Remembering when Chinatown rose up


By Corky Lee

For the benefit of anyone who was too young or was not born yet, Confucius Plaza was the site of a community uprising in 1974.  The Chinatown project was to build low- and moderate-income housing totaling some 600-plus apartments in two buildings. The protests began when the builder did not hire Chinese workers. 

Looking north from the 44th floor today, one can see both the East and Hudson Rivers.  On the south side there is an equally majestic view of Lower Manhattan.  It is the largest government housing project in any Chinatown community in the United States.

 When I walked into the exhibit opening marking the uprising’s anniversary last week, “Confucius Plaza Struggle: 1974,” I knew I would be meeting some of those who considered themselves “activists” 35 years ago.  I remembered that among the Chinese, Japanese, blacks and Hispanics in daylong marches, rallies and protests by students, senior citizens and workers, some of these individuals also “hooked up” during those days and in its aftermath.  A current comic book artist, Janice Chaing, married Danny Louie, who was arrested three times in work stoppage incursions on the construction site.  In all, about 30 individuals were apprehended, even Tzi Ma, the actor who was opposite Jackie Chan in “Rush Hour 2” and 3, saw jail time.

There were brothers and sisters from the same family involved.  Three Chin sisters, three Chiang sisters, three Lee brothers, two Wong brothers and a brother and sister from the Tom family which included their mother Bo Lan Tom. She’s still proud and beaming with pride when she recognized people in the 13 exhibit photographs displayed on the wall of Asian Americans for Equality office at 111 Division St.  At 85 years old, she said she would do it again.

 A majority of participants were first generation college students of immigrant parents back in 1974, but it was heartwarming last week to talk to a brother and sister in their twenties, Justin and Nicole Woo, who recognized their father Arnold and their aunt Jeanie Chin. Justin said they learned from their father that “they should question everything and don’t believe everything you read.”

Arnold said “it was a progressive time and a perfect storm for the community to assert its demands to hire Chinese for construction trade jobs.”  Eventually 27 minority workers, including Chinese, were hired.

 I remember Jeanie Chin and Margaret Chin (no relation) in those marches and rallies of 1974.  Both are still very active in the civic life of the community.  I don’t know where they get their energy, maybe they feel their work is unfinished.  Jeanie was very vocal opposing the closing of Park Row to vehicular traffic by the N.Y.P.D. after 9/11, while Margaret is running for a fourth time for City Council in the First District, which includes Chinatown.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised to find out, Jeanie is working on Margaret’s campaign this time.

The rallying cry in 1974 was “the Chinese built the first transcontinental railroad, they can build Confucius Plaza.”  There was a common cause in the community, but other organizations sprang from this seed. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a civil rights organization, was founded the same year. They have represented restaurant and garment workers in regaining lost wages and back pay, including the $4.5 million to 27 delivery men working for Saigon Grill.

I remember only because I took the photographs 35 years ago. Who will remember 35 years from now? Maybe, when the Museum of Chinese in the Americas finally opens its doors between Centre and Layayette Sta. later this year. This exhibit would add a lot of dimension to its mission. A progressive time germinated 35 years ago, its roots are strong but the collective community must make sure it gets the proper leadership and activism for another 35 years.    

Corky Lee is a freelance photographer who has frequently taken pictures for Downtown Express.