New Gods of Chinatown: Faith & Survival
in New York's Immigrant Community
by
Ken Guest

[May 2, 2002]
 

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This evening I'm going to share with you a little about my research in Chinatown and in South East China. My interest has been with people from Fuzhou, from South East China, and I've been conducting a study over the last few years of Fuzhounese religious communities in Chinatown. Part of the study has been to follow people's migration patterns back to their hometowns and their home villages. I've made several visits to Fuzhou and to the countryside, and had a chance to learn about life there. There are very deep, strong, fascinating connections that are being made between the religious communities here in Chinatown, New York City, and the ones back home in China.

The immigration of people from Fuzhou really has taken off since 1985, and increased dramatically in the 1990's. Tens of thousands of people from Fuzhou have come. Now the word on the street in Chinatown is that there are three hundred thousand Fuzhounese, who have come through New York. They don't all live here in New York. They come here. They find jobs in the area. They're in and out, and it's almost impossible to corroborate these figures simply because many of them are undocumented. Maybe half of them are undocumented. The number is very difficult to come up with. What we do know is that many of the villages in China in this area of Fuzhou are half empty, because the people are here in New York.

I have a couple of transparencies to show you. I assume some of you know a little about China to know where Fuzhou is, but some people may not. So, let's turn on the slide projector. This is a little map of China. You can see Fuzhou is directly across from Taiwan. The interesting thing about these immigrants in the surveys that I've done in several different religious communities is that they're not from Fuzhou City. Eighty-five percent of them are from the rural towns and villages along the Mien River, which runs from the northwest corner of Fujian province, down through Fuzhou, and out to the sea. So Fuzhou is a major port city. It was one of the treaty ports that was opened in 1842 (by the foreign imperialists), and was also one of the first special economic zones that was opened after 1979. It's considered to be a major port of entry in and out of China. Fuzhou is actually up the river, but most of the immigrants are from dozens of villages in the Chonlong area. They also come from villages all along the Mien River as it goes into the ocean, including a number of villages from Lungchi Island.

It is very important to understand that in this recent immigration, these are not urban immigrants by and large. They are rural immigrants from small villages. The economy of these villages is largely agricultural and fishing. Now the economy is largely remittances from New York. Most folks who haven't come are the young people who are hanging out, waiting to come, and who are relying on their parents and other relatives sending resources back from Chinatown.

Well, you've all probably read some of the stories about how these people come. Many of them are smuggled in. They come to Chinatown. You all know traditionally this is Lower Manhattan. Our American imagination of Chinatown is Mott Street. It's Canal Street, Mott Street, and Mulberry. It was originally called Five Points. For three hundred years, it has been an area where new immigrants came to settle in New York City. Before the Chinese, it was the Italians, the Jews, the Germans, the Irish, and African Americans, or free black slaves, who settled in this area. This is the traditional area of Chinatown. Since the mid 80's, the population of Chinatown has expanded dramatically, and the population has moved out east and north. I've drawn this little red line to give you a little bit of a picture of where you'll find predominately Chinese population these days in New York City. Little Italy is basically two blocks of a strip of restaurants and stores at Mulberry Street. Now most of the residents of that area and many of the businesses of Little Italy are Chinese. This area here of the Lower East Side: Orchard Street, Eldridge Street, the ones that have been traditionally associated with Jewish immigration around the turn of the century, are now predominately Chinese as well.

I started as a graduate student at CUNY in a seminar with Peter Kwong, called "New New Yorkers and Global Perspective," and I was interested in Chinese immigration and religion, and Peter made me do some field work, and he said, "I don't know anything about religion, but you think it's interesting, you go down there and find out." Peter had been teaching me a lot about people from Fuzhou, and their struggles. So I went to some of the main line churches where I had some contacts. These are folks who work in the garment industries, and in the restaurants. Most of your delivery people, if you order in Chinese food, are from Fuzhou. They are also in the construction trades. Many people are working in day labor pools.

