SAN FRANCISCO—Second-generation Chinese-American laundry owner Raymond Chen is under heavy fire this week from Bay Area activists who call him "an insulting caricature that perpetuates long-outdated, grossly prejudiced images of Asian Americans."
"It's frightening to think that, in 1998, some of us still haven't moved beyond the century-old stereotype of Chinese people as laundrymen," said Abigail Huber-Henson, a University of California at Berkeley cultural-studies professor and director of the Race Action Project, the campus group spearheading the crusade against Chen. "This man is a degrading anachronism that has no place in a supposedly enlightened society like ours. To meet him is to be directly confronted with America's shameful history of racism."
Added Huber-Henson: "We should no more tolerate this than we would a Pakistani convenience-store owner or a Jewish lawyer."
An extensive anti-Chen public-awareness campaign, including petitions, rallies, and letters to city and state officials, has already reduced business at the embattled Chen Chinese Laundry by 40 percent. Chen, 33, said he is puzzled by the strong reaction to him and his business.
"I do not understand why all these people hate me," Chen told reporters. "I run a good laundry. My family has owned and operated this business for nearly 60 years. I grew up here in this neighborhood. We do dry cleaning, starching, pressing–everything you need, no problem. We have good prices and even do emergency rush jobs for only small additional fee. I have done nothing wrong."
The controversy is expected to heat up Friday, when hearings begin at San Francisco City Hall. The hearings, which are expected to last several weeks due to the long list of academics and activists who wish to speak out against Chen, will determine if his presence in the community can be prosecuted under local "hate crime" statutes. Chen's opponents argue that the launderer should be ruled a violation of San Francisco's anti-hate-speech municipal code, established in 1990 to guarantee persons of color a living environment free of "offensive and emotionally damaging racial language or imagery." If convicted, Chen could face fines of up to $20,000 and up to 15 months in prison, as well as mandatory attendance at anti-racism workshops.
"As long as Chen is allowed to continue this grotesque and derogatory display, we cannot consider the Bay Area a 'safe space' for Asian Americans," Huber-Henson said. "His cartoonish, insultingly narrow depiction of Asian Americans makes him, in effect, a cultural terrorist, wreaking untold damage to the self-esteem of millions of minority citizens. We demand that these people–who are human beings, just like you and me—be treated with the dignity they deserve."
Chen has responded to the controversy surrounding him with a series of local television spots, paid for out of his own pocket, in which he pleads his case to the community.
"Why is everyone so mad at me?" Chen says in one of the spots. "Because of how I talk? I was born in America, but I was raised in Chinese-speaking home. English is second language to me. Most of my friends and neighbors speak Chinese as their main language, too. There are many Americans who speak languages that are not English."
The 30-second spots have only intensified opposition to Chen. Said Janet Dundee, a sociology professor at UC-Berkeley: "Did you see those television ads? It's like seeing Charlie Chan up there on the screen, talking about his 'honable numbah won son' and saying, 'Pleasah, beg forgivaness.' Frankly, I am stunned that the local television stations would permit the broadcast of such blatantly racist material."
Though the potential penalties facing Chen are harsh, some believe they do not go far enough.
"With prejudice and intolerance still rampant in our society, anti-hate-speech codes are an important first step," said Beverly White, director of the San Mateo-based Stop Racism Now. "However, putting Chen in jail for 15 months is not going to erase the pain he has caused the countless Asian Americans he has mocked and insulted. The real issue here is so much bigger than just one man. No enlightened society should allow stereotypes like Chen to exist at all."
White then outlined her group's long-range goal to get legislation passed that would authorize the forced relocation of all ethnic stereotypes to internment camps in the California desert.