Catching up with Chinese Brooklyn

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By Stefanos Chen

James Lim is that rare journalist who is actually well-liked by the people he writes about. One night, not long ago, he arrived early for the 72nd precinct’s community affairs meeting in Sunset Park, and it wasn’t long before he was swarmed by friendly greeters.

James Lim at the 72nd Precinct Community Affairs meeting
James Lim at the 72nd Precinct Community Affairs meeting. Photo: Chen/Brooklyn Ink

“Hey, whatcha got for me, James,” asked a young Chinese police officer.

Lim shrugged and smiled. A stream of cops and local residents walked by, offering firm handshakes and wry banter.

“What’s up with that camera, James? You need something bigger.” Lim deflected the jibes with a grin. “I don’t want one, too heavy,” he said. At the tail end of the procession, the chairman of Community Board 7, Randy Peers, caught him off guard.

“Thanks a lot for the story, James,” he said.

Lim was gracious, but still paused for a moment. “Who translates for you?” he asked.

“I’ve got people,” said Peers.

And so, apparently, does Lim. As one of the only reporters who can call Chinese Brooklyn their beat, he is the go-to source for all things Chinese in the borough of Kings.

Lim is a Senior Reporter for the Sing Tao Daily, one of the largest Chinese-language newspapers in the world. Founded in 1938 in Hong Kong, Sing Tao has grown to include nine international bureaus that circulate 16 different editions in over 100 cities around the world. In 1965, the first of four local editions in the Eastern United States was established in New York’s Chinatown. To meet the needs of the growing Chinese population, two more offices were later opened in separate, developing Chinatowns across the city—one in Flushing, Queens; the other in Sunset Park.

The Sing Tao Brooklyn office occupies two rooms in this crowded Sunset Park apartment building. Chen/The Brooklyn Ink
The Sing Tao Brooklyn office occupies two rooms in this crowded Sunset Park apartment building. Photo: Chen/Brooklyn Ink

But unless you craned your neck up at the apartment building canvassed in colorful Chinese signage on 55th St., you wouldn’t notice Sing Tao’s Brooklyn outpost. Located in the middle of Eighth Avenue, the main thruway for the area’s densely populated Chinatown, the building seems better suited for a grocery store—indeed, several Chinese markets surround the three-story property. The office occupies just two studio-sized rooms on the second floor of the cramped building. Eight other businesses share the same address—among them, a teashop, a computer store, a travel agency, a cellphone kiosk, and a “magic jewelry” shop that specializes in Feng Shui.

The staircase leading up to the office is narrow and creaky, and is constantly in use by other tenants, forcing visitors to strafe along the banister as they pass each other single-file. At the top of the stairs are three signs in English and Chinese to help visitors navigate the cramped hallway ahead. Sing Tao is situated between an accountant’s office and a driving school. Inside, the office is split into two rooms—an administrative space for the accounts manager, and a side room shared by the company’s two Brooklyn reporters. The walls are covered in family photos, phone directories and bright red Chinese New Year posters from Foxwoods Casino. The only natural light comes from two windows on the far wall that faces Eighth Avenue. But while the accommodations are spare, it’s hard to knock the brand recognition that Sing Tao commands.

The stairway leading to Sing Tao is canvassed in banners for neighboring businesses. Chen/The Brooklyn Ink
The stairway leading to Sing Tao is canvassed in banners for neighboring businesses. Photo: Chen/Brooklyn Ink

“Lots of immigrants, they really believe the newspaper,” Lim said with a still-audible Chinese accent. With his fitted black sweater, blue jeans and dark boots, he looks the part of a beat reporter, even at 48. “One time I asked this Chinese guy, ‘why did you vote for Bloomberg?’ And he says to me, ‘because the newspaper said so.’”

All told, the New York edition of Sing Tao Daily circulates about 50,000 copies citywide and 11,000 in Brooklyn alone, according to their New York circulation desk. The World Journal, another internationally recognized Chinese-language newspaper, claims to circulate some 88,000 copies in New York and 12,000 in the borough. (It is difficult to independently verify these claims without auditing the companies; though, tellingly, the World Journal’s Brooklyn office is located within a Chinese bookstore, just a few blocks away from the Sing Tao building.)  What these figures fail to capture, however, is the scope of the newspapers’ influence over Chinese New Yorkers, especially the recently immigrated.

