March 25, 2012

"The Chinese attitude was more straightforward. Money equals power, that's it."

Liu breaks for lunch in Flushing (by Pari Dukovic) via NY Mag
Unlucky 800 by Mark Jacobson
New York Magazine

I remember when John Liu was elected to the NYC council! Well, I remember when he came to my elementary school in 2001 and spoke to an assembly of sixth graders about god knows what and someone (the principal? Or assistant principal?) presented him with a T-shirt. He had a successful career and eventually became NYC comptroller, which he still is today. But recent allegations challenging his use of campaign money have thrown him into the spotlight—two people from his campaign were arrested—and threatened his career and prospects of becoming NYC's mayor in 2013. Jacobson explores how Liu's Asian background and family have shaped Liu, his career, and the communities he represents.  Also, in turn, how those communities view him. Jacobson presented some interesting observations and conclusions.

"That was John Liu's story back in January, when there was every reason to hope that he was telling the truth, or close enough to it. This was because John Liu's story is that same old New York story we never tire of hearing about ourselves, preferably with swelling Aaron Copland music and the Statue of Liberty in the background. Liu's family were "pioneers," part of the initial wave of Taiwanese to come to Queens following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which swept away the last vestiges of the neo-genocidal Chinese exclusion acts that once effectively prohibited Chinese women from entering the country. The Lius settled in Flushing, in part, because Manhattan's Chinatown was viewed as a packed tenement pile, devoid of grasslands and terrorized by youth gangs. Chinatown was also controlled politically and economically by a Cantonese-speaking Old Guard with strong ties to Chiang Kai-shek's mostly despised Kuomintang. In comparison, Flushing, which had maybe a couple of chop-suey restaurants, was wide open, a veritable golden mountain of opportunity, and low rents, with access to the 7 train. With people like me moving out, there was plenty of room to build another, better life."

"Nowadays, no serious pol can afford not to show his face on Chinese New Year's."

"People say that if you want to figure out who John Liu really is, you have to go back to the day his father Americanized the family's first names. "Dad was a Kennedy fan. So when we came here, he changed his name to Joseph. He had three boys, so I became John and my two brothers Robert and Edward," Liu said, adding that when his own son was born, he was named Joey, which "broke the tradition."
"The Taiwanese tradition?" I inquired dimly.
"No," Liu replied. "The Kennedy tradition ... you're supposed to name the first boy after the father, which would have made Joey named John Jr., but we decided not to follow that and name him after my dad.""

"Nonetheless, this was how a number of people, Asian and otherwise, felt about Liu's current predicament: It was a cultural thing. Much of this has to do with money, or at least the perception of the Chinese attitude toward money. In the late nineties, after my father died, my mother decided to sell our Flushing house. My parents had purchased the place for $12,000 with the help of a G.I. loan in the early fifties. But this was a whole new world, the real-estate lady told my mother. The place was worth at least $300,000, maybe more if the buyer turned out to be a stooped-over Chinese guy who got out of his dented Toyota holding a suitcase stuffed with cash.
"Sounds typical," said Jeff Yang, who writes the "Tao Jones" column for The Wall Street Journal and once edited a book called Secret Identities: The Asian-American Superhero Anthology. "In the West, we tend to think about money in the abstract—what does my money and what I do with it say about me? The Chinese attitude was more straightfoward. Money equals power, that's it," Yang said. For the immigrant, cash mattered because "they can't speak the language, they can't vote. Yet they need some control, some power over their surroundings. That power is cash, and the transfer of it is simple, direct. If a John Liu comes along, he's the comptroller, a successful and powerful man with an even better future. So people want to connect with him in the best way they can. They want to give him their money. It doesn't matter how rich they are, if they're broke, or what some convoluted law they never heard of says: It is an honor to give money to John Liu."

There's more but the article is worth reading for it. Lastly—because I think it's become evident I'm a sucker for great endings—I loved the end. Jacobson is with Liu at the Chinese New Year's parade this year when he noticed him talking to the "Money God" (sort of Chinese equivalent of Santa Claus; the figure hands out red envelopes with money and candy inside to children). When Jacobson later asked the man what he said to John Liu, the reply, from one money figure to the other, was: "I told him good luck, because he is going to need it."

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