Riding the Dragon
October 31, 1989
STILL BASKING IN HIS PRIMARY VICTORY, Joe Hynes, Democratic candidate for Brooklyn district attorney, found himself in an upscale Chinatown restaurant one day in late September, making a pitch to the local press corps. At the luncheon, Hynes’s Chinese-American supporters, mostly accountants, lawyers, and garment contractors — all members of the emerging Chinatown middle class — were on hand to endorse their chosen candidate and announce plans for an October fundraiser. “It will be a great party and the initiation of Chinatown into American politics,” said Robert Lin, an organizer for the event and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
While most Chinatown people don’t vote in Brooklyn, New York’s Chinatown, with its hustle and bustle, nevertheless represents the soul of the Chinese existence in New York City. So it is only appropriate for Joe Hynes to cross the Brooklyn Bridge and give symbolic homage to the city’s 300,000 Chinese.
All through the summer, every mayoral candidate came through Chinatown to pay his respects, visiting day-care centers, senior citizen centers, schools, park events, stomping the litter-filled streets of the crowded neighborhood.
In return, Chinatown gave generously. In late August, Mayor Koch was feted at a 77-table banquet at Chinatown’s Silver Palace Restaurant, adding over $40,000 to his campaign coffers. Richard Ravitch, who befriended a group of Chinese garment manufacturers, was rewarded with $28,000 at another fundraiser.
According to exit surveys conducted by the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund at four Chinatown polling stations, David Dinkins was the big winner with 51 per cent of the Democratic primary vote. But the Dinkins victory hardly represents the real political awakening of Chinatown — that has yet to happen.
FOR ALL THE ATTENTION lavished on Chinatown — and all the money they collected — the candidates have generated little enthusiasm among the men and women on the street. In the primary, less than 600 voters turned out at the six Chinatown polling stations — out of an estimated 9000 registered voters.
“It is very disappointing, and I don’t know why,” said a puzzled Pauline Chan, president of the Chinatown Voters Education Alliance.
The long history of internal strife in China is the main culprit for the apathy, according to Nora Chang Wang, founder and board member of CVEA. “Chinese Americans, whether they are from China or Hong Kong, don’t want to associate with any political party,” said Wang. “The fights between the Communists and the Kuomintang make them think that party politics means dirty politics.” Wang added that a CVEA study early this year revealed that a full 60 per cent of the registered voters in the Chinatown area reported no party affiliations.
Wang, who emphasized that she speaks in her capacity as a “community person,” is associate commissioner of the city’s Department of Employment, one of the two highest-ranking Chinese Americans in the city administration.
If China’s politics hangs like a deadly weight on the political involvement of Chinese Americans in this country, ironically it has also ushered in a new wave of activism since the Tiananmen massacre. As mainland students returned to their classrooms and libraries after an initial uproar, a number of Chinatown groups took up the good fight for democracy in China. Alfred Lui, director of a senior center and an organizer of a number of pro-democracy demonstrations, believes that any diversion from American politics by these activities will only be temporary — the agitation will have a healthy effect, shaking the community out of numbness. “At least people will begin to think not in terms of themselves, but matters of right and wrong, just and unjust.”
But the Tiananmen events have also reopened old wounds — and created new splits. Virgo Lee, chair of the citywide Asian Americans for David Dinkins, rejected a last-minute plea by Lui, also a Dinkins supporter, to dissociate himself from an 80-table banquet in honor of National Day in the People’s Republic of China. Lui, who chose to picket outside the restaurant with 60 other demonstrators, warned that support for the Chinese government by AADD members would hurt Dinkins’s campaign efforts. “Attending the dinner is not an endorsement of what happened at Tiananmen,” Lee said. “Picketing is not appropriate in terms of maintaining good relations in the community.”
Lee is also president of the Chinese Progressive Association, one of the 18 sponsors of the dinner. CPA traces its origin to a small group of Asian-American radicals who came together in the late ’60s to advocate ties with the People’s Republic of China, a taboo subject in the community at that time. Since then, CPA members have broadened out and become active in the Rainbow Coalition, and now they have become the main players in the AADD — while remaining pro-China and riding the changing tides of the Chinese leadership over the years. But as China first shifted toward capitalism and now fascism under Deng Xiaoping, being pro-China has long ceased to be seen as an automatically “progressive” stance. So once again, American politics became trapped in Chinese realities.
THE DEAD HAND OF THE PAST works in other ways. After all, this is a community where, by American law, residents could not bring their wives in from overseas or become citizens until World War II. The decades of exclusion were followed by another quarter century of silence, when community activists were labeled Communists and haunted by the FBI and by Chinatown’s anti-Communists.
The first openings didn’t come until Nixon visited China in 1972. It was only then that the civil rights movement of the ’60s finally came to Chinatown. Thousands of residents demonstrated for construction jobs, over union and industry opposition, and protested against police brutality.
