Back­track­ing to know Chi­nese com­mu­nity

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By AMY HE in New York amyhe@chi­nadai­

As a Columbia Univer­sity grad­u­ate stu­dent and ac­tivist in the 1970s, Peter Kwong felt he didn’t have a true un­der­stand­ing of Chinatown and the Chi­nese com­mu­nity at large. So he back­tracked.

He went back to the 1930s to learn more about how the Chi­nese com­mu­nity lived and how the Great De­pres­sion af­fected Chi­nese. And he went back to re­view the im­pact WWII had on the com­mu­nity and its views on pol­i­tics at the time.

What Kwong, who has been teach­ing Asian-Amer­i­can stud­ies at Hunter Col­lege in New York City since 1993, found was that the Chi­nese were po­lit­i­cally ac­tive, some­thing he said is not dis­cussed much to­day.

“I tried to un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing. The Chi­nese were very ac­tive po­lit­i­cally. It’s just that most of the main­stream did not un­der­stand, be­cause they were only nar­rowly look­ing at the vot­ing pop­u­la­tion, which par­ties they voted for, and whether they could vote or not,” he said.

Through his re­search, Kwong had found that the Chi­nese in the US were very vo­cal about the war against Ja­panese in­va­sion in China, and that they sup­ported China mon­e­tar­ily and spir­i­tu­ally, do­nat­ing mil­lions of dol­lars. Chi­nese urged Amer­i­cans to boy­cott prod­ucts that came from Ja­pan, he said, adding that the Chi­nese com­mu­nity also lob­bied Congress and got movie stars in­volved, demon­strat­ing on Fifth Av­enue and be­yond.


na is very, very much aware of over­seas Chi­nese opin­ions, be­cause those opin­ions re­flect cer­tain parts of the pop­u­la­tion in the Chi­nese main­land. … Some of the voices are crit­i­cal, some of them sup­port­ive, and some of them are com­ple­men­tary to dif­fer­ent opin­ions within China.” PETER KWONG FOUNDER OF THE ASIAN AMER­I­CAN STUD­IES AND UR­BAN AF­FAIRS AND PLAN­NING AT HUNTER COL­LEGE

“There were all these lev­els of com­plex po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tives at play. The Chi­nese were very much — even though they were in Chinatown, in sup­pos­edly iso­lated eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties — a part of, and very much in­volved in, do­mes­tic Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, do­mes­tic pol­i­tics in China, as well as the in­ter­na­tional move­ment,” he said.

More sig­nif­i­cantly, Kwong said he found that the Chi­nese com­mu­nity’s in­volve­ment had such a ma­jor im­pact on the govern­ment in the Chi­nese main­land that it be­gan to rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of sup­port from over­seas Chi­nese.

Kwong found that Chi­nese liv­ing out­side of China were more in­flu­en­tial than a lot of peo­ple gave them credit for: “China is very, very much aware of over­seas Chi­nese opin­ions, be­cause those opin­ions re­flect cer­tain parts of the pop­u­la­tion in the Chi­nese main­land. … Some of the voices are crit­i­cal, some of them sup­port­ive, and some of them are com­ple­men­tary to dif­fer­ent opin­ions within China.”

The his­tory of the Chi­nese com­mu­nity in the 1930s and 1950s was the sub­ject of Kwong’s grad­u­ate school the­sis at Columbia Univer­sity, and which was later turned into his 2001 book, Chinatown, New York: La­bor and Pol­i­tics, 1930-1950.

Born in Chongqing, China, Kwong and his fam­ily moved to Shang­hai, and later to Tai­wan where he grew up, be­fore com­ing to the US. Kwong lives in the Man­hat­tan sec­tion of Tribeca with his wife and Chi­nese his­to­rian Du­sanka Mis­ce­vic, with whom he cowrote Chi­nese Amer­i­cans: An Im­mi­grant Ex­pe­ri­ence.

Liv­ing in the Em­pire State since the 1970s, Kwong said he has seen how ac­tivism and po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Chi­nese com­mu­nity have changed through the decades. While the Chi­nese in the US were ac­tive in the pe­riod lead­ing up to and dur­ing WWII, the Chi­nese liv­ing in Amer­ica now and in the re­cent past have not been as ac­tive as their prior gen­er­a­tions.

Peo­ple or­ga­nize dif­fer­ently and be­ing ac­tive in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics now re­quires a dif­fer­ent kind of com­mu­nity ac­tion, he said. The first hur­dle is just get­ting Chi­nese to par­tic­i­pate in lo­cal govern­ment at all, he said, adding that their in­volve­ment has cer­tainly picked up, with more Asian rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Amer­i­can govern­ment than ever.

But the ef­fort to get rep­re­sen­ta­tion has been just that, get­ting rep­re­sen­ta­tion with­out touch­ing on deeper com­mu­nity is­sues, Kwong said.

“Those who par­tic­i­pate in Amer­i­can elec­toral pol­i­tics and non-prof­its tend to be English-speak­ing and have lim­ited ac­cess to the com­mu­nity. So a lot of times, the com­mu­nity has is­sues that are not be­ing voiced by these mem­bers,” he said. “Amer­i­can politi­cians of­ten find that if you want to navigate within the Chi­nese com­mu­nity po­lit­i­cally, you have so many dif­fer­ent is­sues that the safest way to go about it is to be very, very gen­eral.”

There is a lot of pride within the Chi­nese com­mu­nity, he said, so it wants to feel proud that it has elected politi­cians who share a com­mon cul­tural back­ground. But that of­ten means that eth­nic sol­i­dar­ity be­comes the “over­whelm­ing mes­sage” of any Chi­nese or Chi­nese-Amer­i­can politi­cian look­ing to run for of­fice, with lit­tle re­gard for other con­cerns, he ex­plained.

“In the old days, you get elected by de­liv­er­ing ser­vices, and some­times you get into very con­tro­ver­sial is­sues,” he said. “But by and large, this is a re­flec­tion of the pat­tern of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics as well, where cam­paign­ing is ba­si­cally of­fend­ing the least num­ber of peo­ple. Once you get elected, you don’t re­ally have a man­date for do­ing any­thing.”

Kwong re­mains ac­tive in the lo­cal Chi­nese com­mu­nity, work­ing with the Asian Amer­i­can Le­gal De­fense and Ed­u­ca­tion Fund, the Na­tional Mo­bi­liza­tion Against Sweat Shops, and the Chi­nese Staff and Work­ers As­so­ci­a­tion. He also formed the Asian Amer­i­can Map­ping Sem­i­nar in New York.

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