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Daylight for the Basement: Chinatown Activists Reunite

“…the union guys were really worried. They were literally pissing in their pants…15 minutes later, it seemed like 15,000 women came out of the woodwork. Literally. From the buildings in Soho. They just couldn’t believe it.”

By Esther Wang

Last month, at a tiny gallery in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn, about a hundred people celebrated the opening of “Serve the People,” an exhibit of archival material documenting the activism of Asian Americans in New York City in the 1970s.

In a room crammed with equal parts post-Reagan millennials and baby boomers, Ryan Wong, the lanky and unassuming 25-year-old curator of the exhibit, explained the origins of the show.

“A lot of peoples’ reactions were, why now? Why does someone who’s in his 20s want to deal with something that happened 30, 40 years ago?” he said after the opening. “Part of it was personal, myself wanting to understand what Asian American-ness means.”

The movement is little-known outside its participants and Asian American Studies majors. That is precisely why Ryan Wong felt the exhibit was necessary, especially at a time when Asian Americans are the fastest-growing population in New York City (According to 2010 Census figures, one out of every eight New Yorkers is Asian).

While he would like the exhibit to contribute to a new discourse about what it means to be Asian American, the mood inside the gallery was more 30-year college reunion than political education session. Fittingly, the show mirrored the movement’s grassroots origins: art was tacked to the walls under loose sheets of clear plastic, and many of the black and white photographs were simply stuck to the walls with pins.

Among the crowd was the artist Bob Lee, a sprite of a man with a robust mustache and iron-grey hair swept back from his forehead. Alternating between a zen-like calm and manic energy, he bounced from one corner of the room to another, often stopping to explain the history behind certain pieces.

“So this is mine!” he said, waving at a poster he designed for the first Chinatown Street Fair in 1971, its edges darkened by age. It featured the slogan “Unite to fight for our rights,” along with an illustration of a group of children, one of which appeared to be wielding either a sledgehammer or perhaps a t-square.

Artist Bob Lee next to a poster he designed for the first Chinatown Street Fair in 1971, along with curator Ryan Wong. Photo by Esther Wang.
Artist Bob Lee next to a poster he designed for the first Chinatown Street Fair in 1971, along with curator Ryan Wong. Photo by Esther Wang.

The street fair depicted in the poster was a seminal event for young Asian American activists, many of whom were still students or fresh out of college. “It was sort of a coming out party, letting Chinatown know that we were here, and that we were gonna serve the people [laugh], and we were gonna start this new idea and this new activism… It was a big moment for our generation.”

The most well-known center of this new activism was the Basement Workshop, an arts and culture organization whose main office was indeed a basement located at 22 Catherine Street in Chinatown.

Basement members organized the street fair, and produced much of the materials on display–from copies of the movement’s iconic publication Bridge Magazine, which were shown in a glass cabinet, to the records made by the folk band Yellow Pearl that lined one wall of the gallery.

For Asian college students coming of age during the time of Black Power, the Vietnam War, and post-1965 immigration reform (which was already shifting the contours of racial politics in the US), places like Basement Workshop were key in locating and creating the idea of Asian America, a term movement participants themselves coined in the early 1970s.

“It was there that you found people who had your experience,” Bob Lee explained, adding that he met his wife through the Basement community. “You didn’t know who the hell you were, you didn’t know how you fit in, and then finally you had a way to put a name on it. You knew, oh, it’s because I’m Asian.”

This sentiment – of a light bulb finally flickering on – was echoed by many of the so-called “movement veterans” in attendance that evening. It included people like attorney Lisa Yee, who was found standing with a few friends next to a back wall adorned in feminist art and writing.

These days, the silver-haired Yee is retired but in the 70s, she was an undergrad at Cornell University, when a friend called her up and told her she needed to be a part of what was happening in Chinatown.

Lisa Yee was involved in the protests at Confucius Plaza, documented in the poster on the wall next to her. Photo by Esther Wang.

Lisa Yee was involved in the protests at Confucius Plaza, documented in the poster on the wall next to her. Photo by Esther Wang.

