups - so they're not --
MAK: Let me try to clear that up. What I am saying is that the Chinese worker,they are not being considered as the mainstream, but as the only Asian workers 64:00organization in Sunset Park, our agency is being considered as a mainstream group. So basically we are being considered the liaison between the mainstream society and the Chinese community. So basically as a representative of the Chinese community, we are being considered as a mainstream group. However, as far as new immigrants are concerned, I'm sure a lot of the people are still doing the number of things I'd just mentioned, like dumping their garbages, or so on and so forth.
LUI: Ok, um, I think I am going to stop there, because we've been talking for alittle bit.
Oral History Interview with Paul Mak
Paul Mak was born in Hong Kong, China, and immigrated to New York City at around age sixteen. Priced out of the Chinatown neighborhood of Manhattan, his family settled into Brooklyn. After completing high school in Brooklyn, Mak graduated from Hunter College with a degree in computer hardware programming. Unable to quickly find a job in programming, Mak entered into a career of civil service. In 1988 Mak helped found the Brooklyn Chinese American Association, an influential Eighth Avenue-based business services organization. At the time of the 1993 interview, Mak was the only Asian community board member in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn.
In this interview, Paul Mak discusses his personal assimilation into mainstream American culture. He details his career as a civil servant serving the Chinese community of Eighth Avenue in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park; helping educate new immigrants assimilate by teaching them American customs, smoothing out relationships with neighboring ethnic groups (particularly the Latino community), and working to develop Brooklyn's Chinatown by facilitating the migration of garment factories from Manhattan to Brooklyn. He also describes his time as a community board member. Interview conducted by Mary Lui.
Brooklyn Historical Society collaborated with the Chinatown History Museum (now the Museum of Chinese in America) in order to conduct a series of oral histories with residents of the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn. The Cantonese, Mandarin, and English language interviews focused on what was then a new presence of Chinese and Asian immigrants concentrated along Eighth Avenue. Among the topics that are explored in the interviews are tensions between different groups of Chinese immigrants, crime and safety in the neighborhood, Sunset Park's relationship to Manhattan's Chinatown, and how long-term residents of Sunset Park had adjusted to the area's "newcomers."
CitationMak, Paul, Oral history interview conducted by Mary Lui, March 26, 1993, New Neighbors: Sunset Park's Chinese Community records, 1994.007.22; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Brooklyn Chinese American Association
- Mak, Paul
- Chinese Americans
- Civil service
- Community organizing
- Cultural assimilation
- Emigration and immigration
- Ethnic neighborhoods
- Race discrimination
- Bensonhurst (New York, N.Y.)
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Chinatown (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Chinatown (New York, N.Y.)
- Hong Kong (China)
- Sheepshead Bay (New York, N.Y.)
- Sunset Park (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidNew Neighbors: Sunset Park's Chinese Community records