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Chinatowns were in crisis even before Covid-19 hit North America.
Low-income residents in these neighborhoods were already being displaced, as cities allowed developers to build luxury apartments and commercial buildings that raised property prices and rents.
Then, once the first cases of the novel coronavirus were found in the United States, Chinatown economies were the first to be hit, as messaging about the “Chinese virus” influenced many to stop frequenting Chinatown businesses as early as January.
Not only that, but the New York City Human Rights Commission found that nearly half of all reports of Covid-related discriminatory harassment have been directed at Asian Americans. These aren’t abstract numbers: A man threw acid on an Asian woman’s face in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and a group of people in the Bronx attacked a 51-year-old woman on a bus.
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As Covid-19 exacerbates the precarity of working-class communities and the fragility of market-based solutions, it is clear that Chinatowns across North America need an inclusive, grassroots politics that empowers workers and tenants to advocate for themselves.
The last upsurge of Asian American and Asian Canadian radical organizing started in the late 1960s. There had been earlier organizing efforts in diaspora Asian communities—including the Chinese American anarcho-syndicalists in the Industrial Workers of the World, starting in the 1910s. The revolutionary collectives that started to form in the 1960s were influenced by the New Left, and included groups in New York and San Francisco such as the Communist Workers Party, I Wor Kuen from New York, and the Red Guards. Their members started movements with working-class and immigrant Asians in Chinatowns and other diaspora communities across the country. From anti-eviction protests at San Francisco’s International Hotel that began in 1968, to the women-led Garment Workers’ Strike in New York Chinatown in 1982, revolution was in the air.
These leftist groups could be wracked by personal and ideological infighting at times, and by the late 1980s, most had dissolved under those pressures. Many organizers from this era have since entered electoral politics, including California Democrat Wilma Chan, New York City Council member Margaret Chin, and US Representative Judy Chu. Mass membership organizations first started by the collectives later evolved into progressive nonprofit organizations, such as the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), and Asian Americans for Equality.
As a result, Asian American organizing has been disproportionately led by institutions over the past few decades. They have sometimes been able to politicize working-class communities to fight for more equitable policies and other major reforms—such as in 2014, when the CPA helped to win a $4 million settlement for workers at a San Francisco dim sum restaurant, or in 2016, when APALA helped secure a $7.8 million settlement for workers at a major Chinese-language newspaper in California.
But there are inevitably limits to how NGO-led organizing can empower rank-and-file workers and the communities they serve. Nonprofits’ staff-driven model means that local workers and tenants, with few exceptions, are left out of central organizing decisions. These groups may also be compelled by donors’ interests and state funding to make political compromises with city governments, developers, and other stakeholders.
Many nonprofits and other institutions have also struggled to respond to the current Covid-19 crisis, while they themselves are forced to cut costs and lay off staff. As a recent story in Harvard Business Review pointed out, nonprofits’ survival depends on “soliciting gifts” from corporate foundations, which must now decide who deserves these limited resources amid mass unemployment and a tanking economy.
We need a different model now. A grassroots coalition led by locals and community allies will be more effective in helping Chinatown residents make collective political demands for their own neighborhoods.
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Over the past few years, a new wave of intergenerational Asian American and Asian Canadian community organizers have led struggles against real estate developers and landlords in many different cities. These are responses to the gentrification that has swept across diasporic enclaves, making housing increasingly unaffordable for working-class Asian, black, and brown communities.
In 2017, Asian diaspora activists led a fight against luxury condominium development in Vancouver; others staged a 2018 hunger strike and protests against evictions from a rent-stabilized building in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Groups such as New York’s Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) have protested “artwashing”—in which developers rent out space to galleries and artists to hike up property values—as a method of gentrification. We have been part of some of these fights, organizing single-rent occupancy and other affordable-housing residents through Los Angeles’ Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), and participating in the Flushing for Equitable Development & Urban Planning (FED UP) Coalition through New York’s Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers.
