Over winter break, I went on a guided tour of my own neighborhood, one I have called home for over 20 years but which continues to fascinate and surprise me. The tour was organized as part of Serve the People, an exhibition that examines the largely overlooked role of New York City’s Chinatown in the Asian American movement. Located at the Interference Archive, a library devoted to housing cultural ephemera from social movements, Serve the People uncovers Chinatown’s under-spoken radical history, charting a period in the 1970’s and early 80’s when local activists engaged in artistic self-expression and mobilized to demand greater community control. The exhibition “cuts against the stereotype of political apathy among Asian Americans” and remembers a time when a community rose up against oppression, unfair wages, and police brutality.
Walking through the streets of Chinatown today, amid the gift shops and luxury hotels, you could never tell that 40 years ago, the same streets were the site of subversive activity. What is now a McDonald’s was once an Asian American arts center that attracted prominent artists like Ai Weiwei and Tomie Arai, whose murals depicting Asian American history once graced walls all over Chinatown. A 99-cent store once housed a vibrant arts workshop in its basement. A print shop was once the headquarters of a Marxist Asian American collective influenced by the Black Panthers, and a public park now frequented by elders playing Chinese chess was the site of one of the largest garment workers’ strikes in the city.
Our tour guide was Ryan Wong, curator of the Serve the People exhibition. As we made our way through Chinatown’s tight sidewalks, he painted a picture of a community bursting at the seams with artistic creativity and vibrant activism. “The culture created by young activists and artists in the movement embodied their ideals,” he said. “It spoke to the excitement and urgency of the time.” A community space in the basement of a building known appropriately as the Basement Workshop provided a place for Asian American artists to produce work and exchange ideas about what it meant to be Asian in America. They wanted “to challenge how we’re seen in America and how we see ourselves,” Wong said. The images they produced defied stereotypes and often cleverly re-appropriated Orientalist tropes. In a stark rebuke to exoticized images of Asian females, artists like Arai depicted Asian women as factory workers and guerrilla fighters with guns. Poems, songs, lithographs, and photographs by Basement Workshop artists were compiled into an annual anthology called Yellow Pearl. The Basement Workshop also published the nationally acclaimed Bridge magazine, with each issue exploring a different theme in Asian America. These were young artists seeking to build something new, to construct solidarity through art, and create images that could empower their communities.
Chinatown’s radical past shows that nothing was gained without a fight. A state-of-the-art community health clinic came out of self-organized street fairs that began in 1971. Posters for the health fairs beckoned residents to “unite to fight for our rights” and “fight against national oppression.” The community fairs offered free testing and health information for a Chinatown that was severely lacking in social services. During this time, a group of radical students, workers, and working class youth inspired by the Black Panther Party Survival Programs formed I Wor Kuen, a Marxist collective that provided door-to-door tuberculosis testing, draft counseling service for Asian youth during the Vietnam War, and childcare programs. The collective was confrontational and concerned itself with global issues of American imperialism, capitalism, and racism. I Wor Kuen often found itself at ideological odds with the established association of Chinese business owners who also provided services to the community. The 70’s saw the beginnings of a Chinatown wrestling its identity into its own control.
This energetic moment in Chinatown’s history though short-lived is immortalized in the publications they produced and the photographs of Corky Lee, who styles himself as the “undisputed, unofficial Asian American photographer laureate,” and with good reason. He is a ubiquitous presence at protests, demonstrations, and celebrations in the Asian American community. He was there in 1974 when Chinatown residents protested a local affordable housing project builder for not hiring Chinese workers. “It was a progressive time and a perfect storm for the community to assert its demands to hire Chinese for construction trade jobs,” a protester recalled. Eventually, Chinese workers were hired to work on the project.
Perhaps the most significant image Lee produced came one year later, when Chinatown residents descended upon City Hall to protest the New York Police Department’s excessive use of stop-and-frisk on Chinese youth. This was 1975 in Chinatown. “All it took was hair longer than a crew cut, or a pair of shades, or a cigarette, or a Chinese ‘kung fu’ jacket,” one teen wrote in a 1977 issue of Equality. “And we were number one suspects for having committed some crime.” In 1975, Peter Yew, a 27-year-old architectural engineer, witnessed police beating a 15-year-old whom they had stopped for a traffic violation. When Yew asked them to stop, the police beat Yew on the spot, took him to the police station, beat him again, and arrested him on charges of resisting arrest and assault on a police officer. It was the last straw for the community. Fed up with police brutality, Chinatown residents, both young and old, shut down their businesses for a day and marched to City Hall by the thousands. When police attacked the march, Lee caught the moment when police beat one of the protesters bloody. The photograph appeared on the front page of the New York Post and galvanized the public.
Throughout the tour, the question that lingered in our minds was why it all faded. The kind of revolutionary fervor that ran through 1970’s Chinatown is no longer prevalent. The Basement Workshop disbanded in the 80’s, I Wor Kuen merged into more moderate organizations, and the subversive murals of yesteryear are all gone. Wong suggested the advent of neoconservatism and Reaganomics changed the neighborhood’s political atmosphere. Lee noted that many of his activist peers from the 70’s have gotten married, started families, and pursued careers in public service.
Activism in Chinatown may no longer have a Marxist flair, but it has not ceased to exist. When negotiations for a fair garment workers’ contract were halted by a group of employers in 1982, 20,000 workers, many of whom were Chinese immigrant women, went on strike and forged a new role for Chinese women in the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. In 1995, the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association protested Jing Fong, Chinatown’s largest restaurant, for taking shares of waiters’ tips. The group forced the restaurant into a settlement that provided workers $1.14 million in back wages.
“As long as there are immigrants and workers who don’t know,” Lee said. “The work never stops.”
Gavin Huang ’14 is a film studies and government double major from New York City. He interns at the Office of Pan Asian Student Advising at Dartmouth.