100 Years of Hell-Raising

The Hidden History of Asian American Activism in New York City

Wong's activism is all the more remarkable when one recalls the world of early Asian immigrants to New York. Thousands of Chinese came to the city in the late 19th century fleeing poverty and oppression--in the American West, where pogroms against the Chinese (and later Japanese, Korean, Indian, and Filipino Americans) had erupted in pandemic proportions.

But the Chinese who sought refuge in New York were greeted with a Bronx cheer. Indeed, New Yorkers had their own history of racist violence: during the bloody Draft Riots of 1863, mobs of poor Irish protesters, angry about a Civil War draft replete with loopholes for the rich, turned on colored people, burning down the Colored Orphan Asylum, lynching and mutilating blacks, and attacking the Chinese in the Fourth Ward. Then, when the first Chinese work crews were shipped East as unwitting scabs in 1870, Democratic New Yorkers responded in time-honored fashion: with a vitriolic rally in Tompkins Square. Official New York made its appearance, in the form of mayor A. Oakey Hall, a Tammany man. (Immigrant-driven Tammany had little use for Asians: denied the right to naturalize, they couldn't vote.)

Despite everything, Asian Americans fought back. One spring day in 1893, a laundryman named Fong Yue Ting, along with one of his Mott Street neighbors and another laundryman, walked up to the Federal Building and got himself arrested. Fong and his friends were making a show of their refusal to carry internal passports--photo IDs similar to the passes blacks had to have under South African apartheid. The registration law was denounced by Wong Chin Foo, whose recently-formed Chinese Equal Rights League filled Cooper Union with supporters, and Fong's case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.

In fact, the pass law challenge was just one of many. Early Asian immigrants were true Americans in at least this sense: they were intensely litigious, filing thousands of suits and arguing hundreds of appeals before the Supreme Court. Sadly, most were lost causes: within a few weeks Fong and friends were sailing to China, deported from the country that had been their home their entire adult lives.

GHETTOIZED ASIAN New Yorkers were isolated by the infamous exclusion laws; still, winds of change blew in from across the Pacific. The denial of citizenship to Asian Americans had the effect of encouraging a transnational sense of community, and Asian New Yorkers were transfixed by revolutionary goings-on in their countries of origin. When Sun Yat-sen brought his insurrectionary message to New York in 1904 (to be hailed by Wong Chin Foo among others), he began a parade of radicals arriving in the city, including anti-Japanese Korean nationalists, Indian anticolonialists, Chinese communists, Filipino anti-Marcos stalwarts, even Ho Chi Minh (who lived for a time in Harlem).

By the time the Depression hit, Asian America was awash in revolutionary ideas, which inevitably helped prompt Asian New Yorkers to question their own entrenched establishments--both non-Asian and Asian.

In 1933, for example, after New York's Board of Aldermen passed a discriminatory Laundry Tax targeting the Chinese (the law required a $1000 bond from hand laundries that typically made about half that in profit each year), laundrymen threw themselves into a battle against both New York's government and the power structure of Chinatown, embodied by the estimable burghers of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.

Then, as now, power in Chinatown was built on an array of community associations borrowed from China and dominated, unlike in China, by a merchant elite. When the CCBA showed little interest in helping the laundrymen, more than 1000 of them poured into the basement of Mott Street's Transfiguration Church and emerged with a rebel group, the Chinese Hand Laundry Association. The CHLA saw itself as a harbinger of the new: it organized itself democratically, put itself on record against feudal ideas in Chinese society, and campaigned for progressive causes in and out of Chinatown. The CHLA even started a newspaper, the China Daily News, which became the voice of Chinatown's left for decades to come.

The '30s were red-letter years for the Asian American left in New York. The National Maritime Union sailed against the racist tide of the official labor movement, calling a 1936 strike that joined 3000 Chinese sailors and 20,000 black sailors. A young writer, H. T. Tsiang, hawked novels (like his anticapitalist satire, The Hanging on Union Square) at Greenwich Village political meetings. A Barnard graduate, Grace Lee--now Grace Lee Boggs--met a Caribbean intellectual, C. L. R. James, and a feminist Russian Marxist, Raya Dunayevskaya, and formed a multiculti Trotskyist partnership. But December 7, 1941, exploded all that.

When, for example, 110,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up and forced into concentration camps, Japanese American leftists were incarcerated too, despite their years of fervent campaigning against Japan's imperial government. Ironically, the focusing of Yellow Peril racism on the Japanese and Japanese Americans brought down barriers against other, suddenly appreciated Asian Americans: exclusion laws against Filipinos, Indians, and Chinese were partially lifted. And mass naturalizations were allowed, so that Asian Americans could go to war--as many as 40 per cent of New York's Chinese men fought.

Asian America was never so fractured. Here in the city, a small group of activists calling themselves the Japanese American Committee for Democracy gamely tried to publicize the efforts of Japanese antimilitarists, and the China Daily News published resistance dispatches, but also prominent were "I Am Korean" and "I Am Chinese" buttons.

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