Chinatown ’89: Outside Looking In

THE AUDIENCE LEAPS TO ITS feet, moved to wild applause. The reviews are ecstatic, and the public reveals itself to be as keenly appreciative and discern­ing as it is culturally mixed. Not once, in a society expansive enough to encourage heterogeneity, are the labels exotic and ethnic mentioned.

This is the dream, shared by all artists of color.

And this is the nightmare: The recep­tion reeks with politeness, even noblesse oblige. But what the crowd sees/hears/reads isn’t you, only a pale apparition. The crowd addresses itself to this appari­tion even as you gesture frantically. You scream. No one hears. They’ve buried you alive and they don’t even know it.

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PING CHONG, A CHINESE-AMERICAN theater and performance artist who grew up and still lives in Manhattan’s China­town, recognizes both the dream and the nightmare. Chong, who won an Obie in 1977 for his work Humboldt’s Current, realizes the dangers with which cultural hyphenation in an immigrant society is fraught, where an Outsider — or someone perceived to be an Outsider — becomes the harbinger of a new and unsettling order. He acknowledges “the problematic nature of being not just an Asian-American artist but an artist of color, knowing the biases of this culture.”

Chong deals with this problematic con­cern by employing material that is osten­sibly not Asian, at least not in the tradi­tional sense. His works are highly eclectic, drawing from sources as varied as film noir, vampire legends, Archie comics, cartoons, Indonesian shadow plays, and Alice in Wonderland. Yet his elliptical pieces suggest an Asian sensibil­ity, with their yin-yang interplay of light and shadow, cartoon humor, and totali­tarian menace. They suggest, above all, a continuity — darker than we would ordi­narily care to admit — between the per­ception of wake time and the time of the buried self.

Chong’s characters rarely have conver­sations; instead, they speak in codes and at cross-purposes. Their few exchanges are marked either by cheery banality or by melancholy and despair: earmarks of an impotent, and ultimately fragmented, society. There’s a loss of awe, of spirituality — a big concern of Chong’s — and the only thing that makes sense is non-sense. Chong’s latest work, Noiresque, which had an all Asian-American cast, is a per­fect example: Its main character, Alice, gets stuck in Terminal City, an Orwellian nightmare that might be New York. Or Hong Kong.

However you want to read the dilemma of the hyphenated artist, one of its essen­tial aspects is the fashioning of a sensibil­ity secure from the demands of both sides of the hyphen (whom do I write for when I write for “myself”?). Then there’s the fact that all art, as David Henry Hwang once said, is ethnic. The dominant (read white, male, upper-class) ethnicity has the power and the privilege of disassoci­ating itself from the term “ethnic,” cate­gorizing itself as “universal,” with self­-anointed guardians holding up lily-white standards for all to emulate. And so the peculiar logic of the crossover, of cultural hyphenation — where the hyphen sways like a frayed rope bridge over a roaring chasm — dictates a one-way movement, from the “particular” to the “universal.” Or, as Chong puts it, “How white do I have to be?”

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BORN IN CANADA and brought to New York’s Chinatown at the age of one, Chong grew up on Bayard Street, where his parents opened a restaurant. “China­town was more of a village then,” Chong, who is in his forties, recalls. His first experience of the staged arts was the Chi­nese opera, his father having been a producer/director of Chinese opera and his mother a performer. This influence is evi­dent in the ritualistic and imagistic as­pects of his work. Indeed, Nosferatu opens with two angels in stylized combat reminiscent of martial arts, and the musi­cal punctuation includes cymbals, used much as they are in Chinese opera.

Chong believes it’s extremely difficult to expand in a ghetto. “The Chinese there don’t support the arts. They’re very pragmatic, they’re into making money. They’ll watch soap operas. Don’t forget, when we talk of the art of China, we’re talking about the aristocracy.” Eleanor Yung, codirector of the Chinatown-based Asian American Arts Center, agrees: “Most of the immigrants recognize physi­cal survival and are so busy with this they forget cultural survival.”

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A similarly pollinated sensibility in­forms the works of Ming Fay, a sculptor who’s lived in New York for 16 years. Fay is known for his modernistic giant sculp­tures of fruits and vegetables such as coconuts, pears, and peppers. Because they’re such familiar items, they can be easily appreciated — or just as easily disparaged — as Claes Oldenburg spin-offs. But Fay works in a very different con­text, choosing certain items because of their iconic value in Chinese tradition. Thus, a pear represents prosperity, a peach, longevity, and an orange tree, good fortune.

Like Chong, Fay is pragmatic enough to know that recognition of the Asian-­American artist is as much a political as an aesthetic act. “As we grow in number, politics will come into play. Critics will be forced to pay attention. It will be the younger artists” — and here he names Martin Wong, David Diao, Mel Chin, Ti Shan Hsu — “who will reap the fruit — no pun intended.”

