This served to alter the tenor of the Liu narrative significantly. After all, Jenny Hou was no Oliver Pan. According to many in Chinatown, Oliver Pan was one of “those Fukienese guys from East Broadway” who’d “show up at local political functions, check it out to see if there was any action, and leave.” Jenny Hou was a Flushing resident, a Rutgers graduate, daughter of a longtime Liu supporter, with dozens of happy pictures on her Facebook page. Born in Beijing, a Mandarin speaker, Jenny Hou was a bright young New Yorker with her whole future in front of her. Now, because she worked for John Liu, the Feds said she was looking at up to 60 years in jail.
People say that if you want to figure out who John Liu really is, you have to go back to the day his father Americanized the family’s first names. “Dad was a Kennedy fan. So when we came here, he changed his name to Joseph. He had three boys, so I became John and my two brothers Robert and Edward,” Liu said, adding that when his own son was born, he was named Joey, which “broke the tradition.”
“The Taiwanese tradition?” I inquired dimly.
“No,” Liu replied. “The Kennedy tradition … you’re supposed to name the first boy after the father, which would have made Joey named John Jr., but we decided not to follow that and name him after my dad.”
This was interesting, because as much time as I spent with John Liu, attending his blizzard of public events, listening to his near-Asbergerian explanations of his plan for city pension reform, laughing at his jokes (asked what exactly an actuary does, Liu replied, “It is kind of like being an accountant minus the personality”), there was only one thing the comptroller seemed to absolutely, positively want me to hear and understand. This involved his father, patriarch of his Flushing-bred Kennedy clan.
It is a story that Liu tells with a gathering intensity. “My father had the good fortune of being the second son, so he got to go to college. His older brother stayed behind to tend the farm. That is how it was in Taiwan. How it always was. We have a family temple with the family tree inside. I am like the twentieth generation, which is a very long time.
“Anyway, my dad is a smart guy. He went to National Taiwan University. He worked for the Bank of Taiwan for ten years. They sent him to America to get an M.B.A. He was in America for two years and came to the decision that he wanted his kids to grow up here. That’s how we came to Flushing. My father sacrificed everything, a high-flying career, because he wanted us to grow up in a better place. But now that we were here, he couldn’t get a job. He was blacklisted. No Taiwanese bank would hire him. Finally, he wound up at a Japanese bank in a dead-end position. A clerk! So when he got the chance to be part of a bank in Flushing, he took it.”
Liu’s narrative breaks off here, but the public record is fairly straightforward on what happened next. In 1984, with Flushing already well on its way to becoming an immigrant boomtown, Joseph Liu and a number of partners formed the Seven Giants Properties to develop a Main Street property intended to serve as the headquarters of the Great Eastern Bank. According to a 1999 federal indictment, the Great Eastern directors, of whom Joseph Liu was one, approved a 30-year lease between the bank and Seven Giants that included a $1 million payment to the company. This amounted to a misapplication of bank funds, a move prosecutors contended the group covered up with false entries in books and records. Liu was later convicted on bank-fraud charges.
On January 8, 2002, less than two weeks after his son was inaugurated as the first Asian-American city councilman, the then-65-year-old Joseph Liu was sentenced to a month in jail, with six additional months of home confinement. John Liu, who turned 35 that day, attended the sentencing. Interviewed by the Daily News, Liu said that “[there’s] no one more honest, no one more forthright” than his father. He later told the paper, “The verdict was completely wrong.”
As it would turn out, Joseph Liu’s problems would help his son’s career. “It really impressed me, the way he handled the stuff about his dad,” said one Chinatown resident. “For a lot of older Chinese people, that would be the end, something like that in your family. But Liu said, ‘I will always love my dad no matter what. But I am not my dad. I stand on my own two feet.’ It struck me as a modern thing, a brave thing, for a Chinese-American to say.”