Wellington Chen: Fights to fix ‘outsider’ problem BIO
Wellington Chen has a problem with those who describe Chinese as outsiders.
He has a problem with people who continue to see Chinese as “invaders”, “marauders” and “public enemy No 1”.
Despite Chinese having a long history in the United States, some of the labels assigned to them when they first came to the country in the 19th century still remain, and Chen is concerned that they will lead to the demise of New York City’s Chinese community, which has experienced a loss in population.
Chen, executive director of the non-profit Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, has been an active community organizer since arriving in the United States in the 1970s from Taiwan, and has seen ethnic communities go through phases. From growth to stagnation, from stagnation to revitalization, and then sometimes to decline and disappearance, this is the way communities cycle, he said.
And this is his fear for Chinatown.
“We just had a meeting with representatives from Little Italy, and they said to me, ‘You’re going to decline just like we did, just like the Germans did, just like the Irish did,’” Chen told China Daily in an interview at the offices of Chinatown Partnership in Manhattan. “We have to respect history. There’s a cycle to life and there’s a cycle to a community — and you really, really need to respect that. You need to go back to history to understand what is likely to be your future, because then you have to go and change that course.”
Little Italy, Little Germany, Little Ireland, Chinatown and the Jewish community all historically presided over Lower Manhattan. But the only two that remain today are Chinatown and Little Italy, with the latter shrinking to three blocks today from 50 blocks.
As an ethnic enclave, Chinatown has historically been neglected, Chen said. He said that after the 911 tragedy, the community felt the city had prioritized other areas over Chinatown, despite being one of the most hard-hit regions in the aftermath.
“We weren’t eligible for any of the federal programs. Some people got free air conditioning, but that’s it. To this day, I can’t tell you of a single Liberty Bond Project in Chinatown,” he said, referring to the $1.6 billion in tax-exempt financing approved post-911 for building and renovation in the Liberty Zone area south of Canal Street, East Broadway, and Grand Street.
Chen said that part of the reason why funds were so limited is because nobody wanted to come into the community.
“If I invite you into a community that is running amok with trash on the floor, with grease everywhere, I’m not going to give you money for lighting and beautification. What’s the sense of shining a light on a community that’s full of garbage bags?” he said.
So for the Chinese community to stop being neglected, it had to clean up, it had to be more inviting. It had to change its perception from that of an outsider to one that can be fully integrated into the broader city, he said.
But to do that, the community required someone who was a bit of an outsider: Chen.
Born in Taiwan in 1953 to parents from Fujian, China, Chen grew up bouncing from place to place across the globe. His father was a seaman, so Chen and his mother, a nurse, and his followed his father where he worked. Chen grew up in Singapore, Hong Kong and Brazil before returning to Hong Kong and then coming to the US.
“That gave me what I like to call ‘360 degrees of exposure,’” he said. “I was raised in all these
cultures and I saw Asians in all these different environments, and it really made me learn about my people and our culture.”
After he settled in the US, Chen lived in Flushing in the New York City borough of Queens and worked as a local organizer in the Flushing area for decades, witnessing how the community went from being economically stagnant and abandoned in the 1970s to being robust today.
He got a degree in architecture from the CCNY School of Architecture and Environmental Studies, and worked for renowned architect I.M. Pei from 1980 to 1985. He then became the first AsianAmerican commissioner of the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals, working on zoning laws and appeals in Flushing. It was as a bureaucrat, he said, that he learned in-depth about a community’s needs.
Though he has worked in Queens since being in the US, it was his experience as a nonManhattan Chinatown organizer that made him a candidate for Chinatown Partnership, which was formed in 2006 to help the Chinese community after 911.
“When I got here, there was concern. ‘He’s an architect, he’s going to build condos,’ they said, because I was switching from Cantonese to Mandarin, I was going to class in Singapore, getting plucked to Hong Kong,” he said. “I have always been perceived as a perpetual outsider. But that suited me well, because I came with a certain neutrality.”
While some of the characterizations of Chinatown by people are unfair, Chen said he recognized that there was some basis to the criticisms, and he wanted to do his part to rebrand Chinatown.
“It’s this negative perception. That’s the part that galls me the most. Can you imagine my pride as a Chinese American — knowing that we have our own 5,000 year history and this is a nation of 400 years — and you’re saying we eat garbage? That we’re dirty? That we’re filthy?” he said.
Chen said that even Chinatown residents acknowledge that one of the biggest problems in the community is the trash and the smell, so one of his biggest missions as executive director at Chinatown Partnership was to create a Business Improvement District (BID) within the community. Businesses in a BID area pay higher taxes to fund projects that improve and maintain the commercial district.
The BID in Chinatown has helped clean over 9,000 storefronts and remove more than 18 million pounds of trash since the City Council’s approval for it in 2011, according to Chen.
“Unless you’re Superman and you can fly out of the subway without touching the ground, you are a beneficiary of this Clean Street campaign,” said Chen, referring to a program funded by government and foundation grants that helped beautify Chinatown’s streets.
Now, eight years into his tenure at the Chinatown Partnership, Chen grapples with the next phase in Chinatown’s evolution, which he said is for the community to become more visible in the political arena.
“One of the things about the BID that people don’t understand is that they think you’re here to clean the garbage. It’s not about that,” he said. “The benefit of the BID is turning your sanitation fine into a seat at the table.” People who pay have a say, he said.
It is no longer about just fighting against discrimination by picketing and rallying and stone throwing, he said, because that would make government the villain and nobody likes to be made into a villain. It’s unproductive and what would yield more results is if there were more Chinese voices being heard across the board, he said.
“In all of our history here, there’s only one voice from Chinatown: Margaret Chin. Nobody else. It’s a caucus of one! How strong do you think that voice is, when you have 51 council members? You have no backing,” he said.
“Gradually, this is where we turn up the heat. This is what I mean when I talk about morphing,” he said.
Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation, wants to improve Chinatown’s image by cleaning up the community and retaining its volume of visitors and residents.