There is, of course, always a gap be­tween artists and their audiences — nar­rower when a cultural history is shared, wider when it’s not. Asian-American ref­erence points puzzle; we know WASP and JAP, but what about sansei, ABC, and Flip? Inevitably, the audience turns to familiar imagery, determined largely by totemized stereotypes, e.g., the opium den, the Filipino houseboy, the submis­sive Asian woman. The audience itself becomes a problem. As Filipino-Ameri­can novelist, poet, and performance artist Jessica Hagedorn points out, “I’m not going to give up my ‘inside jokes’ to ac­commodate them, but I do hope there’s enough there that a discriminating reader can understand and appreciate.”

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The insularity of New York audiences is a familiar beast to all artists operating outside the mainstream. Laments Ki­miko Hahn, poet and director of the mul­ticultural arts organization Word of Mouth, “We have trouble getting people outside the community to attend our readings even though they’re held in Manhattan’s Chinatown, easy to get to. There’s a refusal to expand beyond the familiar names of small circles.” In addi­tion, she points out, the phenomenon of crossing over often results in what she terms “one writer per season,” that is, the Chosen One Stands In for All.

Yet the success of David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly on Broadway, of Ping Chong’s works in the downtown art scene, and of Maxine Hong Kings­ton’s and Amy Tan’s books continues to tantalize, keeping alive the dream, how­ever peripherally. But just as there exist guardians of the “universal,” so too are there guardians of the “particular,” quick to portray each step across the gap as a betrayal. Hwang and Kingston, for instance, have been attacked within the Asian-American community for revision­ism; for writing for a white audience; for, in short, “selling out.” Clearly, in the minds of both sets of guardians, “culture” and “ethnicity” are irrevocably defined. It is this dogmatic, ultimately sentimen­tal attachment to an old order that con­stitutes the most difficult obstacle for the artist intent on crossing over. ■


The New Chinese Exodus: The Party’s Over but Still in Power — Get Out Now
By Dusanka Miscevic and Peter Kwong

Riding the Dragon: Chinatown’s Politics — Many Votes, No Chinese Candidates
By Yuen Ying Chan

Surviving in America: The Trials of a Chinese Immigrant Woman
By Joann Lum & Peter Kwong

Growing by Leaps
By Lauren Esserman

Equality From The Archives Immigration Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Chinatown ’89: Surviving in America

EVERY SUNDAY MORNING, hundreds of Chinese gar­ment workers, waiters, and cashiers spend their only free time of the week at­tending English classes. Squeezed into makeshift classrooms organized by various community groups and churches in China­town, they struggle with basic words and simple dialogues. At the end of class, a few frustrated students will fret that they are too old and forgetful to ever learn English. Ying Jian Xia, 42, attended classes like these when she first arrived here from Hong Kong four years ago. But after three months she had barely mas­tered the alphabet. Discouraged, Ying gave up, convinced that “for a person of my age, it’s hard to learn. You’re set in your ways.”

Ying is not alone in this predicament. According to the 1980 census, 55 per cent of the city’s Chinatown residents — many of whom have been here more than 10 years — don’t understand English. Some observers blame the Chinese themselves for this situation. They argue that all immigrants should learn English and make the difficult transition of assimila­tion, rather than keep to their own kind. Ying, too, believes that “you just have to speak English to get a good job.” She knows that the ability to speak English might have landed her a job as a hotel cleaning woman, which, she was told, would pay more than $10 an hour and offer good benefits.

But Chinatown residents, unlike those of many other transitional immigrant en­claves, end up getting caught in their community because they can get jobs there. Chinese immigrants not only live in Chinatown but work for and with oth­er Chinese. They don’t use English among themselves and don’t come into contact with many “Americans.” Ying’s inability to learn English, then, has more to do with her lack of opportunity to hear and speak it than with her age. Ying’s efforts were further hindered by her having had only three years of formal education in mainland China — to this day, she has problems reading Chinese. Again, her lack of education is not unusu­al; the 1980 census reported that 71 per cent of the residents of New York’s Chi­natown had not graduated from high school. They occupy the opposite end of the social spectrum from the well-educat­ed, upwardly mobile Chinese profession­als — engineers, doctors, and scientists — ­at whom Americans enjoy marveling.

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Ying is no longer studying English and has accepted her life as a seamstress at the Fashion Enterprise factory, which is located on the fourth floor of a 19th-cen­tury bank building on Canal Street. Fash­ion Enterprise, a medium-sized factory, is a family-run business: The mother of the man who owns it supervises the hemming section, one of his wife’s sisters is the floor manager, her other sister sews and monitors the work of the other seam­stresses, and one of these sisters’ husbands is a steam presser.

