East Meets West in Sunset Park

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East Meets West in Sunset Park
Washington, DC's Chinatown gate. Wikipedia Creative Commons photo by Postdlf.
Washington, DC’s Chinatown gate. (Wikipedia Creative Commons photo by Postdlf.)

Brooklyn’s Sunset Park is the new Chinese mecca. The highly populated Chinese community there has outgrown Chinese communities in Manhattan as well as others across America. It would like some recognition. And it is eventually going to get some—in the form of a large and elaborate multi-tiered archway that will be installed in the area.

Archway? What’s that all about?

The majority of the people in Sunset Park’s Chinatown are Fujian immigrants who have migrated to the area seeking opportunity in what is known as “Fuzhou Town.” The archway—called a Paifang— is an important symbol in the Chinese culture.

Liang Sicheng, a renowned architect and architectural historian of modern China, wrote in an article, Historic Archways of Ningbo, “The Paifang or Archway bears political, economic, cultural and artistic values. Politically, Paifang was built in order to honor those who made outstanding accomplishments in moral practices, governance, imperial examination and wars. Ideologically, Paifang reflects religious traditions and etiquette systems of dynastic China. Economically, Paifang crystallizes social stability and economic prosperity.”

Where are such arches usually placed?

According to Chinatownology, a website run by a group of cultural Chinese enthusiasts, archways are usually found at the borders between the host society and the Chinese community separating the two social and cultural spaces. The common inscription on the archways, “All under Heaven is for the good of the people,” link the host society with the Chinese community and that is why archways are often called ‘Friendship Arches’ or ‘Goodwill Arches.’”

Why doesn’t Manhattan’s Chinatown have one?

Wellington Chen, Executive Director of Chinatown Partnership in Manhattan, is a noted public servant and long-time community advocate, urban planner, and urban affairs specialist. Chen has been unsuccessfully petitioning for an archway in Manhattan’s Chinatown for many years. He says he thinks New York’s lack of understanding of the significance of the Chinese culture could be the reason for the delay.

Chen says, “They are not just archways, but gateways, a threshold that symbolizes whatever you do on earth will be recognized in the heavens. It’s a sign of self-respect—that you exist, that you were here. There are very few places where Chinese congregate that there isn’t one.”

He remembers when cast iron pillars covered in concrete hung the elevated trains above Canal Street. “Looking back on it, we already had archways.”

Brooklyn may have a better shot.

Is there a benefit to local businesses?

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams believes Chinese businesses are a huge boon for the borough and should be recognized. And there is this. According to Adams, “Brooklyn has the largest Chinese population in New York and the largest population outside of Asia.” Adams believes bringing the gateway to New York would help get archways in other cities. “The archway is a symbol that should be honored and respected,” he says.

Who’s paying for it?

According to The Brooklyn Eagle, Brooklyn’s archway will be a gift to the Sunset Park community  from the Chaoyang District of Beijing China. There isn’t a shortage of donors. According to Chen, Beijing philanthropists are waiting for approval from the city.

Paul Mak, from Sunset Park’s Chinese-American Association, and Winnie Greco, director of a nonprofit called The Sino-American New York Brooklyn Archway Association Corp., have both been instrumental in making sure that East meets West in Sunset Park by securing the donation, according to the Eagle. Former Borough President Marty Markowitz announced the impending archway last year at his final press conference.

Then, according to the New York Post, the non-profit run by Winnie Greco paid $7,000 for an 11-day trip to China for Adams and his deputy advisor, Diana Reyna, to travel to China. Adams told the Post the trip was intended “to promote economic development and tourism by signing two sister-city agreements and by securing a “Friendship Archway” for the Chinese community in Sunset Park.” Adams’s staffers said the city’s Conflict of Interest Board cleared the trip a day before their departure, according to the Post.

Where exactly will the archway go and when will it arrive?

Adams says he is working with the Department of Transportation and the Community Board members in Sunset Park to define the right location to erect the archway. The exact date of arrival has not yet been scheduled.

Local residents are hopeful that they will see the promised gateway fulfilled. Chen from the Chinatown Partnership says, “We are hopeful that there will be a light at the end of the tunnel and that the light shines on the fact that we are not going away.”

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