Forty Years of Fighting for Asian-American Rights

Asian Americans for Equality celebrates the opening of their new 5,000-square-foot office. (Photo by AAFE's Facebook page)

Asian Americans for Equality celebrates the opening of their new 5,000-square-foot office. (Photo by AAFE’s Facebook page)

The following is a combination of two articles that appeared in Sing Tao Daily, one a news story and the other a commentary piece.

Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE) celebrated its 40th birthday by expanding to a new office space. The opening ceremony on February 18 drew several nonagenarian guests. These are people who, four decades ago, fought together with the newly-born organization for justice and equality for the community. Some were even jailed for protesting.

Many of their younger colleagues who were basically “kids” then now are accomplished “celebrities” in various fields, such as Councilwoman Margaret Chin, Commissioner of the Department of Youth and Community Development Bill Chong, and Hong Kong movie director Hark Tsui. All of this began in a basement in Chinatown.

AAFE’s new office, on the 7th floor of 2 Allen Street, is 5,000 square feet. This is the new home of the Renaissance Economic Development Corporation, a robust arm of the organization. Its previous office at 111 Division Street will be kept for other community services the organization provides. For the opening ceremony, the organization didn’t invite many politicians. Instead, most of the guests were original members who have witnessed the seeds for equality that they planted grow and blossom.

Compared to the old days, the new office is quite a luxury. The organization, which is the largest services organization in the Asian community, was born in a dingy basement in Chinatown, with a modest name: “Basement Workshop.”

The “Basement Workshop” was established in 1968. That was a time when some Asian pioneers started to realize the human rights movement was not only a movement for African-Americans. Rather, Asian-Americans had similar struggles. The basement became a venue for some idealistic and courageous young Asian people to discuss their dreams and to put them into action.

The movement picked up traction in 1974, when the city was planning to build Confucius Plaza, the first public housing project in Chinatown. Despite its location and its function, the city government didn’t hire a single Chinese for this project in the beginning. The negligence outraged the community. The “Basement” youngsters, joined by older immigrants working in restaurants and garment factories, protested against the city’s contract. Together, they distributed fliers on the street, knocked on doors to raise money, and held nonviolent rallies on the construction site. Eventually, the city budged and 24 Chinese-Americans got jobs in the project’s construction. In the same year, many of these protesters founded the organization called AAFE.

In the following year, Chinese engineer Peter Yew argued with the police when he was parking near the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) on Mott Street. He was arrested for disrupting the police and was beaten up in the police precinct. The attack caused him to lose hearing in one of his ears.

The incident triggered an uproar in the community. On May 12, Chinatown businesses went on strike and 20,000 people went out onto the street to protest against police brutality. It also helped AAFE make its mission clear: To fight for civil rights and equality.

But it’s not easy work, especially in Chinatown. “Journalists in the 1970s were different from journalists today. They were very conservative. They didn’t like to cover our protests and thought we were the ally of the leftists, and we were against the tradition. So AAFE had its own newspaper then. We sent out messages in our newspaper and called on readers to unite and fight for justice and equal rights together,” recalled attorney Yee Ling Poon who was a college student then.

“Protesting has not been a tradition of the Chinese. So our activities stirred controversy in the community. We were under huge pressure. Fortunately, Mun Bun Lee, the chairman of CCBA [Translator’s note: CCBA is the equivalent of a central government of Chinatown], was an open-minded person. He supported and participated in the protest triggered by the police brutality case against Peter Yew. Chinese-Americans broke their silence for the first time. The protesting was basically the start of the Asian-Americans civil rights movement,” said Poon.

And from there, the movement went on to protest for justice for Vincent Chin and against the city’s plan to build a jail in Chinatown. [Note: Chin was mistaken as Japanese and beaten by a pair of white auto workers in Detroit in 1982, a time of intense competition from Japanese auto companies. He died but his murderers only got light punishment at first. The Chinatown jail is “The Tombs,” formally known as the “Manhattan Detention Complex”].

Councilwoman Margaret Chin, who was a fresh college graduate in the “basement” era, attested to Poon’s memories. Chin looked emotional yesterday when she looked at the old newspaper clips and pictures that were exhibited on the wall of AAFE’s new office.

Some of the restaurant and garment factory workers who participated in the early movement are in their 90s now. In addition to Chin, the first Chinese-American councilmember representing Chinatown, many other youngsters also walked out of the “basement” and became bold names in New York, the U.S. and the world.

Chi-Man Chow and Hark Tsui founded the Asian American International Film Festival, and Tsui is now an internationally renowned film director. Danny Yung founded the Zuni Icosahedron, a Hong Kong-based international experimental theatre. Bob Lee founded the Asian American Arts Center in New York.

Wing Lam founded the Chinese Staff and Workers Association. Ying Chan became an award winning journalist and founded the Journalism and Media Studies Center in the University of Hong Kong. Bill Chong was recently named the commissioner of the Department of Youth and Community Development by Mayor Bill de Blasio. Jean Quan is the mayor of Oakland. And Chris Kui, the then high schooler who worked as a photographer in the “basement,” is now the executive director of AAFE.

Today, the organization still faces controversy. Some people criticize members for having forgotten their grassroots origin, forgotten the poor and forgotten their own idealism dream. But as attorney Poon said, idealism may only belong to young people, but today’s AAFE is still a pioneer. It now knows how to navigate the government system to get more resources to serve the community. The spacious new office is a result.

You may not agree with AAFE on everything. But the old photos on the wall and the stories behind them preserve some history of the community that is worth more than tens of thousands words.

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