Typically, a Fashion Enterprise seam­stress works from eight in the morning to seven at night, six days a week, and makes about $200 per week. Wages of hemmers and cutters are even lower, about $5000 a year — just above the cutoff point for eligibility in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union health insurance plan.

Although New York’s garment industry suffered a 40 per cent job loss between 1969 and 1982, the number of factories in Chinatown increased. The availability of factory and service jobs has encouraged thousands of people with minimal skills and no English to emigrate from Asia directly to American Chinatowns. In New York’s Chinatown, close to 20,000 Chi­nese Americans are employed; the popu­lation has grown from 15,000 in the ’60s to well over 100,000 today. The main reason for this boom is that Chinatown’s wage rates are competitive with those of the Third World. Most of the Chinatown owners are “cheap,” says Ying, using out-­of-date machines, deliberately confusing or failing to inform workers about piece rates before each job is done, and refus­ing to pay overtime. To survive in New York on piece rates, workers put in as many hours as possible. Some even work on Sundays, and others will not take breaks during work, eating plain bread for lunch so as not to have to stop their machines. One of Ying’s coworkers de­scribes her work as involving ying lee­ — “feminine exertion,” an intense, exhausting type of labor that does not require brute strength.

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YING, HER HUSBAND TING AN, and their three daughters, Jenny, 16, Eunice, 14, and Pauline, 11, arrived in this country from Hong Kong in 1985. Ying and Ting An speak only Cantonese. The couple had to start working as soon as they “got off the boat” in order to pay back the $9000 they had borrowed, interest-free, from Ying’s brother and Ting An’s sister to resettle here.

Although Ying has accepted her lot here, her 52-year-old husband is having trouble accepting his. In Hong Kong, Ting An was a wicker-furniture maker, but here in the U.S., he has had to work as a dishwasher in Chinatown and, now, as a food preparer at a Chinese restau­rant in the Hamptons. For $1200 per month, he works 11 hours a day, six days a week, in a kitchen where he sees and talks to only his Chinese coworkers. After work Ting An retires to a rooming house that he shares with his colleagues. As the restaurant is located two hours away from his family’s apartment on Manhat­tan’s Lower East Side, Ting An visits just once a week.

He would prefer a job in Chinatown but, except for those of waiters, the wages there are much lower than what he’s re­ceiving now. Being a waiter, though, re­quires some comprehension of English, of which he has none. As a matter of fact, Ting An does not even know the English name of the town where his restaurant is located. Feeling stuck and humiliated, he will not discuss his situation with anyone.

Tired and beaten, Ting An assumes a peripheral role in his family, seeing him­self as simply one of the breadwinners and an occasional visitor. “He doesn’t call at all — even when the kids are sick,” Ying says matter-of-factly. The kids seem to be as adaptable as their mother. They like their father and enjoy having dim sum with him in Chinatown on his day off and getting him to “buy things we don’t need; like lead pencils,” as one daughter puts it. But they don’t know him or miss living with him. They have only the faintest notion of what his living and working conditions are like. On his part, Ting An hasn’t forgotten that he never wanted to come to the U.S. in the first place; it was Ying’s idea to move here for their children’s education.

Even Ying admits that she and her husband are having a difficult time ad­justing to this country. Since they can’t read a map or ask for directions, their mobility is severely restricted. They are lost as soon as they leave Chinatown or the immediate area around their apart­ment. Ying is dependent on her English-speaking daughters to negotiate the af­fairs of daily life, such as filling drug prescriptions and writing out money or­ders to pay the rent and phone bills. Ying does not read newspapers or watch TV, and she has no American friends. She has ventured out of the city only twice in her four years here — to a New Jersey apple orchard and to Belmont State Park — ­both times on day trips organized by a Chinatown community group.

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WHEN ASKED WHETHER she regretted having emigrated, Ying, with tears dis­turbing her usual composure, answered, “I know my life was fated for hard work. It’s the only kind of life I ever knew. But we did not come to escape hardship. We did it for our children.” Ying was born into a poor family in the Guangdong province. In 1959, partially as a result of the failed Great Leap Forward, a severe famine struck the country, and Ying’s family emigrated to Hong Kong. She was only 11 and was not able to resume her schooling, which she had been forced to abandon while in the third grade in Chi­na. In Hong Kong she went straight to work in a factory making plastic flowers. As Ying passed through her teens, her parents talked about marrying her off to ease the family’s financial burden; her chances, however, were not great because she had suffered from a heart murmur since childhood. At the age of 25 she agreed to marry Ting An, a man 10 years her senior, who appeared simple, trust­worthy, and unfazed by her health. In addition, he had experienced a similar life of poverty and hardship. Ying ended up caring not just for Ting An, but also for his blind father and his brother who had cancer. Soon, with the addition of her three children, Ying’s household consist­ed of seven people living together in a tiny studio apartment. “Seven people had to eat,” she says, and they could not live on the HK $1600 (US $230) a month that her husband brought home as a producer of wicker products. Ying supplemented their income with her seamstress work. “I had to work from morning until night — I cooked for them, cleaned house, waited on them, and worked all day at home sewing,” she recalls. It was only after her father-in-law and brother-in-law died and the loans incurred during their illnesses were paid off that Ying and her husband had the chance to think about their own futures.