There's a mall underneath the Manhattan Bridge. When you go in, there's a really nice dim sum restaurant upstairs on the second floor, and a number of Chinese shops on the lower level. All around that, and at the base of Eldridge Street and Forsyth, and where East Broadway comes through, right here under the bridge, there are dozens of employment agencies. This is where young Fuzhounese men and women gather to try to find employment. Right now, there are just people hanging out, because of the real downturn of the Chinatown economy. I went to one of the temples that I've studied. I went yesterday and the lobby of the temple was just full of people from the temple, just hanging out because they had been down that morning looking for work, and there hadn't been any work. It's a very, very slow time and a very, very difficult time. Most of these people are living on the edge, economically. They don't have a whole lot of money, they work, many of the folks, especially undocumented workers are working six days a week, twelve, fourteen hours a day in the garment shops, and restaurants, and construction as well.

When I pass by those employment places ,what I found very interesting was that they all have gates. Why do they have to be like that? I was told that because you would have to pay to get jobs, so there's a lot of money there and they're afraid of robbery.

Well, you go in and they posted on the boards all the jobs that they have and many of them are not in New York. There's been an explosion of "all you can eat" Chinese buffet restaurants across the country, and many of them are opened, operated and staffed by people from Fuzhou. They come and seek laborers here in New York. They put them on a bus and send them to Miami, and they work there as long as they're able, as long as they can stand it, and as long as they can stand up, because these are exhausting jobs, jobs that you can't sustain over a long period of time. Once they can't sustain it any longer, then they come back to New York and they rest a little while. The old tenement buildings there, built in the 1850's and 1860's for the Irish and the Italians, are now full of Chinese. Many of them are in much worse conditions than they were a hundred and fifty years ago. People are in bunk beds, sixteen people in a room, bunk beds two and three high, and people rent a bed for twelve hours a night, and then they switch and then somebody else moves into it. It's really, it's part of my motivation for going to Fuzhou the first time because I couldn't imagine why people were coming to live and work in these conditions. We can talk a little bit about why people leave Fuzhou as well.

In some of the older congregations that were established in Chinatown, I found that there weren't any Fuzhounese, and I wondered where they were. So in a later part of my study, I tried to do a map of religious communities in Chinatown, and the little blue dots are where I found religious communities. In this territory, there are eighty-four or eighty-five religious organizations; sixty-four of them are Chinese; sixty-one of them are exclusively Chinese and three are Catholic parishes that are maybe multi-ethnic. Transfiguration Church, for instance, still has some of the older Italian immigrant families there, with the Cantonese, and now, the newest wave of Fujianese immigrants.

So, this is quite stunning to me because well, part of your discipline as a graduate student is to do a literature review, and so I reviewed all the literature on Chinese immigration and on the Chinatowns in the United States, and I found that very little had been written about Chinese religion. As I reviewed the major studies of Chinatown, almost no mention has been made at all of religion. I found a paragraph in one book. So I was quite stunned by the many, many places I found. I'll just tell you, as I have the breakdown here. You can see its pretty spread out. You do have a good number of them here in the more traditional Chinatown area, but you can see it also spreads east and north. Eldridge Street is a very rich source and site for research. It's a fascinating place. So is Little Italy and Delancy Street. One of the main Protestant congregations is on Allen Street, right above Delancy Street.

So, these are the number of religious communities that I've found: eighty-four. Every time I go, I find another one, usually a new Fuzhounese little temple that's started up. You can actually add one, under Chinese popular religion, after I've found it last week. So, it's quite an interesting little variety there, with sixty-two institutions having Chinese members:

26 - Buddhist,
23 - Protestant-Christian
3 - Chinese Popular Religious Temples
3 - Catholic Churches
2 - Daoist

Now, these categories are tricky because Chinese don't always fit their religious beliefs and practices into these enrolled religion categories. What I found is, amongst the sixty-two institutions with Chinese members, there were fourteen congregations that were made up almost exclusively of people from Fuzhou. There's very little cross over between Cantonese, Taiwanese, Fuzhounese immigrants. This is a very interesting finding. I think one of the problems with a survey like this is that it's congregationally based and it doesn't really reflect the full scope of Chinese religious practice. A Sociologist friend of mine at Queens did a study, a telephone survey, of a hundred sixty-seven people with Chinese surnames and asked their religious affiliation and he came up with these figures:

57% - No Religion
21% - Buddhist
13% - Protestant
7% - Catholic
2% - Other

I think that's a slightly problematic figure. After doing my research, I'm largely unconvinced that those figures are accurate. I think that probably it reflects a problem with our theoretical approach to religion and our categorization of what makes up a religion.

