About this listing
A place for Chinatown seniors to participate together in traditional culture
Borough : Manhattan
Neighborhood : Chinatown
Place Matters Profile
By Meng Yu
The New York Chinatown Senior Citizens' Center is in the heart of Manhattanâs Chinatown. Look for a red brick building with fortunetellers, snack vendors, and shoe menders out front.
Every day, about 300 or 400 people come to the senior citizen center. Anyone who is not Chinese and is under the age of 60 or so will definitely stand out in the crowd, but is still welcome. According to Mr. Zhu, a volunteer staff member, of the centerâs 6,000 registered members, only 1 percent are non-Chinese, even though any legal resident over the age of 60 is eligible to join, regardless of nationality.
Few recent immigrants are involved in the center. Before World War II, some 90 percent of the Chinese in the United States were of Cantonese origin, with half coming from just one county, named Taishan (Toishan). Many of the Chinatown Senior Centerâs members are...
By Meng Yu
The New York Chinatown Senior Citizens' Center is in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Look for a red brick building with fortunetellers, snack vendors, and shoe menders out front.
Every day, about 300 or 400 people come to the senior citizen center. Anyone who is not Chinese and is under the age of 60 or so will definitely stand out in the crowd, but is still welcome. According to Mr. Zhu, a volunteer staff member, of the center’s 6,000 registered members, only 1 percent are non-Chinese, even though any legal resident over the age of 60 is eligible to join, regardless of nationality.
Few recent immigrants are involved in the center. Before World War II, some 90 percent of the Chinese in the United States were of Cantonese origin, with half coming from just one county, named Taishan (Toishan). Many of the Chinatown Senior Center’s members are Taishanese. Mr. Zhu, who himself is Taishanese, said many of his fellow townspeople emigrated because of poverty.
Members are engrossed playing games in the center’s biggest hall. The center also houses an engaging Cantonese opera club and an amateur singing and dancing troupe. Other regular activities include taiji (tai chi), calligraphy, and Chinese chess. The Chinese-American Planning Council established the senior center in 1974 with government funding. The center is located at 70 Mulberry street, in the former Public School 23 building, a Norman Romanesque revival edifice designed by C.B.J. Snyder in 1892. Snyder was Superintendent of School Buildings for the New York City Board of Education from 1891 to 1923, and is remembered as a prolific architect who advocated for improved school building design and construction as a means of creating a better society. The school opened in 1893 as an elementary school, and educated many European and first-generation immigrants.
The neighborhood's demographics shifted after the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943, and many Chinese children attended seventh and eighth grades at P.S. 23, where they frequently made first contact with non-Asians. In 1961 the school was predominantly attended by Chinese students, but employed only one Chinese teacher. The last class graduated in 1976, and the school relocated to nearby Confucius Plaza as the Yung Wing School. The Museum of Chinese in America, which began as the New York Chinatown History Project in 1980, was housed on the second floor of 70 Mulberry Street until 2009. Indeed, the museum's founders collected oral histories and objects from seniors at the center, whose memories and memorabilia now constitute a bridge between theirs and their parents' generations and future generations of Chinese Americans.
Fun and Games
Playing games is serious business at the center, and the members do so with a minimum of paraphernalia. All that is needed is a set of tian-jiu (tien-gow) tiles or ma-jiang (mah-jong) tiles. Tian-jiu is such an ancient game that most young people in China don’t even know of its existence. Ma-jiang, on the other hand, is still a favorite pastime of people in China.
At the Senior Citizens' Center, more people play tian-jiu than ma-jiang. You will find a tian-jiu player looks as totally absorbed in his tiles as a kid playing a computer game. A major difference between them is that the tian-jiu player sits facing another player (or three), rather than a computer screen. Tian-jiu is usually played by four people and sometimes by two.
Tian-jiu has a set of 32 tiles, nowadays usually made of hard plastic. In ancient times, they were made of ox bone or ivory. The tiles are divided into civilian and military suits, just as in ancient China the emperor’s officials were classified as civilian or military.
The hard-core gamers at the senior center turn up rain or shine. Playing games not only keeps the fingers nimble and the brain active, it provides an opportunity to meet with friends.