“When there’s a problem, they call my office instead of the police,” Lim said. “It’s because of the language barrier, trust.” Many Chinese immigrants, he added, fear the police.

Lim’s path to Sing Tao was an unlikely one. He was born and raised in Malaysia, where he studied Chinese literature at the University of Malaya. In 1989, he entered the United States immigrant lottery to apply for permanent residence. In 1990, he was informed that out of 5.4 million applicants, he was one of some 10,000 to be admitted to the country. While he was already working at a newspaper in Malaysia, he decided he would leave his job and try his luck in America. He even wrote a parting article on the subject for his hometown paper.

He arrived to discover that his prospects were less than appealing. “When I first came, I knew nothing, so I didn’t look for a job like this,” he said. Although he studied many dialects of Chinese, Malay and English at university, he needed time to adjust. “New York is intimidating,” he said. “I reported in Malaysia, but it’s different.” He traveled alone and was unfamiliar with his surroundings. At first he worked as a waiter and later as a restaurant manager, before preparing himself for another crack at journalism. He spent nine months working for a Taiwanese television station before he started to work for the Sing Tao Chinatown office in 1994. In 2004, he made the move to the Brooklyn office.

“The pay is no good,” he says, “but we survive.” Through the tumult of moving to a new country, Lim never married and the rest of his family still resides in Malaysia. “At first, my mother didn’t like it,” he said with a grin. “But after I sent her money, then she happy.”

He works from Tuesday to Saturday at the Brooklyn office, though he is often out on assignment. On the night of the community affairs meeting, he had just returned from a press conference where Mayor Bloomberg was speaking. On average, he writes two to three stories a day, or 2000 to 3000 words in Chinese. But over the years, the bulk of his work has dealt with a range of stories hardly noticed by the American press. As one of only two reporters assigned to Brooklyn by the Sing Tao Daily, much of his work over the years has focused on shining a light on the conditions of Chinese immigrant life.

In one recent article, he wrote about an immigrant couple that was robbed of their savings through an over-the-phone pyramid scam. The schemers, based in Hong Kong, would call the wife and inform her that she’d won a large sum of money. To claim her prize, she need only send them a series of fees for proof of identity. Through this incremental process, they stole tens of thousands of dollars from the couple. They were too ashamed to publish their names in the piece. In another story, Lim followed the court case of a woman who lost custody of her child after fleeing the country to escape her abusive husband. Before that, Lim recounted a string of violent attacks against Chinese deliverymen who were being targeted by black and Latino gang members as part of an increasingly popular initiation rite. Other stories have involved missing persons, passport hoaxes, crackdowns on sex shops, school reform, organized crime and a sundry list of other issues reflected through the prism of the Brooklyn Chinese community’s experiences. Because of the small number of Chinese-speaking journalists that cover Brooklyn, many, if not all of Lim’s stories, would have gone unreported if he had not covered them.

The work can also be more prosaic, as it was at the recent board meeting. Lim fiddled with his point-and-shoot camera as the board members took their seats. Seated across from him was a young Chinese woman from rival World Journal. He greeted her warmly. When he has an exclusive, Lim said, he won’t share information with the World Journal. But tonight was different. He told the young woman a joke in Chinese and she laughs. He seems in many ways like a mentor to the young journalist.

Lim and a reporter from World Journal at the 72nd precinct community affairs meeting. Chen/The Brooklyn Ink
Lim and a reporter from World Journal at the 72nd precinct community affairs meeting. Chen/The Brooklyn Ink

Lim moves to the front of the room to take pictures as the month’s crime statistics are announced and the young journalists follows close behind. Lim opened a small notepad and began taking notes in a mix of Chinese characters and English shorthand. He filled about two pages before flipping the book shut with a satisfied flick of the wrist.

The two reporters stayed for just 20 minutes – their respective deadlines loomed. The young woman from World Journal said she would have to run to her company’s Chinatown office to file this evening, as the Brooklyn office closes before deadline. They rose quietly, gathered their belongings, and waved at the police officers who nodded and smiled back. As they approached the exit, Peers sprang up from his seat and followed them down the hall. They were in a rush but he caught them near the exit. He wanted to know if they’d cover a community board meeting he’d be involved in the next day—a liquor license dispute involving a strip club in the neighborhood. Lim responded briskly, affirmatively, and walked out the door.

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