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WHEN THE FAMILY FIRST ARRIVED in the U.S., they piled into the small China­town apartment of Ying’s parents. For 10 months the two couples and three chil­dren shared the cramped two-bedroom apartment. Ying, Ting An, and their daughters then found a place for $460 a month in a run-down neighborhood in Flatbush; Ting An was mugged soon after they moved there. But luck came their way. A friend of Ying’s told her about a homesteading project sponsored by Re­habilitation in Action to Improve Neigh­borhoods that had an opening in a 16-unit building in the Lower East Side. Undaunted by the fact that her family was the only Chinese participant (most of the others were Latino), Ying joined the project, taking her daughter Jenny every Saturday for more than a year to help clean up rubble, mix cement, and put up walls. The surrounding neighborhood is depressed, but the family is living in a two-floor unit with five bedrooms and two bathrooms, for which they pay $480 a month.

The kids are enjoying their home. After dinner and before finishing up their homework, they can be found hanging out in the living room, which is furnished with a Sony TV, a Quasar VCR, and two couches and an armchair covered with clear plastic. One wall-hanging proclaims “Fortune” in Chinese; another calls for “Joy, luck, and longevity.” One evening, the girls watch a rented Hong Kong­–made movie called The Arranged Mar­riage, set in China at the turn of the century. It’s a love story that, although they’ve seen it already, transfixes them. Then it’s time for Jenny to pop a tape of Raidas, a Hong Kong disco group, into the Toshiba Bombeat cassette player. Eunice and Jenny sing along with the Cantonese lyrics. The songs, says Jenny, are “about friendship and social issues — ­about how to deal with people.”

Despite the appearance of material comfort, there are signs here and there of barely making due: The towels in the bathroom, for example, are worn thin and gray with use, and the living room and kitchen light bulbs hang stark and naked. All of this, however, does not matter much to Ying, who says that “we decided to come to America for the children’s future.”

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THERE ARE EXCELLENT SCHOOLS in Hong Kong. In fact, in Ying’s mind they are better than those in the U.S., which she thinks are “not strict enough.” But the school system in Hong Kong, starting at the elementary level, is extremely com­petitive. Opportunities for young people to go to college are few. Average students from working-class backgrounds are at a disadvantage because their parents can­not afford to hire private tutors or send them to tutorial schools to get ahead. Immigrating to the U.S. offered Ying’s kids the chance to attend college — some­thing she deeply wants her children to have, something that she missed out on herself.

Ying is making every possible sacrifice for her children. She does not want her kids to work — they are to devote them­selves to education. In Hong Kong, Ying would shut the three girls in the apart­ment and padlock the TV until their fa­ther came home. “I wanted them to study,” she explains. Today she continues to apply the same kind of pressure. The girls are instructed to come home as soon as school lets out, and are rarely allowed to go out with friends. Ying periodically visits her daughters’ teachers (“so my children will be afraid”), taking along an English-speaking friend. And though she can’t help her kids with their home­work — in fact, since she can’t read, she can’t even tell whether they’re doing it­ — she often warns them that “if you trick me, you’re just cheating yourselves.” When their report cards arrive, Ying has them translated by a friend.

While education is the top priority for Ying, her children aren’t the super-accel­erated Asian kids celebrated in the me­dia. All three daughters agree that Ameri­can schools are less rigorous than those in Hong Kong. Jenny observes that “it’s easier here. You don’t do as much home­work.” Still, none of the children are having an easy time in school. And, contrary to a prevailing myth, none of the three excels in math, and the younger two don’t like science.

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But the three sisters become animated when discussing their dream careers. Eu­nice, who is in the ninth grade at China­town’s I.S. 131, wants to be an astronaut, even though she doesn’t do well in sci­ence. But she and Jenny, a sophomore at Brooklyn Technical High School, also de­scribe the thrill of being undercover de­tectives. One soon realizes that their im­pressions are shaped by their favorite TV shows, including Moonlighting, 21 Jump Street, and Miami Vice.

