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  • John Leo is about as active in the Chinatown community as you can get. He works there, he serves on the community board, he participates in a number of organizations.

    He does just about everything there, except live.

    In fact, John has never lived in Chinatown. His family moved to New York City from Hong Kong at the end of 1968, when John was 11. They came for the same reason, he says, that almost all immigrants do – in search of better educational and economic opportunities. Unlike most immigrants, however, his family settled in Brooklyn because his parents were worried about the dangers of Chinatown.

    “We had the opportunity to move near Confucius Plaza,” he said. “But there were gangs in the area at the time.”

    Back in Hong Kong, his mother was a teacher. But upon moving to New York, his grandfather opened a laudromat and the rest of his family went into the garment business, something he that he says is a fairly common pattern.

    “We just learned the trade when we got here,” he recalled. “We did the really typical stuff that you do as an immigrant. The kinds of jobs that no one else really wants to do.”

    John had a traditional Chinese upbringing, but doesn’t remember much about life in his old country.

    “Most of what I do remember has probably been sort of supplemented by the movies that we watched when we were kids,” he said.

    The fact that John has little connection to Hong Kong today doesn’t seem to bother him. All of his family has moved to the United States over the years, and he’s happy with the way things are. He spends as much time in Chinatown because he loves the diversity, the rich history and the authenticity.

    And although he still doesn’t live there, he’s determined to be as active in the neighborhood as possible, in hopes that he’ll inspire others to do the same.

    “There’s an old Chinese saying about making yourself an example,” he explained. “I don’t want to be a hypocrite. I keep telling other people that they need to participate, but I can’t keep saying that if I’m not participating myself.”
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