The Wenzhouese Community in New York City

By Ma, John T.; Lai, Him Mark | Chinese America: History and Perspectives, Annual 2004 | Go to article overview

The Wenzhouese Community in New York City


Ma, John T., Lai, Him Mark, Chinese America: History and Perspectives


The original essay in Chinese was written by Mr. John T Ma for presentation at a conference in Flushing, N.Y. in October 2000. Him Mark Lai translated the text into English for this publication. He also edited the essay and provided additional material taken from recent essays on the subject written by other authors. All mention of the first person in this essay refers to Mr. Ma.

The famous historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889-1975) in his major work A Study of History has suggested that the development of a civilization depends on its ability to respond to human or environmental challenges. In explaining the growth of the Chinese civilization, he wrote that the fathers of this civilization "in their home by the Yellow River did not enjoy the fancied but delusive advantage of an easier environment than their neighbors." (1) They responded successfully to the challenge of hard environments, and their civilization grew. I believe that this theory of challenge and response may be just as applicable to the study of the Wenzhou people in New York.

The population of the Wenzhou people in New York has increased greatly in recent years. Many stories about the Wenzhou people have appeared in newspapers and magazines. As the Chinese proverb goes, "A person is afraid of being famous just as a pig is afraid of being fat." After the Wenzhou people became notorious, many people could not help but notice, and their observations gave birth to many popular stereotypes of the Wenzhou people. Some images were correct, but others were not. In order to better understand Wenzhou people, one should try first to understand their social and physical environments. What kind of land is Wenzhou? How do Wenzhou people live in New York? What challenges do they face? What were their responses?

GEOGRAPHY OF THE WENZHOU REGION

Wenzhou City is located in the southeastern part of Zhejiang Province. It consists of three districts (Lucheng, Longwan, Ouhai), six rural counties (Yongjia, Pingyang, Wencheng, Cangnan, Taishun, Dongtou), and two county-level cities (Leqing, Rui'an). The population is more than seven million, and the total area more than eleven thousand square kilometers, of which more than 76 percent consists of hilly terrain. Offshore islands and rivers also take up considerable areas. Therefore the region has been described as consisting of qishan yishui liangfen tian (seven parts hills, one part water, and two parts rice fields). (2) The average size of arable land per capita is less than 0.5 mu (1 mu = 0.1647 acre), but in some areas the average arable land per capita is as little as only 0.2 to 0.3 mu. The rice produced on 1/2 mu is insufficient to support a person. Thus if a peasant does not have another occupation, he cannot survive and will have to emigrate. Thus historically Wenzhou had long been an emigration port. During the past few decades, the population pressure in the countryside has increased greatly, and many more have emigrated.

When people refer to Wenzhou people, they often include people from Qingtian. However, now Qingtian is administratively part of Lishui City, adjacent to Wenzhou City. Actually the administration of Qingtian had changed several times during the past century. During the Qing dynasty, it was part of Chuzhou Prefecture. When the prefectural system was abolished during the Republican period, Qingtian remained under the jurisdiction of the Wenzhou School District, and most Qingtian middle school students attended school in Wenzhou. Wenzhou is also Lishui's outlet to the ocean so that Qingtian people have to go through Wenzhou to travel abroad.

The dialect spoken in the Wenzhou region belongs to the Wu group of dialects. However, the Werlzhou region borders upon Min dialect (Fujianese), and Wenzhou speech correspondingly shares a number of common features with the Min dialect. (3) It is a dialect that is difficult for outsiders to understand. However, practically all Qingtian people can speak Wenzhouese. …

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