[From audience] You mentioned that this is a telephone survey right?
What language was it conducted in?

Chinese.

[From audience] So, the people, you know, who answer the telephone, I mean those sixteen bunk beds, there're not going to answer the telephone to tell you.

Absolutely, a lot of problems with that, as an anthropologist, I don't mind critiquing a sociological survey, but we know that people lie all the time to questionnaires, but I mean its an interesting base to start with information, and we don't really have very many studies with that kind of data at all.

I identified fourteen Fuzhounese congregations. Five of them were popular religious temples. I'll talk more about those popular religious temples, one of them in particular. They often have a Buddha, a Daoist deity, a Guan Yin, some ancestors, a really polytheistic, what we could consider polytheistic blend. These are local temples, small temples that have been started by recent immigrants, who are replicating their religious practices from back home and in reality that is what's going on from the ground up in China. They're not strictly Buddhist, or strictly Daoist. It's a very complicated, very creative and wonderful mix.

[From audience] But isn't the Guan Yin also Buddhist?

Sure. Five popular temples, and four congregations identified themselves as Buddhist. Two were Daoist. The two Protestant congregations and two Catholic congregations, Transfiguration and Saint Josephs, have Fujianese also. There are only two of them that were formed prior to 1990. One Chinese temple was started in1987. The main Protestant congregation was started in about 1985. So these are all very recent developments and they are very fragile institutionally. Exploring their location in a very ethnic enclave, where there is a lot of exploitation of their members in the economy, with a very transient population, where people moving in and out of New York City. It's really remarkable that they've been able to establish themselves and sustain themselves over this time.

Do you know that the members of religious groups can also apply for permanent residency here?

What do you mean by that?

I know because I have students that, they said that they are members of some kind of religious group, so they apply for permanent residency, so people can stay here. I think maybe one of the reasons we have so many religious communities is that they all learn this, and they all just come here and they just use the name of religion and apply for permanent residency.

I think that where that may fit is that there is a clause in the immigration law that allows people to claim religious persecution, and that applies. So you do find, for instance, in the Protestant Church when people are baptized. It's a very exciting service but one the main pieces is a photo session and a production of a baptismal document, because these are pieces of documentation that people can use to support their application to say they are Christians, and this has been affirmed here in New York.

No, it's not for religious [persecution.] It's the reason that [it's a political statement.]

Just being religious people allows them to stay? I'm not familiar with that.

Yes, yes.

I'm just going to talk briefly about two of the congregations. One congregation, that identifies itself as a Buddhist temple, it's on Eldridge Street. The gentleman who is the master of the temple is Master Liu. Well, it's interesting that the first time I went as part of my map walking tour. I went in. I talked to him and I asked him what kind of temple this was and he said, "Oh, this is a Buddhist temple." So we began to talk about Buddhism and his temple, and then he showed me the altar, and there was the Buddha in the middle and Guan Yin right next, and there were nine other statues. And I said, "Well, who are these?"

And he said, "This is Jo She Ho Shin Jin."

And I said, "Well, who is Jo She Ho Shin Jin?"

"Well, this is the local deity from my village," one of the main deities from Fuzhou and Fuching, just south of Fuzhou.

And I said, well, so I didn't know who this was and I began making phone calls to all of my friends who knew anything about Chinese religion, "Have you ever heard of this... ," and no one really had, but it turns out this is a Taoist deity. And so the next time I went back I said, "You know I think this Ho Shin Jin is Taoist.

And he said, "Yeah."

And I said, "Well, but you told me this was a Buddhist Temple."

He said, "It is. Oh yeah, we do all of that."

He calls it a Buddhist temple, but it's one of those that really reflects the popular religiosity from his little village, right on the coast, in Fujian. Anyway, his village is called Fuchi, and there are four thousand residents registered there. Two thousand of them are here in New York, so half of the village is here. They have come gradually over the course, since 1985. Now his temple serves as a ritual center, and a community center for people from that area. So, every first and fifteenth of the Lunar month on the Lunar calendar, people come to offer prayers to the Buddha, to Guan Yin. Then on Guan Yin's birthday, this is a time when it's very, very busy, with many women on their lunch breaks from the garment sweatshops. I counted two hundred during the last Guan Yin's birthday. There are three Guan Yin's birthdays during the course of the year.

