Italians, Chinese find harmony in Jersey shore town Occasionally adversarial groups in Manhattan establish new identities

November 08, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BRADLEY BEACH, N.J. -- Family after family, they flocked to this tiny, tranquil Jersey shore town from Mulberry Street in Manhattan's Little Italy - Italian-Americans hungry for a summer escape from urban congestion.

It started in the 1950s, and Anna Mingione was one of the pioneers, spreading the word to neighbors in the city about the fragrance of the sea, the glow of the sand, the family atmosphere of the area. Then, one day in 1959, as Mingione pushed a baby carriage past a row of charming bungalows, she was startled to see another familiar face.

It was Sue Moy, her hairdresser from Chinatown.

"We saw her on the porch, and we said, 'Look who's here!' " Mingione said, smiling at the memory. "Then when we walked around the corner, we saw more of our Chinatown neighbors. We can't get away from each other."

Chinese arrived first

The Chinese, Mingione later discovered, beat the Italians to Bradley Beach, having first made it their summer address in the 1940s and '50s. And both groups remain firmly entrenched here, with perhaps 200 people altogether coming each weekend in the summer.

The two groups have coexisted at the beach in much the same way they do in the city: keeping to themselves, focusing on family, swelling with immigrant pride.

Of course, many ethnic groups that share urban neighborhoods also tend to gravitate to the same vacation spots. But the fact that two contiguous and occasionally adversarial groups in Manhattan have established second identities in the same small town, 60 miles away, on parallel streets, totally by accident, is a serendipitous phenomenon of another order that even Neil Simon couldn't dream up.

It is almost as if strips of Chinatown and Little Italy had been peeled off lower Manhattan and layered atop this town, turning Mott Street into Newark Avenue and Mulberry Street into Park Place Avenue.

Both groups 'territorial'

"It is very strange that it happened that way, especially since there was a lot of hostility between the two groups in the generation before the first Bradley Beach generation," said Bruce Edward Hall, who writes about the Bradley Beach experience in his new book, "Tea That Burns: A Family Memoir of Chinatown" (The Free Press).

"But if you think about it, Bradley was homey, not fancy, and family-oriented," Hall said. "And both groups are territorial, believe in the safety in numbers and are family-oriented. So they are more alike than they might want to admit."

It started in the 1920s, when the Church of All Nations, a Protestant church in lower Manhattan, began sending Chinese and other immigrant children from their congregation to a boarding house here called Cliff Villa for two weeks each summer. The children loved it.

"For most of us, it was the first time out of the city," recalled Roberta Louie, one of five sisters in the Dong family to stay at Cliff Villa. "We went swimming, boating, walking, everything. It was wonderful."

Then one of Chinatown's most prominent families, the Lees of Mott Street, found summer lodging in Bradley Beach. But there was discrimination at first, said Grace Mok, a member of the Lee family.

"I remember one lady said to me, 'Does your father smoke opium?' " Mok said recently, sitting on her porch on Newark Avenue. "I was only a 10- or 11-year-old girl!"

The Lees bought a small house on Newark Avenue for $2,000. And by the 1950s, even after Cliff Villa was torn down, many Chinatown families had begun to rent or buy cottages, mostly on Newark Avenue. Some Chinese even began calling Bradley Beach Chinatown by the Sea.

But the Chinese usually did not socialize outside their circle. Hall noted in his book that the Chinese children usually avoided the weekly dances that were staged in a pavilion on the boardwalk; they were afraid, Hall wrote, that the white children would make fun of them.

"We had a self-contained community here, just as we did in Chinatown," said Richard Hoe, Hall's uncle, who spent his adolescence here during the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations.

Even those who could not afford to travel to Bradley Beach knew about its reputation as a beloved getaway tucked into an area less than half the size of Central Park.

Currently, the usual gossip is about taxes and real estate (a bungalow now fetches up to $150,000). And it means unfurling beach chairs and towels on the same spot on the beach, every weekend (lined up, roughly, with the weathered bingo hall on Ocean Avenue).

"People must think it's the Chinatown section," Tracey Seeto Perri, 33, said with a laugh as she played on the beach with her 14-month-old son, Angelo. "This is where the Chinese go."

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