Falun Who? Followers TakeTheir Case to ‘Little City Halls’

The usual community board meeting in Manhattan attracts a predictable cast of speakers: real estate developers and their lawyers. Residents angry about the noise emanating from a restaurant or club down the block. Parents advocating better libraries, better recreation programs.

Occasionally a celebrity or his representative shows up to plead a particular case: Woody Allen. Emissaries for Walter Cronkite and Donald Trump. A big-shot politician.

But board members in Manhattan were a bit puzzled during the week of Feb. 5, when members of the Falun Gong made appearances at Manhattan community boards.

“Two women spoke, but I was hoping you’d shed a little light on it,” Kyle Merker, chairman of Board 5, told a reporter from The Observer. “They told us all about all the wonders of-how do you say?”

Falun Gong?

“Yes. Falun Gong.”

Two weeks after the self-immolation of supposed Falun Gong members on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square-and just as China, which has banned the movement, tested the full force of its propaganda machine by accusing Falun Gong members of collusion with anti-Chinese forces in the West-practitioners in New York mounted a grassroots campaign to defend their movement and advocate its practice.

On the evening of Feb. 7, as Board 4 members sat on the second floor of St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital for their monthly full-board meeting, Scott Chinn, a 30-year-old software developer who lives on the Upper East Side, walked up to the microphone during the meeting’s public session. “We’d like to tell people a little more about Falun Gong, and that it’s free to practice in New York City,” the 6-foot-1, all-American Mr. Chinn said. “It’s a wonderful practice that we recommend you all check out.”

During the same week, other practitioners spoke at Board 5 and Board 7-all the monthly meetings held in Manhattan that week, except for Board 10 in central Harlem. They spread the word that Falun Gong “is a free and healthful practice,” and that “everybody wants to improve their health, so come and join us.”

They did not mention the persecutions in China nor the Tiananmen Square tragedy, nor-lest they be accused of proselytizing-their spiritual beliefs.

Later, asked about the attempted self-immolations-now etched in the collective political conscience with the image of a smoldering 12-year-old-Mr. Chinn said: “There is no proof that they were practitioners.” Furthering the distance from the act, he said, “There’s so many little details about what happened that don’t fit into the practice”-for instance, suicide is discouraged in the founder’s teaching, he said.

Was the incident the basis for their outreach campaign? “No,” he answered. “Surprisingly enough, on the day they started showing the TV reports, we got four or five calls from people who wanted to come and learn the practice. It’s very awkward.”

Nevertheless, and for those who wanted to know more, the Falun Gong members handed out copies of their nationwide newsletter, The Falun Dafa Reader, a four-page glossy broadsheet with color photographs and stories of followers who kicked drug, alcohol and cigarette addictions through the practice.

“We wanted the community to know that, hey, there’s this free practice that can improve your health and help you lead a happier life,” said Mr. Chinn about his presentation, in a phone interview. “We realized that in New York, we haven’t reached out and let people find out about Falun Dafa.”

Labeled an “evil cult” in China since 1999, Falun Dafa-or Falun Gong, as it’s more widely known-is a physical and spiritual practice that combines elements of Buddhism, Taoism and qi gong, energy-stimulation exercises that have been widely popular in China for decades before the advent of Falun Gong. If you listen to Falun Gong practitioners like Mr. Chinn, the practice has been around in secret “for thousands of years,” but was actually first made public by Li Hongzhi, a government clerk, in 1992. Unlike other forms of qi gong, Falun Gong promises not only physical but also spiritual well-being, through the activation of an invisible wheel in the stomach that brings in good energy and expels bad.

Why Mr. Hongzhi, who left China and settled in Queens in 1997, decided to make Falun Dafa public after centuries of secrecy is unclear (“It’s a good question,” said Mr. Chinn, “but I’m glad he did it”). But following the overwhelming success of the practice, with its millions of adherents in mainland China, the government banned it in 1999 for fear of losing control over its citizens. Ever since, the Chinese government has persecuted its members, forcing them into secrecy and leading Western countries to denounce the human-rights violations.

