Flushing’s Chinatown seen in 60 minutes

If you have a couple of hours on your hands, a camera in your bag, and it’s a crisp day in New York, what do you do?
Go shooting of course and there is plenty to choose from – Downtown, SoHo, Chelsea, Central Park, Union Square, myriad Brooklyn neighborhoods, the Upper West Side, and others. I’ve been to all these places and while there is no excuse to not go back to any of these locations for street photography, I felt like trying something new. I had never been to Flushing’s Chinatown and had only recently even heard of it while reviewing a photo experience on Loculars, so some blithe gray cell in my head led me onto the 7 train headed to Flushing from Grand Central Terminal.

For the next fifty odd minutes on the train, I wondered what Flushing’s version of Chinatown would be. As context, I had recently been to the original NYC Chinatown in the Lower East Side with street photographer Dimitri Mellos, whose visual perspectives on the neighborhood have featured on LensCulture and The Leica Blog. Flushing’s Chinatown is reputed to be bigger, but would it have the same working-class grit and visual narrative of how immigrants live in much the same way they did a century ago? I had one hour to find out, or at least get a teaser clip, before heading to the airport to catch a flight.

© Ayash Basu
© Ayash Basu

For starters, unlike its Manhattan cousin, Flushing’s Chinatown has a definitive entry point — the last stop on the 7 train (Main Street-Flushing station), or the LIRR Flushing station, situated around the corner. As a result, much of the commercial activity is concentrated on the Roosevelt Avenue-Main Street intersection. For a photographer, the action starts right as you step out of the station — hawkers, food stalls, storefronts, commuters, workers, and residents. The energy is fast-paced and there is a lot to absorb. In fact, my entire hour was spent just at the intersection of Main Street and Roosevelt Avenue, plus a 50-meter walk on either side of these streets. This was not even scratching the surface, rather just taking off the wrapper.

© Ayash Basu
© Ayash Basu

Flushing definitely has a bigger and more energetic feel to it versus Manhattan, mainly due to the greater number of people here. And while it is a working-class neighborhood, there is a marginal middle-class feel to it. It’s cleaner, buildings are relatively newer, stores are bigger, and the street crowd feels more diverse, probably even more educated and aware. While Manhattan’s Chinatown is more a reflection of the first wave of Fujianese and Cantonese migrants to America in the early 1900s, Flushing plays the movie from the 1970s onwards and the cast is predominantly Mandarin. I saw one restaurant posting a big, bold sign saying “Cantonese is also spoken here.”

© Ayash Basu
© Ayash Basu
© Ayash Basu

Aesthetically and visually, red is everywhere, much like in any Chinatown. But so are magentas, yellows, greens, and pinks. The color palette is strikingly rich. The architecture semi-modern from the 70s and 80s, and the people from all walks of life. Youngsters with colored hair and shiny trinkets, young parents taking their children to school, grandmas shopping for groceries, men working the stores, more educated men working in banks and offices, street performers, religious and spiritual groups, meditation associations, and the list goes on. If you pick a spot and just stand there for 10 minutes, something shot-worthy will happen. And that’s a “not-so-regular” street photographer talking.

Where Chinatown Manhattan screams “migrant neighborhood in an old part of New York,” Flushing presents itself as “the tier-2 neighborhood from the outskirts of a big city in China.” Well, the belt around Main Street-Roosevelt Avenue does. There are other arterial streets here such as 41st Avenue and Northern Boulevard, and a sizeable Korean community on the eastern edge at Union Street, none of which I had a chance to explore this time.

© Ayash Basu. Over recent years, Flushing’s population has grown to be more diverse — the ethnic mix includes non-Asians amongst both the resident and working population.
© Ayash Basu. The resident population in Flushing is younger, hipper, more diverse and probably half a step ahead in terms of education and finances relative to Chinatown in Manhattan.

I had to forcefully end my trip after an hour, but this was an awesome appetizer to a delicious main course I am much looking forward to having soon. Despite the hour-long train ride each way from midtown Manhattan, this was totally worth the effort, and I can see how spending 3 to 4 hours here is required to get a meaningful essence. As I boarded the train back to the city, my parting thought was, “if you want to see the Chinese community in New York, go to the Lower East Side, but if you want to see the Chinese Manhattan, go to Flushing.”

© Ayash Basu. American businesses and Chinese banks and insurance companies co-existing to cater to the Asian community is not an unusual sight in Flushing.

Ace street photographer and founder of New York Street Photography Collective, Jorge Garcia offers a truly hands-on street photography experience in Flushing’s Chinatown, where he has been making street images for years. This is an incredible and tailored opportunity for street photographers to explore a lesser-known gem in NYC while shooting side-by-side with a talented storyteller.