Aside from school and TV, the girls don’t have much contact with the outside world. Even in school their friends are mostly recent Chinese immigrants who speak Cantonese. The girls have a sole acquaintance in their apartment building, a Greek man who takes them to Yankee games. Jenny often breaks away from the family on Sunday mornings to attend ser­vices at the Protestant Chinese Alliance Church in Chinatown. It is the social, not the religious, aspect that draws her there; after the service, members of the congre­gation have lunch together and the chil­dren and teens play games. A self-de­scribed “tomboy,” the laconic Jenny likes to play sports with the boys. She is glad that her mother doesn’t go to church with her because she knows that Ying doesn’t approve of this kind of play. Jenny’s fan­tasy is to be able to “go all around the world. I’d just go find a job, get some money, then go to another state, then another. It would be fun.”

The girls’ attitudes toward jobs and college are ultimately formed by the expe­riences of their parents. Eunice says that she wants to go to college so that she “can find a good job,” which in her view means one in which “you don’t need to work very hard — like teachers, who don’t have to work as hard as people who work in restaurants. They get home early and have many holidays.” Pauline chimes in with “working in a bank — my mom says it’s a good job.” The girls have never visited their parents’ workplaces, but they have been told of the conditions and warned repeatedly of expecting that kind of future if they don’t study hard enough. “She has to work 24 hours a day — or 18,” says Pauline of her mother’s job in the garment factory. “No, she works from eight to seven,” says Eunice. “It’s boring and hard. And it’s ugly and dirty, with all the material on the floor.” Jenny says she wouldn’t want to work as a seamstress because she doesn’t like to sew, but she concedes that her mother probably doesn’t, either.

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YING AND HER DAUGHTERS are engaged in a strained balance of power involving language and culture. The kids know En­glish as well as Cantonese, and thus have access to mainstream American society. They aren’t interested in teaching En­glish to their mother, and she does not ask it of them. When the girls speak English among themselves, Ying is closed out. Ying, however, wants to maintain tight control over her children; she is afraid of losing them to a world with which she cannot communicate. More­over, they are Ying’s only expression of hope and the future.

But such an acknowledgment would never come from Ying herself, for it has no place in her pragmatic world. She ag­gressively pursues concrete goals to main­tain her family. She talks about being fated to a hard life, but she takes advan­tage of opportunities that present them­selves. It was Ying who found the family’s good apartment through the homestead­ing project, and she who applied for emi­gration. (She told Ting An that she and the kids were going to the U.S. — he could join them if he wished.) As the mainstay of the family, Ying tends to its every aspect. She works to bring in money, takes care of the bills, maintains the fam­ily’s apartment, directs and disciplines her children. Even her dreams are about being responsible for the care of her fam­ily. She entertains no illusions about her husband, their marriage, and his role in the family. “He never has any opinions about anything, and he doesn’t make any decisions,” she says. Sometimes Jenny tires of her mother’s stories about how hard she’s worked for the family, but Ying forges ahead. She describes her phi­losophy: “As long as I’m honest and do things according to what’s right, I have nothing to be afraid of or to regret.”

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She has no sophisticated beliefs, no formulated political ideas, but she seems to have a sense of the limitations inher­ent in her class as a worker. “There is absolutely no future for people like me,” she says. Still, as strongly as Ying feels about education, she seems unsure of its ultimate value. Sometimes, her attitude is almost Confucian: “Education is not for a good job,” she says. “It’s something for yourself.” At other times, she is less lofty: “Education helps one get a good job. I don’t know enough to know what jobs are good. I guess a good job is a job that pays well.”

When asked about her future, Ying says, “I don’t plan for the future. I deal with what I need to do now.” It’s likely that her daughters, armed with their knowledge of English and at least some education, will move on to mainstream jobs and assimilated lifestyles. Ying will have accomplished her objective. But her own prospects are not as promising, de­spite some material improvements in her living situation. She left behind a dreary life in China to make her way to this land of opportunity, only to find herself trapped and isolated in Chinatown. ■

Editor’s note: Names and some identify­ing characteristics in this article have been changed. 

Research assistance by Wendy Lau 

From The Archives Immigration Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Chinatown ’89: The New Chinese Exodus

OH, BY THE WAY, THEY ARE CRACKING DOWN. IF YOU run into anybody who needs a passport, don’t forget, I can get one.” Mr. Wu smiled from behind his desk, handing us the tickets for a June 1 flight from New York to China. He had a whole range of deals to offer: a passport issued by a Central American country for US $12,000, with the provision that the holder not go there; a similar passport with a visa to the United States for US $18,000; and, at the top end of the scale, a passport to be issued within two days for US $50,000, enabling the holder to reside in a South American coun­try immediately. Interested parties, once smuggled out of China, were to contact him from Hong Kong. Who in China could come up with that kind of money?

“Plenty of people can afford it,” he laughed. “Private business is booming and corruption is all over the place. You’ll be surprised.” He had the assurance of someone who had processed at least a handful of cases. As to who would want a passport within two days, Mr. Wu had an unusual answer: “Someone who needs to get away in hurry. People in political trouble, like terrorists, maybe.”

