Such miscommunications may have gotten Liu in trouble before, most notably in the 2009 comptroller race, when his campaign ran a web commercial featuring the candidate’s story of how, when his family first came to Flushing, his mother had no choice but to work in a “sweatshop” sewing garments. When Liu’s mother disputed this account to a Daily News reporter, the story blew up. After all, how could you trust a guy to keep an eye on a $120 billion pension fund when his own mother was calling him a liar in the newspaper?
Queried about the incident, Liu gave a defense that is both cultural and personal. “I never knew until that moment how awful my father felt about my mother having to work, much less in a sweatshop,” the comptroller said. “Back in Taipei, she had three housekeepers. Now, after my dad brought us here, she is working in a sweatshop and bringing me along. When the reporter asked about the sweatshop, my mom tried to protect my father, the shame he felt.”
Nonetheless, this was how a number of people, Asian and otherwise, felt about Liu’s current predicament: It was a cultural thing. Much of this has to do with money, or at least the perception of the Chinese attitude toward money. In the late nineties, after my father died, my mother decided to sell our Flushing house. My parents had purchased the place for $12,000 with the help of a G.I. loan in the early fifties. But this was a whole new world, the real-estate lady told my mother. The place was worth at least $300,000, maybe more if the buyer turned out to be a stooped-over Chinese guy who got out of his dented Toyota holding a suitcase stuffed with cash.
“Sounds typical,” said Jeff Yang, who writes the “Tao Jones” column for The Wall Street Journal and once edited a book called Secret Identities: The Asian-American Superhero Anthology. “In the West, we tend to think about money in the abstract—what does my money and what I do with it say about me? The Chinese attitude was more straightforward. Money equals power, that’s it,” Yang said. For the immigrant, cash mattered, because “they can’t speak the language, they can’t vote. Yet they need some control, some power over their surroundings. That power is cash, and the transfer of it is simple, direct. If a John Liu comes along, he’s the comptroller, a successful and powerful man with an even better future. So people want to connect with him in the best way they can. They want to give him their money. It doesn’t matter how rich they are, if they’re broke, or what some convoluted law they never heard of says: It is an honor to give money to John Liu.”
Indeed, as several Chinatown friends pointed out, the details in the original Times “straw donor” story bore a strong similarity to another article published in 2007 by the Los Angeles Times concerning Hillary Clinton’s presidential-primary run. Much as the New York Times reporters would four years later in their Liu story, the L.A. Times writers described visiting various East Broadway haunts seeking Fukienese kitchen workers whose names had appeared as Hillary donors but now were nowhere to be found. Another constant in the two incidents was the presence of Chung Seto, the 46-year-old longtime Chinatown resident and former executive director of the New York State Democratic Committee, who helped run Hillary’s local fund-raising drive, a task she has performed for John Liu for much of the past half-decade. Asked why, if he was so concerned about scrutiny of Asian donors, he would retain someone like Seto (who also served as the manager of C. Virginia Fields’s mayoral run in 2005, in which campaign-finance issues also surfaced) to oversee his effort, Liu said only that “Chung is a brilliant woman. I trust her completely.”
At any rate, for many in the Asian-American community, what was happening didn’t seem to have much to do with whether John Liu and his campaign followed the rules. Said a Mott Street businessman friend, “This whole campaign-finance thing is bullshit. No one cares. What matters is China. The Chinese and their money. The Chinese own our debt, they can buy and sell us. That’s the fear. Yellow peril, the sequel. You think the U.S. government isn’t interested in how Chinese money comes into this country, who gets it, where it goes? That’s the essence of the John Liu thing, if you ask me. It is a message. It says, ‘We’re watching.’ ”
This was what it came down to, people said: Sure, it was nice that someone like John Liu, who jokes that “both my first and last names mean toilet, and I’m from Flushing, so don’t even talk to me about my destiny,” was the first Asian-American to hold citywide office. But in the bigger picture, Liu occupied a potentially far loftier position. A Chinese guy in charge of the money. According to this scenario, there were hundreds of mainland businessmen in New York, party-member owners of tool-and-die factories from Xi’an, Zhengzhou, and Fuzhou, just desperate to have their picture taken with John Liu, to show how connected they were in the City of Jeremy Lin.
Hearing this while standing on the sidewalk in front of the 109th Precinct on Union Street, John Liu exhibited a pained look. “Everywhere I go, people want to take a picture with me,” he said, barely able to keep his reporter-friendly face on. The fact was Liu was sick of hearing about the FBI and the darkening cloud supposedly hanging over him. All he wanted to do was do his job, he said, serve the city he loved. On that day, he was in the middle of preparing what he called a State of the City speech that would detail all the money his office had retained for the municipality over the past two years in the categories of “cost savings, revenue enhancements, and cost avoidance.” The grand total for 2010 and 2011 was $923,997,028, or approximately 58,000 times the $16,000 Oliver Pan supposedly collected from the FBI undercover.