But that was the ’70s. As Chinatown approaches the ’90s, money and people are pouring in from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and mainland China at an unprecedented rate. Foreign banks and investors are bringing as many opportunities as threats to the old order, just as residents are drawn into a fiercer battle to make it in the U.S.
For the average working-class Chinese American, it’s a daily battle to survive, to keep your kids in school and away from the street gangs, and maybe, one day, to move to a “good” neighborhood. Contrary to the myth depicting Asian Americans as “the model minority,” 71 per cent of Chinatown residents never finished high school and 55 per cent either do not speak English well or at all, according to the 1980 census. In addition, 24.7 per cent of Chinatown’s families live below the poverty level, compared to 17.2 per cent citywide. The census also found that at least half of all Chinatown families have two or more wage earners.
SO FOR THE 5000 OR SO IMMIGRANTS that pour into Chinatown each year, nothing but work — and more work — could be the ultimate salvation. Since most immigrants work at nonunion jobs and are reluctant to receive government benefits (for fear of jeopardizing immigration prospects of close relatives), their only security comes from monthly entries into the precious saving pass books.
In Chinatown, the stores and restaurants never close except during Chinese New Year. Here garment workers bend over their machines until seven, eight, or even nine o’clock at night and keep going on Saturdays, sometimes even on Sundays, as long as jobs are available. Over the years, piece rates in the factories have gone down, but low wages are clearly no deterrent for people with limited options.
Workers board mini-vans on Chinatown street corners every morning that take them to their suburban or out-of-state jobs. In packed, smoke-filled neighborhood employment agencies, new immigrants hustle for choice jobs — restaurant jobs with 60-hour work weeks, but at locations not so far from the city so they can come home to their families once every week, instead of every month.
Chinatown’s emerging middle class, on the other hand, is also under siege, even as they try to get ahead of the rat race to exploit the new riches from overseas. Paul Yee, head of the Chinatown Beautification Council and owner of a travel service on Canal Street, lamented the deterioration of basic services during the Koch years, which he feels is threatening the neighborhood’s development. Parking has become the number one problem, he said, undermining both the restaurant and the garment industries, which depend on sidewalk deliveries to survive.
Yee said Chinatown has lost at least four major parking lots to condominium or commercial developments in the last few years. As he speaks, a nearby 15-story condo built on a former parking lot at the corner of Henry and Market streets has topped out; it will soon be renting at $350 to $400 a square foot, Hong Kong investors are expected to be the prime buyers. Yee added that he has complained about peddlers, the homeless, traffic, and the parks for years.
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Chinatown is underrepresented and underheard — and winning a catch-up game will require considerable maneuvering. Chinese Americans do not hold any elected legislative office in the tri-state region, Chinatown’s best chance for an electoral seat is in the state assembly, yet the neighborhood is split between the 61st and 62nd districts along the Bowery, rendering Chinese-American votes on both sides insignificant.
School District 2, where over 35 per cent of the students are of Chinese origin, has only one Chinese member on its nine-person school board. Chinese-American representation on the local community board has improved since David Dinkins became borough president (with the power to appoint all board members) four years ago, but the five Chinese Americans on the board still fall short of the proportion of Chinese residents in the area, which is about 24 per cent.
Chinese Americans are similarly underrepresented in the city administration, According to a new study by the Community Services Society, Asian Americans, of which more than half are Chinese, make up 1.7 per cent of the total city government workforce — less than half their share of the city’s total labor force.
Finally, in spite of Mayor Koch’s occasional parties for Asian Americans at Gracie Mansion and his promises of Asian-American appointments, there are only two Chinese Americans occupying senior decision-making positions in the city government: Nora Chang Wang and Barbara Chin, assistant commissioner of the NYC Human Rights Commission.
For Chinatown residents, the big corporations are as guilty as Koch’s City Hall, with the banks leading the charge for the Chinatown gold mine. Deposit levels at Citibank’s main Chinatown branch at Mott Street stood at $27 million in 1988, ranking eighth among the total of 76 Manhattan Citibank branches, surpassed only by Wall Street, and midtown Park and Fifth Avenues branches. Taken together, the three Citibank Chinatown branches boasted $550 million in deposits. Yet just two months ago, Citibank put on hold a Chinatown application for a $7 million loan for commercial development until the sponsors can raise more equity funds.
The project, named Chung Pak, is to be built next to a new detention center at Canal and Centre streets on land donated by the city as part of a compromise. The project, for which the community must raise its own seed money, has suffered numerous delays, with Citibank’s stalling on the loan its latest woe. “With all the money Citibank is making in our community, I thought it should have given us an interest-free loan,” said 72-year-old Yukfoo Chan, a longtime Chinatown resident who sees his chance for an apartment in the housing that would be built atop the commercial project fade day by day.
