One Man’s Mission to Protect Chinatown

Listen to this episode

S1: Hey there, quick word of warning here at the top in this show, I’m talking to a real honest to goodness New Yorker, and that means he curses a little bit. So you’ve been warned. Here’s some things you need to know about Carlyn Chan. He’s a New Yorker through and through. You can hear in his voice and something else, he raps Chinatown hard on Saturday mornings. He gets up and sweeps the streets. He’s been working to get murals put up. He’s lived here for 60 years

Advertisement

S2: with Chinatown, where I grew up here. I moved into the neighborhood. I was a toddler to two and a half or whatever, and I’ve been here since.

S1: I get the sense I could, like, blindfold you and, like, walk you out the door, like go down a couple streets and you still know exactly where we were.

S2: Probably if I know what a starting point is, I can probably navigate through the streets blindfolded. As long as you stopped trafficked, I’m willing to try it

S1: as a kid. Carlin worked in one of the restaurants here, a dim sum place with the little carts of food being pushed around Hong Kong style.

S2: Chinatown was a 24/7 neighborhood. We had the neon lights going on my street. And, you know, tourists like like like moths. Everybody’s drawn to the bright lights. You I mean,

Advertisement

S1: he’s been thinking back on that time because it was one of the first times he had an experience dealing with anti Asian hate.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: We had certain people who try to, you know, mug people or we have people who are racist in nature coming in to harass the restaurants. And, you know, at the time, yeah, we escorted them out of the neighborhood. And so. Yeah, and that’s such a friendly way, I would say. And, you know, we made a statement and they didn’t come back anymore. The neighborhood was safe at night.

S1: You had to be tough.

S2: Yeah, well, you can’t do that. And you can escort people out of the neighborhood anyway because it’s illegal.

Advertisement

S1: As integration crime seemed to rise over the last year, Karlan’s started keeping track of every incident. One by one, the woman hit with a metal pipe on the Lower East Side. The 66 year old man who got punched in the face, a Filipino woman on her way to church, attacked in front of a luxury condo.

S2: Yeah, I have a pretty good memory. And you know these things, I don’t talk about it, but, you know, I know what happened. I know where it happened. When I hear about something, I reach out. I send the feelers out there to see if anybody I know happens to know the victim and, you know, let’s get this out there.

Advertisement

S1: But to understand what it feels like to be Asian in his city right now, Carlyn says just think about what happened to him when he was asked to speak at a press conference after one of these attacks. He took the train uptown, got off at Times Square.

S2: And I hear someone yelling here, that Asian guy or whatever this and this is that, you know, so I looked up and down the sidewalk as a whole. I’m the only Asian guy here. So I kind of turned around and I see a person standing on the twin yellow dividing lines right in the middle of 40 seconds. She would’ve been out of town. So I flip them. I flipped the bird. I said, you are a good frickin picture, you know? And I start approaching the person and the person walked away.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: What a New Yorker.

S2: Well, that’s typical New York response. I mean, you know, I’m not going to take this stuff from anyone.

S1: Today on the show, a very New York response to a. Asian hate what a year of organizing his neighbors has taught. Carline Chan, I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. So last year, you started a block watch in Chinatown. And twice a week, you’re still doing it, Thursday is one of your days.

S2: Yes, we’re we actually we saw I saw this last February 20, 20, and we were patrolling three times a week. And so because of the winter, you know, it’s pretty cold out there. Most of our volunteers don’t live in the Chinatown area so that, you know, they come in from all over. They come from New Jersey. And so I had to cut down the days. But, you know, we’re going to pick it up again because, you know, apparently this is not going to ease up any time soon. So there’s a need to increase the frequency of the patrols. I may actually start at the evening patrol now just to address them. It’s it’s an ever evolving strategy and a plan.

Advertisement

S1: Take me on a walk with you and your crew. Do you have a route? You do.