Cantonese opera is one of the hundreds of local operas in China. Efforts are being made in China to have it recognized by UNESCO as a "masterpiece of the oral and intangible" world cultural heritage, as another form of Chinese opera already has been designated. The center’s Cantonese opera club, which uses ancient Chinese musical notation, is one of the eight Cantonese opera clubs in New York. It was established a few years after the senior center was founded.
Besides elaborate costumes and make-up, Chinese opera also often incorporates acrobatics. In many operas, there is a distinction between “civilian” and “martial” pieces, which feature acrobatics. Like Western opera, love stories are popular in Chinese operas, and, as you can imagine, they are more likely to be found in civilian pieces. The performers at the center’s opera club sing many love stories, but don’t expect to see too much in the way of acrobatics there.
The club is jokingly referred to as the “king’s troupe,” or “1,000-years-of-age troupe.” In ancient China, kings were usually addressed as “1,000 years of age” and emperors, “10,000 years of age.” The age of the club members together exceeds 1,000 years, making them, collectively at least, a king of the lowest rank.
Usually a dozen members show up every afternoon during the week. Most of the audience members are of a similar age as the performers, and some of them don’t seem to be there purely as spectators. They have that I-can-do-that look in their eyes, and sometimes one will pick up an instrument and try it out. As a matter of fact, the three members I interviewed all learned the opera in that way.
Han Guo-wei, 79, came to the United States in 1985 to join his niece’s family. He worked as a typist at a publishing house in Hong Kong before retirement. In the past seven or eight years, he has learned to play two kinds of musical instruments -- the er’hu, or two-stringed fiddle, and a set of Chinese percussion instruments. He said, “We listened to Cantonese opera a lot when we were young, but I never learned it from a teacher. I had the opportunity [to learn] after I got here, listening to other people singing. I watched and listened; slowly, I learned.” He added, “I learned as I sang. I sang a lot and learned a lot and then I made it. If you love it, it will be faster.” Mr. Han was a prize winner at a Cantonese opera contest held in New York.
Huang Yansheng, who was born in Beijing, is one of the few people at the senior center who speaks Mandarin fluently. He came to the United States with his uncle to study more than 50 years ago and worked as a bank employee before retirement. The 78-year-old also learned two musical instruments at the club. He said he just bought the two instruments he liked and began to practice on them. Though he doesn’t sing, he knows that very few people at the club learn singing formally from teachers. “Of course, they get some instructions from teachers, for instance, in rhythm and pronunciation, making progress slowly. But usually, nobody has learned formally.”
Li Yuxiao, whose English name is Mary, sings at the club. She said she liked singing “modern” songs when she was young and that this helped her pick up opera singing faster than most people. Mary, who is Chinese Vietnamese, has a sweet smile and an unfailing sense of humor. Her father brought the family to Shanghai for business, but when the Japanese attacked Beijing in 1937, he sent her, her mother, and her little sister back to Vietnam to live with their grandfather, who was an affluent businessman. When the Communists took power in China, her father lost his business and belongings and was assigned a job far away from home. Mary never saw her father again after she left Shanghai at the age of 7. In the 1950s, her family had to flee Vietnam. Mary said she had spent her life fleeing and that the United States was the last stop.
The Very Amateur but Joyful Singing and Dancing Troupe
If most of the game players are immigrants who have spent most of their lives here, the singing and dancing group members are newer immigrants, though not brand new. Chen Guiqiong, the group’s director, explained why there are few recent immigrants at the senior center. “If you just came from Guangdong or Hong Kong and you are already 60 years old and you don’t need to work to feed yourself, then you can come. But there are no such people who can enjoy themselves as soon as they come here [to the United States].”
Ms. Chen, who came to the United States in the 1970s, was a kindergarten teacher at home. She worked teaching English to people applying for citizenship at the center before retiring. She said, “I sing here because I have free time. But [the new immigrants] don’t have the mood we have. They don’t have a retirement pension, they worry about next month’s rent on the 1st, and they have no health insurance. . . . I don’t have any worries. . . . I have housing, retirement pension, and health insurance. What else do I need? You see when we dance, we are full of joy no matter whether we can dance well or not.”
The troupe’s repertoire includes a range of musical styles, from Chinese folksongs to Hong Kong pop songs and English songs like “God Bless America.” Though even the members themselves complain about the amateurishness of their troupe, it has been a reliable source of entertainment for birthday parties. They have also performed at schools and in many community celebrations and parades.