His remarks turned out to be prophetic. We arrived in China on the day of the military crackdown in Beijing, and a whole group of people needed to get out. Indeed, it was probably networks of the type that Mr. Wu had been linked up with that saved the lives of some of the most prominent prodemocracy protesters. “Under­ground railroads,” operated by the so-called “snake­heads,” were instrumental in smuggling the “counterrev­olutionaries” out of China. The incredible sum of $50,000 — in a country where annual per capita income is $300 — seemed like a small price to pay. Many outside supporters, particularly the people of Hong Kong, were more than willing to pick up the tab.

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People have been leaving the People’s Republic of China since its inception. The first wave of well-to-do and well-educated émigrés, able to pay for a safe cross­ing, became the engine for Hong Kong’s economic boom in the 1950s, and the core of the now well-established professional class of Chinese Americans in the United States. In later decades, and particularly during the Cultural Revolution, the thoroughly “proletarianized” would-be escapees were mostly reduced to swimming across to Hong Kong from the surrounding areas in Guangdong Province. Most were disaffected young men who felt they were wasting their lives in the countryside. Quite a few have ended up as waiters in New York’s Chinatown.

When China opened her doors under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, new methods came into vogue. People with sufficient academic credentials were, once again, allowed to apply to foreign universities. Having a rela­tive overseas became an asset. Searching for a potential “foreign relative” became an obsession of many young city dwellers. We were approached in 1980 by a mayor’s son and a daughter of a top-ranking diplomat, both in their early thirties, who asked for “our hands in double marriage,” to be dissolved once out of China so they could marry and live abroad. They belonged to the most privileged class in China, and it was hard to imagine why they would want to leave. Partly, it was out of curiosity about the outside world. Partly, the decision reflected their understanding of what the West was: a place where they could indulge their expensive tastes and fulfill material needs without ideolog­ical obstruction.

The young woman was lucky to marry an unsuspecting Englishman. For a year she phoned and wrote back to China about her life in Great Britain, mention­ing a cassette player, a motorbike, and other things that her husband bought for her. Then she decided she was not going to divorce him after all.

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Several artists we know cultivated their “foreign relations” for years so as to eventually land a spouse. For them, going abroad meant the opportunity to express their individual sensibility freely. One painter simply wanted to make abstract paintings after years of socialist realism and revolutionary romanticism. Another hoped to be able to exhibit his politically satirical sculpture. Filmmakers were dreaming of rich, appreciative patrons­ — no more government-approved movies.

A successful actress in her mid-twen­ties cannot stand working with directors who are bound by the style of the 1940s. “What can they say about the feelings and problems of the young in the 1980s?” she asks. “These people can’t come up with anything new, and they prevent others from doing it because they feel threatened. So I just get paid to sit at the studio doing nothing.” A 70-year-old holistic en­thusiast from Southern California agreed to marry her, but the Party official at her work unit refused to grant permission.

In China, the Party has a final say in matters that are considered private in the West, such as marriage and birth. Even dating is often arranged under the good auspices of a concerned Party secretary. The Party has taken over the traditional role of the family. Only, if the family arranges a marriage, it is seen as a vestige of feudalism; if the Party does it, it’s a social responsibility. A woman still un­married at 25 cannot be left to her own resources. Our friend who refused two suggested candidates after two arranged dates in 1979 knew she would get only one more chance before she was per­ceived as a social problem.

Because of the population problem, childbirth is very much under Party con­trol. When we asked a young college as­sistant professor and his wife in Shang­hai this summer whether they were planning to have a kid, he said: “Well, we missed our quota last year, so now we have to wait.” The wife explained: “There are too many young couples in our neigh­borhood, and the neighborhood commit­tee can only allow so many childbirths a year.” Actually, they didn’t even think they wanted a child. “China is so back­ward,” she said looking around the one­-room apartment, “and we are so crowd­ed — these are no conditions for a child.”

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HOUSING, JOB ALLOCATION, salary in­creases, and promotion are also in the hands of the Party. Rather than worrying about professional problems and job per­formance, many talented employees have to spend time cultivating useful connec­tions to make life a little easier.

Chen Yixin, a first-rate electronics en­gineer and inventor of audio equipment from Beijing, disliked playing politics and got tired of being ordered around by in­competent and jealous supervisors. When the door opened in 1980, he joined his brother in California to work as a TV repairman. Although settling for a humbler job, he hasn’t regretted leaving the brutalizing day-to-day struggle behind. “Chinese society rewards the informers and the sycophants, while the talented get persecuted. I never got a reward for anything I did. Now, at least, I make money when I work hard. I can do what­ever I want in my free time.”