“With all the persecution in China,” said Kaishin Yen, another practitioner who went to a Board 7 meeting, “the people over here feel they need to get support for people overseas.” In New York, where the liberal chord resonates and the concern for civil liberties runs deep, followers have send out press releases (the “China Crisis News Bulletin,” numbered at 77 so far), created a communications team, set up an affiliate Web site (faluninfo.net) and distributed the Reader. Who pays for this is a little murky, although the movement’s official spokesperson, Gail Rachlin, told The Observer that it was probably the wish of wealthy practitioners, not the result of a fund-raising campaign.

The information Web site encourages practitioners to get the support of government officials, in the form of petitions and proclamations, and gives out sample letters and guidelines for writing. So far, City Councilman Sheldon Leffler of Queens, a borough with a high density of mainland Chinese immigrants, has come forward to recognize the group.

Despite what would seem like a high level of organization, practitioners who were involved with outreach activities say the group is loosely knit. “Nobody really works for Falun Dafa,” said Mr. Chinn. “Everybody volunteers of their own volition to work in certain areas. Eight months ago, I started working to [coordinate] practice sites. Then we also decided-me and three other practitioners-to create a nonprofit called the Falun Dafa Information Center.

“Everything is totally free,” he continued. “If you try to donate money on the Web site, they won’t take it.”

Yet for Mr. Chinn, the practice of Falun Gong and its related activities now take up about 20 hours every week. “I work eight hours a day in my regular job,” he said, “but I don’t watch TV, so I save a lot of time.”

Mr. Chinn discovered Falun Gong through a friend at work. Today, the company where he works, Primavera Systems on Wall Street, employs at least five Falun Gong devotees, he said, who have all discovered the health benefits to be reaped from it. “You know how you feel after a good run?” asked Mr. Chinn. “Well, Falun Gong exercises are 100 times more powerful. They’re like a megadose.”

Falun Gong has also helped his bad back, improved his family relationships and radically changed his love life, he said.

“I finally found a wife and got married,” he said. “In the practice of Falun Gong, it’s just encouraged that if you’re with somebody, you should get married.” (Mr. Chinn’s Brazilian-born wife is working on the translation of the Falun Gong manual, Zhuan Falun, in Portuguese, and has set up a Falun Gong Web site for Portuguese speakers.)

But the Chinese government, not surprisingly, sees the group as much more than the latest self-improvement fad.

“They portray themselves as a harmless physical movement,” said Zhang Yuanyuan, the embassy press counselor, “but they hide their deadly dark side. They are responsible for murders, suicide and now self-immolation.” To Mr. Zhang, the movement has a slim chance of really taking root in America-not necessarily because Americans wouldn’t adhere to the practice of detachment from negative influences, or the mantra of Truthfulness, Benevolence and Forbearance, but because, he said, “Americans are logical people.”

Mr. Zhang elaborated: “I don’t want to sound like an intruder, but I trust the American people’s wisdom. The Falun Gong cult-we call it a cult-is not a spiritual nor physical group, it’s a mental group…. They have a mental problem because they practice Falun Gong.” About their outreach, he added, “They want to prop up their image and boost their morale. The thing to do is to go to their community and get the support of American people. Then they’ll show, ‘Look, American people support us.’”

That, however, seems unlikely-at least as far as the community boards are concerned. The Falun Gong presentations were greeted with polite silence, and despite having handed out leaflets with contact numbers for practice sites in the area (as well as the names of contacts in all 50 states and the rest of the Western world, just in case), Mr. Chinn said there hadn’t been much feedback in subsequent days.

At Board 7, district manager Penny Ryan said she suggested that the group contact community-resource centers. At Board 5, Mr. Merker, the chairman, lumped them in with the rest of the night’s business.

“They were two of the three public sessions that night,” Mr. Merker said. “But I didn’t understand what they wanted. I asked the first speaker what they wanted and they said, ‘We’d like to talk to your youth and education committee.’ It sounded like they had a religious bent.” Then, musing some more, he added, “It doesn’t seem appropriate. I don’t know what they’re looking for and I don’t want to suppose, but it doesn’t seem like community boards are the right place. I think they wasted their time.”

