Manhattan's Chinatown Pressured to Sell Out

By Michael Powell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 21, 2005

NEW YORK, May 20 -- The sounds on the fifth-story factory floor in Chinatown are nearly timeless: the whirr-whirr of sewing machines, feet tap-tapping on pedals, and the juicy vowels of 50 or so women chatting in Fujianese and Cantonese as they work fabric into vast piles of pants and shirts.

So how is business?

Garment factory owner Peter Wong, 44, smiles wanly and runs his hand over close-cropped black hair. "Off by half in the past six months," he says. "We can't compete with China. The future for my business is very, very dim."

The lifting of world quotas on Chinese textiles has sent a flood of Chinese-made cotton trousers, cotton knit shirts and underwear into the United States and Western Europe. This has devastated factories and jeopardized millions of jobs in places as far-flung as Central America and Sri Lanka, but it has also fallen like a death blow on one of Manhattan's last great immigrant neighborhoods -- Chinatown. Thousands of workers have lost their jobs or had their hours pared back in recent months, and dozens of factories have closed.

It is another economic insult for a neighborhood hit hard by the twin blows of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and a superheated real estate market. In the past few years, real estate developers have converted several towering turn-of-the-last-century factory buildings into multimillion-dollar loft buildings. The number of garment factories in Chinatown has fallen from 400 in 2000 to about 150, with rumors of new closings each week.

At least 30 percent of the factory owners now operate without building leases.

"It's been a battle with gentrification and cheap Chinese textiles -- the factory owners cannot plan even a few months out," said Kevin Chu of the Garment Industry Development Corp. "It's scary -- these garment factories are the backbone of Chinatown economy. Without them, the neighborhood perimeter is shrinking every day."

Unite Here, the historically powerful garment workers union, has closed its Chinatown office. Its membership has fallen by about half to 5,000.

The Bush administration imposed quotas this week to limit growth of Chinese imports to 7.5 percent a year. In response, the Chinese government announced Friday that it voluntarily would slap its own tariffs on 74 categories of textiles.

Such steps might buy Chinatown's factories a few months' grace. But few owners see a long-term remedy.

"In a strange way our problem is the people of China," said Wong, who was born in Hong Kong and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. "They can make it cheaper. Their factories don't demand payment until the textiles are delivered -- we can't compete with this."

The importance of garment factories and restaurants to the traditional economy of Manhattan's Chinatown -- which in the 1980s surpassed San Francisco as the largest such enclave in the nation -- cannot be overstated. For more than half a century, Chinese women trudged up creaking wooden stairs to factory floors. Their wages are modest, but they receive union health benefits. Their husbands, meanwhile, traditionally worked in the non-unionized restaurants, which offered high take-home pay but no health benefits.

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