Expressing one’s individual taste and style is the meaning of freedom for many in China. They proudly exhibit their sound systems and collections of foreign tapes, announcing defiantly: “I like Tai­wanese music,” or “This kind of love song suits my mood.” When they envy the freedom of Westerners, they don’t think of the right to be involved political­ly. They seek to leave China in order to be left out of politics — to be left alone.

Wang Degong is a high school science teacher from Shanghai we’ve known for years. He applied to join his sisters in Canada in 1980, but discovered that Can­ada had no use for high school teachers who spoke no English. He then applied, in 1982, for an immigration visa to the U.S. through his brother-in-law, pledging to wash dishes if need be. We were curi­ous why he wanted to leave China so badly. “You don’t know,” he said. “I’m scared to death of movements.” He was referring to the political movements he had to live through in forty-odd years.

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We met him again in mid-June of this year, some time after the military crack­down in Beijing. He was still waiting for his visa, and still spoke no English. But, somehow, this time his plight seemed plausible. China was embarking on a new “movement,” and who could blame him for not wanting any part in it? By the time we left Shanghai he knew he’d have to spend the month of July, after school gets out, in daily study-group sessions with other teachers in his school. The aim would be to “unify their thought,” namely their understanding of the pro­-democracy movement. In practice this would mean that after reading “Chair­man Deng’s Speech,” which condemned the movement as counterrevolutionary, they would all have to express their com­plete agreement with the condemnation, and confess to any aberrations that may have occurred in their thoughts or ac­tions during the demonstrations. They would have to report on other people’s “mistaken” demonstration support, and hope that no one reported them.

Psychological pressure has been the bottom line of all political movements in China. The Communist Party mobilizes the people through “consciousness-rais­ing,” pitting one segment of the popula­tion against another, so as to leave the Party in full control. One of the best­-publicized cases during the recent arrests in Beijing involved a sister who turned in her student-brother, presumably to pro­tect her own family from being implicat­ed. It’s something Western observers have trouble comprehending. But seeing it lauded throughout the media gave the Chinese citizens a signal — the manipula­tion of fear is once again being used by the government.

Only this time, the Party is more des­perate and violent. Its present attempt to achieve ideological unity is “ludicrous,” according to Ai Min, the daughter of a very high Party official. “There is no legitimacy in this leadership’s claim on morality.” Intelligent and confident of her capability to think for herself, Ai Min is one of the few Chinese who have had the opportunity, or the guts, to change jobs several times, so as not to be stuck with work that is not challenging. Her present job, which brings her into fre­quent contact with foreigners, provides a high income and the possibility of traveling abroad. She never thought of leaving China in the past — she believed that the reforms of the 1980s needed people like her, who found satisfaction in doing their jobs well.

But now that’s become irrelevant. Ai Min doesn’t want to be manipulated into phony self-criticism, nor to take part in the drive for ideological conformity. She is angry that the Party expects her to stop being a thinking individual. Al­though she trusts that the fascist regime will eventually collapse, she doesn’t feel like wasting her most productive years waiting for that to happen. She admits that she would like to leave China now.

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NOBODY WE ENCOUNTERED IN CHINA in the weeks following the Beijing massacre denied that they would like to leave. “If our government were to open up the bor­der, not one person would be left in China,” mused Bing, our taxi driver, as he weaved through Shanghai’s traffic, avoid­ing the plainclothes policemen on our track. “All government officials send their children abroad. Why should the people be stupid enough to want to stay?” What bothered him the most was the official corruption. “The harder I work, the more ways they find to squeeze me,” he complained, revealing that he had been paying $400 under the table at each yearly inspection of his vehicle to the official who wielded the rubber stamp. “Hah, money means nothing in China if you don’t have the official connection. You are still nobody.”

Like many other private entrepreneurs whom we met this summer, he was apply­ing for a student visa to Australia. With a policy granting student visas to all for­eigners who pay $5000 for a semester of language courses at an accredited institu­tion, Australia had become the preferred destination for the Chinese who have the money, but not the connections or quali­fications to leave any other way. They hope to permanently settle abroad. “I’d be willing to do anything to stay out of China,” Bing contemplated. “I’ve done manual work all my life, what do I have to be afraid of?”

By the end of June, however, the Chi­nese government announced that all the Chinese exit visas would have to be reis­sued. Bing was concerned that he may no longer have a chance to leave. So were many students who had already gained admission to respectable foreign universi­ties. In the July issue of the Bulletin of High Education, Beijing authorities an­nounced new criteria for issuing exit vi­sas: from now on the political attitude of the applicants would be stressed. Accord­ing to diplomatic sources, students cur­rently being given clearance to leave are not the first-rate ones interested in sci­ence or technology, but mainly second-rate English majors from provincial uni­versities. The consequences are already being felt in America: new Chinese stu­dents have been typically applying to lesser-known, smaller schools. What mat­ters, according to a Chinese National Education Commission official comment­ing on the situation in the China Daily a few days ago, is that students profess patriotism and desire to serve their country.