S2: It’s a very random route throughout the neighborhood. And last weekend we switched it up again because it’s being that we have a larger group. Last weekend we had about 30 people, so we split into three teams and we stay in contact with the you know, the FM walkie talkie devices know this way. We’re always within a block of each other in case there is an incident. But, you know, so this way we get more coverage here. We also

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: how would I know it’s you like what do you guys wear identifying clothes or

Advertisement

S2: something else? I started with the orange safety vest and then I ordered the orange polos. Now we have black hoodies. Now we have you know, I just recently made a a shipment of facemasks and what I’m buying new uniforms for the summer. So so, yeah, we’re all uniform were visible.

S1: Is there a moment from your patrols over the last year that stands out to you? Like, was there a moment where you saw something and you intervened or where something that you just keep returning to?

S2: Well, we’ve intervened in verbal harassment, personal. Obviously, I’ve been making stupid remarks about people, especially old ladies along the curb trying to sell something. You know, I want it to be with sales. Why? Why are you bothering these people? You what what has this what has these women done to you? If you don’t like Chinese, you want Asians. Why are you in Chinatown in the first place? You try to reason with them. You try to de-escalate the situation. We’re not a bunch of vigilantes out there looking for trouble. We’re not a bunch of vigilantes out there looking to racially profile people, but we’re there to de-escalate the situation, intervene and record and help the victim report it if necessary. We’re just neighbors looking after neighbors.

Advertisement

S1: How did you start the block watch? Because you were saying how it’s been a year since you started. But I feel like I wasn’t necessarily seeing a lot of reports about anti Asian sentiment and crimes until just the last few months. So what was what spurred you to start a black watch back in February? Twenty twenty.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S2: There were reports on social media platforms that the immigrants use like WeChat. So there were several muggings, a couple of robberies of stores and these rumors, whether or not they were actually rumors. But now the news spread over the social media platforms. And I created a lot of anxiety and fear in the neighborhood, plus the fact that our streets are so quiet. Our shoots were deserted back in January of twenty twenty

Advertisement

S1: because people were worried about covid.

S2: People were very worried about covid. People thought that, you know, the Chinese carry this virus, you know, so they avoided this neighborhood. But, you know, as I tell all the people, it’s a silver lining in the cloud because we all through 2020, we were number one or two from the bottom of the list of infection rate throughout New York City neighborhoods. So, you know, that’s a silver lining in the cloud.

S1: Well, one of the goals of Karlan’s Black Watch was to deter crime as it happened. Another goal was to simply support the Chinatown community. The Block watchers distributed flyers encouraging residents to wear masks. They arranged for people to get vaccinations. And Karlan’s hope was that by doing these things, the folks here would trust the system a bit more and report harassment or assaults. Whether the Black Watch was there or not.

Advertisement

S2: I’ve always advocated for people to report incidents of crime. What if they got mugged or what if they were harassed or whether they were attacked?

S1: Why wouldn’t they do that

S2: a years ago? It was a language access problem, though. Bill City did not have a language bank at the time, but they were three years ago, four years ago today that they created Language Bank, where you can trust the city agency or a police officer on a street can call into this bank and just say Cantonese, Mandarin, whatever language, Bangladeshi, you know, so so it makes it a little easier. But there’s still a lot of hesitancy on the part of immigrants to have any kind of contact with government. Also, the reporting process was it was a chore. If you walked into a precinct, you know, you’d be spending an hour and a half to two hours there trying to report a mugging. And then if you had to look through mug shots, yeah, we can count on another hour or so. But the NYPD recently rolled out an online reporting system where, let’s say an immigrant can help their children or grandchildren. Just report the incident online and a detective or a police officer will follow up with you. So it makes it a little more easier and also makes it a little more a little more, you know, less intimidating.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Yeah, it’s interesting listening to you talk, because I was going to ask you about the fact that. In the year that you built up this block watch, there’s been an increase in reported attacks against Asian-Americans in New York City. And I was going to ask you how you looked at that in terms of the success of your group. But listening to you talk, in some ways, I feel like having more incidents reported is part of your goal. And it may be a sign that you’re reaching people.

