Oct. 19, 2016 – Gothamist
In October 1966—50 years ago—Chinese leader Mao Zedong appeared on Tiananmen Square in Beijing to address an audience of 1.5 million Red Guards, the paramilitary youth he had called upon to tear down the Communist Party hierarchy. “Long live the Red Guards!” he shouted, to roars of approval. “Long live the great Cultural Revolution!”
That spring, Mao first called for a “Cultural Revolution,” urging the working class to “struggle against and crush those persons in authority who are taking the capitalist road” and “criticize and repudiate…the ideology of the bourgeoisie and all other exploiting classes.”
Tens of millions of Red Guards took up his call. By the revolution’s end in 1976, millions of people—especially intellectuals and those with ties to the previous, Nationalist government or the West—had been denounced, tortured, or murdered. Many fled to Hong Kong, and from there to the United States and elsewhere. To this day, the period remains one of the most painful traumas in China’s collective memory.
Outside China, the full extent of what happened during the Cultural Revolution remained largely unknown until the late 1970s. What came through were mostly propaganda messages about class struggle, economic empowerment and educational access for the poor—messages that resonated with radical leftists in the United States who were fighting for civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War.
“A lot of us radicals at that time didn’t know exactly what was going on. But [ideas like] reforming education were quite relevant to us,” said Peter Kwong, a historian at Hunter College who during the late ’60s was at Columbia University writing his master’s thesis about the Red Guards. “The Chinese, through propaganda, were able to have a significant impact on the way young people were thinking.”
People of color were particularly inspired by Mao’s call to “serve the people,” seeing in it a message that was relevant to poor, marginalized communities. The Black Panther Party formed just five months after the Cultural Revolution began, and it soon became commonplace to see black radicals selling copies of Mao’s “Little Red Book” on street corners. The Puerto Rican nationalist Young Lords were also inspired by Maoism.
Less attention has been given to the Asian-American leftist groups that formed, including theRed Guard Party and Kalayaan in San Francisco, and East Wind Collective in Los Angeles. Here in New York, in 1969, a dozen or so young Asian-Americans formed I Wor Kuen [IWK], Cantonese for “Righteous and Harmonious Fists.” The name came from a group that tried to expel Westerners from China during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900.
Virgo Lee of IWK with a member of the Young Lords. (Corky Lee)
“We believed U.S. imperialism was a criminal system that conducted a genocidal war in Vietnam and maintained an oppressive racial caste system at home. We believed it was irredeemable and the ‘system’ had to be overthrown,” said former IWK leader Gordon H. Chang, who is now a history professor at Stanford University.
That year, IWK members pooled their money and rented a cheap corner storefront at 24 Market Street in Chinatown, under the Manhattan Bridge, where they resolved to live collectively and “serve the people.” Some dropped out of college. Four of the members held jobs, enabling the other eight to be full-time activists. Inspired by the Panthers, they adopted a uniform of berets and sunglasses.
IWK protested poor housing conditions in Chinatown, organized child-care programs and bilingual education and conducted door-to-door testing for tuberculosis, which was endemic in the overcrowded neighborhood. They also organized Chinatowners to join other Lower East Side residents in a fight for a new hospital nearby, then demanded the hospital hire more Chinese speakers.
The group led a successful protest against a Bell Telephone Company plan to tear down a block of housing for a switching station. They also protested the war in Vietnam, and taught young people ways to avoid the draft. Later, IWK would help defend small grocery owners who had been shut down by the Health Department for selling roast ducks and other traditional Chinese food items, eventually leading the agency to change its ordinances.
Former IWK member Karen Low was just 14 when she joined the group. Her mother worked at a garment factory in Chinatown; after school, Low and her siblings helped her do piecework. Poor people in the community, Low recalled, faced “miseducation and ignorance and racism.” Moreover, they were often unaware of the many social services they qualified for. “So when IWK came along, it was an opportunity to say, ‘Yes, it’s about time somebody is speaking for us, somebody’s trying to do something for us,'” she said.
Sometimes, the group joined with the Panthers, the Young Lords and other radical groups to protest larger issues, or attend political conventions. The Panthers’ Ten Point Program inspired IWK to draw up a Twelve Point Program that called for “an end to racism,” better housing and health care, and “community control of our institutions and land.” The group even published a bilingual community newspaper called “Getting Together.”
“Chinatown is a ghetto to Chinese people like ghettoes are to Black, Spanish and other non-white peoples,” IWK wrote in the inaugural issue. “We Asians (Chinese) in Chinatown are living in a colony controlled by foreigners (the rich, outside whites). In fact, Chinatown is not only a ghetto, but a colony of sorts. What we have to do is begin to gain power to run our own community.” The article ended with a call to “Yellow Power.”
The paper helped publicize the group’s work outside of Chinatown, and in 1971 IWK merged with San Francisco’s Red Guards to form a national IWK.
