Malcolm X: The Complexity Of a Man in the Jungle

Malcolm X: The Complexity Of a Man in the Jungle
February 25, 1965

The following article was written by Marlene Nadle for The Voice shortly prior to the assassination of Malcolm X. It is based on hours of interviewing Malcolm X at his Hotel Theresa office and attendance at rallies at the Audubon Ballroom and Manhattan Center.

The article is presented exactly as it was originally written. No attempt has been made to make it conform to the events of Sunday at the Audubon Ballroom.

Malcolm X has three faces. One is turned toward Africa, one toward Harlem, and one toward Washington.

His masks are more numerous. They are juggled by both the actor and his audience. He’s a charismatic leader. Then a cartoon figure waving a rifle. He’s a racist. Then a Black National gone white. A symbol of hope and Father Divine. An anti-semite and a preacher of brotherhood. An extremist and a man to move the Movement.

In Harlem the people watch the performance.

The black politicians mark the trickle of converts going through the glass doors of the Organization of Afro-American Unity he formed after the split with the Black Muslims in March, 1964. They wait to see if it signals a flood, now that the gates are open to non-Muslims, and now that a separate black state is no longer the destination.

The politicians will not completely associate themselves with him. Nor will they disassociate themselves. The untested potential of Malcolm X keeps people like Adam Clayton Powell careful friends.

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Harlem Cross-section

A cross-section of Harlem comes to measure the man and his methods on Sunday nights at Audubon Ballroom. Seated on 500 wooden folding chairs are the disinherited people who never had any hope or answers and those, whether Nationalist or non-violent activist, who have run out of both. There are children looking for pride, and there are many older church-goers who, unlike Mahalia Jackson, can’t sing, “I found the answer, I learned to pray.”

In the bars and grills — Small’s and Jock’s and the Shalimar on Seventh Avenue, the Palm’s and Frank’s on 125th Street — the debate goes on.

“Malcolm is a genius,” said a man at the bar in the Shalimar. “All he cares about is Malcolm X and money.”

“Malcolm is a creation of the white press,” said a doctor in Frank’s.

“Malcolm is a genius,” said a lawyer in the back room at Jock’s. “He is the most brilliant speaker I have ever heard.”

“Malcolm X is a loser,” said another man at Jock’s. “He’ll have to do a lot better than he’s doing if he wants to make it in Harlem.”

Down the street from Jock’s in his Hotel Theresa headquarters, sat the subject of the debate. With his long frame hunched over a phone in his closet-like inner office, Malcolm made arrangements to speak at Harlem Hospital. He fumbled through the pockets of his dark three-button suit, through his vest and his attache case looking for his pen. Then, hanging up, he pressed his fingers against his eyes and rested.

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Testing Process

Remembering the interviewer he apologized and said, “I usually try and get four hours sleep at night. Last night I didn’t make it.”

The young executive in charge of revolution complained about the pace. About days that too often ran from 9 a.m. to 5 a.m.

Then the mutual testing began. With a half-smile Malcolm said, “A lot of people have warned me about the Village Voice. It’s supposed to be a liberal paper, but they say it is very narrow.”

“Some people on the staff think you’re a con man,” I said, and waited for the reaction.

It exploded out of the chair. Now on his feet, he said, “If I wanted to be just a con man, I wouldn’t be fool enough to try it on these streets where people are looking for my life, where I can’t walk around after dark. If I wanted power, I could have gone anywhere in the world. They offered me jobs in all the African countries.

“Muhammed is the man, with his house in Phoenix, his $200 suits, and his harem. He didn’t believe in the black state or in getting anything for the people. That’s why I got out.”

Do you feel a distorted image of you was created by the press?

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“It was created by them and me. The reporters came with preconceived answers to their questions. They were looking for sensationalism, for something that would sell papers, and I gave it to them. If they had asked probing intelligent questions, they would have gotten different answers.”

Why encourage the distortion?

“It’s useful. The only person who can organize the man in the streets is the one who is unacceptable to the white community. They don’t trust the other kind. They don’t know who controls his actions.”

The man in the street is the one Malcolm has described as living on the bottom of the social heap. The one who has given up all hope, all ambition, all plans. The one who says, like the old blues song, “I’ve been down so long till down don’t bother me.”

Did he plan to use hate to organize the people?

“I won’t permit you to call it hate. Let’s say I’m going to create an awareness of what has been done to them. This awareness will produce an abundance of energy, both negative and positive, that can then be channeled constructively.”