S2: Exactly. My my hope my whole goal was to encourage people to start reporting incidents because years ago, people that didn’t want didn’t want to report this. You know, if you were verbally harassed on the street, especially of your ESL, English second language, you had no idea what they were talking about anyway. So but but it’s you know, if we look at 2019, I think there were one or two biased incidents against Asians in New York City. New York City has one point four million Asians that identify as Asian.

S1: You don’t think that’s accurate?

S2: Oh, heck, no. No way is that accurate because, you know, I’ve seen more personally. So how can you have two incidents of harassment when I’ve personally witnessed more?

S1: In 2020, the NYPD recorded 27 anti Asian crimes. And even though it’s only April, Carlyn says the city’s already on track to record more than that in 2021. These numbers don’t scare him, though. To Carlin. They’re a sign that the Asian-American experience is finally being documented.

S2: You know, it’s good to see people are stepping forward to report these incidents because the the NYPD and also the city government needs to allocate resources. They need to right now they recognizing this problem. I’ve always said if you don’t report it, it never happened. And a city agencies and police will not allocate resources to address the issue. So now the city is allocating resources. The NYPD has created positive steps to address this issue of bias incidents against Asians.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So if you could advocate for one change in the response to anti Asian hate and hate crimes right now, I’m wondering what you would advocate for,

S2: what I would advocate for them to toughen the laws on this. Right. Right now, when you go into court, it’s kind of difficult to prove a hate crime in front of a jury if it gets that far in the absence of any witnesses, multiple witnesses, credible witnesses, at least it’s hard for the prosecution that the AG’s office approved this. And, you know, I would harassment as a hate crime. It’s not really, you know, an offense. That’s where I put a person behind bars. You know, the mood in this country and the mood in this city is the DeCota rate. So you’d casarett where are you going to? We’re going to put everybody.

S1: After the break, why Carlin calls what he’s doing, community policing. And we’re back. I was reading that historically, the relationship between residents in Chinatown and the police has been pretty complicated. I’m wondering if you can explain that a little bit. Like I was reading that in the 80s and 90s, police were not viewed as kind of indifferent to locals concerns and that folks even worried they were being taken advantage of.

S2: So there was a lot of misunderstanding. There was a lot of mis miscommunication which created or distrust, and there was also the language access problem. Now we have many more bilingual officers assigned to this precinct and the surrounding precincts. So it makes it a little easier to they are they are making an effort to have good relations with this community. And in the last couple of years, I would say so they’ve they’ve they’ve taken they made big strides in, you know, community policing down here.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I’m kind of curious when you’re out on patrol how the folks you’re walking with talk about things like defunding the police, because I’ve noticed that some activists are pretty bullish on the idea of of taking money away from the police and saying, you know, this is really isn’t working for our community, while others very much want the protection of the police. So what are those conversations look like when you’re having them?

S2: Well, actually, there are no members in my honor. Chinatown block watch closely. But the funding, the police lead, we don’t we don’t get none. We don’t we don’t get into partisan politics. We actually don’t talk about politics at all. I support police community policing here. I would love to see a peacock come back after the job, you know. You know, decades ago, there used to be a beat cop. You know, the person these officers walk around the neighborhood on foot and they get to know all the business owners. They get to know the residents.

S1: Why do you think it is that in your group there isn’t conversation about defunding the police? Because it’s interesting listening to you. Some of what you’re doing is community building. It’s the kind of stuff that activists who want to defund the police think is more necessary.

S2: What community building? Well, also, if this is a a formal community policing, you might want to call it. But, you know, we’re not there. The anti police are calling to defend the police at all. We if defund the police, who’s going to who, who’s going to who’s going to respond to crimes, who’s going to respond to shootings or anything? There is room for reform on how the police responds to marginalized or ethnic enclaves, but, you know, but funding the police, no, I wouldn’t agree with that.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: What would you change about the way the police respond to a community like yours?

