Fresh start for the Hainan Association

Chinese immigrants and their descendants will renovate their Schermerhorn Street rowhouse

March 7, 2016 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
The Lion Dance is part of the Hainan Association's Chinese New Year celebration. Eagle photos by Lore Croghan
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They really put the “New” in Chinese New Year.

The younger generation has won control of the Hainan Association, an organization whose nearly century-old rowhouse at 86 Schermerhorn St. in Downtown Brooklyn is home to two dozen elderly tenants paying minimal rent.

The ABCs, as they refer to themselves — which stands for American-Born Chinese — were elected to a majority of the association’s board seats in January.

The younger generation — who are in their 50s or older and are the children of immigrants from the southern Chinese island province of Hainan — surfaced as a force to be reckoned with last summer when they successfully mustered opposition to the sale of their building. The would-be buyers had planned to demolish it for high-rise condo construction, which meant elderly residents who had lived on Schermerhorn Street for decades would have been relocated to another neighborhood.

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Since the January election, the new board has been busy mapping out plans to put the association’s finances in order and renovate the Schermerhorn Street building. They took time out from their work to celebrate Chinese New Year with a banquet this past Saturday attended by hundreds of association members and their families.

At the festivities at East Harbor Seafood Palace — a popular dim sum restaurant in Sunset Park’s Chinatown — the Brooklyn Eagle spoke with Jack Seng, the group’s newly elected chairman.

“We’re going to bring the association’s finances and the office record-keeping up to modern standards,” said Seng, 54, who grew up in Park Slope.

Newly elected board members have the right skill sets for their jobs, such as a treasurer who’s a retired Wall Street securities analyst, he said.

Rehabbing 86 Schermerhorn St. is expected to cost at least $500,000 to $700,000, if no surprises are discovered, Seng said. Metal stairs outside the basement must replaced, the stoop needs to be repaired and painting, renovation and cleaning are in order for the four-story rowhouse’s interiors.

Establishing 501(c)(3) non-profit status for the Hainan Association is a long-term goal, he said.

A Lion Dance for good luck

The association’s Chinese New Year’s party included a sumptuous dinner with 10 different dishes such as jelly fish with cold cuts, shrimp with walnuts and crispy-skinned chicken with the birds’ beady-eyed heads decorating the serving platters.

Performers from the Chinese Community Center of New Jersey did the Lion Dance, a New Year’s tradition intended to bring good luck. The swishing of the lions’ tails (there were two lions at the Saturday dinner) during the dance is meant to sweep away last year’s bad fortune.

Singers trilled tunes in Mandarin. The God of Prosperity put in an appearance, tossing candy to the guests.     

After winning nine of the Hainan Association board’s 15 seats this past January, the newly elected younger members are working to include the elder members in everything they do.

“We’re preaching that we’re all Hainanese even if we were born in America,” Seng explained. “We’ve got to row the boat in the same direction.”

The Hainan Association’s younger generation formed a group called HAPI (which stands for Hainan Association Private Instigators) last year to spearhead successful opposition to their elders’ plan to sell the Schermerhorn Street building.

In the January vote, one of HAPI’s founders, Leng Tan, 57, was elected co-vice chairman.

Seng’s and Tan’s fathers were Hainan Association founders. The founders were Hainanese immigrants who pooled their money in the 1950s to purchase 86 Schermerhorn St. and use it as a refuge for recent arrivals from their home province.

In their election campaigning, Seng and Tan re-connected with older association members who had been friends with their dads.

To help Seng with his communication skills during his campaign, supportive elders tutored him and his cousin Kevin Foo-Siam in Hainanese. Seng taped the tutoring sessions and practiced his Hainanese at home.

“Is it the most eloquent? No. Can it get the point across? Yes,” he said.   

The association has 464 members. At least 50 are American-born Hainanese who have joined the group since last summer.

As the Eagle previously reported, the developers whose purchase offer of 86 Schermerhorn St. was spurned made alternate plans to build a skinny 27-story apartment tower next door at 88 Schermerhorn St., a rowhouse they own. They had wanted to combine the 86 and 88 Schermerhorn properties into a single development site.

The developers — a group consisting of Brooklyn Heights-based Heights Advisors and Second Development Services and institutional investor Rockwood Capital — put 88 Schermerhorn up for sale last summer. As of yet, no sale has been made, City Finance Department records indicate. The rowhouse on the site is still standing.


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