In 2018, we both became part of a new, international coalition known as Coast to Coast Chinatowns Against Displacement (C2C). It’s led mainly by unpaid organizers—notably LA’s CCED, New York’s CAB, and Seattle’s Chinatown International District (CID) Coalition, also known as Humbows not Hotels—and supported by the expertise and resources of a few nonprofit groups and other partners in New York, Los Angeles, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, and other cities. It had its first convening in the fall of 2018; since then, it has empowered the growth of new grassroots organizations, such as Friends of Toronto Chinatown. Affiliate organizations follow a model that emphasizes collective direct action—such as confronting landlords in front of their homes—led by working-class Asian diaspora and Latinx tenants. C2C is based on the idea that the very existence of Chinatowns is under attack and that grassroots resistance should be the norm.
This is especially clear because gentrification in Chinatowns is often invited by Chinese American or Chinese Canadian business elites and supposedly progressive politicians, in partnership with corporate developers. In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island prison involved the construction of a new jail in Manhattan’s Chinatown, spurring the opposition of local residents and community organizations. Activists from the No New Jails coalition have pointed out that the neighborhoods where most of the proposed jail sites would be located were represented by members of the New York City Council Progressive Caucus who backed de Blasio’s plan.
C2C also acknowledges some of the shortcomings of the last wave of Asian American organizing. Some of those collectives supported women’s organizing efforts, such as the New York garment workers’ strike. The leaders of I Wor Kuen, in particular, were mostly women, and the group organized local campaigns for community child care programs in Chinatown in the early 1970s. But as William Wei writes in his 1993 book The Asian American Movement, although all of these groups touted women’s liberation, women’s groups and issues were often not centered in the parties and their affiliate mass organizations.
What counted as “working-class labor” was limited. These collectives may have advocated for trade workers such as those in the garment industry, but that concern usually didn’t extend to informal street hawkers, women doing housework, or sex workers. Asian diaspora sex workers and massage parlor workers have often been stigmatized by their own ethnic communities; sex workers in general have long had few allies outside of prison abolitionists and the LGBTQ+ community.
But the reality is that the work of massage parlor workers, street hawkers, and domestic workers sustains Chinatown communities. It’s time to call for these workers’ empowerment.
When C2C held its third convening in New York this March, the meeting was overwhelmingly led by womyn, queer, and nonbinary organizers. Importantly, sex workers—including members of Red Canary Song and Toronto’s Butterfly—were invited to the table to discuss Chinatown issues. Centering Chinatown members who have been previously excluded or marginalized from their own communities is not just about representation. It’s also what will help us to realize the principle of “collective organizing from below” to its fullest extent.
Even after cities and states have announced orders to shelter in place, C2C members have been able to keep building on this momentum. Through CCED, Los Angeles tenants and ally organizers have organized multiple tenant unions around apartment blocks and single-room occupancy complexes in LA’s Chinatown, many of them after struggles against rent increases and evictions. Now tenants at two of those buildings, Hillside Villa and 920 Everett, are joining other tenant unions in the neighborhood to demand expanded moratoriums on evictions and rent increases—while also fighting new eviction notices and rent increases of their own.
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In Seattle, a sibling organization of CID Coalition called Pacific Rim Solidarity Network (Parisol) has helped to develop a grassroots mutual aid network to empower local communities across Washington state to share resources, while also organizing with inmates’ families to demand the release of prisoners. The network has made demands connecting US imperialism to workers’ and prisoners’ rights, while raising over $240,000 for working-class communities in Seattle and King County.
And in their own ways across the country, C2C local organizations have been empowering tenants to pressure city government officials and other state institutions to expand protections for tenants and other marginalized groups through small-scale, socially distanced protests—staged everywhere from the front yards of city council members, to the streets outside prisons. In New York, tenants of 81 Bowery in Manhattan Chinatown launched a rent strike on May 1, organized by C2C supporter CAAAV. They’re acting in solidarity with over 15,000 tenants across the state, through the Cancel Rent initiative.
The Asian American collectives that formed in the wake of the New Left were trying to build on the successes and failures of the past—to learn from, and move beyond their predecessors. Now, in the midst of a pandemic, we are turning to mutual aid and direct action. This is not just a survival tactic. This is a political campaign. We need a mass movement now, as the failure of social services to respond reveals the limitations of capitalism.
Esther KEsther K is an organizer with Red Canary Song, a grassroots collective of Asian and migrant sex workers and allies.