NEW YORK -- It devoured Mulberry Street, where ancient Calabrian women used to swap ripe green olives and goat's cheese. Then it spread across Bayard Street, the Bowery and Division Street, once the dominion of pushcart peddlers, shriveled Jewish elders in yarmulkes and bright-eyed expatriate youths of Eastern Europe.

Finally, it edged into the trendy lofts of Tribeca. Slowly, inexorably, Chinatown has overtaken Manhattan's Lower East Side, the gritty, energetic and

indestructible frontier for generations of new Americans.

Driven by a massive surge of investment from wealthy Hong Kong industrialists who fear the future after 1997, when their fortress of capitalism reverts to Chinese control after years of British rule, new

construction has begun on nearly every block in the area.

"I have never seen or heard of anything like it," said Charlie Chin, education director of the New York Chinatown History Project. "It has been phenomenal, an explosion. They are coming in from everywhere now, Chinese from all across the world looking for a fresh start and a decent way of life."

At last count, 11 Chinese-language newspapers,

28 banks, more than 450 restaurants and almost

as many small garment factories are in the more than 100-block area extending from the East River to Grand Street and, in some cases, as far north as Houston Street. Sidewalk noodle vendors pay the city as much as $5,000 a year for 16 square feet of work space.

Once a six-block colony of several thousand seamen, laundry workers and laborers from a few small villages in China's Guangdong Province west of Hong Kong, Chinatown now has at least 100,000 residents, the mayor's Office of Asian Affairs estimates. Many people in the area say the figure could be at least three times as high if one counts illegal and undocumented residents.

The Cantonese word for Division Street, which cuts through the center of Chinatown, means "Go Buy Hat Street," because the avenue was filled with Jewish haberdashers when the first Chinese arrived here.

"I'm here since 1921," said Max Fuchs, owner of Nathan and Max, a clothing store that specializes in uniforms and is one of the last Jewish stores in the neighborhood. "I was a kid pushing a cart with fruit. There were maybe 1,000 Chinese, probably less. It was all Jews and Italians then. I got nothing against the Chinese, though. They are lovely people. But they don't buy a lot of uniforms."

Even the single block of Mulberry Street that by city ordinance must be preserved with the "look" of Little Italy has given way to the new wave of immigrants. Although the buildings are packed with Italian specialty shops and such restaurants as Pellegrino's and Paesano, it takes only a glance at the second, third and fourth floors of the tenements to see what is really happening.

Window after window is bathed in the eerie glow of fluorescent light, the sure sign of a garment factory. Above nearly every Italian restaurant, dozens of Chinese women labor over sewing machines 10 hours a day. According to the New York Chinatown History Project, nearly 75 percent of working women here are employed in such factories.

On dozens of blocks, it is impossible not to imagine oneself in Hong Kong while listening to the nasal intonations of Cantonese and watching children carry barbecued ducks, pigs and chickens home for dinner.

Any fish, from eel to striped bass, can be purchased along with everything from traditional ginseng and medicines to the most sophisticated electronic gadgets. Herbalists still rub liniments of tiger balm and crushed antlers into ageless women on the street corner. Traditional wooden fish -- painted red for good luck, gold for wealth and green for growth -- can be found in stores and stalls throughout the area.

"The people are coming here the way they have always come to the Lower East Side and America," said M.B. Lee, a former president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the major informal governing body of Chinatown. "They hope to use it as a springboard to a better life in Queens or the suburbs. They will do whatever they need to do to make enough to move on."

It is not difficult to understand why. Many of the tenements built for the great wave of Jewish immigrants at the turn of the century still stand, dilapidated and hopelessly crowded with Chinese. Crime, while not as severe a problem as elsewhere in the city, has increased, and youth gangs often roam the streets.

"I come from Shanghai," said Du Xiaoling, a tiny man in a snug wool fisherman's hat, who said he lives on Mott Street in four rooms with seven relatives. He speaks no English and said Chinatown is the only place in New York he can afford.

After working at a restaurant, he hopes to migrate along the No. 7 subway line -- dubbed by many here

the "Orient Express" -- to Flushing, Queens, where a huge middle-class Chinese community has settled. "I don't want to stay like this," he said. "I have no choice but to live where I do. But I will certainly never stay here."

Most Chinese stay in Chinatown for a year or two and then move, making way for the next wave of immigrants from Taiwan, Southeast Asia, Hong Kong or China. Recently, as the ability to speak Spanish has gained importance in New York, Chinese immigrants from El Salvador and Argentina have become valued employees at several restaurants.

Construction, more than anything else, now characterizes Chinatown. At a time when New York is in a serious recession, the huge cranes never stop lifting walls and beams for new buildings here. Dozens of condominiums are under construction, many with spectacular views of the East River and Brooklyn Bridge.

"They may sell those apartments in a minute," Chin said. "But I can promise you one thing. It won't be to Chinese yuppies. Among the Chinese, there are no illusions about living in colorful, delightful Chinatown. That's for you white guys."