“I was just reminiscing with people here about how militant things were back then,” she said, standing next to an outreach poster for a protest at Confucius Plaza. Like dozens of other students, she came down to the city for a summer and got swept up in those protests, demanding jobs for Chinese construction workers.

“I have a lot of fond memories of this stuff. It’s very close to my heart,” she said. “A lot of people from this era stayed in some sort of social movement.” After law school Yee went on to work for Legal Services of New York, representing low-income New Yorkers in the courts.

Corky Lee, a sort of Gordon Parks for the radical Asian American set, is one of those who has hewed close to the path he began during those formative years. He was found that night in the gallery, Brooklyn Brewery beer in hand, holding court next to a photo of himself as a 20-something brooding into the camera.

“Who’s that? That’s you?” someone asked.

“The hair’s a little longer here, but that’s only because last week I got a haircut,” he quipped.

A gregarious man with wire-rimmed glasses and a wide smile, he had a story behind every photograph, each shared with a touch of reverence and the rhythm and cadence of an avuncular preacher.

Photo by Esther Wang.

Photographer Corky Lee and one of his photographs depicting the 1982 garment workers strike. Photo by Esther Wang.

Case in point: one of his photos, of the Chinatown garment workers strike the summer of 1982. In it, scores of middle-aged Chinese women are gathered, holding signs bearing a slew of union slogans. In one photo, a woman waves a fan on what was likely a sweltering August morning. “On the day of the event, at 9 am, nobody was there,” he remembered. “And the union guys were really worried. They were literally pissing in their pants. Because they called for a strike, and nobody shows up. It had never been done before. At 9:15, 15 minutes later, it seemed like 15,000 women came out of the woodwork. Literally. From the buildings in Soho. They just couldn’t believe it.”

In the years after, Corky Lee continued to document the community through his photographs, becoming along the way the doyen of Asian American photography. Some people abandoned radical or even progressive politics altogether; other movement activists found their way in the Reagan and Clinton years to new forms of political and cultural work – running for City Council with varying degrees of success (the one who actually won, Margaret Chin, wasn’t there), or engaging in union organizing. Several went on to found organizations that remain to this day – Gay Asian and Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, the Asian American Arts Alliance, and The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) are just a few groups that owe their existence to this febrile decade.

Basement Workshop, and other organizations under the loosely defined umbrella of the Asian American left, like the ultra-left I Wor Kuen, ultimately deteriorated under the weight of political differences that also fractured the broader movement in the early 80s.

“It was just crazy. You just couldn’t get anything done,” Bob Lee said of the end, recalling epic day-long meetings debating the finer points of Mao and the Cultural Revolution. “The political infighting was so intense at that point.”

He had become more pensive as the night progressed, pondering the legacy of the 70s. His advice for those who would want to create a 21st century version of Basement Workshop? Take those rose-colored glasses off. “Everyone wants to do Basement again, and they have no idea what it was really like. They don’t know anything about the fights that we had, or why we spun off, or why it wasn’t viable,” he said. “You just can’t think you can do Basement again, or think that you’re inheritors of that spirit. You have to do your own thing, your new thing.”

Thankfully, the evening held only one moment of what might be called discord, and it leaned more towards tongue-in-cheek than antagonistic. It involved the naming of Basement Workshop. The opening salvo came from Bob Lee: “[Workshop founder Danny Yung] came to Elizabeth Street, and he found a basement there.” Dramatic pause. “He called it Basement. Corky didn’t call it Basement. He claims he did, but it’s not true. Corky did a lot of other things he could take credit for, but not this one.”

“I actually gave Basement Workshop its name,” Corky Lee confided, minutes later.

Informed that Bob disputed this claim, he retorted, “Well that’s because he wasn’t there.”

“I said listen, you guys are in a basement, you want to do all these workshops, so I would advance the proposition that you call it Basement Workshop,” he said. “So after I said that…

“Game over?” someone prompted.

“Game over.”

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Chinatown activists reunited at the opening of the “Serve the People” exhibit on Dec. 5th. The show runs through Sunday, Feb. 23rd at Interference Archive. Photos courtesy of Ryan Wong.