The Asian American Movement Today

Free Chinatown Committee and its Demands

By Michael Liu
1999

Community Development Issues

In 1971 Boston's first Asian American demonstration about domestic issues was organized to preserve Chinatown against land takings by a local university-hospital complex. That thread continues today in the battle of several organizations to preserve Chinatown as a residential, social, and political center for the Chinese American community.

What They Fought For

The Free Chinatown Committee, community youth and college students, who organized that first demonstration, burst into the offices of the executive director of New England Medical Center to demand a halt to institutional expansion. They saw Chinatown as a refuge for Chinese Americans from an oppressive larger society, a neighborhood sheltering a low-income, immigrant population. They fought to preserve Chinatown against development as a form of self-defense for the population. While the Free Chinatown Committee disbanded, a victim of its members' organizational inexperience, many of its members went to join and form other groups. I Wor Kuen, an Asian equivalent of the Black Panther Party, began publicly organizing in the neighborhood. Others formed the Chinese Progressive Association and Asian American Resource Workshop. The neighborhood was changing from new immigration laws beginning in 1965. The population came from more diverse parts of Asia. Pressure from outside development, particularly Tufts-New England Medical Center, continued to afflict Chinatown.

By the late '70s, members from the grassroots organizations, including the Quincy School Community Council, created the Chinatown Housing and Land Development Task Force to fight to build an elderly housing project. They saw the need for an organization dedicated to preserving Chinatown. The Task Force organized and defended tenants evicted from T-NEMC expansion and promoted plans for planning in Chinatown. While a number of the representatives from the other organizations eventually moved on to other issues, the Task Force continued for over ten years through the work of dedicated individuals. They played a key role in inspiring the Chinatown master plan, which the city agreed to in the 1980's.

The master plan imposed zoning restrictions in the neighborhood. This was necessary to limit development pressures, which had expanded from T-NEMC to include the expansion of Boston's retail and financial districts into the neighborhood. These zoning restrictions proved over time to be limited in their effects; developer after developer sought and won exemptions from these restrictions. Despite the death of the Task Force, the same organizations that formed it as well as others converged again to face a new neighborhood crisis in 1993. They came together to lead and form a broad-based coalition against the construction of a T-NEMC garage. That successful battle led to the creation of a new structure, the Campaign to Protect Chinatown, to take up the role of the Task Force. The Campaign to Protect Chinatown, with more formal alliances with some of the grassroots organizations, has organized the residents in the continuing fight to preserve Chinatown.

How they fought

Beginning with the Free Chinatown Committee, these organizations, who saw themselves as part of the Asian American movement, challenged the traditional roles of Chinese Americans. They were confrontational in their approaches and viewed institutions either as antagonists or with suspicion. They spearheaded using public demonstrations, mass publicity, and outside alliances. They also called for forms of popular democracy, captured in the slogans borrowed from the People's Republic of China that "the people and the people alone make history." While the neighborhood's service agencies approached the traditional associations with some caution, the movement organizations criticized the hierarchical dominance of traditional associations.

What they did

It was the Asian American movement organizations that made development an issue in Chinatown and won general recognition of it as a goal. Thus while Boston's Chinatown today still engages in a battle for survival, it is relatively intact because individuals, rooted in the Asian American movement, fought on and off for thirty years. They also changed how the community fought. Many organizations and members of the community have adopted a more aggressive approach and the use of demonstrations is not unusual. The city and the community institutions for the most part nominally recognize the need for popular democracy. True to their original basic principals, activists have expanded the participation of residents and community members. Whereas the Free Chinatown Committee was a small group of youth, the Campaign to Protect Chinatown is part of a broad community effort of residents and organizations. They have changed the community decision making process, weakening the hierarchical structures. While developers today use one community organization as "representative" to legitimize their projects, the process faces widespread criticism.

Their consciousness

Though this work is rooted in the movement, activists have changed their views about the movement. While the Free Chinatown Committee cited their work as part of "Chinatowns throughout the country... under siege" a conscious sense of movement is weaker today. However many of the activists still see themselves as a part of a movement that they are trying to build. New activists, who see themselves as part of a new Asian American movement, are also taking up these neighborhood issues. The changes that today's activists seek in the system are also less clear. They do however see that there are systemic issues; the inequality of Asian Americans, the failure to meet needs of Chinatown's population, and the institutional support for wealthy developers. A renewed movement will decide whether or not to integrate this into a vision for "revolution."