Asked if he minded the intervention, Mr. Merker laughed and said, “No. Hey, it’s open-mike night.”

-Elisabeth Franck, with Karina Lahni and Matt Pacenza

Some Bad Reviews For the Fashion Show

To the visitors, it’s all glitz, glamour, celebrities and hoopla. To many of the people who live or work near there, however, the spring and fall fashion shows in Bryant Park are nothing but disruptive.

Enough complaints have been coming in to Board 5 about the “Seventh on Sixth” shows that the board’s parks department chairman decided to hold a meeting to get all the concerns out in the open.

The impending complaint fest was announced at the Feb. 8 meeting of Board 5, just as the models were lining up to stroll the catwalks in the giant tents erected in Bryant Park, behind the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. The fall 2001 collection show, featuring the men’s and women’s clothing of 60 couture designers, occupies Bryant Park from Feb. 8 to Feb. 16.

The board has been contacted lately by area residents and businesses with complaints about the pedestrian tie-ups, roaring generators and traffic jams that come with a star-studded event featuring designers like Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta.

“Schools and area institutions have concerns,” the parks committee chairperson, Scott Isebrand, told the board. “We’ve gotten letters from businesses complaining about generator noise.”

The parks committee will wait to see how the February show is received and then meet in April “to talk about issues and reach some consensus,” Mr. Isebrand told The Observer.

The twice-annual fashion show used to occupy the park for about 20 days a year, he noted, but had recently expanded to nearly 30 days a year.

Mr. Isebrand wanted to be clear: No one had suggested that the fashion show go away. “The community board would be loath to see the fashion industry harmed,” he said. “But at the same time, we have to keep a public park accessible to the public. It’s a balancing act between the desires of different parties.”

That is the issue at the heart of another matter soon to come before the board: the re-emergence of the carousel. The Bryant Park Restoration Corporation, which transformed the park from a dirty, frightening drug haven into a low-crime midtown oasis a decade ago, is reintroducing its plan to place a merry-go-round in the park.

Only months ago, Board 5 rejected the plan-primarily because it was introduced too late, as a done deal, offending the board’s sense of propriety and making it difficult for members to fully assess its impact. The board was also upset that the concessionaires will charge for the ride-$1 for children was the last proposal-raising questions among board members about inflicting a private commercial enterprise on a free public space.

Those kinds of grand questions have been pitched at the city’s Parks Department by community boards for years, and they are finally resulting in some closer scrutiny of the agency by the City Council.

Meanwhile, Board 5 members will assess the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation’s carousel proposal on its merits, board members said. Public relations representative Joseph Carella, speaking for the Restoration Corporation, told The Obser- ver that the group believes a carousel “would bring more families and children into the park.” Given additional time to review the proposal, he said, he expected the board to approve the carousel plan.

Mr. Isebrand said the board will indeed use the time for a careful assessment. But, he told The Observer, “it could be that there’s rejection …. I’m not sure how the community will react.” The carousel plan will be discussed during the parks committee’s Feb. 26 meeting; it will be presented to the full board for a vote on March 8.

-Matt Pacenza

Feb. 14: Board 6, N.Y.U. Medical Center, Classroom A, 550 First Avenue, near 30th Street, 7 p.m. 679-0907.

Feb. 15: Board 9, District Office, 565 West 125th Street, near Broadway, 6:30 p.m., 864-6200.

Feb. 20: Board 1, Hallmark Building, 455 North End Avenue, at Chambers Street, 5:30 p.m., 442-5050; Board 11, Julio de Burgos Cultural Center, 1680 Lexington Avenue, at 106th Street, 6:30 p.m., 831-8929.

Feb. 21: Board 8, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, 430 East 67th Street, auditorium, 7 p.m., 758-4340.

Feb. 22: Board 2, Saint Vincents Hospital, 170 West 12th Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, first floor dining room, 7 p.m., 979-2272.