Chinatown Looks to Centennial, Aims for Political Clout

May 12, 2010

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New immigrant youth like De Xin Liang are registering thousands of voters in Chinatown. (WBEZ/Odette Yousef)

Chicago's Chinatown is gearing up for its 100th anniversary celebration next year. Community leaders are hoping it'll mark the awakening of a sleeping dragon: that is, Chinese-Americans as a political force.

They say the community has never fought for itself, and that it's being short-changed on public resources compared to other immigrant groups. Recently, there's a laser focus on changing that with new strategies.

Ben Ross is a Chinese language interpreter and self-described "local history nerd."

ROSS: Can ev -- oh, that's loud. Alright, everybody can hear me?

The Chinatown Chamber of Commerce has got Ross conducting tours here a couple times a week.

ROSS: This building here was built in 1926, and when it was built, it was the unofficial city hall of Chicago's Chinatown.

He moves a group of some 40 high school freshman along Wentworth Avenue, through the heart of the commercial district.

ROSS: So people in Chinatown ran all their civic affairs out of this unofficial courthouse right here, totally separate from the city of Chicago.

He's pointing to The Pui Tak Center. It was built to house a merchant's association. It gained notoriety in the late '80s when the FBI raided it and busted a big-time multi-million dollar gambling operation. But originally, it was where the community went to have disputes mediated.

Today, it's home to one of Chinatown's largest social service agencies. Legal or not, the activities in this building over the years grew from a community sense that the government was looking the other way.

CHAN: This is a very basic survival story of an immigrant community, because the resources of the American society did not really reach out to the local immigrant community, and that's what we're facing today, too.

C.W. Chan chairs the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community, which was founded ten years ago. Chan says that for as long as Chinatown has been here, the community has taken care of its own problems... to the point of being too insular.

CHAN: At a certain point we realized providing services to alleviate a problem may be not the total solution. We have to look at the community development as a whole issue.

Now Chan is plotting a way to draw Chinese-Americans into Chicago's larger civic life, and he's starting by getting more of them to vote. He's even hired a full-time community organizer. Chan says that's the only way that politicians will start to address the needs of their booming population.

CHAN: We do try to keep a scorecard of what's being done in the community.

The number of Asian-Americans in Chinatown and its adjacent areas increased by 60 percent between 1990 and 2000, according to U.S. Census numbers. Chinatown's largest social service agency says that growth has continued. The Chinese American Services League is on track to serve 50% more people this year than it did ten years ago.

Chan says the growth is putting a lot of stress on the area's public resources. So what does Chinatown need?

STAND-UP: At the local library here on the southern end of Wentworth Ave, patrons regularly wait 2-3 hours to get on a computer, or simply to grab a chair. Then there's the long-promised, never-realized, indoor recreational center that was supposed to be built in Chinatown's Ping Tom park, half a mile from here. Chinatown lost its field house 40 years ago when it was torn down to make way for the Dan Ryan Expressway. And a lot of Chinatown residents want a high school in their own community.

That's a frequent gripe that community organizer Rebecca Yemin Shi discusses with her team of teenage community volunteers:

SHI: They have to go north side to go south side to go to high school. Like they take a train... You guys want to explain your route in the morning?
STUDENT: So we go to downtown to Jackson and then take number 6 back to Hyde Park.

And depending on traffic, that can take up to an hour.

Since Shi came on board in 2008, she's channeled this community discontent into action. She's learned how to do that from other minority and immigrant advocacy groups.

SHI: For Asian Americans, we don't have a single elected official in the General Assembly or the City Council, whereas you have the Latino Caucus in both, you have the African-American Caucus in both. And so for us, we want to be able to learn how they did that.

Shi and Chan have gotten grassroots political training alongside leaders from the Latino and African-American communities. They also speak with their counterparts in other Chinatowns in the U.S.

SHI: We have stories, we have experiences of injustice in this community and we can organize around thatthrough voting, through collectively building power and holding elected officials accountable.

(switch scene)

LIANG: Hello popo...
OLD WOMAN: yeah, what you want?

Last week, Shi and eight high school volunteers began canvassing the streets to register 1000 new voters. They're aiming to hit that mark before Chinatown's 100th birthday.

This team of 16 to 19 year-olds are mostly old hands at this. During the summer of 2008, they registered 1600 voters for the general election. They did it by deploying a new secret weapon: immigrant youth.

18-year old De Xin Liang is old enough to vote.

LIANG: Yes, but I'm not a citizen, because I just came here about 3 years ago.
WBEZ: From where?
LIANG: From China. Guangdong.

Liang chats fluently in both Mandarin and Cantonese, adjusting to the language of whoever opens the door. She tells them to register to vote: that way they can get a new library, a field house, maybe a school.

Recent immigrant youth like Liang are proving to be the most effective message-carriers. And that's been a surprise to C.W. Chan:

CHAN: Ordinarily you consider them the population that requires a lot of needs and services. What happened is we gave them this task, and empowered them, and they rose to the occasion.

In recent months, Chan has met with numerous politicians at the state level to discuss putting the majority of Chinese-Americans into a single southside political district. Since 1990, it's been cut into so many that he feels it keeps them from wielding much political power.

If it were in one district, Chan says Chinese-Americans may finally be able to field one of their own for political office: someone who would potentially be the first elected Asian-American in the City Council or General Assembly. Illinois will redraw the map next year.