Journal of Community Power Building      COMM-ORG Papers 2004

Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing

Jook Sing (“Hollow Bamboo”) A Memoir-Fiction Piece

By Lai Ying Yu

Author's note: This piece is part of a larger work and has been adapted for the RHICO Journal.  Because it has elements of reality and fiction closely interweaved, it may most closely be termed a 'memoir-fiction,' for those interested in genres.

“Tell me, where do you see Chinatown CDC’s organizing work five years from now, and what are you working to achieve?”  She paused and sat back in her chair. “I guess what I am asking is, does CCDC have a strategic plan for the organizing work, for this new resident safety group, and is CCDC trying to build this resident group in opposition to the Chinatown Organized Residents Association?” 

I was stopped short.  Having just shared thoughts for celebrating International Women’s Day, I was jarred by the straight-shot line of questioning.   We were finally having the lunch we had mentioned in passing after community meetings, emailed about, and agreed “we should have” for the last four months.  I was sitting with Stella Tong, Board Member of Chinese American Movement. 

The substance of the questions themselves was less jarring, as they reflected a recent spate of emails between CAM and CCDC.

CAM, or Chinese American Movement, is Boston Chinatown’s twenty-year old worker- and immigrant- rights grassroots organization.  Stella had recently stepped down from the executive directorship of CAM to take a less prominent role as Honorary Board Member, a role created soon after her leaving the position.  Stella had established her place in Chinatown in the mid-eighties, when the garment industry was moving out of Boston.  She led Chinatown’s first major successful immigrant rights campaign for Chinese women garment workers.  Known in political circles as an astute and unrelenting leader, Stella was recently identified in the Sampan newspaper as “the vanguard” for leading residents and community allies in protest against the last decade of city-backed luxury and high-rise developments in Chinatown.  Just before leaving her position six months ago, Stella had helped found the Chinatown Organized Residents Association (CORA).

I was hired at Chinatown Community Development Corporation as their first community organizer a little over a year ago, just as CORA was beginning to establish itself and CCDC was celebrating its largest development to date, the Sun Yi Da Ha.

CCDC had just celebrated its five-year anniversary in conjunction with the opening of the Sun Yi Da Ha.  Sun Yi Da Ha is the largest housing development in Chinatown since the 1970s; it would double the current home-ownership in the community.  It was received with a mixture of elation and community reserve. 

The development offered nearly 50 percent affordable housing and one building dedicated to community space, both of which have been widely recognized as “crucial” to sustain Chinatown as a neighborhood.  The community’s reserve symbolized the distrust that had grown between the community and CCDC, its community developer.  Groups of residents questioned the height and scale of the development, as it surpassed the community height guidelines by more than twelve stories.  When the plans were unveiled, resident input was considered only as an afterfact by CCDC. 

Partly in reaction to this and partly due to the growing development pressures in and around Chinatown, CAM helped found the community’s first resident group, CORA.  

Stella was the driving force behind the creation of CORA.  CAM announced its presence as the “firm base toward long-term resident empowerment and self-agency for Chinatown.”  That month, Stella was featured in the Globe Magazine profiles as one of the top ten women who were leading a new “tenacious political force” in Boston.  When asked how she saw her personal role in Chinatown, she demurred, “We are growing the voice of Chinatown.”  The article was entitled, somewhat expansively though not too far off the mark, “An Important Woman You Don’t Know.”  It was a reference to the way in which Stella worked.  She avoided the limelight.

At CCDC’s five-year anniversary celebration, newly elected board members pledged to build stronger relationships within the community as CCDC “moved forward in future development projects.”  Within three months of this celebration, Parcel 24 was approved by the board of CCDC as a “community advocacy project to support,” in a 12-9 vote.  I was hired soon after to help launch the resident-based organizing campaign for Parcel 24.

In the year I have been working in Chinatown, I am beginning to understand that each community member has a personal Chinatown history that needs to be learned, and that I am a jook sing here.  I learn from those who came before me, and patience will provide the shortest path to my goals.

I seemed to have forgotten these points when I sat with Stella that afternoon, or perhaps more simply, I did not think they applied.

We were sitting in a Vietnamese restaurant by lower Washington Street, waiting for our bowls of pho.  The waitress had seated us by the window, from where we sat I had a clear view of the long, blue signboard with fat, green lettering: “Pitz Garage” that hung off the side of the 3-story concrete; in-between each level of concrete were neat lines of small square-holes the size of bottle corks.  

I watched for a moment as Stella skillfully twirled the pale noodles into a round ball at the end of her chopsticks.  Stella’s oval face is what my mother would describe as “bo-ying,” like a ball, giving her a youthful, girlish appearance.  Her black hair was cut close to her face and she wore brown rectangular plastic frames that tended to give her a more serious if sometimes stern look.  As I thought out how to answer her questions, I was suddenly reminded of a time when I was six and was caught using the oven to bake my e-Z Bake cupcakes instead of the e-Z Bake Oven, the one I was allowed to use.  I felt like I was once more being asked to confess a misdeed. 

I placed my chopsticks down and sat up straighter.  Clearing my throat I stated,

“CCDC has not made a formal five-year plan for the resident safety group. “But…” I paused, searching for the right way to phrase what CCDC had committed to, “it has considered it in light of its mission statement, which is ‘to grow and develop resident leadership capacity’ in the neighborhood and is therefore supportive of the resident safety group.”

I looked Stella in the eye, consciously trying to make up for the lack of substance in that statement.

“Oh.  So you don’t have a five-year plan.”

