Chinese of Fifth Avenue: Why Chinese Are 'Over' Fifth Avenue

No. 18

Hello! This week we shift back to our ongoing series, the Chinese of Fifth Avenue.

In Part 1, we looked at New York City’s historical role as a creative haven and nurturing ground for contemporary Chinese artists in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of them got their start at street portraitists off Fifth Avenue.

In the second installment of the series, we fast forward to the present. Writer Nina Huang talks to a sampling of today’s Chinese tourists taking in the same famous address as we formulate an updated picture of the country’s perceptions of the Big Apple.

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Why Chinese Visitors Are ‘Over’ Fifth Avenue

By Nina Huang

The first time that 27-year-old Zheng Zifei set foot on New York City’s Fifth Avenue, she felt at home. With its skyscrapers and high-end department stores, the city reminded her of her hometown Shanghai. That sense of familiarity was especially strong after two years in Boston, with its smaller, almost village-like feel, for graduate school.

But after just a few hours of wandering the avenue, her excitement disappeared. “Central Park stank, the Apple store was packed, and Times Square was a place for mascots hustling for money," she said.

No trip to New York City used to be complete without a stop at Fifth Avenue but, these days, Chinese visitors find it falls short of expectations.

Last year, 1.1 million Chinese tourists visited New York City. China is the second largest source of visitors to the United States, after the United Kingdom.

Chinese tourists are already the biggest spenders, according to travel consultancy Luxe Digital. For many of these visitors, a stop on Fifth Avenue, particularly the commercial stretch between 42nd and 57th street, is essential.

Fifth Avenue is billed in Chinese travel brochures as a shopping heaven, especially for high-end products, making it a “must do” on the bucket list of most Chinese visitors. But once they arrive, many find that the avenue doesn’t live up to the hype. Overrated and bland at best, for some, it can even be nerve-wracking.

Charlotte Fu for Chinarrative.

Last December, Liu Yi, a 27-year-old business controller who works at H&M’s e-commerce department in Shanghai, came to the city to visit a high school friend. Liu was excited about the fresh experiences that New York would surely provide, but the crowds on Fifth Ave merely reminded her of the crowds of West Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s commercial artery and tourist mecca, which she usually avoided.

“It might look OK in the early morning [when there are less people],” Liu said of the New York avenue, “but the overall enthusiasm towards Fifth Avenue is perplexing.”

Frumpy Fifth

Zheng and Liu’s lack of interest parallels the decline in retail on the avenue. This January, Gap shut its flagship store at 680 Fifth Ave, following the shuttering of Lord and Taylor’s historic storefront in December. Meanwhile, jeweler Tiffany & Co, which has long courted Chinese shoppers, stayed open, but reported weaker-than-expected sales.

For Liu, traditional American brands are losing their appeal to Chinese shoppers, who have increasingly sophisticated tastes. Whereas once, American-made indicated the best of the best—both top-notch design and high quality—these days, consumers are already familiar with global brands from both brick-and-mortar and online stores in China. When they travel, they increasingly seek out the new and unique.

“Tiffany’s is so frumpy,” said Liu of the retailer popular with her compatriots. She skipped it entirely during her visit.

Instead, she headed to boutique and vintage stores in Soho and the East Village, where she bought such gems as a golden ring with two claws that clutched at her index finger, and a black sweatshirt with the text, “Bad Bitch,” printed across the front—a gift for her husband.

With fancy window displays failing to elicit the same ooh’s and ahh’s, Chinese visitors are increasingly seeing beyond the avenue’s rampant commercialism—and what they see, especially of the avenue’s facilities and management, is not all that impressive.

Cao Mengwen for Chinarrative.

Last summer, Xie Mingde, a 67-year-old retired newspaper editor-in-chief from Changsha, the capital city of central China’s Hunan province, paid a visit to Fifth Avenue while visiting his daughter, who works in the city.

He said that there were more luxury goods here than in Changsha, but found the avenue to be poorly managed. He was particularly unsettled by the sight of homeless beggars on the otherwise-extravagant avenue.

“Many are young and healthy, why don’t they go to work?” he wondered. Besides,  “NYC seems to be a wealthy city. Why doesn’t the government spend some time regulating them? It leaves a poor impression on tourists.”

In China, panhandlers are closely monitored by urban management officers charged with ensuring the positive images of their cities, who persuade undesirable elements to leave.

Xie was also disturbed by the plumes of steam rising from the manholes and the orange and white cones on the street. In the beginning, he thought they were meant to indicate hazards or construction sites.

When his daughter later told him that the steam came from a massive underground system to heat many of New York City’s buildings, he couldn’t understand why the city didn’t find a better way to hide it. “That just looks like broken infrastructure!”

Tourist Trap

Credit: Aditya Vyas.

But even for visitors with no interest in shopping, Fifth Avenue has cultural attractions as well, though they might be more scattered than convenient.

For Xie, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, steps away from Saks Fifth Avenue, brought peace and tranquility in the midst of the bustling street.

Others make stops at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim Museum on the stretch of Fifth Avenue known as Museum Mile. At times, however, that enjoyment has been conflicted.

Liu, the 27-year-old young professional from Shanghai, has mixed feelings about “see[ing] Chinese treasures at the Met... The only way to make me feel better is to think that at least the treasures were not burned,” she said, referring to both the looting of Chinese treasures by colonial powers in the 19th century as well as the country’s own destruction of artifacts during the ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution.

Two years on from when Zheng Zifei moved to New York from Boston, she avoids Fifth Avenue, the place that once made New York City feel like home.

“That’s for tourists,” she said. “I am staying as far away as I can.”

Nina Huang is a New York-based bi-cultural writer and communications specialist.