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The Bad Symbol

Like the trade-union organizer, Malcolm wants to aggravate the people’s frustration and discontent until anger overcomes apathy and they act on their own behalf. This will be done primarily by attacking the whites’ treatment of Negroes.

The Jew would seem to be an inevitable scapegoat for his attack. For the Jew, like the policeman, is a visible white in the life of the ghetto. Harlem sees them both not only in terms of their own deeds or misdeeds, but as walking symbols of all whites. It’s easy to stir a black audience on both subjects. And stir them is what Malcolm wants to do.

“The greatest mistake of the Movement,” he said, “has been trying to organize a sleeping people around specific goals. You have to wake the people up first then you’ll get action.”

Wake them up to their exploitation?

“No, to their humanity, their own worth, and to their heritage. The biggest difference between the parallel oppression of the Jew and the Negro is that the Jew never lost his pride in being a Jew. He never ceased to be a man. He knew he had made a significant contribution to the world, and his sense of his own value gave him the courage to fight back. It enabled him to act and think independently, unlike our people and our leaders.”

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No Tarzan

To compensate for the pride and heritage that was aborted by slavery, on almost all occasions, but especially at his Sunday meetings, Malcolm assumes the role of teacher.

Unwinding himself from a hand microphone, without any formal introduction, he comes before his class at the Audubon Ballroom. He chats and kids with them for a while and then gets on with the lessons.

He shows them films of Africa he took on his trip last summer. He tells them, “We have got to get over the brainwashing we had. No matter how much of an Africanist we are, it is hard for us to think of Africa as anything but a place for Tarzan. Look at these films and get out of your mind what the Man put in it.”

Narrating from a chair in the first row, he points out the beaches and skyscraping cities and says, “They told us there was nothing but jungle over there. Why, the only jungle I ever saw was right here in New York City.”

He reads them an article about James Farmer in the U.S. News and World Report. He attacks the magazine for being anti-black like all the press, but he tells his pupils to read it. “Read everything,” he said. “You never know where you’re going to get an idea. We have to learn how to think. We have to use our heads as well as our bodies in a revolution.”

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Rhythm Changes

He urges them to watch the kinds of books being used in the schools. “If when we were coming up,” he said, “we had a better idea of Africa and our past, we would think for ourselves.”

He closes the meeting with the announcement that child-care classes are going to be taught at the OAAU office.

Before this black audience, Malcolm has a different sound. The extensive vocabulary, the precise grammar, the level resonant voice go. Even the rhythm changes.

Was it deliberate? I asked him. “Sure,” he said. “Different audiences have different rhythms. You have to be able to play them, if you don’t want to put the people to sleep.”

“Now take someone like Bayard Rustin. He’s a brilliant man, a real whiz, just like Baldwin. But, he talks white. You know, Oxford accent and all. He came up here to Harlem to debate me … Poor Bayard … He spent so much time trying to figure out how to say things and still sound white that by the time he got the words out, I whipped him.”

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Racism Is Mask

During the debate, during the speeches on Sundays past, and during the speeches on Sundays future, Malcolm will continue to try to wake Harlem. He will use a negative attack to produce a positive goal. To a white ear the attacks will sound like the ranting of a racist.

To the man who leans casually against the wall at the Theresa, racism is a mask he dons when it will be effective. But even the mask is different from the way it is perceived. To himself he is a racist because he is concerned with the black race. He is a racist because he will attack all people who abuse that race. He is not a racist who hates all non-blacks.

“I care about all people,” he said, ”but especially about black people. I’m a Muslim. My religion teaches me brotherhood, but doesn’t make me a fool.”

The white world is not the only place that is concerned with his racism. In the parts of Harlem where white means devil, they are also testing him.

He was challenged at a Sunday meeting. A man stood, rocked back on his heels, and very slowly said, “We heard you changed, Malcolm. Why don’t you tell us where you’re at with them white folks?”

Without dropping a syllable he gave a black nationalist speech on brotherhood.

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Militant, Not Dogmatic

“I haven’t changed,” he said. “I just see things on a broader scale. We nationalists used to think we were militant. We were just dogmatic. It didn’t bring us anything.

“Now I know it’s smarter to say you’re going to shoot a man for what he is doing to you than because he is a white. If you attack him because he is white, you give him no out. He can’t step being white. We’ve got to give the Man a chance. He probably won’t take it, the snake. But we’ve got to give him a chance.

