by Ran Yan
Many think Flushing is all about food, which isn’t entirely incorrect. For me, as a Chinese person living and working near Flushing, there used to be a time when I only went there to have “authentic” Chinese food with friends and maybe visit a local karaoke bar. After attending a few public events there, I started to look at the neighborhood with fresh eyes.
Like every other neighborhood in New York, Flushing has its own unique history and communities. Up until the later part of the 20th century it was primarily home to Jews and Italians. (Editor’s note: I have several Jewish and Italian Catholic friends who grew up there in the 1980’s.) With the Chinese signage, the crowds of Asian people on the streets, it’s easy to label it as just another Chinatown. However, it’s actually pretty different from Manhattan’s Chinatown and its Cantonese traditions. Flushing’s Chinese community is newer and is home to many immigrants from Mandarin-speaking areas including mainland China (where I’m from) and Taiwan, each bringing with them distinct their own distinct trends and traditions.
The first public event I went to in Flushing was sort of accidental. I was invited to by a Chinese-American friend to “Hello Taiwan”, a concert with a night market. It was the fourth of a series of annual events that began in 2010, and this year it was dedicated to raising funds for the victims of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. At the concert there were bands with members from Brooklyn, Taiwan and Hong Kong as well as an equally diverse audience, who were drinking Taiwanese beer or bubble tea. I found this to be very moving, both literally and figuratively, as I discovered this new side of Flushing that welcomes rock music and the Taiwanese culture that I’m not very familiar with.
As 2013 drew to a close with that concert the Lunar New Year dawned on us. Around that time I learned of a Beijing Opera performance to be held at the Queens Library in Flushing on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter), and I was thrilled by the news. I’d been curious about traditional Chinese opera for some time, I was pleasantly surprised to have the chance to see it live in the U.S.
At the performance my friend and I were surrounded by middle-age and older Chinese people talking to each other in northern Chinese dialects (Beijing Opera is popular in northern China). My friend and I were among the few younger Chinese, and the even fewer young people who weren’t Chinese. However, age was forgotten soon after the performance began, as I was struck by the beauty of it.
At the same time the event was as much a performance as it was a gathering opportunity for the older Chinese patrons to see their friends and connect with fellow opera enthusiasts. For me it was more than a simple performance in that a thousand miles from home I was blown away by my own country’s tradition that had always been at once familiar yet strange.
There appears to be no necessary connection between the concert and the opera, but together they reveal the hidden diversity under the umbrella of the “Chinese community” in Queens and clearly demonstrate that Flushing’s cultural life is much more than a Lunar New Year parade. The extremely rich sub-cultures there have their own groups, organizations, and local traditions, and thus seemingly “private” public lives, but when you reach out to them, you’ll find in Flushing a community open to share its cultures with anyone who seeks them out.