Asian immigrants drawn to U.S. came to Flushing

“I was on this street over 30 years ago,” recalled Cheng, 78, in a recent interview with the TimesLedger. “There was only one other Chinese guy.”

By Alexander Dworkowitz

When Henry Cheng first came to Flushing’s Union Street in 1968, he found few people who resembled him.

“I was on this street over 30 years ago,” recalled Cheng, 78, in a recent interview with the TimesLedger. “There was only one other Chinese guy.”

A generation later, as he looked over the hundreds of Asian-Americans teeming downtown Flushing, Cheng laughed.

As any casual visitor of Flushing would immediately recognize, the neighborhood has become a haven for Asian immigrants. Flushing is now home to the city’s largest Korean enclave, the city’s second largest Chinese community, and large populations of almost every Asian country, from India to Vietnam to Afghanistan.

The boom in Flushing’s Asian population started in the mid-1960s. In 1965, Congress passed a law increasing the quota from Asian countries from 100 to 20,000 immigrants a year, Queens College Sociology Professor Pyong Gap Min explained.

“The United States needed to change it,” said Min, who has studied the borough’s Asian-American communities. “The U.S. needed more support from Third World countries in the United Nations.”

The United States also had an economic incentive to pass the law, Min said. The country was experiencing a shortage of medical professionals, and officials hoped to recruit doctors from other nations to help fill in the gap. Many of Flushing Indian immigrants were recruited as doctors, Min said.

A year before the change in the law, Flushing Meadows Corona Park was host to the 1964’s World Fair. The fair brought attention to Flushing.

“A lot of Chinese visitors from Taiwan and Hong Kong were working at the fair,” said Cheng. “After that, they stayed here and opened up restaurants and markets.”

Cheng, who worked as a police officer in Taiwan, decided to take advantage of the more lenient immigration laws and enrolled in Michigan State University’s Department of Public Safety and Police Administration. After graduating, he came to Flushing in 1968.

Cheng is thought of as Flushing’s unofficial Chinese historian. He helped found the Queens Chinese Association in 1979, the Flushing Chinese Business Association in 1982 and the Chinese Americans Voters Association in 1983.

The three groups looked to organize different aspects of life for the Chinese-American population. The Queens Chinese Association started out simply looking to organize a New Year’s celebration, and was primarily a social group. The Flushing Chinese Business Association looked to increase business in downtown Flushing, while the Chinese American Voters Association aimed at increasing the numbers of Chinese voters and thereby the political power of the Asian community.

“These organizations helped the community, not only their members,” said Cheng. “They promoted Flushing.”

A series of other organizations were established in the 1980s with similar goals.

Immigration, meanwhile, continued to increase. The Asian population was in particular attracted to Flushing because it was a transportation hub, said Li Yu Ning, a professor at St. John’s University’s Institute of Asian Studies.

“Flushing is where the transportation is,” she said. “It has been the center of commerce and cultural development.”

Min said that northeast Queens also had good schools, and education is traditionally very important in Asian cultures.

“For children’s education, definitely Queens was a very good place,” he said.

In recent years, the immigration patterns have changed in Flushing. With increasing economic prosperity in Taiwan and South Korea, the number of immigrants from those nations has decreased.

In their place, Flushing has become the destination of immigrants from mainland China.

Ning said that Flushing continues to remain attractive to immigrants because it is “very rich in human resources.”

“In Flushing, I don’t know how many doctors there are,” she said. Hundreds, maybe thousands, just on Main Street. Flushing is the most wonderful place in the world, and I cannot think of a place more suitable for Asians and Americans than Flushing.”

Reach reporter Alexander Dworkowitz by e-mail at [email protected] or call 229-0300 Ext. 141.

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