“We’ve got to be more flexible. Why, when some of our friends in Africa didn’t know how to do things, they went ahead and called in some German technicians. And they had blue eyes

“I’m not going to be in anybody’s strait jacket. I don’t care what a person looks like or where they come from. My mind is wide open to anybody who will help get the ape off our backs.”

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White Allies

The people he feels that can best help are the students, both black and white. But he con­siders all militant whites possible allies.

He qualifies the possibility. And woven into the qualifications are the threads of the emotions running through Harlem.

“If we are going to work to­gether, the blacks must take the lead in their own fight. In phase one, the white led. We’re going into phase two now.”

“This phase will be full of re­bellion and hostility. Blacks will fight whites for the right to make decisions that affect the struggle
in order to arrive at their manhood and self-respect.”

“The hostility is good,” Mal­colm said. “It’s been bottled up too long. When we stop always saying yes to Mr. Charlie and turning the hate against our­selves, we will begin to be free.”

How did he plan to get white militants to work with him or even to walk into the Theresa with the kind of slings and arrows he was sending out?

There was the half-smile again. Then, thoughtfully stroking his new-grown beard, he said, “We’ll have to try to rectify that.”

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Master Juggler  

He admitted it would be diffi­cult to get militant whites and blacks together. “The whites can’t come uptown too easily be­cause the people aren’t feeling too friendly. The black who goes downtown loses his identity, loses his soul. He’s in no position to be a bridge because he has lost contact with Harlem. Our Negro leaders never had contact, so they can’t do it.

“The only person who could is someone who is completely trusted by the black community. If I were to try, I would have to be very diplomatic, because there are parts of Harlem where you don’t dare mention the idea.”

The diplomatic skill of the master juggler will also be needed to get white militant support. For, while wooing it, he must continue to attack whites for the benefit of his Harlem audience.

Bluntly he says, “We must make them see that we are the enemy. That the black man is the greater threat to this country than Vietnam or Berlin. So let them turn the money for defense in our direction and either destroy us or cure the conditions that brought our people to this point. For if we cannot live in this house as human beings, we would rather be dead.”

As Malcolm finished his comment, he left little doubt that he was willing to go all the way in the fight. Yet he doesn’t seem like a man who is in love with violence. On the contrary, he re­laxed during the course of the interview, the impression conveyed by this soft-spoken, non­smoking, non-drinking Muslim was one of gentleness.

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Concern for People

When he was not on the stage, another side of the man is revealed. The private rather than the public man is seen when you watch him relate to individuals. He stops and listens to a worried white student despite the fact that the police and his party are trying to hurry him out after a speech. He remembers to buy coffee for everyone in the office when he orders some for himself. He interrupts his sentence on the need for black hostility to ask, with genuine concern, whether I was abused coming to the Theresa.

Violence has no real part in his history. Even the crimes of burglary and larceny he committed as Big Red were mercenary not sadistic.

Why then is he willing to go such extremes?

“Only violence, or a real threat of it, will get results,” he said. “The only time the government moves is in reaction to crises. When it’s too costly to let our people continue to suffer, Washington will give the massive federal aid needed to solve the problem.”

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To the South

Violence doesn’t mean a huge race war to Malcolm. His strategy is primarily defensive.

He’ll work on voter registration in the north and south. But if his people work in a place like Mississippi, they’ll be armed. “If the Federal government won’t protect the voters,” he said, his people will.

He has already begun to offer his services in the south. He addressed a voter-registration rally in Tuskegee, Alabama, on February 3, was in Selma on February 5, and will speak at a Mississippi Freedom Party rally in Jackson on February 19.

Malcolm is also willing to go along with Bayard Rustin’s strategy of causing social dislocation in the white community, but he is not willing to do it non-violently. For he says the people in Harlem who are willing to get involved in such activities aren’t willing to have a policeman crack their skulls and not fight back.

He will use demonstrations and picketing, but not the kind that play by the rules of the establishment. “Power doesn’t back up in the face of a prayer and a smile,” he said. “The only demonstrations that they pay attention to are the ones that contain the seeds of violence.”

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Black Guerrillas 

There is another tactic he wants to use. It is the exception in his defensive strategy. He wants bands of invisible guerrillas who would strike and slip back into society. Bands that could match the Klan.

“I’ll be the first to join,” he said, “and lots of people you don’t think will, are going to line up behind me.”

