Fighting Goliath in Chinatown
Originally published 9/01/2010
New York, NY.
To some, Mei Rong Song might seem like an unlikely hero. She’s owns a flower shop in Chinatown’s East Broadway Mall. She’s a mother of three in her late 30s, who doesn’t let her limited English prevent her from being outgoing and talkative.
But Song has become strident spokeswoman against an allegedly corrupt management company that demand bribes, called key money, on city property. What makes her powerful is simple: she knows her rights and wields the law with confidence.
“People tell me that they admire me,” Song said, surprise on her face. “They’re afraid to stand out, like me.” She has been vocal and visible by talking to media and working with lawyers to push for investigations.
“I’ve been here for over 20 years and I know American law,” she said. It may seem like a minor, or obvious feat, but among the Fuzhounese– who are the majority of vendors in the East Broadway Mall– this type of courage isn’t common enough.
Like Song, tenants of the East Broadway Mall are mostly Fuzhounese and rent small 300 square-foot stalls, selling merchandise like Chinese herbs and clothing, or services like money transfers and haircuts. Here, tenants tend not trust the police or the government. Many came to New York through illegal and often extremely dangerous smuggling channels. While many have been naturalized as citizens, what lingers is a residual fear of getting caught without legal documentation to work or reside in the US. Furthermore, repressive governmental policies in their native country of China may have given little reason to trust authority intrinsically.
Ironically, it seems that the allegations of key money only lend more reason to never trust the government for the tenants of the East Broadway Mall. Rong said that her lease wasn’t renewed in 2001, but her rent checks are being cashed. She pays $4,000 a month but the landlord has been demanding verbally that she pay $12,000 under the table since last November.
Song remembered one tenant who used to sell candy in outdoor facing stall, beneath the shadow and the rumble of the Manhattan Bridge overhead. He was asked to pay $80,000 under the table for a stall he was renting for $9,600. Instead of going to the authorities, he just closed the candy shop and left.
She pointed out another woman in the mall who also sold candy and was asked to pay the same price of thousands of dollars of illegal key money. When Song suggested that she speak to her lawyer, the woman refused.
“They’re just afraid cops won’t listen to them because they don’t understand English,” explained Song. Even if they do speak out, she said, most believe that the landlord will have more sway with the police ultimately.
And then there’s the worry of being too visible. “The fear of retribution is very real,” said Norman Siegel, a private who interviewed mall tenants about the allegations of key money back in April. He believes that for some tenants the risk of scrutiny or bringing attention to themselves or their families has inherent risks.
Siegel also noted that when he had gone to the East Broadway mall to speak to Ms. Song, he asked stall owners if they knew where he could find her. The responses were “I don’t know.” When he finally found her, she toured him around the mall and the same people who claimed not to know of her, opened up to him. “That was instructive,” he said.
Siegel spoke to Mayor Bloomberg in April, and a city commissioner told him that the situation would be investigated. Six months later, he hasn’t heard anything.
Steve Wong, a Fuzhounese community leader and translator, said that key money has been going in New York City for half century and not just by the Chinese community. Other ethnic groups used to demand the bribes for new and renewal leases, but in Chinatown the practice remains.
It’s a practice believed to be imported from China, called also called “tea money” in Cantonese– referring to the transaction that would happen over tea.
According to Wong, bribes of 5,000 to 10,000 dollars, without a refund or a receipt are a common practice for residential rentals, too.
“The city does nothing even though it’s a big problem,” said Wong. “For some reason they didn’t see it, until it was practiced on city property. Now they better do something about it. ”
Song said that the demand for thousands of dollars is only one part. She alleges that the management company harasses her by turning the water and electricity on and off intermittently. She used to make around $5,000 a month and now she makes barely $1,000. She recently started using a smaller refrigerator to preserve flowers, although these days there are no flowers in her stall at all. Part of it is the economy, part of it is the harassment, which she attributes as to why many have left.
To make ends meet, her husband, who used to work with her in the flower shop, moved to Hong Kong, leaving her to care for her three sons alone.
Although she has been leading the case against the East Broadway Management Corporation, she doesn’t totally believe that she’s on equal footing in this fight. In the last hearing, the landlord claimed that she wasn’t paying rent and the Chinese judge believed him instead of her.
The appeal for the case will be in December.