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Unlucky 800

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Liu breaks for lunch in Flushing.   

Ten years later, Liu is still adamant that his father was unfairly convicted. Throughout his current troubles, Liu exuded an eerie sense of invincibility, as if none of this were really happening to him. But reliving his father’s case had him visibly upset.

“I’ve always felt guilty about what happened to my father,” Liu said, suddenly choked up. “Because sometimes I think if I hadn’t run for office, if I wasn’t in the public eye, perhaps my father would never even have been targeted … Anyhow, when I tell you that our system of justice is not perfect, this is what I mean.”

Given all he’d just told me, did Liu think his current situation might be a case of history repeating itself?

Back in his Vulcan/Spock manner, Liu said, “What you’re asking me requires a degree of uncertainty. That’s not to say I wouldn’t analyze the cause and effect if I had a basis for thinking that cause and effect had a high probability of explaining anything … but I don’t see that right now.”

Every New York immigrant experience becomes epic once you begin to fill in the thorny details. In 1997, when the then-30-year-old John Liu first ran for City Council, his opponent was Julia Harrison, a 77-year-old Flushing Olde Tymer and Queens County Democratic stalwart. Harrison had caused a stir by characterizing her new Asian neighbors as part of an “invasion,” more like “colonizers than immigrants,” people whose money always preceded them, followed by “the paupers … smuggled in and bilked by their own kind.” There were so many Chinese signs in Flushing, Harrison said, that her constituents couldn’t tell a “hairdresser” from a “nail salon” from a “whorehouse.” This was not in keeping with the spirit of the Flushing Remonstrance, the 1657 declaration of religious tolerance, but Harrison wasn’t the only who felt that way. She crushed Liu in the ’97 primary, but that was the Olde Tymer’s last stand. Four years later (with Harrison term-limited), when Liu narrowly beat two other Asian-Americans, the result seemed inevitable.

In the ten years since Liu’s election, Flushing has become a wholly different place again. The former Taiwanese village set down on the stinky edge of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby ash pits has morphed into a more rough-and-tumble global marketplace. The Taiwanese presence has been diminished these days. Huge developments like the $820 million, mixed-use Flushing Commons will soon rise on the site of the municipal parking lot bordering Union Street. The old RKO Keith’s building, shuttered since the middle eighties and a community flash point since cowboy Taiwanese-born developer Tommy Huang attempted to replace it with a shopping center (the basement got flooded with heating oil, turning the place where many had gotten their first kiss into a toxic-waste dump), is also expected to finally be developed. With a new international hotel planned, Flushing has become, in the words of former Queens borough president Claire Shulman, “a crossroads of the world.”

The changes are such that John Liu, the local hero, thinks he soon might “not even be able to recognize” the place where he grew up and still lives. Already, he found it hard to converse with a large percentage of his Flushing constituency, much of which now consists of recently arrived immigrants from the Chinese mainland. This owes to the fact that, like many of his generation, John Liu can barely speak Chinese. “We left Taiwan when I was 5, so I always say my Mandarin is like that of a 5-year-old.” Asked if he regretted not continuing with his Chinese, Liu said, “I regret it every day. But when I was a kid, the idea was that the key to success was the English language. This is obviously not the case today. There are 800 million people in the world speaking En­glish and a billion and a half speaking Chinese. So, for all practical purposes of getting ahead in the world, it is better to speak Chinese. My son, Joey, sounds like a New York kid, but he understands the importance of speaking Chinese.”

Liu chalks these shifts up to “the ever-changing dynamic of New York, where everything is always in transition.” It is the immigrant’s lot, Liu said, “to always be somewhere in the middle.” The danger was that “things tend to be lost in the translation.”

It was something to think about while moving around the old hometown, because truth be told, these last weeks, I was beginning to seriously wonder about my Flushing homie John Liu. The Feds’ legal net was tightening around him. The conventional wisdom (and many blind quotes in the papers) indicated that Jenny Hou would eventually flip, telling everything she knew, fatally implicating “the candidate.” Yet Liu continued to schedule events, insist that he was moving ahead, keeping his mayoral options open. Was there some cultural nuance I was missing?


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