It’s over the tactics of violence vs. non-violence — or, as Malcolm puts it, self-defense vs. masochism — that he and other civil-rights leaders disagree. This difference is what has prevented the unity that he feels is one of the keys to the struggle.

“It’s not that there is no desire for unity, or that it is impossible, or that they might not agree with me behind closed doors. It’s because most of the organizations are dependent on white money and they are afraid to lose it.

“I spent almost a year not at­tacking them, saying let’s get together, let’s do something. But they’re too scared. I guess I will have to go to the people first and let the leaders fall in behind them.”

That does not mean ruling out cooperation. He will try and stress the areas and activities where the groups can work together. For he says, “If we are going into the ring, our right fist does not have to become our left fist, but we must use a com­mon head if we are going to win. ”

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Black Schools

Asked if he would support things like a school boycott, he said he would if he agreed with its goals. He would not support it to get more busing. He also wouldn’t fight school construction in black communities. Until a better plan for integration is found, he wants more and larger schools built in black neighborhoods. Even more than in comparable white ones, because of  the birth rate.

In discussing other things he felt should be done, he said, “We must begin to move into politics and economics. They are two areas where our people are very immure. That’s why the OAAU started the liberation school. We want to teach them how to operate.”

The political lessons won’t be just theory. Malcolm wants to  run militant candidates on the local level. They would be race men like the Southern politicians. These candidates would plant angry soap boxes on all the street corners of Harlem. They would make the vote a channel for the discontent for the apolitical man in the streets. Once a political habit is established, it could be a powerful weapon in the struggle.

Would he be a candidate?

“I don’t know at this point,” he said. “I think I am more effective attacking the establishment. You can’t do that as well once you’re inside it.”

Did he think an all-black party like the Freedom Now Party in Michigan was needed?

“Yes, in some cases you have to create new machinery. In other it’s better to take over existing machinery. Either way, we’re going to be involved in all levels of politics from ’65 on.”

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Miami Approach

Malcolm also wants to take a new economic approach to integration. He thinks blacks should use the same strategy as Jews did in Florida. Instead of money on lawyers’ feels and bail bonds for sit-ins, they should pool their resources and buy housing. Then anybody who wanted to could come in.

He also thinks efforts should be made to have blacks control the food, shelter, and clothing in the communities where they live.

As we spoke and drank the coffee he ordered, it became clear that there is one feature common to all Malcolm’s masks. It’s determination. Determination to solve the problems of his people at whatever cost. To smash through the deafness of the white world. To force into actions and words the rage that is churning in the guts of the blacks.

On the train I rode downtown, that black rage broke free in one drunken Negro. He spit his anguish and obscenities into emotionless white faces.

For endless blocks the drunk shrieked against the sound of the subway, “You’re full of shit! You’re all full of shit! You’re killing me! You mothers! You’re killing me!”

That rage is what Malcolm wants to shape into a weapon to be used against the continued moral, spiritual, physical, political, cultural, and economic strangulation of the blacks.

From The Archives Neighborhoods NYC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

New York’s Chinatown: Becoming Scrutable

Eddie Hong, lawyer, travel agent and now a candidate for the State Assembly, is the first Chinese-American in New York City’s history to run for public office. Just as his campaign reflects his community’s newly awakened interest in affairs beyond its own boundaries, so his affable, Rotarian disposition suggests that few Chinese-Americans born in this country any longer bear much resemblance to the old stereotype of the inscrutable Oriental. For Hong, a Midwesterner by background, is a real booster — full of smiles, handshakes, gossip about recent improvements in the community where he happens to live. The fact that his office is close to the heart of Chinatown, that his legal clientele and the people for whom he arranges tours are Chinese, seems to result from a coincidence of birth, and not from any limitations of his personality.

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In fact, Hong at 50 is slightly older than most of the generation that shares his interest in civic matters, and therefore is something of an historical curiosity. Like most of the Chinese immigrants to America in the early 20th century, Hong’s father had left his family behind in the Canton province so that he could wander freely around the New World in search of a substantial income. Hong is not sure exactly what his father did in those days — “he worked for a while in Texas as a cook, but I don’t know where else” — but he does still recall the fact that the entire family was soon able to come together in spite of the severe restrictions on Oriental immigration that the American government imposed in the 1920s. “For the most part the Chinese in America lived in a bachelor community up through World War II,” Hong says. “The men were already here, and many of them were too poor to go back. The immigration laws made it impossible for the women to come — so the ratio of men to women was something like 200 to 1. A whole generation of Chinese-Americans was lost. My family was very lucky.”