I continued to look at Stella as I picked up my chopsticks and stirred the thin layers of meat into the broth.  My own questions about organizing began to surface.  Aren’t we supposed to be working together to build resident empowerment?  Why would there be opposition?  If we are organizing to build the leadership and empowerment of residents, what difference did it make what organization it came from?  Aren’t they supposed to be empowered at the very end? Wasn’t that the point? They would be empowered to make their own choices un-beholden to organizations or political matrices.  Knowledge is power is freedom?  I suddenly felt like I was on the other side of a divide I did not clearly see. 

Stella continued, “You see, I wasn’t sure what CCDC was trying to do.” Her tone took on a colloquial lilt as she smiled slightly and said, “We were wondering why if there is the Chinatown Organized Residents Association, CORA, why CCDC seemed to want to create an al-new residents organization.  And besides, there is the Safety Resident meeting that happens monthly for residents to attend.  If you are not building another resident organization, have you thought about joining CORA’s resident safety group?”

There was no plan detailing the development processes of the loosely organized resident safety group which had been begun four months ago.  It was, however, firmly identified as fitting into a specific portion of CCDC’s four-sentence mission statement:

“…To uphold high standards of service within and for the community and to grow and develop community leadership capacity...”

It is that last part, to “develop community leadership,” that thinly validated the safety organizing work I did. 

When CCDC’s Executive Director began to inquire into the work and staff-resource time “given over for community safety,” the Director of Community Affairs, the supervisor I reported to, had pointed out: “The mission statement clearly reinforces the work that O. is doing.”  He had proceeded to cite the short line and continued, “O. is carrying out leadership development in the context of resident safety organizing.  The way to understand what O. is doing is this she is not organizing residents around safety issues, she is building the leadership of residents who are organizing around safety issues.  She is not organizing organizing.”   And so the potential complication from my new work was skirted by this explanation, as well as with padded reassurances that this work would not interfere with my primary responsibility as community organizer for the Parcel 24 development campaign.

The resident safety group had begun as an outcry and reaction against what appeared to be the community’s tacit acceptance of the beating to death of an elderly Chinatown resident returning from his morning Tai Chi exercise.

The Director of Community Affairs had nudged me into owning the project. He talked with me about the incident, asked me how I felt about it, encouraged me with a feeling of self-agency, and pointed out a few simple next steps for what could be done to prevent the issue from dying, and I took the line.  I connected with several residents and we organized over thirty Cantonese-speaking residents to go to the monthly Safety Meetings to speak their concerns.  The Safety Meetings are notorious for their English-only discussions.  As we expected, we hit an initial wall from committee members when a first step suggestion was made: Could we make this Safety Committee meeting bilingual?   Limited resources were cited and that was the final response from the committee.  Since then, a group of residents had begun to meet independently. 

Not too long after, I had received an email, with the Director of Community Affairs and Executive Director carbon-copied, from a staff member of CAM asking the same questions with which Stella had begun this conversation: Why is CCDC trying to form a new group of residents to work on safety?  Why aren’t you working in tune with CORA about this?  Aren’t there the monthly Safety Meetings you can go to?

Numbed by this unexpected attack, and unclear as to how I had stepped on the political toes of CAM or CORA, I thought I had been doing the right thing by inviting a member from both CAM and CORA to come to the meetings.  Because some of the residents in the resident safety group were already members of CORA, they suddenly felt unsure and their loyalties divided when they learned of the sudden dissension.  Discussions within the safety group began to turn to what place the resident safety group held in the community; if were they affiliated with any particular organization; and should they even be?  Could they be just “residents”?

Back to the present conversation, across the street, loud shouts caught our attention.  We watched as Beat Officer Eddie Lee scattered a small group of homeless men from the corner of the garage.  In a resident safety group meeting, the Pitz Garage had been identified as one of the least safe spots to be by night and day, because of the witnessed drug activity and loitering from men leaving the liquor store down the street. 

Samantha Mo, a resident who lives across the garage, had likened her second-story window view to staring out into a maximum-security prison.  Samantha, a recent college graduate, was the youngest of the residents who had attended, and she was also the most outspoken and angry of the mainly older group.

I felt a slight heat rise in my cheeks as I remembered the frustrated voices. An elderly resident speaking in soft Cantonese had asked, “What can you do? All the police say they can only move them along, and we are supposed to call 911.  It is just too difficult when you are old and don’t know English.”

I bit my lower lip to keep from laughing and screaming and from asking what was too simple and naïve a question: Why should this be so difficult, why can’t residents come together and work on safety without worrying about organizational affiliation?  I tacitly understood that that was not going to get me anywhere.  I tried to encapsulate my thoughts into two questions:

“Don’t you think that we could work together in this organizing work?  Is there a way to both build CORA as well as support the work that the resident safety group is doing?”

Stella cleared her throat and replied, “I know it is difficult for you as an organizer.  It is that you are new and do not know the history of Sun Yi Da Ha, the fuller history of Sun Yi Da Ha.  I think” Stella disclosed her words one by one “that maybe it is better that CCDC does not organize.  It would be better for the community as a whole.”

“Oh.  Where does that lead us right now?  Given that CCDC does have an organizer?”

“Well, then maybe we could begin to consider...  It might be the necessary next step, to consider what could be changed on the board level.”

Suddenly, I felt like I was in over my head.  The discussions that CCDC had had internally about board organizing and board “restructuring” came back in a flood.  I was wondering if this was all something I was just playing at.

Lai Ying Yu is a community organizer in Chinatown, Boston.  She graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and this was her first full-time job after graduating.  But for better or worse, she has “not yet discerned the full significance of what 'job' means” in what she does.   She is interested in learning about models for community empowerment urban development processes in immigrant-based neighborhoods, and also likes breaking the mold.

Contents | Walking the Fine Line | The Power of Patience | Fear and Coaxing in Waltham | A Seat at the Table | ¡Sí Se Puede! | The Local/Global Politics of Boston’s Viet-Vote | Laying Down a Speed Bump | Jook Sing