Wellington Chen: Fights to fix ‘out­sider’ prob­lem BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By AMY HE in New York amyhe@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

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.

AMY HE / CHINA DAILY

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.

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