Chung Seto says she was taken aback by a number of things when she first saw an Oct. 19 story in The Los Angeles Times about donations to Hillary Clinton coming from "dishwashers, waiters and street stall hawkers" living and working in "a grimy Chinatown tenement.”
But most surprising to her was the way she herself was described: “A key figure helping to secure Asian support for Clinton,” the story said, “is a woman named Chung Seto, who came to this country as a child from Canton province and has supported Bill and Hillary Clinton since the 1990s.”
She is, indeed, a woman and a Chinese immigrant. She also happens to be a well-known New York political operative in her early 40’s who has worked as press secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor, executive director for the state Democratic Party and campaign manager for onetime mayoral candidate C. Virginia Fields.
"I had to read it three or four times to see if he really said that," said Ms. Seto, who, a profile in The New York Times once noted, “enunciates like an anchorwoman.”
"He listed only the fact that I’m an immigrant, which tells me the heart of the story is irresponsible and biased," she said.
Ms. Seto’s participation in the story—she was interviewed at length, she said—resulted in the following lines:
“She called Fujianese support for Hillary Clinton the beginning of civic engagement for an immigrant group long on the periphery.
“She said she stationed translators at the entrance of one event to try to screen out improper contributions.”
And that was it.
"I think the story is really unfortunate and I’m appalled by it, and personally insulted and outraged,” she said.
The story, which became big news after it was linked on the Drudge Report, noted that the reporters found one donor who denied making a contribution, and another who admitted to lacking legal-resident status. Mostly, though, the story cast a pall of suspicion on the ability of an ostensibly hard-up community to come up with so much cash for a candidate, mockingly noting that "throughout some of the poorest Chinese neighborhoods in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx have been swept by an extraordinary impulse to shower money on one particular presidential candidate—Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton."
The L.A. Times piece went with an unmistakably noir description of a Chinatown dwelling: a "dimly lighted entrance hall" with "trash bins clustered by the front door" and, in one case, a man, "apparently drunk, was asleep near the entrance."
Ms. Seto—whose father worked for a time as a dishwasher before becoming a waiter and, eventually, a cook—said the version of her neighborhood in the story could only have been related from the perspective of an out-of-towner.
"This is Chinatown!” Ms. Seto said. “Welcome, L.A. Times. This is Chinatown, New York City."
"I have trash right now in my front door—I live in Chinatown,” said Ms. Seto, who said she lives in a market-rate (about $1,750) four-room apartment there. “There is not a single building without trash. We’re in the heart of a neighborhood of New York. So, these are tenement buildings. Most of them are walkups. Can people who live together in a family of five or six, pool their resources and make a sacrifice? Yes they can."
The contributors depicted in the story, Ms. Seto said, "felt just such an eagerness, and perhaps an overeagerness, to put Hillary Clinton into the White House."
She added, "And the stories about them not being registered to vote, well, they don’t have to be. It’s not against the law. But it’s raising doubts and suspicions."
"I just want to know why that there are no stories about Jewish waiters and Latino dishwashers,” she said. “Do you ask the same questions of other communities?"
She theorized that the L.A. Times couldn’t reach a large number of the Chinatown donors—the story noted that “[o]f 74 residents of New York’s Chinatown, Flushing, the Bronx or Brooklyn called or visited, only 24 could be reached for comment”—because the donors were frightened of the publicity.
"No one is going to oblige you or be honest with you," she said. "I think that’s our tradition as immigrants. All this such, backlash, in the, I call it post-Lou Dobbs era. There’s all this anti-immigrant sentiment. Even those with green cards are looked at as suspect.
"If you knock on your door, even with a translator, there’s a lot of uneasiness."
And Ms. Seto doesn’t think the fact that they came up with money is so mysterious either. She said that her neighborhood, which the New York Sun recently reported has pumped $6 billion into local banks, "leads any and every neighborhood in deposits. So it speaks to our thriftiness and our savings. That’s our livelihood and our tradition. What I know is such a different world than what [the L.A. Times] is describing.”
"Someone who comes to New York,” she said, “you’ve got to look over the peeling paint."