100 Years of Hell-Raising

The Hidden History of Asian American Activism in New York City

When Trinh Duong goes to work these days, she does so with a bit more fear—and a bit more resolve—than usual. A month ago Duong, a labor organizer, joined a group of Asian American garment workers in a protest against their boss in Sunset Park. The next day some 40 of the boss's people stormed into the small storefront headquarters of Duong's outfit, the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association, and cornered her. Warned one , "I'm going to kill you dead."

Duong's response was to call another protest, which drew 100 demonstrators to the Manhattan offices of Street Beat, a women's sportswear company whose clothes are sewn in the Sunset Park factory. Conditions there have been miserable for years, says Duong, with workers routinely putting in 100-hour weeks. And last week, state attorney general Dennis Vacco ordered the arrest of the factory manager, Jian Wen Liang, and charged him with illegally firing workers and cheating them of wages. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the Brooklyn D.A.'s office says the alleged death threat is under investigation.

Vacco's action briefly propelled the factory conflict into the spotlight, prompting stories in the dailies and footage on the evening news. But with cameras turned on Vacco, little attention was paid to Duong and the risky multiyear campaign she and other activists have waged. Indeed, Vacco's suit follows a federal suit filed against Liang and Street Beat two months ago by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which was unveiled to a loud hush.

That inattention surely reflects the media's understandable regard for official action, but, say many Asian American activists, the disinterest also reflects prevailing stereotypes of Asian Americans. Indeed, stories about the Sunset Park factory proffered a familiar trope: immigrant workers as victims. Those portrayals, say activists, alternate in popular imagery with pictures of Asians as model minorities.

Indeed, portraits of Asian Americans as victimized sweatshop toilers or Ivy League drones connect to a long history of painting Asian Americans as poster children for the Horatio Alger version of America. In that version, says Peter Kwong, who directs Hunter College's Asian American Studies program, Asians in America exemplify the idea that "racism or class inequality are not factors" if one simply labors through hardship, and other, uppity minorities who protest are whiners. But, adds Kwong, pictures of "passive" Asians not only mask real problems in Asian American communities, they deflect attention from the work of militant workers and organizers like Duong--indeed, obscure a history of Asian activism that has helped shape Asian America and New York City.

As if to underscore that history, the 24-year-old Vietnam-born Duong was joined at the Street Beat protest by two seventysomething veterans of countless campaigns for social justice in New York, Yuri Kochiyama and Kazu Iijima. Think Asian American activism is new? For more than 100 years, Asian New Yorkers have been bedeviled by racist violence, skewed laws, and myriad forms of discrimination. And for more than 100 years, they have been raising hell.

THE FIRST ASIANAmerican New Yorker was a muckraker, a rabble-rouser, and a consummate smartass. Wong Chin Foo wasn't actually the first Asian in New York--by the time he arrived here in the 1870s, there were several hundred Chinese scattered throughout the city, and Asian sailors had been part of New York's multiculti mix since the early days of the republic. But Wong was probably the first to proclaim a New World identity--Chinese American (the name of his short-lived weekly broadside, New York's first Chinese newspaper). And the bilingual Wong, self-described multinational rebel and "Heathen" missionary, was a brash champion of the Chinese during the decade when they first came to the city in significant numbers.

Wong seemed an unlikely activist to a New York Times reporter who found him holding forth at Madame Blavatsky's 47th Street apartment in April 1877. Blavatsky, the founder of the mystical Theosophy Movement, had filled her living room with stuffed bats, snakes, a tiger's head, a baboon, and a crocodile swinging from the ceiling; she called the room "The Lamasery." In his dark silk-and-velvet coats, embroidered boots and skullcap, Wong, as his chronicler Arthur Bonner puts it, "blended nicely." But he soon took to the stage to combat images of Asian exoticism and primitiveness. In a lecture at Steinway Hall, he scored the supposed barbarity of "Heathen Chinee" ways, announcing that, contrary to widespread belief, "I never knew that rats and puppies were good to eat until I was told by American people."

Wong's sharp tongue made him a kind of Victorian media activist, a quote machine for the boys of Newspaper Row. But his wit was accompanied by fearlessness. In 1883, Irish American labor leader Denis Kearney, who had led the insurgent California Workingmen's Party by wedding class-consciousness to racism (the party's slogan was "The Chinese Must Go!"), came to the city to speak at Cooper Union. Wong challenged him to a duel. "When a reporter," as Bonner recounts, "who found him smoking a cigar in the office of the Chinese American, asked him what weapons he would suggest, Wong replied: 'I give him his choice of chopsticks, Irish potatoes, or Krupp guns.' " (Kearney demurred, saying "I'm not to be deterred by the low blackguard vaporings of Chin Foo or any other representative of Asia's almond-eyed lepers.")

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