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 andStreet 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.")

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.

That ethnic-exclusive identification would come to haunt Chinese Americans, when, after the war, the U.S. exchanged Asian enemies, substituting Red China for fascist Japan. Suddenly, government agents began hounding hundreds of Chinese, deporting scores and imprisoning dozens of others, including China Daily News editor Eugene Moy, who died soon after his jailing. Amy Chen, who's making a documentary about Chinese Americans and McCarthyism, has uncovered a "Chinese Confession Program" run by the Immigration Service. That sinister program, along with blacklists and harassment, took a toll: both the CHLA and Daily News were virtually shut down.

THE CIVIL RIGHTS Movement of the '50s and early '60s brought protest politics back and wrought changes for all people of color in America, but the sea change in Asian American life really came in its wake. Like the feminist movement, the Asian American Movement of the late '60s and early '70s took flight as the New Left sputtered. The Black Power–inflected Movement spawned a host of institutions, from ethnic studies departments to community health clinics, nurtured the first generation of Asian American artists and writers to cross over in a big way, and, perhaps most importantly, invented "Asian Americans" themselves--that is, people with a panethnic political identity based on shared American histories of immigration, discrimination, and resistance.

In New York, the Asian American Movement can be traced, more or less, to a Madison Avenue Park bench, where in the fall of 1968 two women met for lunch. Kazu Iijima and Minn Matsuda, longtime friends and activists, wanted to start a Japanese American group for their college-age kids, but by the time they'd finished canvassing everyone they knew (and didn't know) in Asian New York, the two "crazy little old ladies"--as Iijima laughingly puts it now--had come up with the first Movement organization, Asian Americans for Action.

Triple A's first members included Yuri Kochiyama, the Harlem-based comrade of Malcolm X, as well as a contingent of second-and third-generation activists. "War brought us together," says Iijima. Indeed, opposition to the Vietnam War galvanized Asian Americans, who added a racial analysis to the antiwar movement, linking American military excursions in Asia to an imperial project driven by "gookism," just as the term gookitself--a child of America's war in the Philippines--later migrated to Korea, then Vietnam, among other destinations. But just as feminists found themselves marginalized in New Left organizations, Asian activists were often shunted to the side of the antiwar movement. The result was to foster independent Asian American organization and to bring disparate Asian groups together.

Meanwhile, a flood of organizations of every sort was precipitating change all over Asian New York. And crucially, activists of each Asian ethnicity increasingly considered their fortunes linked and their pasts connected. As Chris Iijima, Kazu's son and also one of the founders of Triple A, puts it, "there were so many things going on at different levels, a cross-pollination happened." Or as he, Nobuko (Joanne) Miyamoto, and Charlie Chin sang on the 1973 ur-Movement folkie album A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America:


We are the children of the migrant worker
We are the offspring of the concentration camp.
Sons and daughters of the railroad builder
Who leave their stamp on Amerika.

Typical of the new groups was Chinatown's Basement Workshop, which spawned one of the first panethnic Asian American magazines, Bridge, and the first Asian American arts journal, Yellow Pearl. Also typical was the way Basement became the site of internecine warfare between various fast-blooming Marxist factions. Indeed, sectarian energies animated by the supposedly imminent Revolution helped generate all kinds of activity--storefront legal clinics; guerrilla theater; large demos against police brutality, employment discrimination, even Chinatown tourists--as well as hefty doses of paranoia and more-Mao-than-thou posturing.

Not that a portion of paranoia was uncalled for: in at least one case, the government targeted Asian American activists--as it did much of the counterculture--accusing two founders of the Chinatown Health Clinic, Kenny Chin and Liz Young, of plotting to assassinate the emperor of Japan! The government's logic was outrageously fuzzy, but it persisted nonetheless, convicting Young and Vietnam vet Chin on minor weapons charges after a mistrial.

Ultimately, though, the conservative morning in America may have had the greatest effect on the Asian American Movement: Reagan-Bush era policies sapped community funds, put labor organizers on the defensive, and stymied civil rights progress. Nevertheless, the post-'60s hangover feels a bit different to many Asian Americans, since the dropping of racist immigration quotas in 1965 has led to explosive growth in Asian American communities.

The first generation to call themselves Asian Americans discovered a common past partly because their American histories were so similar. Exclusion laws gave the Asian American experience a kind of shape--early immigration followed by a long drought and assimilation struggles for the American-born generations. It took a while for the 1965 revisions--not intended to foster Asian immigration, by the way--to have an effect, but now the majority of Asian America is foreign-born.

Meanwhile, the huge increase in Filipino, South Asian, and Southeast Asian immigration is likewise reshaping the community: 30 years ago "Yellow Power" rose and fell as a slogan; today, that moniker would be unthinkable, not so much for its dated power politics as for its monochromatic picture of Asian America. And while many "Uptown" Asians--especially second-, third-, and fourth-generation types--now grapple with problems like glass ceilings, many "Downtown" Asians--including new immigrants--struggle in society's bottom tiers. Still, new Asian immigrant communities are making more and more noise: South Asian cabbies, Filipino health workers, Southeast Asian students--all are insisting on a place at the table.

That push is unsettling things within the Asian American activist world as well, raising questions about power and panethnicity. One activist organization that took hold in the '80s and '90s, the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence reflects this new, multiculti, largely immigrant world: its director is a second-generation Korean American woman (who succeeded a first-generation South Asian woman), and its campaigns against police brutality and government neglect have involved Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Pakistani immigrants.

Indeed, the new world of Asian American activism is perhaps the most promising ever. Grassroots Movement–born institutions like the New York Asian Women's Center, AALDEF, and Trinh Duong's CSWA, have managed to reach adulthood. Meanwhile, they've been joined by nascent gay and lesbian groups, AIDS organizations, and a new generation of politically charged artists. John Kuo Wei Tchen, director of NYU's Asian Pacific American program, remembers the '70s fondly (he was a member of Basement Workshop). But noting the grassroots movement flowering in new Asian communities, he's come to feel, he says, that for Asian American activism, "the renaissance is now."

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