#31: Defending the Free Press

The Chatham Green cooperative apartment building, completed in 1960. From Chathamgreen.com.

Completed in 1960, the rippling, modernist Chatham Green cooperative apartment building (165-215 Park Row) dominates the intersection of Park Row and Worth and St. James Streets to the southeast of the old core of Chinatown. Between 1928 and the mid-1950s, however, the buildings on this stretch of Park Row contained a mix of businesses, including a number of printing and newspaper offices similar to those found up the street near City Hall Park. Located next to the Venice Theater, the building at 211 Park Row housed a print shop and the office of the Shangbao (紐約商報)–the Chinese Journal of Commerce, as it was known in English–until 1944, and then the China Post (大華旬刊, literally the Greater China Semi-Monthly) after the war.

The editor of both was the crusading Y.K. Chu (朱耀渠), whose Chinese pen name was Zhu Xia (朱夏). Born in Guangdong Province, Chu attended the Baptist-run Pui Ching Academy in Guangzhou, where he learned English and developed an interest in journalism. Chu came to America in 1927 to attend Haverford College as a journalism major but dropped out during his sophomore year, likely for financial reasons. Eventually he found his way to New York, where he took over the editorship of the politically independent Shangbao from founding editor Thomas P. Chan, who appears to have quit the job after feuding with the editor of a rival paper and receiving a severe beating.

The only existing image of the Shangbao, from 紐約華僑社會 (New York: Chinese Community Research Bureau, 1950)

Y.K. Chu became well-known beyond Chinatown when he took on the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), which collected dues from and acted as a quasi-government for all the city’s Chinese. After the New York Board of Aldermen proposed new hand laundry regulations aimed at driving the Chinese out of business, Chu demanded that the CCBA earn its dues by fighting the ordinance. But the CCBA did nothing, and an infuriated Chu then helped organize the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance of New York, which fought successfully to overturn the regulations.

In the process, Chu’s paper accused the CCBA of “exploiting” (剥削) the laundrymen, and the CCBA sued Chu for libel. The Tammany Hall political machine, which had close connections to the CCBA, the local branch of the Guomindang (Chinese Nationalist Party), and one of the rival papers, controlled the courts and made sure that the CCBA’s chosen translator explained to the jury that Chu had accused the CCBA of “robbing” or “cheating” the laundrymen. Other irregularities characterized the trial, including the court’s decision to exclude all evidence that Chu offered in his defense. Unsurprisingly, the jury found Chu guilty, and the judge slapped on injunction on Chu that forbade him from criticizing the CCBA in his paper for three years.

A believer in the First Amendment, Chu fought back. First, with the help of publisher Virginia Howell Mussey, he released Chinatown Inside Out, a sympathetic 1936 book about Chinese American life that exposed the CCBA’s problems and celebrated the community’s regular people. To avoid violating the court injunction, Chu wrote the book under the pseudonym Liang Gor Yuen, a Cantonese pronunciation of “liangge ren” (兩個人), meaning “two people”–Chu and his publisher. Chu also fought back through the courts, convincing the New York Court of Appeals to overturn his conviction in early 1937. People v. Yui Kui Chu (273 N.Y. 191) remained an important precedent for decades in cases involving libel, especially in the foreign language press.

An original copy of History of the Chinese People in America

Because of Chu’s relationship to the Laundry Alliance, which grew increasingly leftist after its founding and later published the China Daily News with communist support, observers and scholars have often assumed that Chu himself was a “radical.” Ironically, historians in the People’s Republic of China claim that Chu was a right-wing Guomindang activist while at Pui Ching. Whatever his activities in China, by the early 1930s Chu was a liberal whose rejection of both the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese Nationalist Party shaped his life after the libel case. During World War II, he traveled to the Chinese Nationalist capital of Chongqing to serve on a multiparty government committee on business. He closed the Shangbao in 1944 because of the wartime labor crisis, but after the conflict he returned to publish a liberal, anti-communist semimonthly, the China Post, in the 1950s and 1960s. In the very late 1950s, he also wrote daily editorials for the short-lived New York edition of the Chinese World (世界日報), the organ of the bitterly anti-Nationalist and anti-Communist Chinese Democratic Constitutionalist Party. In his early 70s, he published a history of the Chinese in America, Meiguo Huaqiao Gai Shi (美國華僑概史/History of the Chinese People in America). He appears to have died just a few years after its publication.

Sources for this post include Chathamgreen.com, Meiguo Huaqiao Gai Shi, Chinatown Inside Out, the Chinese Weekly Review, the China Post, and Ancestry.com.

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