Connecticut's Unexpected Chinatowns

Thousands of Chinese have chosen Montville and Norwich over New York’s Canal Street since 2001.

Image Stephen Fan
Stephen Fan

Thousands of workers in Manhattan’s Chinatown were laid off in the months following September 11, 2001. For many, Southeast Connecticut became their new home.

Twenty-three percent of workers in Chinatown—many in the garment and restaurant industries—became unemployed following the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Temporary security measures made truck deliveries and parking south of Canal Street nearly impossible. Tourism declined. According to an Asian American Federation of New York report, more than 40 garment factories closed by the end of 2001, while a majority of restaurants reported losses between 30 and 70 percent. Between 2000 and 2010, Chinatown lost 8.7 percent of its population and 11,000 rent-controlled apartments.

Montville and Norwich, the towns surrounding the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos, became the new homes to many former Chinatown residents who retrained to work in the hospitality and gaming industries. Two of the largest gaming facilities in the Northeast, the 24-hour casinos today employ more than 7,000 workers each, spread over three shifts. Many workers choose to maintain a car-free, high-density lifestyle in spite of their new and spacious surroundings.

(Stephen Fan and Shane Keaney)

Stephen Fan, a Chinese American raised in Norwich before its post-9/11 demographic shift, has been studying the changes closely in a publication and traveling exhibit called SubUrbanisms: Casino Urbanization, Chinatowns, and the Contested American Landscape. “My parents still live there and I saw this Chinatown develop in their backyard,” says Fan.

His research is currently on exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America, located in the same Chinatown so many in Connecticut today left behind 15 years ago. Montville and Norwich won’t be mistaken for Canal Street, but Fan’s research points to a unique set of modifications to classic suburbia.

The casinos themselves attract Asian populations across the Northeast. At Mohegan Sun, many Asian patrons arrive by Asian bus lines before playing Asian table games and eating Asian food. The casino’s convention center hosts concerts and pageants that cater to Asian audiences.

Outside casino property, front lawns—a new concept to many Chinese immigrants—are often repurposed into places for growing vegetables and hanging fish to dry. Common now, such repurposing was a cause for debate in the Fan household growing up. “My father’s a first-generation immigrant, a rural farmer, and he wanted to grow vegetables in our front lawn,” he recalls. “My mother, fearing the neighbor’s disapproval, was very much against it.”

(Stephen Fan and Shane Keaney)

The low-density communities of Montville and Norwich certainly weren’t built with walkability and group housing in mind, but it’s happening anyway, and not always because of income constraints. “A lot of these casino workers walk to work even though they can afford and know how to drive, but they see the fresh clean air of Connecticut as a resource to be cherished,” says Fan. Many choose to live in group homes to save money for either family remittances or to eventually purchase their own place. Some even choose it to live with those who share a language and culture, while other non-Asian casino workers choose it for the convenience and the comfort of living with others.

“This was perhaps one of the most surprising findings,” says Fan.

It’s not unusual now to see a three-bedroom home occupied by as many as 12 people at once. Fan points out in his research that additional bedrooms have been created out of underused spaces or added on as extensions, not by subdividing existing bedrooms. “Instead of formally proposing changes, most zoning officials have looked the other way,” he says. “These are often illegal transformations and laws cannot be enforced unless someone else reports those changes.”

(Stephen Fan)

A new informal economy comes with the migration as well. A Manhattan Chinatown-based accountant now sets up shop in a booth during tax season at Montville’s Golden Palace restaurant, described by Fan as the “de-facto community center” of this Connecticut Norwich’s Chinatown. There’s also the grocer with a shuttle bus, Fan explains, who transports goods from Manhattan to Connecticut before shuttling passengers on his way back into the city.

Conflict has also come with these changes. Roads that are seen as unwalkable by longtime residents are being used by immigrants to get to and from work by foot. Fan’s research notes two hit-and-runs and “many more” incidents of verbal and physical harassment by drivers against immigrant pedestrians. The language barrier, he notes, causes many of these incidents to go unreported to the police. A main commuting path for immigrants from a residential area that crosses private property on the way to the casino is referred to disparagingly by some as the “Ho Chi Minh trail.” There are property owners who place rocks or “keep of the grass” signs to discourage these informal pedestrian routes.

Even wi-fi is contested, with Fan coming across a “NO CHINKS ALLOWED” network name at one point.

(Stephen Fan)

Fan’s work has helped local leaders become more aware of a politically voiceless demographic, and some changes are already underway. Jason Vincent, a former vice president of the Norwich Community Development Corporation, tells CityLab that a lot of the town’s pro-density updates to its comprehensive plan “reflect some of the sensibilities that Stephen’s project was hoping to influence.” Heavily involved in the process, Vincent notes that home gardens no longer require a permit and that a Greenway Open Space District has been created along the Yantic and Shetucket river corridors, which will help transform informal links into “formal, walkable corridors.”

As new casinos sprout up in nearby states, there’s no guarantee that Southeast Connecticut’s Chinese community will keep growing without the success of its gaming industry. But they’re already helping the region reimagine itself while asking, as SubUrbanisms asks all of us: “How much space do we really need?”

Suburbanisms: Casino Urbanization, Chinatowns, and the Contested American Landscape runs until March 27, 2016 at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in Manhattan. The companion edited volume can be purchased on Fan’s website.

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