The Only Chinese

The Hongs settled in Danville, Illinois, where they were the only Chinese family. Like many of his countrymen scattered throughout the United States but largely concentrated in San Francisco and New York, Mr. Hong opened a restaurant, worked unceasingly and pushed his kids to get college educations. In 1937 Eddie Hong received a degree in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois, and four years later graduated from law school there. When he moved to New York after World War II and passed the state’s bar examination in 1946, he was only the second Chinese-American in the city to become a full-fledged lawyer.

Profession and voluntary organization quickly piled on top of each other: at that time Hong, comfortable with all sorts of Americans, was something of a rarity in his community. He joined the Lions Club, the Far East Shrine Club, the Veterans of Foreign Wars. As a lawyer he was always handling immigration cases, and soon — seeing that Chinese Americans could afford to voyage all over, not just from the U.S. to the Far East — he opened a travel agency.

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Supported Goldwater

He also became active in Republican Party politics, though most registered voters in Chinatown were Democrats. Throughout the ’50s he was only sporadically active in local politics but still, in 1964, he was made chairman of the Chinese division of the Nationalities Division of the Republican Party. In the last Presidential election he supported Barry Goldwater, and up until very recently intertwined Goldwater’s pictures and slogans with his own local activities.

Hong’s campaign headquarters are in the backroom of his slight­ly disheveled railroad-like law office and travel bureau on Elizabeth Street. Tucked away in a room in the rear, guarded by a secretary and a long corridor, Hong does not seem willing to let his vote-getting activities inter­fere with his business. In person, though, there is nothing even re­motely stand-offish about him. But he does seem slightly distracted, like a man with more projects than he has time. A cordial interview in English will be interrupted by a lively phone con­versation in Chinese — then an argument over some legal matter in English — then a quick trip down the corridor to consult with a client about some travel plan.

Yet, no matter how many tasks he is attending to at once, Hong’s good nature seems unshakable. He is not the kind of man who can be easily rebuffed. For example, when John Lindsay’s entourage recently invaded Chinatown for a rally in the midst of the 54th anniversary of Chinese independence, it was clear that there was some tension between the fusionists who work for Lindsay and the few Goldwater Republicans around Hong. Lindsay gave two speeches — one at a cocktail party and a second at a large outdoor rally — and neither time did he even mention Hong’s name. On both occasions Hong was made to speak last, after the crowd had begun to scatter, and he was never given time to utter more than a few sentences. Yet as he stood on the platform, trying to edge as close to Lindsay as he could, Hong didn’t for a moment look bitter or hurt — as, for example, Milton Mollen always does when he is shunted aside. Hong kept smiling eagerly, and finally when it was his turn to talk he seemed almost to thrust himself down from the platform into the portion of the audience that re­mained, issuing the usually banal pronouncements of a local candidate in a peppy cheerleader’s voice.

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Substantial Tension

But the tension between Hong and Lindsay’s supporters in Chinatown is substantial — it is more a conflict between generations, between styles of political behavior, than it is a dispute over issues. For Hong is something of an anachronism in the progression of the Chinese-American community towards civic involve­ment. He does not reflect the older generation in its need to remain within the confines of the community, primarily attached to Chinese-language self-help groups like the Benevolent Association or the various family organizations; nor is he part of the small groups of men who, 20 years ago, began to peep out from local politics into Tammany Hall, and who are now connected with the local Democratic club and share a reputation as gamblers and small-time profiteers. But Hong is equally detached from the established businessmen and professionals in their late 20s or in their 30s who, though they have themselves moved away from Chinatown, see in the Lindsay campaign a chance to involve the whole community in a style of politics dedicated more to good government and independence than to strictly local programs, individual profiteering, or to unflinching party loyalty.

Set an Example

In fact, though the Lindsay volunteers now support Hong, they apparently do so only with the understanding that he will not mention Goldwater during the campaign. And they put his can­didacy into a precise perspective. “He’s sure to get swamped,” one Lindsay supporter said, “but it doesn’t really matter. His becoming a lawyer set an example for young people — now there are 18 lawyers here and his running for office will show the rest of the community that we can get into real politics. And we need to be represented in this city.”