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The new policy appears to be a direct response to the almost universal condem­nation of the government by the large expatriate student community. Many of the 800,000 Chinese who have studied abroad during the past 10 years have not gone back. The recent move of foreign governments allowing Chinese students to overstay their visas is certain to de­prive China of a whole generation of her best minds — a double tragedy for China, which already lost a generation to the Cultural Revolution. There are 70,000 such students in the United States alone. They will eventually have to go back, unless they acquire a foreign passport.

Only, sometimes, even that is not enough. Hong Kong’s 3.25 million Chi­nese residents who hold British passports will not be allowed to settle permanently in Great Britain after the colony reverts to China in 1997. They will automatically become Chinese subjects. Both Britain and China went through pains to instill confidence in the principle stipulated by the Basic Law, to be implemented upon reversion: one country, two systems. The law was designed to ensure maximal au­tonomy for Hong Kong in its first 50 years under Chinese rule. In the wake of the military crackdown in Beijing, how­ever, Hong Kong residents cynically com­pare the future of the territory to the present predicament of Tibet.

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Hong Kong is certainly no Tibet today, but the recent events have shown just how fragile prosperity can be. On June 5, the Hong Kong stock market lost over 1000 points, or 37 per cent of its value. Similar losses in the value of real estate measured tens of billions of U.S. dollars. A run on mainland-owned banks depleted them of US $2.1 billion in the first three days after the massacre. Hong Kong jour­nalist Liu Huiqing asks: “Can the Hong Kong people restrain their anguish, an­ger, and disillusionment to work con­structively for the future?”

Many residents have, in fact, respond­ed by participating in public protests, demonstrations, strikes, and vigils. The most committed intend to battle for dem­ocratic institutions and broader partici­pation in politics for the people of Hong Kong. But they realize that the destiny of Hong Kong cannot be separated from that of China. “We can only have democ­racy if China has democracy. Our effort will have to be a part of the larger Chi­nese struggle,” explains Danny Yung, a Hong Kong artist and activist, and a for­mer resident of New York City.

The Chinese government appears ap­prehensive of this new interest in peo­ple’s power and human rights in Hong Kong. The Chinese State Council official in charge of Hong Kong affairs an­nounced: “We will not tolerate anybody using Hong Kong or Macao as a base to subvert the government of the People’s Republic.”

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IT IS NOT CLEAR what the Chinese gov­ernment intends to do, but most people don’t feel like waiting around to find out. Immigration applications to even the most obscure places are up, and passport sales are booming. Many consular offi­cials reportedly engage in sales of genu­ine passports through intermediaries for as little as US $5000. A fake passport costs US $1400 to $3000, depending on how urgently it’s needed. There is no guarantee that one will succeed in enter­ing a foreign country with it, but a Hong Kong resident remarks: “My chances are better with a fake passport than if I apply for an immigration visa.”

The Chinese exodus has become a big business, with almost the whole world a market. But nearly all people fleeing both mainland China and Hong Kong would like to come to the United States. The myth of the promised land is still very much alive. Hong Kong residents know quite well where they are headed, even if only from movies and encounters with foreign tourists. For many mainlanders, however, America is simply a better place: “the beautiful country,” as its name in Chinese reads. “Are the roads abroad much better than in China?” in­quired a private chauffeur of a Chinese dignitary, adding: “I know your cars are much better.” Then, as if though ponder­ing the reason for the unequal prosperity, he concluded: “You must have decollecti­vized your land much earlier than China.”

While America may be a better place, many of the new immigrants will end up in Chinatowns, settling for sub-minimum wages, intensifying the competition for jobs and housing, driving real estate val­ues even higher. George, a young New York–based Chinatown developer, de­lights in the prospect: “I’ll make enough money by 1997 to retire.” For the com­munity residents, however, the new wave of immigrants means that the already depleted community resources will be overstrained. Even more worrisome is the chilling effect of the Beijing massacre­ — which stripped the affable mask from the face of the Chinese government — on pre­viously enthusiastic Americans. Many Chinese Americans fear that the inter­rupted honeymoon in Sino-American re­lations may negatively affect their treat­ment by other Americans — an experience still vividly remembered from the Korean and Cold War years.

The new arrivals do not share such concerns. “Don’t call me Yaping, my name is Edward,” insists a Chinese col­lege student to his Chinese-American friends. “I’m no longer Chinese. I’m an American now.” His identity change re­flects the popular hatred for the Chinese government, and a conviction that the new land will reward his determination. ■

Equality From The Archives Immigration Neighborhoods NEW YORK CITY ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Chinatown ’89: Riding the Dragon

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.