For Asian Americans for Equality, it all began in the streets of Chinatown in 1974. Moved to action by a developer who refused to hire Asian workers for the massive Confucius Plaza construction project, local activists raised their voices, staged months of protests and finally prevailed. In so doing, they created a powerful grassroots movement that has endured for four decades.

In the 1960s and early 1970s, tumultuous national and world events were having a profound effect on Manhattan’s Chinatown. After strict immigration quotas were lifted in 1965, a large number of Chinese immigrants poured into the historic neighborhood, remaking the traditional ethnic enclave. Already difficult living and working conditions — including overcrowding and exploitation by employers — became worse in a community that had always been neglected by City Hall. At the same time, the Asian civil rights movement was gaining momentum, partially inspired by the black civil rights campaigns of the ’60s. Many young, idealistic New Yorkers of Chinese descent, some of them radical leftists, began focusing on Chinatown’s many troubling issues and decided the time had come to demand equal rights and equal access to city services.

Throughout Chinatown, the injustices at Confucius Plaza were causing great outrage. The DeMatteis Corp., in charge of building the government-funded project, rejected pleas from the youthful activists, then known as Asian Americans for Equal Employment, to honor the city’s fair- hiring policies. Protests began May 16 and continued to pick up momentum through the fall. Picketers carried signs with slogans such as, “The Asians built the railroad; Why not Confucius Plaza?” Dozens were arrested.

Confucius Plaza, 1974. Photo by Corky Lee.

A June 1 New York Times report noted, “The meticulously organized protest, similar to those that have been taking place at sites in black and Latino areas for 11 years in the city, is something new to Chinatown. While residents have often complained of discrimination and short-changing on city services, public protest has been rare.”

Reflecting on the dramatic events of 40 years ago, AAFE Executive Director Chris Kui says protest among New York Asians wasn’t just rare, it was unheard of at that time. “I remember the Asian community was afraid to speak up about issues they faced… lack of access to equal employment or services.”

DeMatteis Corp. eventually relented, agreeing to hire 27 minority workers, Asians among them. It was a major victory for the community and immediately established Asian Americans for Equal Employment as an organization that people could rely on when they had nowhere else to turn. The volunteers established an office in Chinatown, which quickly became a resource center for tenants facing harassment, those encountering immigration issues and workers being mistreated. There were more protests, too, against illegal sweatshops and deplorable conditions in local garment factories.

Large protest in Chinatown after the Peter Yew beating in 1975. Photo by Corky Lee.

On April 26, 1975, another major controversy erupted in Chinatown, enraging the community and once again bringing the issue of civil rights for Asians to the forefront. After a minor traffic accident involving two motorists, one white and one Chinese, a large crowd gathered in front of the Fifth Precinct.

As police dispersed the crowd, they confronted a young architectural engineer, Peter Yew, and dragged him inside the precinct, where he was stripped and badly beaten. The incident touched a nerve, bringing long-simmering tensions between the Chinese community and police officers to the surface. Asian Americans for Equal Employment, along with many other local organizations, played a key role in mobilizing the neighborhood.

A rally against police brutality at City Hall brought out 20,000 protesters and forced the closure of most Chinatown businesses. After weeks of public pressure, all charges were dropped against Peter Yew on July 2 and an important message had been delivered to city leaders: the Asian community would no longer be silent.

Bill Chong, a former AAFE board president, notes that the protests in the ’70s “created a whole new image of Asians.”

“When people saw Asian protesters sitting in front of bulldozers at Confucius Plaza, or bringing 20,000 people to City Hall to protest police brutality,” he says, it changed the perception that “we were too timid to protest.”

Chris Kui also remembers it as a turning point: “There was a lot of discussion within the community. Some people said ‘Let’s not make trouble… it could hurt our future.’ Others even said ‘This isn’t really our country.’ But a whole new generation had a different view and said ‘This is our country. We have rights. Let’s fight for those rights.’”

In 1977, three years after the organization was founded, its name was changed to Asian Americans for Equality to reflect an expanding mission. Leaders reached out to other ethnic groups and joined coalitions involved in important issues both close to home and abroad. AAFE was part of a broad campaign to fight city budget cuts, it helped win the first union contract for workers at a Chinatown restaurant and secured compensation for customers of a local bank after their safe deposit boxes were burglarized. The organization also joined nationwide civil rights actions. Chief among them was the protest movement that sprung from the brutal murder of Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old engineering student in Michigan who was beaten and killed in June of 1982 by two men who blamed Asians for the loss of auto jobs to Japan. The tragedy was a wakeup call for Asian Americans that galvanized communities and inspired groups such as AAFE to take the fight for justice and equality to a new level.

Meanwhile, the situation in New York City remained troublesome. Residents were flocking to AAFE’s community clinics with alarming stories about the state of the neighborhood’s housing stock. Large numbers of people were living in substandard spaces that had been illegally divided. Landlords brazenly ignored building codes and shut off hot water and heat. As surrounding downtown neighborhoods became more desirable, real estate prices soared and property owners sought to evict low income tenants. In response, AAFE launched a campaign called “Fight Gentrification & Save Chinatown,” which created tenant associations in many buildings and trained tenant leaders.

But as it turned out, an even bigger threat to affordable housing was looming on the horizon. The administration of Mayor Ed Koch quietly pushed through a “Special Manhattan Bridge District,” which encouraged the construction of high-rise luxury condominiums in place of low-income tenements. AAFE and other community organizations quickly mobilized to oppose the scheme. in 1983, AAFE filed a class-action lawsuit against the city and won an initial legal victory. While the ruling was partially overturned, the court case had the desired effect, largely discouraging developers from exploiting the neighborhood.

