But what did that matter? What did it matter that Mitt Romney just got a quarter of a million dollars from a company giving its address as a post-office box, or that vampires like Gingrich were being fed with scraps off a Vegas blackjack table? They could do what they wanted in China, but here the law was the law, and if Liu’s campaign broke the law, as captain of the ship, he would have to go down. It didn’t matter if the comptroller knew what was going on or not. At the very least, he was guilty of a stupefying degree of willful obliviousness.
This entire episode was starting to feel very sad. It was sad because no one wants to see Jackie Robinson strike out. No one really even wants to see David Dinkins strike out. Even the people who hated Liu, those who’d run campaigns against him and thought him to be, as one operative said, “a guy with a Messiah complex who lied about his personal narrative, who will say and do anything, including extensive playing of the race card, to get ahead,” said the Liu incident was a potential “tragedy in the making,” bad for the Asian-American community, bad for the ideal of the city.
Peter Tu is the executive director of the Flushing Chinese Business Association. A short barrel of a man in his late fifties, Tu arrived in Flushing from Taiwan more than 30 years ago and has seen “it all.” When I reached him, Tu was in the middle of planning Flushing’s upcoming lunar New Year’s Parade.
Asked about John Liu, Tu grunted. The Liu thing was a “big problem for me!” Tu exclaimed. “When we first hear about it, all my members are calling me, day and night, the phone is ringing. Everybody is upset. They don’t know what to do. We have pride in him. He wants to run for mayor, so people give him $800. It is the right thing to do. Then, the next day, the FBI is at the door with a subpoena. Eight hundred dollars becomes $10,000 in lawyer fees! That is bad business! I have to tell my members, if you don’t want the FBI at your door, don’t give a first penny to John Liu. Wait a minute or two. See what happens.”
It was too bad, Tu said, because “John Liu is the smartest, most qualified, hardest-working politician we ever have in this community.” But the comptroller had a potentially fatal flaw. By being “too aggressive,” Liu had lost sight of “his Chinese nature.” It had nothing to do with failing to act more like the stereotypical retiring, timid Oriental. On the contrary. New York ethnic politics was “a big fight.” To come out on top was a matter of strategy, tactics, practicality, Tu said, rising from his desk as if to act out a Flushing version of Sun Tzu’s Art of War. Liu’s big mistake was forgetting he was “a minority,” an arrogance that blinded him to the fundamental principle of knowing “when to attack, when to give space.” What was the point of going up against Bloomberg when the mayor still had all the power? Why would someone want to poke a finger into the eye of the FBI? “It makes no sense,” Peter Tu said.
This said, Tu hoped that Liu would survive and live to fulfill his potential. But what if he didn’t, what if Liu went down?
“Then we will learn from him,” Peter Tu said.
It had been a particularly heavy year for lunar New Year’s parades around the city, owing to the especially fecund place the dragon holds in the twelve-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac. Of all the celebrations, the biggest took place in Manhattan’s Chinatown. In the seventies, New Year’s in Chinatown was a more surreptitious, dangerous event. It was important to map routes so drummers and lion dancers from 9-mm.-packing Ghost Shadow and Flying Dragon gangs did not run into each other. Now the parade is sponsored by Verizon and MetLife, with most of the extra noise coming from tubular party poppers filled with confetti.
Walking at the front of the parade, Liu drew robust cheers on Mott Street, but it wasn’t until the parade crossed Chatham Square and turned onto East Broadway, where the bulk of the recently arrived Fukienese immigrants live, that the scene went electric. Four and five rows deep behind the police barriers, the East Broadway people surged toward Liu, shouting his name, reaching out to touch his arm, pat him on the back. Energized by the adulation, Liu plowed through the crowd, shaking as many hands as he could. To recall Joseph Liu’s particular version of the American Dream, the reception could only be called Kennedyesque. It mattered little that neither Liu nor the large majority of the crowd could speak to each other. What counted was the fact that Liu looked like them. He was their guy, the one anointed to carry forth their hopes and dreams. When the comptroller wrote on a long red banner, the only name out of hundreds to be signed in English, a great cheer went up.
A week later, the annual Flushing parade, led by Peter Tu with his red Grand Marshal sash across his chest, had a more laid-back feel. Only the day before Liu had told me, “Some have mentioned that no matter what happens, I will come out of this painted as an ethnic candidate as opposed to a New York candidate. It is what Asian-American academics call ‘the perpetual foreigner syndrome’ … that it will always be hard for Asians to be accepted as real Americans. This not helpful. Because that’s not who I am.” Now, however, walking with his wife Jenny and son Joey, Liu seemed relaxed. “After all,” he said, “I’ve been coming to this parade all my life.” As the procession moved toward Queens Crossing, the Singapore-style office building where most of Flushing’s global heavies keep a presence, the “Money God” came out. A typically more direct version of Santa Claus, the Money God appears every year in his long black beard and headdress, carrying little red envelopes stuffed with cash or candies, which he gives to children. From across the street, I watched a man dressed as the Money God stop to say something to John Liu. Later I asked the Money God, who turned out to be a middle-aged Flushing resident, what he’d told the comptroller.
“I told him good luck,” the Money God said. “ ‘Good luck, John Liu!’ Because he is going to need it.”