Chinatown in Limbo

Will Asian Americans Ever Elect a Councilmember of Their Own?

For Rocky Chin, May might be the cruelest month. The civil rights attorney, an early front-runner in this year's crowded race to fill the downtown Manhattan City Council seat being vacated by Kathryn Freed, had hoped to win the endorsements of both the gay and lesbian independent Democrats and the village independent Democrats, two famously liberal political clubs. But earlier this month both groups voted to back Brad Hoylman, a young gay lawyer for the New York City Partnership. Chin came in second twice.

It is still early in the political season, Chin notes, and he remains undaunted. Still, it's hard to suppress the suspicion that despite his impeccable liberal credentials—he is a staffer with the city's human rights commission and boasts a progressive résumé that stretches back through the David Dinkins and Jesse Jackson campaigns—Chin seems to be butting up against the same obstacle that has derailed Chinese American candidates in every race since the notoriously bipolar Council District 1 was created 10 years ago.

From Chinatown west to Soho, Tribeca, and Battery Park City, District 1 features one of the starkest racial and class divides in New York politics. And in three campaigns for the seat, beginning in 1991, Freed defeated Chinese American candidates in races with an East/West split. Freed's opponents won support in Chinatown and the district's sliver of the Lower East Side, while Freed carried the largely white, largely affluent West Side. Those results are a source of intense frustration to many in Chinatown—and across the city's Asian American communities.

For the remarkable fact is that despite an Asian presence virtually as old as the city itself, New York has never elected an Asian American to the City Council or to any citywide office. The upshot, as then mayor Ed Koch put it inimitably in 1983 (while dismissing a massive Chinatown protest against a proposed jail): "You don't vote, you don't count."

Behind Koch's put-down was the bromide that Asian New Yorkers are indifferent to politics. It is true that Asian Americans have traditionally naturalized, registered, become Democrats, and voted in low numbers. Of course, for the better part of this century, anti-Asian laws slowed the growth of Asian American communities—not to mention prevented Asian immigrants from becoming citizens, putting them outside the purview of once mighty Tammany Hall. But political diffidence seems to be waning.

The recent census revealed that in the 1990s the city's Asian population grew by 54 percent, making one out of 10 New Yorkers Asian American. And years of anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from Washington, capped by 1996 laws that cut off many benefits to noncitizens, helped spark a boom in naturalization. More than a million of New York's immigrants became citizens statewide in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, according to John Mollenkopf, director of CUNY's Center for Urban Research, evidence from November's elections showed that for the first time Asian Americans were just as likely to vote as were other New Yorkers. Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund exit polls found four times as many Asian Democrats in the city as Asian Republicans. Indeed, Asian Americans favored Al Gore and Hillary Clinton by larger margins than city voters as a whole. Says Mollenkopf: "We are beginning to see the fallout of the 1996 legislation: the surge of naturalization, and the registration and voting of those newcomers."

Add to this evidence of political awakening another "real revolution," as Kwong Hui, a labor activist who is also running for the District 1 council seat, calls the term-limit law that is forcing 35 of the 51 councilmembers (including Freed) to step down. The term-limit coup, along with a generous campaign-finance law that makes it easier for political neophytes to run, has led to a profusion of Asian American candidates. Some 13 are running for seven council seats.

But even as this rush is galvanizing Asian Americans, many are ambivalent about the pileup, especially in District 1, where three Chinese Americans (Chin, Hui, and housing advocate Margaret Chin) are squaring off against each other as well as three white hopefuls. "It's a good thing so many are running," says David Chen, executive director of the Chinese-American Planning Council, "but if your platform is about empowerment, then you ought to be able to unite."

To be sure, the racial determinism of New York politics has given Asian Americans plenty of reason to unite, but there are also fundamental divisions—involving nationality, language, and class—within Asian New York. Nothing illustrates these tensions better than the story of District 1, the Frankenstein that has hobbled Asian American hopes—though it was crafted by Chinatown politicos themselves.


Longtime Chinatown activists agree about one thing: The last time there was a similar surge of political excitement in the community was in 1991. That year, the City Council was revamped to add 16 seats in a bid to bring more people of color into the body. Those moves upped the number of black and Latino councilmembers from nine to 21.

But in Chinatown, a bitter battle developed over which neighborhoods would be linked to the community, with one side—led by Margaret Chin and her Asian Americans for Equality—lobbying for a district that soldered Chinatown to the wealthy West Side. Meanwhile, a coalition of Asian and Latino activists, including AALDEF director Margaret Fung and current District 2 councilmember Margarita Lopez, proposed joining Chinatown to the heavily Latino Lower East Side. Among other things, the dispute involved competing visions of Chinatown. As Fung puts it, "The question is, are the community's interests allied to affluent whites or to working-class immigrants of color?"

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.


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.

Ultimately, though, this contest may be a warm-up for another battle—redistricting redux—since the district must be redrawn to reflect the new census. Will District 1's East and West Side finally divorce? Despite mutual hostilities, the answer is far from apparent. Though the virtues of a working-class immigrant district seem obvious, Margarita Lopez—whose club has endorsed Rocky Chin—says nonetheless that the ground hasn't been laid for that marriage. "For 10 years, you have not had the Asian-Latino coalition that might have been built. The alliances are not there either." For a breakthrough, Asian Americans may need to look east—to Queens, where actuary John Liu has won the nod of the county organization in his bid for a council seat—while Chinatown, the historic capital of Asian New York, continues to depend on the kindness of strangers.

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