Seeing Red

It’s the 50th anniversary of the communist takeover of China, and some want to celebrate. Some do not.

By Wen Huang

Few hate crimes are so cruelly ironic. In 1945 Alexander Hugh’s uncle drowned after three white men invaded his laundry in Chicago’s Chinatown and threw him into a giant washing machine. According to Hugh, police did nothing when they arrived on the scene and the killers were never prosecuted. “We have a very painful history as immigrants in this country,” says Hugh, a 60-year-old physician on the southwest side. “There was no guarantee for the life of Chinese immigrants like my uncle. Chinese immigrants were perceived as ‘yellow peril.’ This was all because China was poor and weak.”

Hugh is proud to see China emerge as a strong, independent, and prosperous nation after years of Japanese and European control: in July 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to the People’s Republic of China after 100 years of British colonial rule, Hugh helped organize a parade along Michigan Avenue, which he says attracted 10,000 participants. “It was a great success. For the first time we walked proudly on the main thoroughfare of Chicago. We were glad that China had recovered from the humiliation of being colonized by a Western power.”

But Hugh’s latest effort has divided a community still haunted by the communist defeat of the nationalist government in 1949, the violent excesses of Mao’s revolution, and the crackdown at Tiananmen Square. October 1 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the PRC, and Hugh heads a committee that’s organized a parade and celebration in Chinatown this Sunday. People who grew up under the Nationalist Party in China stage a parade in Chinatown every year to celebrate the national day of the Republic of China, which retreated to Taiwan in 1949, but according to Hugh this will be the first time Chicago’s Chinese Americans have celebrated the birth of the People’s Republic. “The current government in Beijing represents China, not the one in Taipei,” he points out. “This is recognized by the whole world.”

Not everyone in Chinatown shares his sentiments. “We have gone through so much pain and suffering and have finally found a home in Chinatown,” says Kenneth Hsiang, a 65-year-old retiree whose family was persecuted during Mao’s large-scale land reforms in the 50s. “The red flag of communist China still sends chills down my spine….That parade intends to fly the communist flag [in] the face of individuals who suffered under that oppressive regime. It will open wounds that have taken 50 years to heal.” The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of Chicago, also known as the Chinese Community Center, shares Hsiang’s concern: it petitioned Mayor Daley and other officials to deny the parade permit for the Chinatown neighborhood, suggesting that Hugh’s organization stage the celebration in the Loop.

Xing, who prefers not to give his real name, was one of thousands of students who participated in the Chinese prodemocracy movement in 1989 and fled to the U.S. after the government crackdown. He sees the controversy surrounding the parade as a microcosm of the tensions between the Nationalist Party (or Kuo-min tang) and the Chinese communists. “It is the same as the conflicts among the pro-Castro and anti-Castro factions within the Cuban-American community,” he points out. “The parade is a partisan event. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of communist China is to celebrate the victory of the Communist Party. For KMT loyalists, and for those who have lost everything during the communist revolution, they feel humiliated.”

Certainly Hsiang bears out this theory. Born to a landowning family in Hunan, he was 15 when Mao came to power. “They put my whole family on public trial and forced our tenants to make false statements that my family oppressed them,” he recalls. His parents were beaten with sticks, and his mother’s arms were broken. His grandmother was stripped and wrapped in a quilt that had been soaked in ice water; she died shortly thereafter. His parents were forced into hard labor, and Hsiang’s mother sent him to a small border town from which he was smuggled into Hong Kong. He emigrated to the U.S. but was unable to contact his family. After the U.S. recognized the PRC n 1972, Hsiang learned that both of his parents had died not long after his escape.

Alexander Hugh may find himself opposing Hsiang in the conflict over the parade, but their stories are similar. Hugh grew up in Guangdong, which borders Hunan to the south. He moved to Hong Kong in 1950, a year after the PRC was established, and after high school joined the rest of his family in Chicago; his father, his grandfather, and his ill-fated uncle had emigrated in the 1920s, and the family owned several laundries near Cermak and Wentworth, the endpoint of Sunday’s parade. “I consider myself as an American, but like Irish or German immigrants, I still love my mother country,” he explains. “I am thrilled to see a prosperous China on the horizon. A strong China improves the status of Chinese immigrants here….Since it opened its door to the outside world, China is on the right track. We are talking about a nation which consists of one-fifth of the world’s population. The Chinese people have finally become independent, strong, and somewhat well-off. Our celebration reflects our feelings.”

Hsiang denies that opposing the parade betrays some sort of ethnic shame. “Even though I am an American citizen, I still consider myself a Chinese,” he insists. “I hope China becomes powerful, with people getting rich. But right now I can’t identify myself with the current government, which violates human rights. I identify myself with the future of China, which is democratic. When that happens, we will welcome the parade to Chinatown.” He also explains that he has no problem with the parade as long as it’s held somewhere else. “If the parade organizers want to use the celebration to sell the accomplishment of communist China to mainstream America and help them understand the country, they should go march in Chicago downtown. There is no need for them to parade here. We understand the communists too well.”

For the CCBA, many of whose members escaped after the communist takeover in 1949, the parade is no mere ceremony but a highly political act. In its letter to the mayor’s office, it portrayed the parade organizers as “a group of pro-Beijing Chinese” who last May carried out “a Beijing government-organized demonstration against the U.S. government for its bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade.” The parade in Chinatown “amounts to ‘imposing’ allegiance on residents who obviously disagree with the Beijing regime.” If the parade takes place as scheduled, “some unwanted disturbances such as counterdemonstrations or even some violent confrontations by the prodemocracy or the anti-Beijing group might unavoidably occur.”

Despite the CCBA’s protest, the mayor’s office granted the parade permit. Some opponents think Daley wants to avoid offending the PRC because he plans to visit mainland China sometime this year. John Camper, a press officer for the mayor, denies this: “There’s no reason for the city to deny the application by parade organizers, because they represent various legitimate organizations in the city. We can’t deny people the right to hold a parade. This is a democratic country.”

“We have the support of more than 30 Chinese-American organizations,” says C.M. Chan, whose Chinese American Association of Greater Chicago favors the parade. Every October 10, he points out, flags for the nationalist Republic of China fly all over Chinatown. “We had no objection to what flags they raised or slogans they shouted. This is a free country. They can do whatever they want. Now we are doing the same thing.” The parade, he insists, has nothing to do with communism. “Economically, China is more capitalistic than the U.S….We are celebrating the birth of a nation. Chinese are for China. We should look at the whole country, not a certain political party.”

As the parade draws near, Duc Huang, president of the CCBA, says that his organization has no plans for an official protest along the parade route, though he won’t be surprised if a few nasty placards appear along Wentworth this Sunday. Xing, who remembers Tiananmen Square, hopes to see both Alexander Hugh and Kenneth Hsiang making their views known along the parade route. “After all, we are Americans. One great thing about the American democratic system is that people are allowed to express their opinions. If we attempt to take away the rights of people to march in Chinatown, we become the very thing that we have been fighting against.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dan Machnik.