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BY KATJA HEINEMANN | The week leading up to Memorial Day weekend saw a series of politically symbolic memorials and vigils in the neighborhood, beginning with the unveiling of Private Danny Chen Way, which had been a couple of years in the making, followed by an impromptu vigil for a local grandfather, Wen Hui Ruan, who had been viciously attacked and beaten on an East Village street. And finally, two days of memorials for Sister Ping honored the life of a woman who was hailed as saintly community benefactor by her Fujianese compatriots, while wanted, and eventually sentenced, as a ruthless “snakehead” and profiteer by the authorities.
Memorial Day would have been Danny Chen’s 22nd birthday. The young Army private who died at 19 was found dead on his Army watch post in Afghanistan after enduring relentless, racist hazing by his fellow soldiers and superiors. Family, friends, neighbors and activists gathered on the corner of Elizabeth and Canal Sts. to observe the co-naming of the street in honor of the son of Toishanese immigrants, a seamstress and a restaurant worker, who used to take their only child to his favorite dim sum place just down the block.
Community activists have fought for the past three years to shed light on Chen’s death, bring his superiors to justice, and change a culture of hazing in the country’s military institutions.
Just two days later, an East Village community gathering commemorated Wen Hui Ruan, a 68-year-old retired garment worker who had immigrated to New York from Toishan, China two decades ago. Ruan had been returning home after dropping off his grandchildren when he was attacked by a younger man on Sixth St. near Avenue D; the shocking brutality of the beating was caught on security camera and a 20-year-old man from the East Village has been charged with murder, robbery and assault.
The victim’s family is pursuing hate crime charges. The video footage does not show the attacker taking any valuables from his victim, and it is easy to speculate that Ruan was picked out as an easy mark not just because of his age, but also because of his ethnicity. Chinatown’s insularity can convey a feeling of safety, especially to older immigrants who do not speak English, and this violent crime feeds into perceptions of a community surrounded by a threatening, alien culture.
Neighborhood activists and local public officials organized a public vigil to come together across this divide, to condemn the attack, and to put it into the perspective of youth violence that has claimed too many victims from people of all backgrounds, featuring as one speaker the mother of a young Latino man who was killed just blocks away the year before.
Neighbors have set up a fund to help Ruan’s family with the costs of the funeral.
The memorial services and funeral of Chui Ping Cheng were attended by hundreds of overseas Fujianese, with hometown and regional associations as well as individual well wishers sending flowers and paying their respects. Known in the community as Sister Ping, the 65-year-old businesswoman had grown successful during the height of the immigration boom from the southern Chinese province to New York City in the 1980s.
Cheng’s underground banking and human smuggling enterprise put her on the F.B.I.’s wanted list as the “mother of all snakeheads” but in the eyes of many of her fellow Fujianese she was a “living Buddha” — a mixture of Robin Hood and Mother Theresa rolled into one – who made the American Dream come true for her compatriots trying to flee their impoverished lives in ‘80s China. Sister Ping’s eventual downfall was as an investor in the doomed Golden Venture smuggling ship; she was sentenced to 35 years in 2006 but died of cancer in a Texas prison April 26.
The relationship of freelance opportunists — similar to that of the organized crime syndicates affiliated with the traditional benevolent associations (tongs) that ruled Chinatown during the later part of the last century — and the local community is a complicated one. They provide services and opportunities otherwise unavailable to new arrivals who are not proficient in English and may not have proper documentation. They both nurture and prey on the community. Or, as someone intimately familiar with the Golden Venture saga put it, in the fish bowl of this insular community, people suffer from a collective type of Stockholm Syndrome.