Carrying a torch for Chinatown


By Ellison Walcott

On Saturday, June 19, 2004, New York City will celebrate the arrival of the Olympic torch with a 34-mile run through the streets of the city followed by a public celebration honoring the Olympic spirit and the Athens 2004 Games. Of the more than 140 torchbearers who will traverse all five boroughs, none, it is safe to say, is prouder than Chinatown native Jami Gong.

A week before the relay parade, Jami Gong walks into Yello, an Asian art house chic Karaoke bar significantly more populated at 3 a.m. than the present 3 p.m. rendezvous, and promptly whips out no less than four business cards. The triumvirate of definitions includes civic advocate, entrepreneur and stand up comedian.

His enthusiasm starts to flow immediately. “I’m so excited and proud,” he commences. “I’m going to savor every moment. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Everyone yearns to be an Olympian and this is the closest I’ll ever get.”

Gong talks faster than a speeding bullet and his spirit, if not his body, can leap tall buildings in a single bound.

Gong, 35, was born and raised in Chinatown to parents who immigrated to New York in 1968. He is known for his dedication to the neighborhood. His aim is nothing less than to turn Chinatown into an international destination. To this end, he founded ChinatownNYC.com just months before 9/11. The site is still active and serves as the base of operations for his tours which he guides through Chinatown.

And while his ambitions may be high he remains remarkably humble. He tells me how much better educated his five other siblings are than him. “They went to places like Cornell and Yale and U.C.L.A.,” he says. “I only went to Syracuse.”

Gong first became interested in stand-up comedy as a college sophomore at Syracuse, when on a dare he entered a contest. “I was scared and I made a total ass out of myself,” he says with a smirk. Despite his nervousness, Gong got bitten by the comedy bug, and by his senior year he placed third in that same contest.

Now, he hosts TakeOut Comedy (www.TakeOutComedy.com), a stand-up compendium that occurs once a month at Yello, located at 32 Mulberry St. The logo for the performance series is a pair of chopsticks delicately holding a microphone. The show is also the basis for a new program he’s producing for World Asia a new Chinese Cable network in the planning stages.

“No matter if you’re German, Irish or Japanese, comedy unites,” says Gong. “My goal is to unite the world through humor. Don’t let anyone tell you that one person can’t change the world.”

Surely it was this spirit that helped make him a torchbearer in the first place. The United States Olympic Committee selected Gong after someone in his group, the Organization of Chinese Americans, nominated him.

Gong uses the words “my goal” often and without a trace of hubris or cynicism.

He sketched the blueprint for TakeOut Comedy on an air sickness bag on his way to Hong Kong to see his ailing grandmother in 2002. “I was so excited to get to Hong Kong and tell my mother and grandmother about my plans,” says Gong. “But when I arrived, my mom was waiting for me. She gave me this big hug and told me that my grandmother had passed while I was in flight.”

“I know those plans were inspired by my grandmother,” says Gong, “And now my goal is to get Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld to perform in Chinatown. I want to make everyone understand that people work hard everyday. Comedy allows you to sit back, take stock and appreciate everything you have in life.”

On Saturday Gong will carry the torch roughly 400 meters in Lower Manhattan and will pass the flame to Lily Woo, the principal at Chinatown’s P.S. 130. “Hopefully, I won’t drop it,” he says with a smile. “When I make that run, I will look to the sky and know that my grandmother’s watching.”

Gong paid about $400 for his torch so he will be able to keep it after the run.

For security reasons, officials asked that the exact route and schedule not be published, but runners will pass some of the key sites Downtown.

The torch relay spans 34 cities and 27 countries over 35 days before the Athens 2004 Olympic Games start on Aug 13. Three other U.S. cities— Los Angeles, St. Louis and Atlanta — will have the honor of hosting the journey of the Olympic flame, which was lit by the sun’s rays during a traditional ceremony in Ancient Olympia, Greece.

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