The Lindsay headquarters are located on Bayard Street, three blocks away from Hong’s office and in an area across the Bowery where as recently as a few years ago Chinese Americans were frightened to venture. “I walked down here once when I was a kid, and some Italians gave me a bloody head as a souvenir,” one man working in the campaign of­fice recalls. Even now the Bayard Street storefront is somewhat iso­lated from the rest of the com­munity: the volunteers seem far more Americanized than the peo­ple you see on Mott Street, and their devotion to civic politics does not yet seem to be widely understood by the rest of the com­munity.

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Something Happening 

“The important thing is that we’re getting the kids out,” one young lady explained to me after she had reminded a co-worker to bring a ‘Chinese dress’ to the Lindsay rally. “This is the first time anyone here has actively worked for a candidate, and when older people see children they know ringing doorbells and wearing Lindsay buttons, then they know something is happening.”

It was for this reason that the large crowd which turned out for Lindsay’s speech represented a triumph for the local workers. “Of course nobody came down here to see the man,” a volunteer said. “On Sunday Chinatown is always crowded, and on Independence Day it is doubly so. But they did stand in the rain to hear him talk, and they saw how enthusiastic all the young people were about him.” In fact the rally was one of the most exciting of Lindsay’s entire campaign. On a chilly damp afternoon hundreds of people crowded the streets, watching two boys whirl through a long, ceremonial dragon dance; hearing the Fortuned Cookie Girls, a group of local teenagers, sing “I Want to Be Lindsay’s Girl”; parading down from Mott Street to Bayard Street where the rally was finally held. When Lindsay spoke, equating Chinese independence with his own independently run campaign, he was cheered enthusiastically. “Of course the Democrats will have a bigger rally when Beame comes down here in two weeks, but it doesn’t really matter,” a volunteer said. “They’ll spend a lot of money and use professionals to organize the thing. Floats will be brought in from outside, and there will be a lot of gimmicks — ­but still people will know that our rally was organized spontaneous­ly, and that’s more important.”

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1500 Votes

Most people who are detached from the campaign feel that how­ever big Beame’s rally might be, Lindsay will win a majority of Chinatown’s 1500 or so votes — ­though not necessarily for the reasons his active supporters would like. “For the past three years the city has been calling this an impoverished area,” one man said, “and still they don’t do anything. The crime in the streets gets worse because de­linquents from other parts of the city feel they won’t get caught here. There’s not enough housing, especially for the new refugees, and the school facilities are getting worse and worse. I don’t know if people are getting more interested in political involve­ment — I rather doubt it — but since it’s time to vote, they’ll vote for a change. We’re just tired of be­ing regarded as a curiosity, a place for tourists, and not as a community which has its own distinct needs.”

Both Eddie Hong’s office and Lindsay’s storefront are located on the perimeter of Chinatown proper. And, as you walk down Mott Street or Pell Street, in the heart of the area, you come to feel how alien to its people the ­whole concept of civic involvement really is.

Look Old

Despite the presence of some modern stores on Mott Street — banks, insurance companies, gift shops, a pinball parlor — it still seems to exist outside of New York City. Most of the stores look as old as they are. Their undec­orated wood floors and walls, their cluttered unmarked shelves which bear all the goods the management has to offer, their sheer electric lighting without a trace of neon or fluorescence all seem untouched by the mid 20th century, like shops in the deep South where customers still gos­sip around the pot-bellied stove. The language of the street, and of trade, is still Chinese, and many people seem uncomfortable if they are asked to exchange more than a few necessary business words with an outsider. It is not yet uncommon in midday to see a group of men sitting around an old card table slapping down soapy look­ing rectangles as they pass their time playing mah-jongg. On a weekday afternoon the Governor Theatre, which shows only Chinese-language films made in Hong Kong or Formosa, is three-quarters filled with middle-aged men and women watching the fourth two-hour installment of the Chin­ese equivalent of The Perils of Pauline. The newsstands display five Chinese-language papers — with much of their news taken from the Hong Kong wire serv­ices — about a dozen thin Chinese periodicals, some of them displaying Oriental women in Playboy calendar poses, and a multitude of books, including the James Bond series, which have been translated into Chinese by a for­eign language agency in Hong Kong.

The people one sees on Mott Street are for the most part first generation immigrants from Canton who still feel far more attachment to China, and to overseas Chinese communities, than to their new land. Their dislike of the Communist regime, for example, which stems from the fact that they are forbidden to return home, and that their relatives In Canton have been treated harshly, seems to be mixed with a feeling of national pride that China has finally become a pow­er, and must be treated as an equal by the occidental world. In this respect the Chinese who live on Mott Street — poor people who left their rural homes in the south of the country to earn a better living in America — do not re­semble the intellectual class of Mandarin-speaking people from the north of China, around Shang­hai. These Chinese have quickly found work as professionals or businessmen, and have never lived in Chinatown though they now own most of the stores there.

