The giant bronze statue being lowered by crane onto its pillar in Chatham Square on Nov. 19 bore all the hallmarks of a Communist Chinese monument: the heroic cast of its socialist-realist features, the martial red granite of the base and the wonky, haphazardly spaced lettering of the inscription, which stirringly evoked the “momery” of a 19th-century anti-imperialist hero, Lin Zexu.
Steven Wong, a community leader whose anticrime crusades recall an Asian Curtis Sliwa, was in high spirits as the leading dignitaries of Chinatown milled about, oblivious to the danger posed by a dangling 3,000-pound statue. “We broke the record,” said Mr. Wong. “We got permission to put up the statue in less than one year. Normally, it takes 17 years! The Mayor really wanted it.”
As workers clambered over the base, bolting Lin Zexu in place, the statue’s architect, T.C. Ho, gestured in the direction of Confucius Plaza. There, a block away, at the intersection of Bowery and Division streets, a tired-looking, guano-speckled statue of Confucius has gazed southward since 1984. “That took eight years,” said Mr. Ho, who worked on both. Once the new monument was set, the significance of its placement was clear: Lin Zexu, the proud mandarin, stood sideways to the ancient sage, his head turned smugly away in seeming rebuke. It was as if a Red Star had risen over Canal Street.
The new statue put a metaphorical capstone on a triumphant year for Chinatown’s home-grown revolution. In the 1990’s, traditional Chinatown-an anti-communist, Taiwan-loving enclave where reactionary sages like Confucius are revered-has been overrun by poorer waves of immigrants from mainland China, mostly from the coastal province of Fujian. Despite having fled an autocratic and oppressive regime, they seem more than happy to endorse its legitimacy and to cheer its officially endorsed heroes.
“I’m now officially a citizen of the United States,” said Yeung Kung Tak, honorary president of the United Chinese Associations of New York, a federation of pro-mainland groups. “But China is my motherland, so I want everyone there to get rich.”
The fact that the New York City government has bent over backward to help enshrine a Communist icon speaks not only to Chinatown’s reversal of political orientation but to its sudden, startling relevance. With the Soviet Union gone, an increasingly prosperous and assertive China has become America’s scary-monster-under-the-bed, popping up in the middle of every political nightmare, from human rights to North Korea to illegal campaign donations. And Chinatown-the new, red Chinatown-has emerged as an important conduit of influence.
Philip Lam, a protégé of Mr. Yeung, proudly displays in his office two pictures of his mentor: one alongside Bill Clinton, another alongside Chinese President Jiang Zemin. While Mr. Yeung won’t specify exactly what his meetings were about, he does boast: “I saw Jiang Zemin three times. The second time, in the Great Hall of the People in Bejing, he went right up to me, shook my hand and said, ‘I’ve heard your name many times!'”
But what for? “In a communist government, money doesn’t work [to obtain influence],” Mr. Lam hinted. “You have to show that you love the motherland. In the United States, if you make a big enough contribution, you can shake hands with anyone.”
Giving the Mainland a Helping Hand
It speaks to the murkiness of Chinatown that, despite the photographic evidence, neither American nor Chinese politicians are eager to explain their relationship with the enclave. According to Lanny Davis, special counsel to the President, the White House has no record of Mr. Clinton’s meeting with Mr. Yeung and, according to Federal Election Commission records, Mr. Yeung gave no money to Mr. Clinton or to the Democratic Party in 1996. He did, curiously, give $1,000 to the Republican National Committee-but then, it’s common practice in Chinatown to cover one’s bets. The only political endorsement that Mr. Yeung’s group gave during his tenure as leader was to State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver in his 1994 race. Mr. Silver refused to discuss the endorsement with The Observer.
As for showing love for the motherland, Mr. Yeung’s record has been exceptional. In 1994, he helped to organize the first-ever parade in Chinatown celebrating the National Day of the People’s Republic of China, a move that outraged the pro-Taiwanese population. In 1995, he organized a demonstration outside the United Nations to protest Taiwan’s bid to regain its seat.
For its part, the Chinese Government denies using the Fujianese as henchmen. “Whatever they do, they don’t seek our advice,” said Gu Pine, deputy consul general for the People’s Republic of China in New York. “This is their affair. But we appreciate what they’ve done. We consider it patriotic.”
For China, Taiwan is among its most vital strategic issues. Since its founding, the People’s Republic has struggled to diplomatically isolate what it views as a rebel province, thwarting its moves for independence and ultimately intending to absorb it back into the mainland. “Taiwan has been split out of the country for about 50 years,” explained Fujianese activist Johnny Cheng. “Since Mao took over China, the slogan has been ‘We want to unify China.’ For 50 years, they haven’t done that. That’s the main thing [China’s aging leaders] want to accomplish before they die.”
Back in Mao Zedong’s day, China’s only overseas friends tended to live in jungles, eating bugs (see Pol Pot). It was Taiwan that enjoyed both money and prestige. But Beijing’s embrace of capitalist principles under Deng Xiaoping made the country both richer and friendlier. Now, especially with the return this year of Hong Kong to mainland sovereignty, it is China whose list of friends is getting longer and Taiwan’s that is shrinking.
‘They Are Brainwashed’
For those who truly resent the slogans of Communism, the new migrants’ loyalty to the mainland is singularly galling. M.B. Lee, head of the Lee Family Association and onetime “Mayor of Chinatown”-unofficial head of the traditional pro-Taiwan community-fled his native Canton in 1949 just months ahead of the Maoist takeover.