Alongside IWK, numerous fellow travelers in Chinatown took up Mao’s call. One was Corky Lee, a photographer who in those days had portraits of Mao and Ho Chi Minh on his wall. Inspired by the Young Lords’ “liberation” of an X-ray truck to offer free tuberculosis testing in Spanish Harlem, Lee proposed running a free health fair in Chinatown.
He worked with IWK members, social workers and several community groups to organize the fair, which was held in August 1971. For 10 days, a fleet of doctors, nurses and technicians set up shop along Mott Street, and locals could come by to get tested for TB, lead poisoning, diabetes, venereal diseases and other conditions, with assistance from volunteer translators. The event was so popular—2,500 people came—that the organizers decided to rent a garage on Baxter Street and turn it into a full-time clinic staffed by volunteers. They called it the Chinatown Health Clinic.
Despite their good works, these young leftists were viewed with suspicion by much of the community. In those days, Chinatown was a stronghold of sympathizers for the anti-communist Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang [KMT], which ruled China until the communist takeover in 1949. The KMT, which governed the island nation of Taiwan, also known as the Republic of China, viewed New York as an important base for lobbying the international community and influencing media coverage of China. It poured resources into local institutions like the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, which for decades served as the unofficial government of Chinatown. Only the Nationalist flag flew on Mott Street. The neighborhood celebrated the founding date of the Republic of China, October 10, also known as “Double Ten Day.” Public support for communist China was not tolerated.
“I was called a Red Guard,” said Lee. “Because we were giving out medical care for free. Some of the more conservative people in Chinatown felt this was the Cultural Revolution coming to Chinatown.”
Gordon Chang recalled that political differences sometimes became violent. “We had fistfights; the storefront was damaged. I was stabbed by gang youth who worked with the ‘reactionaries,'” he said.
Like many radical groups of that era, IWK was also dogged by the police. “The Fifth Precinct was always on top of us, the Seventh Precinct was always on top of us, we were trailed and followed by the FBI,” said Low. “I mean things like that happened. In those times it was pretty much a given.” The organization also clashed with other leftists, including former members who formed splinter groups.
Caught in the middle of all these politics were ordinary people in Chinatown who were growing weary of the decades-long diplomatic freeze between the U.S. and the People’s Republic of China and longed to reconnect with friends and family in the mainland.
IWK tapped into these sentiments through public screenings of propaganda films, which showcased development projects like dam construction, as well as revolutionary operas like “The White-Haired Girl” and “The Red Detachment of Women.” Low recalled people angrily pouring down buckets of water and throwing things from neighboring rooftops. And yet, thousands of people attended these screenings.
“A lot of them were older people, so they hadn’t seen their homeland in 20 or 30 years. The only information they were getting was what organizations like IWK distributed,” said Charlotte Brooks, a historian at Baruch College and author of Between Mao and McCarthy: Chinese American Politics in the Cold War Years. “They were hungry for those details.”
As the ’70s wound on, America’s stance towards the People’s Republic of China began to shift. In October 1971, the United Nations voted to expel Taiwan and admit the PRC as the acknowledged representative of China. IWK cheered the news and organized a demonstration outside the UN to welcome the arrival of PRC representatives, while conservative Chinatown leaders hung banners on Mott and Pell Streets that read, “Mao’s regime does not represent the Chinese people” and “We demand bloodthirsty Mao be punished.”
In the Chinese-American community, too, openness toward the People’s Republic of China became mainstream. When the U.S. recognized the PRC in 1978, Nationalist sympathizers were bitterly disappointed, but in the broader community, there was largely a sense of relief.
The IWK logo invokes the clenched fist of “Yellow Power,” as well as the “Harmonious Fist” in the group’s name.
That same year, IWK merged with several other radical groups to become the League of Revolutionary Struggle. But by that point, the revolutionary spirit of the ’60s and ’70s was fading. The League formally dissolved in 1990.
With time, former radicals became business owners or professionals. They settled down and had families.
Today, some remain active in progressive politics, but “in different form,” as Low puts it. She’s spent her career as an educator and organizer. Corky Lee worked on a successful campaign to get formal recognition from the U.S. Department of Labor for the key role played by Chinese laborers in building America’s railroads.
In Chinatown, the legacy of IWK is still visible. On Canal, Walker and Centre Streets, there stand branches of the Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, a nonprofit that caters to medically underserved New Yorkers, particularly Asian-Americans. There are two more locations in Flushing. The Center grew out of the Chinatown Health Clinic, which in turn grew out of the 1971 health fair organized by IWK, Corky Lee, and many other idealistic young Asian-Americans. Each year, nearly 50,000 patients visit the Charles B. Wang facilities. The mission of those young radicals—to serve the people—lives on.
Eveline Chao is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. She is the author of NIUBI!: The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School, a guide to Chinese slang. Chao is currently working on an oral history project about Manhattan Chinatown.