Which Guan Yin do they celebrate, which one?

They celebrate all three. Well, there's September 10th. There's one in the summer in August, and there's one in March. They do all of them. And people come to lunch and they donate to the temple. On the wall of the temple is a list of tiny placards with people's names on them who contributed to the temple. It's a very tiny storefront. I have a picture of it. I'll show you in a little while. You'd never think anything happens inside the temple, but there's Master Liu. He greets people. He holds these festivals. On Chinese New Year, seven hundred people from the village came, these are the people who come from all over the northeast, who return on Chinese New Year to this temple, to reconnect with their family, with their kin group, their fellow villagers, and fellow religious practitioners.

So, it's a ritual center, but it's also a community center. It's a place where people mobilize the resources in order to survive in Chinatown. I would say, most of the folks that come through this temple are undocumented. They're outside of the legal system. They're very vulnerable to labor exploitation. None of them speak English. I invited them to come tonight and I told them that it was going to be in English, and they said, "Why should we go? None of us even understand English. Can you guarantee us that we'd have a translator?" And I couldn't guarantee that. So, they are very marginalized in many ways, but this is a place, and I think this is representative of the other Fujianese religious communities. It's a place where people go to mobilize resources, to find out where they can get a job. When the snakehead, the smuggler gets them to New York, one of the first stops is this temple. "Where's my family? How can I find them? Do you know where Delancy Street is? Where do I find a place to stay? Where do I find a job? I'm not feeling well, where can I find a doctor." None of them have medical insurance. None of them would know where to find a western doctor. They're all relying on folks who claim to be Chinese doctors. Some of them are, some of them aren't.

What I found in this temple is that they have a revolving loan fund. The current rate for a payment for being smuggled into the U.S. is $50,000, a piece. It costs them $50,000 to come to New York. These are simple rural folks, who, if they had a fourth or fifth grade education, that's a lot. Their families have been farmers, and fishing folks, so this is a major commitment of the family, and the individual to come here. Because they don't have $50,000 to pay up front, so they pay a little down payment to get on the bus that takes them to Guangzhou, Shamen, some place where they'll be put on a boat, a small boat at night, then they're taken out to the ocean where they're switched to a fishing [boat]. The fishing [boat] then crosses the Pacific. Five or six weeks later they arrive off the Coast of Mexico, where they're met by a little motorboat and the motorboat takes them inland, where they meet up with Coyotes, Mexican smugglers. So, snakeheads meet up with the Coyotes, and the Chinese and the Mexicans cross the Southern border together. I was interviewing Master Liu at this temple, once early on, and he was telling me this part of his journey. From Mexico, they crossed the border together and the helicopter came with the border patrol, just after they had gotten off. Spotlights were on them and they all ran for the hills, and a number of them had gotten away. One of the snakeheads was with him and he had a cell phone with him, so he dialed and he called one of the other snakeheads in the next town over. They came in a van. They picked him up. They drove to Los Angeles. They put him in a hotel with another hundred smuggled Chinese who were waiting there. They put them on planes to Washington, and they held them there until they could come up with enough money that they would let them out. Part of what people do then is that they call up all their friends, and all their relatives, anybody from the village they can think of to try to borrow the money to be released. If they can't, then they end up working for the smugglers, and there are many places of prostitution in Chinatown. Young men are put into gangs. The prostitution and other illegal activities are very risky thing that people do to come, and they don't always know how risky it is until they get here.

