Chinatown in Limbo

Will Asian Americans Ever Elect a Councilmember of Their Own?

Eventually, Chin and AAFE prevailed. But in drafting District 1, they helped create an "Asian" district that had an overwhelming number of white voters. In two ensuing elections, Freed beat Chin. Leland Saito, a professor at UC San Diego who has studied the District 1 fight, says AAFE's plan "overlooked the history of white—including liberal white—reluctance to vote for Asians and other nonwhites. And this becomes even more critical in areas with a high number of minorities, because there, whites tend to see minorities as more 'racial' and less able to represent all races."

Certainly, Chinatown's remarkable expansion—coupled with unprecedented gentrification downtown—has sparked a series of racially inflected conflicts over the last dozen years. The disputes have spilled over into succeeding council races, most recently in April when a group led by CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities packed a council forum at a Soho gallery to demand that candidates discuss a Soho Alliance-led campaign against Asian wholesalers on Broome Street.

CAAAV's Hyun Lee says the activists, who left flyers declaring that "Urban Renewal=CHINKY Removal," were particularly alarmed by the answer provided by Alan Gerson, the presumed favorite in the race. He proposed a "Chinatown wholesale terminal" located somewhere outside of the neighborhood. Gerson's many backers include the Soho Alliance, controversial developer Donald Capoccia, Chinatown's United Democratic Organization, and Ed Koch.

Asian Americans register in Chinatown: Political diffidence seems to be waning.
photo: Corky Lee
Asian Americans register in Chinatown: Political diffidence seems to be waning.

The racialized nature of District 1's political wars has made it harder for the Asian American candidates to establish crossover appeal. Consider Margaret Chin, unabashed champion of Chinatown. The likable former teacher says straightforwardly that her focus is "empowerment, to show that we have clout." Chin boasts that she has raised the most money in Chinatown—understandable given her closeness to the neighborhood's burghers. Chin's contributors include Chung-Ko Cheng and Richard Chan, two of Chinatown's most notorious restaurant bosses. Cheng is a co-owner of Jing Fong, where a mid-'90s labor struggle ended only after the eatery was slapped with a million-dollar fine, while Chan, as owner of the Silver Palace, led a protracted battle against the community's only restaurant union.

Chan also showed up at a Rocky Chin fundraiser, but while Margaret Chin's identification with Chinatown interests has hurt her elsewhere, Rocky Chin has garnered support from a diverse cast. His backers include David Dinkins, playwright David Henry Hwang, actor Ossie Davis, and Washington Heights councilmember Guillermo Linares. This multiracial lineup reflects Chin's long civil rights record. He also points to backing from several unions, including UNITE, the garment workers' union, where his wife, May Chen, is a vice president.

Hui is well known in Chinatown for his years of activism with Chinese Staff and Workers Association, a workers' center that spearheaded the fights at the Silver Palace and Jing Fong. In a race with no incumbent, he nonetheless sounds like an insurgent, vowing to shake up the infamously leadership-friendly council with grassroots fire. Indeed, Hui sparked some of the only fireworks of the campaign by scoring Rocky Chin for crossing Jing Fong picket lines. Chin insists it was a nonunion protest.

The dispute seems to turn on semantics—is it a workers' picket line if the workers are not union members?—but beneath the squabble lies an underlying conflict in Chinatown over the direction of progressive politics. Both Rocky Chin and Margaret Chin are members of the Asian American generation that came of age politically in the 1970s. Rocky Chin was close to the Maoist I Wor Kuen, Margaret Chin a member of the Communist Workers Party. Both groups once had a substantial presence in Chinatown.

In subsequent years, the politics of both Chins—as well as their generation—mellowed, leading them into some ironic alliances. "The business-controlled traditional associations," says Peter Kwong, author of Chinatown, N.Y., "now see Margaret as one of their own." Meanwhile, Hui's old labor outfit, Chinese Staff, has been inveighing against Local 23-25 of UNITE for years. The union, notes Kwong, has been notoriously lethargic on behalf of its Chinatown members—one of its own surveys showed that union workers at some shops actually earned less than workers at nonunion factories. So the dispute over the Jing Fong picket line is also a battle over the effectiveness of organized labor and liberalism in Chinatown, with Rocky Chin representing the new establishment and Hui the critics.

Though some might wish for a single Asian standard-bearer, the different candidates, says Phil Tajitsu Nash, professor of Asian American studies at the University of Maryland, reflect "the tremendously diverse economic and political interests of Chinatown—as well as the whole of Downtown." Besides, he adds, "why don't people ask the white candidates to unify?" The answer, of course, is that they are presumed to have independent agendas.

Still, it is a question that Gerson, Hoylman, and John Fratta—who has Sheldon Silver's nod—may be asking themselves. As Rocky Chin puts it, "There are splits all over the place," and since there is no runoff in council elections, a candidate can win with only a slice of the district's vote. A study by political consultant Jerry Skurnik of Prime New York shows that Asian Americans now make up about a fifth of the district's Democratic voters. They can make a real difference in this race.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
New York Concert Tickets