In the middle of Mott Street, housed in a large, modern build­ing, is the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. It is to this organization that most of the old people still feel their strongest communal ties. Until recently, when Chinese-American lawyers began to handle local cases, most of the community’s business was carried on through the Benevolent Association. There, too, local disputes were arbitrated and local festivals planned; it was the head of the Association that the rest of New York referred to as the Mayor of Chinatown.

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Family Organizations 

The more intimate problems of the first immigrant generation have traditionally been handled by the network of family associations which still spans Chinatown. If a man named Chen, for example, had just arrived in New York, he would go to a Chen family association, or to a grocery store, restaurant, or laundry that bore his name to find out where he could obtain work and to learn news of his relatives in the States or back in China. For months thereafter he might be in transit from job to job, or apartment to apartment, and his family association headquarters would serve as a mail drop, club house, and an appointment center.

The younger generation of Chinese-Americans, reluctant to follow their parents into the restaurant or laundry business, do not have much use for the family associations; but they are still essential to the old people and to new arrivals. It is not only that the associations offer them a familiar language and a comfortable set of customs. To thousands of Chinese who had come to America illegally in defiance of the restrictive immigration laws the chance to pursue a career strictly within their own com­munity was essential.

Could Be Open

The fact that so many Chinese immigrants had to live beyond the surveillance of the American government made it doubly difficult for the community as a whole to enter city-wide politics. Only a few men, like Shavey Lee, the first “Mayor of Chinatown” and a good friend of Fiorello La Guardia, had so little to hide that they could deal with the rest of the city openly. “Lee was born here so he could build his business on the busiest corner of Chinatown and greet any import­ant person who came down here to explore,” Eddie Hong says. “He became famous because he was just about the only man in Chinatown who could afford to live without any disguise.”

There is another group of China­town residents who do not for the moment take much interest in formal American politics: the re­cent refugees from Hong Kong. Though these people have legally spent many years in a large city en route from Canton, and thus are not intimidated by large bur­eaucracies, many of them are still barred from voting by resi­dence requirements, and from a full comprehension of American politics by their difficulty with the language.

Some of the young arrivals from Hong Kong have caused Chinatown its first difficulty with Chinese delinquency in years. “They are much cockier, much more interested in women and dancing and drinking than we were ever allowed to be,” says a 25-year-old man who was brought up in Chinatown. “I guess you could call them sort of Oriental teddy boys. They have their own clubhouses here, and I hate to think of what goes on behind those doors. Still, they’re real go-getters. This summer when the poverty program offered free classes in English they all went. We would have been scared to deal with the outside world like that. They’ll probably have no trouble adjusting to America, and they’ll probably do quite well when they grow up.”

By then, the generation of young people who are now being exposed to politics through Eddie Hong’s campaign and Lindsay’s volunteers will be old enough to vote or run for public office. For the first time Chinatown, and the Chinese community, should be represented in the government of the city. That is, unless the migration of young adults away from the Lower East Side combines with the city’s constant push towards urban renewal to erase Chinatown altogether.

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What They Said About Chinatown

The outside world has radically changed its attitude toward China­town over the past 15 years. At the turn of the century the word “Chinese” evoked images of the “yellow peril,” of opium houses and degraded women, of “unChristian” ideas about busi­ness and government, of coolie laborers working for less than Europeans, and taking their jobs. ­These sentiments underpinned the severe restrictions on Chinese immigration to America which ap­plied for nearly half a century. Now, however, Chinese-Americ­ans are regarded as clean, dis­ciplined, hardworking people whose strong family ties should provide an example for other, less fortunate groups. Here is a chron­ological series of descriptions of Chinatown which suggests how thoroughly its reputation has been transformed.