This temple, well, I guess they have a very informal revolving loan fund. Actually the master said to me, "Well, we don't have a lot of money, but if we have some, and somebody comes and say they need it, then we loan it to them. If the next person comes and say they need some, we'll loan it out again." So, this is a religious community as ritual center, as community center, as a place to mobilize social resources and social capital for survival. One of the amazing things about Master Liu's temple is that since he opened it in 1987, he has raised over a million U.S. dollars, from those two thousand villagers. They have taken it back. They don't have a bank account here in New York. They just carry it back and they've built a huge temple complex in this little tiny village. It has a hall for the Buddha, a hall for Guan Yin, and a hall for Ho Shin Jin. In the back, behind the Guan Yin hall, there are other small alters for all the other local deities, from Mod Tzu, to a number of other deities. The million dollars is a sign of a number of things. One is the belief of these people that Ho Shin Jin is real, that Ho Shin Jin has power, that Ho Shin Jin has granted them a safe journey, employment, and helped them along the way. People come to the temple all the time to pray to Ho Shin Jin, and Master Liu is their intermediary. They pray, he listens, and Ho Shin Jin gives him dreams. To Ho Shin Jin, one of his specialties is solving non-resolvable problems. So if you have a non-resolvable problem, you can go to the temple and say your prayers. Ho Shin Jin will offer a dream sometimes directly to the person asking for the dream, or sometimes indirectly to Master Liu who will intercede. Sometimes it will happen several weeks after the prayers. I said to Master Liu one day, "How do these people know that this is real?" He said, "Well, enough people think that it's real, that they've given us a million dollars. The dreams have been right enough, that people have entrusted me with this money and offered it back to the deity as a sign of gratitude.

I had a chance last spring to go with Master Liu back to Fuzhou, because every year they have a special festival in the spring. I went with him for a week for this festival. It was phenomenal. I have some photos and some slides of that too. When he travels back, people come from all the villages around, because of the money they've contributed to the village economy. The construction alone on the temple, contributes to the village economy, plus they've made some very strategic and shrewd investments in the village as well. When the village needs to build a school, they contributed to the building of the school. They've built a new road through the village. So when Master Liu travels back, the mayor and the top Communist party official go to the airport to meet him, and they bring him back to the village. At the main banquet, everybody shows up, including all the government officials. What was fascinating to me was to see a lot of good folks from New York there as well. Folks who had gotten documentation, who had green cards or U.S. passports, they were there too, and they had come back for the festival. People were moving back and forth on a regular basis.

I want to point out about the temple and Master Liu that he really succeeded in transplanting and recreating local religious practice from this village to New York City, in a very authentic way. He is able to build a linkage between New York City and China, so that even though people can not, many of these people can't travel back and forth because they just don't have the legal status, but they still feel connected to their home town, and they still feel like they're active participants in the home town's life. They contribute this money, and a temple has been built. Every time Master Liu goes back, there's somebody in the village who videotapes the festival. That videotape comes back with Master Liu and it plays constantly in the temple. Copies are made, and then sent out to people who live in New Jersey or Connecticut and they see their friends from back home.

This kind of information will just go back and forth. I think, for many of these folks, for many first generation immigrants from Fuzhou, there is really little opportunity that they will be incorporated into mainstream U.S. economy and culture. They don't speak English, and there's no time to learn and no one's teaching it. They will probably live their whole lives in Chinatown or at least within the Chinese networks that extend to these restaurants across the northeast, around the country. In some ways, this participation in a live, transnational religious community, allows them an alternative to incorporation. It allows them an alternative to becoming an American. It allows them to remain a "Fuzhou-Ren," or Fuzhounese, to be somebody from Fuchi village and have that be their primary identity, even though they're in New York, the heart of American culture and global capitalism. This sense of connection to the present is a very important role that temple and churches play. It really pains me to say that the lives of these folks are very, very difficult.

These anthropological studies are fascinating because they're longitudinal. You're there over a period of time and so you see people over the course of two, three, or more years. I've watched young people smuggled in, got a job, lost a job, then got a job and lost it again, while their health deteriorated. You see over time, not only their physical health but their mental health as well, a lot of folks just lost it, not able to survive and sustain themselves. So, we really don't want to underestimate the value and the importance of the religious connections in the communities that give the new immigrants courage and support to survive in a very, very difficult situation.

Master Liu has traveled back and forth between Fuzhou and New York, but he has never been to the Statue of Liberty, nor has he ever been to Times Square. He has never been to a museum, and he has never been out of Chinatown, with the exception of taking the taxi from Eldridge Street to J.F.K. He's an international traveler, but he's completely isolated in Chinatown, and in the American community. I keep saying, "Come on, let's go." And he says, "Well, I really need to stay here in the temple." I think it is fascinating that somebody who's a central leader in this community, a major figure with this transnational network and operation, someone who has raised a million dollars, has never been really beyond the boundaries of Chinatown.

Transcription by Antony Wong; edited by Thomas Tam

 

 

 


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