The innovative legal strategy saved Chinatown from real estate speculators, but it also had a wider impact. Chris Kui explains: “No one in an urban setting at that time was talking about inclusionary zoning,” a mechanism for creating some affordable units in privately built projects and is today a pillar of New York’s housing strategy. “We used it to fight the Special Manhattan District,” he says. It got statewide attention. Courts ruled that the city had an obligation to zone for the benefit of everyone, not just property owners.”

In these years, there was a growing realization that the immense challenges facing Chinatown could not be effectively addressed by an all-volunteer organization. In 1983, Doris Koo became AAFE’s first executive director and a plan was put in motion to become a non-profit organization and hire a full-time professional staff.

In the aftermath of AAFE vs. Koch, it became clear that the fight for affordable housing would define Asian Americans for Equality in the years ahead. A tragic 1985 fire on Eldridge Street accelerated the organization’s push into housing development (more about that in the next chapter). But throughout the years, AAFE never lost sight of its roots in social justice and community advocacy.

Looking back on this period, Doris Koo observes that AAFE was changing along with the country, adapting to the post-protest era in America. It was “a time to codify the values” that had been established in the early years and to “put those precious, fragile beliefs” into “a foundation for practical work.” This meant, among other things, not just effecting change from the outside but actually having a “seat at the table” and helping to shape the city’s future.

Despite the large spike in Chinatown’s Chinese population, relatively few citizens participated in the political process. There was, for example, not a single Asian representative on the New York City Council. So AAFE placed a great emphasis on increasing civic activism among Asian Americans — registering voters, educating community members about important issues and engaging with elected officials, community boards and other organizations.

As the decade wound down and the 1990 U.S. Census approached, AAFE recognized it as a big opportunity to change the political dynamic. The organization formulated a redistricting proposal, one that would give an Asian American candidate a fighting chance of winning a seat on the council, representing Chinatown and other Lower Manhattan neighborhoods.

In 1991, Koo told the New York Times, “We are the last group to get energized and politicized. The time has come.”

After a contentious debate, the proposal was approved by the Redistricting Commission, and Margaret Chin, an AAFE founder and former board president, entered the Democratic primary in the newly formed Council District 1. While she did not prevail in that election, Chin persevered through the years and was finally victorious in 2010, becoming the first Chinese American to represent Manhattan’s Chinatown and the first Asian woman to serve on the City Council.

“We overcame so many obstacles, but the final result is victory,” Chin said during her victory celebration in Chinatown, attended by a broad cross section of well wishers. “For it to finally happen, it is very significant,” Chin asserted, adding that the older Chinese population, in particular, was finally being heard after being marginalized due to language and cultural barriers.

There were other breakthroughs for Asians in that election. John Liu, having already served on the City Council since 2001, was poised to become the first Asian to win citywide office in New York as city comptroller. In Flushing, Queens, Peter Koo was on his way to winning a council seat. More victories followed. In 2012, Grace Meng became the first Asian American congressional representative from New York, and Ron Kim was elected to the State Legislature, becoming the first Korean American in that body.

Chris Kui calls AAFE’s campaign to increase Asian representation a keystone accomplishment, The founders, he says, “knew that unless we had our own representatives we would never be able to pursue the dream of equality and justice for the community.” But, he adds, there’s still much work to be done. Asians now make up 13 percent of the city’s population, yet elected representation at all levels of government continues to lag. “So (today) that’s why we expend a lot of resources educating and registering voters. That work is continuing.”

In partnership with elected officials, government agencies and other non-profit organizations, AAFE has advocated on a wide range of issues, including immigrant rights, equity in public funding and quality recreational spaces in local communities. One high priority has been the problem of “demolition by neglect,” in which unscrupulous owners of rent-regulated buildings seek to drive low-income tenants from their homes. AAFE authored a 2011 research report on the subject, highlighting some of the worst offenders and laying out policy solutions.

In 2009, AAFE was on the scene of a fire in Manhattan’s Chinatown, at 22 James St., which left three people dead and many others injured. After dealing with the immediate crisis, AAFE worked to prevent the demolition of the tenement by organizing the tenants and keeping pressure on the owner to make repairs.

A year later, Asian Americans for Equality were there to welcome the residents home. In 2010, an even larger fire swept through almost a full block of Grand Street, displacing hundreds of residents. AAFE took the landlord of one of those buildings to court, after the owner insisted demolition was the only option. A judge ruled in favor of the tenants, and three years later they, too, moved back to their affordable apartments. Speaker Silver, who partnered with AAFE and city housing officials on the effort, called it “a great victory for those of us who have fought for the preservation of affordable housing in Chinatown and throughout our city.”

A devastating fire swept across Grand Street in 2010. Photo by Bill Tompkins.

A devastating fire swept across Grand Street in 2010. Photo by Bill Tompkins.

Through the decades, AAFE has stayed focused on ensuring equality for all. Even today, as the organization works hand-in-hand with government agencies and manages a large housing portfolio, it remains mindful of its roots. That’s not to say AAFE’s strategies have stayed the same. They have, indeed, changed to reflect the times.

As the 1990’s drew to a close, the organization increased its outreach to a wide array of Asian groups, forming coalitions to meet the needs of rapidly growing constituencies. In the year 2000, AAFE created Chhaya Community Development Corporation to advocate for the housing needs of New York’s South Asian community. A year earlier, AAFE formed the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development. It was the first group dedicated to addressing the housing, community and economic development needs of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.

Through these alliances, AAFE built on the founders’ determination to create a truly pan-Asian organization, while amplifying the dreams and aspirations of an increasingly diverse community.

Chris Kui concludes, “Today I think we are able to work with a broader strata of people throughout the city, building coalitions, talking to legislators and then going out and making policy changes. So it’s not just organizing direct action, but it’s really using protest as part of the strategy tool kit, but at the same time putting forth potential positive solutions.”