In 1890 Jacob Riis wrote in his book, How the Other Half Lives:
“Trust him not who trusts no one is as safe a rule in Chinatown as out of it. Were not Mott Street overawed in its iso­lation, it would not be safe to descend this open cellar-way thr­ough which come the pungent odors of burning opium, and the clink of copper coins on the table. At the first foot-fall of leather soles on the steps the hum of talk ceases and the group of cele­stials, crouching over their game of fantan, stop playing and watch the comer with ugly looks. The average Chinaman, the police will tell you, would rather gam­ble than eat any day. Only the fellow in his own bunk smokes away, indifferent to all else but his pipe and his own enjoyment. The Chinaman smokes opium as Caucasians smoke tobacco, and apparently with little worse effect upon himself. But woe unto the white victims on which his pitiless drug gets its grip…

“From the teeming tenements to the right and left (of Chinatown) come the white slaves of its dens of vice and their infernal drug… There are houses, dozens of them, in Mott and Pell Streets, that are literally jammed ­from the ‘joint’ in the cellar to the attic with these hapless victims of a passion which, once acquired, demands the sacrifice of every instinct of decency to its insensate desire…

“One thing about (the Chinese) is conspicuous: their scrupulous neatness. It is the distinguishing mark of Chinatown, outwardly and physically. It is not altogether by chance that the Chinaman has chosen the laundry as his native field. He is by nature as clean as the cat, which he resembles in his traits of cruel cunning and savage fury when aroused…

“The Chinese are in no sense a desirable element of the population, they serve no useful purpose here, whatever they might have done elsewhere in other days, yet to this it is a sufficient answer that they are here and that, having let them in, we must make the best of it. Rather than ­banish the Chinaman, I would have the door open wider — for his wife; make it a condition of his coming that he bring his wife with him. Then, at least, he might not be what he is and remains, a hopeless stranger among us.”

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By 1927 when Will Irwin, a New York reporter, came to write about Chinatown, it had lost much of its mystery:
“Mott Street itself, to one who knew his Chinatown 20, or even 15, years ago, is a disappointment. Then the inhabitants shuffled past in felt shoes, or in rainy weather elevated clogs. Nine-tenths of them wore pigtails; a good half, round caps with bright buttons on the top. Wadded jackets and wide, flapping trousers were the rule; European clothes were the exception. In summer, when the necessity for a breath of fresh air overcame their horror of public gaze, the women came forth in subdued blue or green tunics appropriate to street wear, their glossy hair pinned elaborately with combs to fastenings of beaten gold and jade. But the pigtail, symbol of slavery, passed with the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty. This gone, the rest followed naturally…

“It all changed and passed; for the good of the Chinese if you ask my opinion. Set down on a hill between the cheap Tenderloin of the Bowery and the degraded slum of Five Points, bedeviled by criminal adventurers who had left Chinatown to escape the headsman, bewildered by the necessity of adjusting to an alien city, they have lifted themselves through the sheer leverage of that character which is the inheritance of the Chinese.”

In 1946 Patricia Page described Chinatown in the magazine section of the New York Times:
“Despite tourists’ illusions Chinatown is New York’s most peaceful district. In the last eight years there has been only one arrest for alcoholism, and none for murder or any major crimes. Opium has become so expensive, and is of such poor grade, that no Chinese considers it worthwhile any more.

“The people of Chinatown have none of the ambition of their Cantonese ancestors… They lead harmless, passionless lives and follow every established pattern of the community…

“Parents dominate their chil­dren. They have a tendency to tell their sons ‘Children born in America have no brains,’ or ‘Young people talk too much.’ The products of this subtle coercion joined the armed forces in large number but in peacetime they seldom go beyond the daily trip to a job at the Bendix plant. They seem eager for study but the force of local convention keeps most of them out of college.

“Chinatown is not quite China, not quite America. All its men live within the frame of a tradition which lacks, in America, the force of new creativeness. Yet they are proud and honest, and as they stand talking into the night, they have the impassive air of men who bear the fatigue of a 3000-year-old culture.”

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In 1957, also in the New York Times magazine, William Mc­Intyre wrote an article called “Chinatown Offers Us a Lesson”:
“Our Chinatown Chinese-Ameri­can family leads a life so wholesome that it seems almost ana­chronistic in our epoch of anxie­ties. It is a design for living that has been perfected by 1000 years of trial and error. It prospers in the back room of a laundry, or jammed in a tenement flat off the Bronx.

“There is clear evidence that a strongly integrated family, offering parental guidance and af­fection, is a tremendous deterrence to delinquency. If non-­Chinese parents hereabout could see at first hand the workings of this healthy society, it would help dispel confusion and astonishment over our proliferating delinquen­cy problems.

“It is of course impossible to expect the example set by our Chinese-Americans to put togeth­er once again the bits of our broken or demoralized families, but it can perform a rich service by reaffirming the importance of parental leadership and love.”