S2: Well, I think they have responded well. We have many bilingual officers in different dialects, Mandarin and Cantonese. The community affairs officers reaches out to the community through education forums in the senior centers when they were open. They do go to go into the community centers. They they do tabling around the neighborhood. But also we should never view the police as a military force out there to keep us down.

S1: There is something I want to talk to you about, though, which is like how effective we can all expect a police response to hate crimes to be. Like I was reading about a recent anti Asian attack in New York City, a Chinese American bus driver who was punched and called a slur, and the guy who attacked him, he’d been arrested more than 30 times and he was homeless and was mentally ill and he was being monitored by the police department. And it sort of raises the question in my head of what more can we expect police to do?

S2: Well, actually, the police responded. They arrested the individual. He went to court and the court released them. So it’s you know, it’s kind of frustrating sometimes because, you know, the police, the police are just there to enforce the law and it’s up to the courts there to administer the law. But apparently, what the bail to the reform package that went in, I think it went a little too far where they took away discretion from judges. They locked in by the law, how it’s written. OK, look at the person who attacked the woman and her and her daughter on the way to a to a a.m. Asian heat rally in Columbus Park here two weeks ago. He just got picked up again yesterday for attacking someone. Because he was released on bail.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: Now that you’ve started patrolling the streets with your block watch group, do you think you’re going to stop? Like, do you see this as a temporary thing that’s responding to a crisis or something else?

S2: What I saw at the Block watch, I was hoping that it would kind of disband by the end of the year. But in the back of my head, I always know things will get worse before it gets better. And sadly, it has turned it has gotten worse. But, you know, so probably extend this until the end of this year, at least until the attacks fade away, because I think as the city reopens more, you know, we’re going to have less of these attacks. And a lot of people develop, especially the verbal harassment. You know, people have been locked out. Many people lost their jobs. So, you know, they’re frustrated sitting at home. They can’t go to you know, they couldn’t go to a ball game up until just a couple of days ago. They couldn’t do spend time with their family in large groups. So people are frustrated. Sometimes frustration always turns to anger. And, you know, sometimes when you were in the supermarket or in a store somewhere, you see an Asian person, you know, you would lash out at that person and say, you know, you’re the one who caused this. You know, you’re you’re a freakin person. You are your race or ethnicity, you know, caused me a year of hardship. It’s like the guy in a in Georgia, he had a bad day. I mean, we’re talking we’re talking institutionalized, you know, and entitlement here where the police captain said, oh, he had a bad day. Well, I got loose. I have 400 plus bad days.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: I kind of I’m kind of surprised to hear you say that, that you’re you’re hoping to shut down the block, which I was wondering if you were just going to make it a permanent fixture.

S2: Well, if someone wants to fund this, I could make it a permanent fixture. I mean, we’re all volunteers. You know, as as the city reopens, people have people need to get back to work. I have a solid core of twenty five people who’ve dedicated the last 14 months to coming out and patrolling the neighborhood without any kind of reward. The only reward is the satisfaction of taking part an active part in keeping an eye after this community.

S1: Carl and Jan, thank you so much for joining me.

S2: No problem.

S1: Carline Chan is a Chinatown resident and the founder of the Chinatown Block Watch. And that is our show. What Next is produced by Davis Land, Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson, Elena Schwartz and Carmel Dilshad. Every day we get a ton of help from Alicia McMurry and Allison Benedicte. Tomorrow, stay tuned to this feed. Lizzie O’Leary will be here with our Friday show. What next, TBD? And if you’ve ever wondered whether you should be getting therapy from an app, tomorrow’s show is just for you. Check it out. Meanwhile, I’m Mary Harris. I will catch you back here on Monday.