Robert Lee, who heads the nonprofit Asian American Arts Centre on the Bowery, shares many of Chen’s gripes about the banks. He added that his center had managed to get $500 every year from one bank but “you have to dress up to attend their press conferences and let them take your pictures for the papers.”
IN THE SUREST SIGN of the post-Koch era, Chinatown restaurants are getting ready to remove the mayor’s picture from their windows. The three-term mayor will best be remembered for the detention center he built in the heart of Chinatown, over vehement protests from Chinatown residents, which culminated in a 20,000-strong march on City Hall.
But even staunch Dinkins supporters, who are convinced that a Dinkins reign would usher in a new openness and access for minorities to City Hall, dare not entertain high hopes. “We have to keep making noises and keep up the pressure,” said AADD cochair Lui.
If fighting is the answer, Chinatown will have to fight its greatest enemies from within — to once again energize and bring together its people to identify with an issue, a cause, and maybe a candidate. Despite the public rhetoric and the campaign fanfare, community leaders will have to answer one ultimate question: can they mobilize and deliver?
Take the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, whose president once earned the title “unofficial mayor of Chinatown.” An umbrella organization consisting of 60 family associations — some of which are now defunct — CCBA has been taking a backseat in most major Chinatown issues, whether they be housing, land use, the schools, or new road plans. While the group has been the standard bearer of anticommunism in the community for decades, it has uncharacteristically taken a low profile in the community after the massacre.
To many residents, these are signs that the century-old CCBA has grown old and spent. After all, the group just took a beating when City Hall excluded it from the sponsorship of Chung Pak, after Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau warned that three members of the CCBA’s Board had ties to the “tongs,” Chinatown’s criminal underground.
True, the new Chinatown middle class has been challenging the old guard for some time. But it is unclear if the young professionals, civic-minded entrepreneurs, and ’60s-radicals-turned-mainstreamers will ever come together and agree on a working agenda to claim the allegiance of their people. As the politics of Chinatown and the city prepares for a new administration, activists outside CPA are watching closely to see if AADD will open up access to the campaign beyond the narrow interests of any one organization. “It should be an opportunity to prove the viability of our community,” said Nora Chang Wang.
Citywide, a new generation of Chinese professionals and businessmen, American and foreign-born, is coming of age and is increasingly represented in the corporate, industrial, and art worlds. But for Chinatown, these are intangible allies, since few “Uptowners” have been willing to make the connection with the “Downtowners” committing to change in Chinatown. Chinese-American multimillionaires will donate millions of dollars to the big-name institutions instead of casting their favors on a dilapidated Chinatown. Gerald Tsai, former Wall Street wizard and CEO of Primerica, donated $5.5 million to Boston University last year. Maria Lee, a Hong Kong investor, gave a million dollars to Pace — instead of to a school in Chinatown, where she is reaping huge profits in real estate and from the neighborhood’s largest chain of bakeries.
WHILE DINKINS SUPPORTERS CITED their candidate’s longtime commitment to Asian-American issues as the reason for his victory, many remain unconverted. In the two election districts that cover the heart of Chinatown, voters gave Koch a 56 per cent majority in the primary. Race is still a touchy subject. Mini Liu, chair of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, recalls that when a Chinatown anticrime group displayed snapshots of circled “suspicious characters” to pedestrians on Canal Street, all the targeted people were black. “It is outrageous,” Liu says. “It is racist, and feeds the notion that crime is generated by black people.”
While few would admit to such overt racism, there are those who believe that for Chinese Americans to identify themselves as a minority is detrimental. “Our first task must be to rid ourselves of our own prejudices — [to realize] that we are Americans, no more, no less,” said Peter Ng, a Republican local district leader.
AT LATE SEPTEMBER’S CHINESE National Day banquet in honor of the mainland government, 800 people defied the demonstrators and catcallers in the streets to enter the Chinatown restaurant. Many of those who attended, with their business stakes in China, could not afford to break ties with the Chinese government. But many others in the crowd were laundry and restaurant workers who had no personal ax to grind. For many workers who emigrated years — or even half a century — ago, the occasion is not so much a celebration of the Deng-Li-Yang regime, but rather a final defense of their pride as a people in a still-foreign land.
Jimmy Chen, 67, who came to the United States in 1940 to work 16 hours a day in a laundry — and is still working — recalls fondly when China exploded the atomic bomb in 1965. “It makes us so proud as Chinese.” Talking about the demonstrators outside the restaurant, he said, “You curse your country, people will look down on you.”
But for the silent and nonvoting majority in Chinatown, there seems to be little way out of the enigma of being Chinese in America, at least for the time being. As immigrants of color, they have become neither Americans nor Chinese, but exiles in a promised land.