“Why did I leave China?” he asked. “Because I didn’t like the way they operate. [The Fujianese] say they love their country. If they love their country, why did they leave it to come here?” He answered his own rhetorical question: “If people are undereducated, you can fool them. They are brainwashed.”
But it isn’t idiocy that makes and keeps friends for the mainland government, it’s good business sense. Despite its increasingly tepid Marxist rhetoric, the business of today’s Chinese Communist Party is business. Not since the Borgias turned the Vatican into a seraglio has an institution’s ostensible cause been so utterly subverted. Poor émigrés who leave China these days aren’t fleeing dogma so much as trying to find a more fruitful place to express their universal love of wealth. Asked why he came to America, Mr. Lam, a pro-mainlander, answers with a laugh: “Opportunity! Do you think I would be here otherwise?”
The Communist Chinese zeal for capitalism was made a little too evident in late October when President Jiang stopped over on his tour of the United States. Eager to court investors, Mr. Jiang rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and hosted a dinner for diplomats and Fortune 500 types at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Amid all the excitement, he briefly neglected to think of his foot soldiers in Chinatown.
“He didn’t come to Chinatown for one minute!” sniffed one Fujianese activist. The community, embarrassed and angered at the snub, pressed their case with the Chinese Consulate. In the end, a meeting between Mr. Jiang and 200 local Chinese residents was arranged to take place before the Waldorf dinner. But the leaders who got invited were mortified to find that the vast majority of invitees were not Fujianese, who make up the bulk of pro-mainland Chinatown, but hailed from Shanghai-Mr. Jiang’s power base.
“We waited in the cold for 45 minutes,” said one who attended. “He didn’t shake hands, he just posed for pictures with us, and then it was like, Get out of here! The whole process took 10 minutes. It sucked.”
Mr. Jiang’s lapse was a temporary aberration. On the whole, relations between the Chinese Government and its supporters in Chinatown are close and frequent. Dapper Mr. Gu, the deputy consul general, is a frequent sight at the numerous banquets thrown by various Chinatown groups, especially around the time of the lunar New Year. “Nearly every day I go to Chinatown,” he said. “There’s so many functions, sometimes two or three per day. I have to attend them all.” The Fujianese community in New York is a useful tool for his government in its relations with the United States. “One of our objectives is to have a better understanding and promotion of friendship between our two countries,” he said. “We ask [the Fujianese community] to be good envoys, good bridge-builders.”
It’s flattering for the men who make up the leadership of Chinatown to be so assiduously courted by the mainland government. To a man, they have scrambled up from impoverished backgrounds. Mr. Yeung, for instance, left his native village as a teenager and came to this country with nothing, working for years in a Chinese restaurant before saving enough to strike out on his own. His success represents an archetypal American phenomenon-a poor boy who rises through perseverance to become a leader, albeit a pro-Beijing one.
But for all the rhetoric about Taiwan and China, the real concerns of the Fujianese in Chinatown lie much closer to home, in issues of social services, education and above all, crime. “We feel that mainstream society doesn’t care about us, especially in terms of crime,” said Dun Song Lu, chairman of the United Fujianese of America Association. “As an organization, we will help the police to better secure the safety of our community.”
At the association’s annual banquet, the guests of honor were not Chinese Government officials, but New York City cops and prosecutors from the District Attorney’s office. Even the statue of Lin Zexu has been shanghaied, so to speak, into the anticrime crusade. Lin was the commissioner in charge of Canton who in 1839 demanded that the British stop importing opium into his country. When they refused, he seized their wares, resulting in the Opium War and the British annexation of Hong Kong. Still, Lin’s good intentions made him a hero. As the legend engraved on the stone base relates: “He established the vigor of the style Chinese, he will always be remembered as the Pioneer of ‘Say No to Drugs.'”
The Chinese Dream: Making Money
At the unveiling ceremony, no one needed to comment on the ironic underpinnings of the antidrug message. For the better part of a decade, the burgeoning Fujianese community has been burdened with the image of a crime-infested ghetto with well-organized gangs running everything from gambling, extortion and kidnapping rackets to people- and heroin-smuggling rings. Indeed, it was out of the Fukien American Association, one of the main backers of the statue, that the Fuk Ching gang sprang. Before the indictment of 20 of its members on Federal racketeering and murder charges in 1993, the Fuk Ching was one of the most notorious gangs in Chinatown. A series of Federal crackdowns, Fujianese leaders say, have broken the backs of the gangs, and now the community is eager to put its crime-fraught reputation in the past-though some in Chinatown remain skeptical.
“The Fujianese community is hugely involved in [human] smuggling,” said Peter Kwong, director of the Asian American Studies Program at Hunter College and author of The New Chinatown . “The leadership certainly is, one, aware of it, two, actively affected by it, and three, in some ways very much a part of it. As a group, they have a cheaper labor resource, and the reason is illegal immigration.” Even as recently as the statue unveiling, rumors were circulating that one of the dignitaries present had been investigated for bringing in 20 restaurant workers on false papers.
But such a happy occasion was no place for dark talk. The sun gleamed bravely off Lin Zexu’s face. (Confucius, meanwhile, lurked in a gloomy shadow.) The dignitaries of Fujianese Chinatown took their places in photograph after photograph by the red granite base, assembling and reassembling in numberless permutations. No speeches were made, no entertainment offered; in true Chinatown style, the main function of the event was merely to record that it had occurred. After 20 minutes or so of that, the crowd began to filter away. Flying the red flag was all well and good, but it was lunchtime, and across Chinatown these men had important business to attend to in restaurants and factories, all part of the long march towards the most important goal of all: making money. That, after all, is the American dream. And the Chinese dream, too.