A tale of two statues: Confucius and Lin Zexu

Geoff Lee in front of the Confucius statue, listening to the audio from the Talking Statues project. Photos by Bill Weinberg

BY BILL WEINBERG | Confucius is talking now.

The statue of the ancient sage stands at Chinatown’s Confucius Plaza — where Division St. meets Bowery — just outside the housing complex of the same name, built in the 1970s for the neighborhood’s booming population.

Now there’s a sign standing beside him with a scannable code that brings his voice to life on your smart phone — or an impersonation of it across the centuries.

This is part of the Talking Statues project, now in New York after setting up at such landmarks in several European cities. Thirty-five statues in all five boroughs are thusly brought to life — including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Mohandas Gandhi in Union Square.

Confucius urges his modern tech-savvy listeners to “study the past if you would divine the future,” and espouses his ethics of perseverance, filial piety and self-cultivation.

Geoff Lee, the actor who voiced the English version of the text, is a Chinatown native whose grandfather came from southern China’s Guangdong province.

“I had a lot of friends who live in that complex,” he said of Confucius Plaza. “The statue was a monument and symbol for the community.”

He sees Confucian values as a strong current in the community even today.

“Kids stay with their parents more in Chinatown, that tradition still exists,” he said. “But it’s stronger with those born in Asia. It’s eroding with the second generation.”

Jean Kwok, best-selling author of the semi-autobiographical “Girl in Translation,” about growing up working in a Chinatown clothing factory, wrote the brief text that the cybernetic Confucius speaks.

Asked about what the project meant to her, Kwok recalled her father taking her to work every morning in her childhood.

“As we passed the statue of Confucius, I would look up at his kind, thoughtful face and wonder what he was thinking,” she said. “If he could speak, what would he say to me? What would he think of the dust-filled cavernous factory?”

The Mandarin version of Kwok’s text is voiced by Zilong Zee, a Beijing native now working in New York as an actor.

The statue was a 1976 bicentennial gift from Taiwan’s Republic of China government to the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, then the central pillar of the Chinatown community.

Tom Law is a Chinatown businessman whose Hong Kong-born father, Stephen Law, was a prime mover behind the Confucius Plaza project. The elder Law for a time published his Chinese Journal from a storefront where the complex now stands. He later became vice president of Chinatown Apartments Inc., the entity that built the complex under the Mitchell-Lama program.

“After all the effort to build the housing, we wanted to make sure Confucius was recognized,” the younger Law said. “He symbolizes what we aspire to as a culture.”

The Confucius statue is one of two monuments along this stretch of Bowery. The other is just a short block to the south — namely, Lin Zexu, the drug czar of imperial China who, in 1839, sparked the Opium War by seizing British opium imports and dumping them into Guangzhou Harbor. The pedestal’s inscription reads: “Pioneer in the War Against Drugs.” But for the Chinese he is also an anti-imperialist icon.

Robert Lee with the statue of Lin Zexu in Kimlau Square.

Lin Zexu stands in Chatham Square, where East Broadway meets Bowery — also dubbed Kimlau Square in honor of Benjamin Ralph Kimlau, a U.S. pilot of Chinese descent who lost his life in the World War II Pacific campaign.

This statue was erected in 1997 as a symbol for the new generation of immigrants then coming into Chinatown — overwhelmingly from Fujian province. This community settled along East Broadway, and sought to assert its independence from the old Cantonese establishment across Bowery.

Significantly, although the act that won Lin Zexu fame was carried out in Guangdong (Canton) province, he was born in Fujian.

Robert Lee of the Asian American Arts Centre, himself a Confucius Plaza resident, says that this also represented a Cold War political divide.

“Back then, Confucius was associated with Chiang Kai-shek and the old days, and was officially discouraged in China,” he told me as we walked along Bowery between the statues.

When we arrived at the Lin Zexu statue, he pointed up East Broadway.

“You can see his gaze looks this way,” he said.  “It was funded and built by Fujianese who came to Chinatown in the ’80s and occupied East Broadway. It was different from the old Chinatown on Mott St., who identified with Chiang Kai-shek. The Fujianese loyalty was clearly to Mao.”

Lee said the tension between the two communities in that period was sometimes punctuated by violence.

Largely, this has faded into history. Post-Mao China has rehabilitated Confucius as a symbol of national pride.

“Now China is using Confucius for propaganda — the same Confucius they tried to forget,” Lee said.

Even now, however, the People’s Republic of China flag is seen more east of Bowery, and the Republic of China (Taiwan) flag more to the west.

A plaque in a flowerbed across from Lin Zexu statue names the merchants and associations that funded the monument’s creation — in Chinese characters. This plaque was placed by community leaders, apparently without participation of the city’s Parks Department. It has recently been marred by graffiti.

A plaque denoting the merchants and associations who funded the Lin Zexu statue was recently defaced with graffiti.

But Lee said he recalls that another plaque, in English, providing historical background on Lin Zexu, was installed by the Parks Department along with the statue — but removed after just a couple of years.

“I want to know where that plaque is today,” he told me.

The Parks Department declined to be quoted for this column.

Later, I walked through Chatham Square with Wellington Chen, leader of the Chinatown Partnership, which was founded to encourage the neighborhood’s post-9/11 recovery, and is now associated with a Chinatown Business Improvement District.

Chen joked about the square’s dueling identities.

“If they call it Kimlau Square, it’s the loyalists to Taiwan and the traditional Chinatown leadership,” he said. “If they call it Lin Zexu Square, they’re the Fujianese. And if they call it Chatham Square, it’s the Parks Department.”

More seriously, he pointed to rat holes in the square’s flower and shrubbery beds, garbage cans overflowing with litter and bird droppings on the square’s war-memorial arch.

“That’s because we’re not maintaining it,” he said wryly, meaning his organization. The Partnership does tidy up the square in an annual Earth Day beautification drive, but doesn’t want to overstep Parks.

“We respect their jurisdiction,” he said. But he quickly added: “This is no way to honor the war dead or Lin Zexu.”

Chen noted that the Partnership and BID span both sides of Bowery, uniting old and new Chinatown: “In the long run, we’re all in this together,” he said. “We have to unite to save this area.”

He pointed to the security barricade that since the 9/11 aftermath has blocked off Park Row, once a major artery into the neighborhood.

“It’s like the Berlin Wall,” he said.

Robert Lee made a similar point.

“Too may people see Chinatown only as a place where you go to eat, as if we aren’t really quite New Yorkers,” he said. “The isolation we live under in New York City is something we are still fighting.”