Michael Chu: Making Flushing more livable

Updated: 2014-04-11 10:46

By Xing Xudong In New York (China Daily USA)

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Michael Chu: Making Flushing more livable

The neighborhood watch team gathers at 8 pm every week night, and the group of 10 volunteers patrols the downtown streets of Flushing, the largest urban center in the New York City borough of Queens and home to the city's second-largest Chinatown.

The self-defense group sprung up from the rape and murder almost four years ago of a 23-year-old Chinese, Yu Yao, who had been in New York City for only two months.

On the night of May 16, 2010, she walked into a roadside argument with Carlos Salazar Cruz, who police said was drunk. He attacked her, smashed her face with a pipe, then dragged her into an alley and raped her. Security camera footage suggests at least seven passers-by apparently ignored her cries for help. Yao lingered in a coma for the next five days; on the sixth she was disconnected from life-support.

It was the "it-could-have-been-me" element that pulled Taiwan-born Chinese Michael Chu from his work at a travel agency to get involved in forming the neighborhood watch group.

"It was 9 pm. She was just there, screaming, but nobody gave her a hand. I was so angry. So we started patrolling the area one week after the incident," Chu said.

Michael Chu: Making Flushing more livable

Some 1,514 local volunteers have signed up for the patrol service since it started on May 28, 2010. The creation of the neighborhood watch group has been duplicated elsewhere. A few weeks ago, a similar one was started in another Chinese populated area at 8th Avenue in Brooklyn.

"We want to make this community more livable. We want to encourage people to do good things. I am glad to see that more people are aware of the fact that Chinese are easy targets," Chu said in an interview with China Daily.

The Flushing neighborhood watch team consists of a variety of non-professionals, including supermarket workers, taxi drivers, students and new arrivals, with 40 percent of them women, Chu said.

"We have uniforms like these beige vests. When we see someone in danger or something unusual, we will just blow a whistle and call 911," he explained.

Apart from running a travel agency business and a monthly newspaper, Chu's role as a social advocate is recognized and he has become influential in the Flushing Chinese community.

His activities have ranged from creating the watch group and helping a nanny collect her wages after they were illegally withheld by her employer for more than a year to organizing a lobby among residents to block the opening of a waste transfer center near Flushing.

Chu's third-floor office in downtown Flushing has become a headquarters for free consultations on domestic disputes.

"What I am doing is beyond what lawyers can do. For example, local police do take care of the criminals, but they don't intervene with labor disputes and domestic disputes. For example, I don't provide people with food stamps or housing; but instead I tell them where to get them and how they can get them," Chu said. In 2007, the death of a 70-day-old infant born to Chinese immigrants living in Queens, New York, drew his attention.

The New York Times first reported that the baby suffered from a fractured skull, brain and eye injuries, two broken legs and a fractured rib. Law enforcement investigations suggested the death was "homicide by shaking and a blunt impact to the head," which led to her parents, 27-year-old Li Hangbin and 26-year-old Li Ying, going to prison. The case triggered a debate on the hard-to-spot signs of shaken baby syndrome and the role of doctors in deciphering them.

After the Chinese immigrant couple was charged with their daughter's death, Chu said they had become vulnerable targets of the American justice system.

He said the couple called him from prison. "They were nice, young people, not killers, not insane," Chu said. "And so I made up my mind. I had faith that they were innocent."

By reaching out to experts on shaken baby syndrome across the country, and compiling a medical history of the Li family, Chu was able to call attention to a genetic condition called "osteogenesis imperfect". He even helped raise more than $50,000 that went toward legal fees and bail. However, in early 2013, the child's father was sentenced to a maximum of 15 years in prison. His wife, who had a second child after the incident, is on parole.

Michael Chu: Making Flushing more livable

"It is certainly disappointing," said Chu, who maintains that Li would do nothing to harm his baby.

Chu said that Li turned down several plea deals from the district attorney before going to trial, and that his defense was out-matched by the district attorney's office, which had a cadre of lawyers on the case and a succession of medical witnesses.

"It is really unfair," Chu said.

Chu's work to help Flushing's Chinese community has grown.

His office walls are covered with newspaper clippings and "thank you" flags from cases in which he played a vital rule. Local reporters from Chinese media also like to hang out in his office.

"Reporters come here not only for coffee or water, they come here for story ideas. Everyone who walks into my office has something to tell. I also organize a weekly news conference here," Chu said while gesturing to the spare desks where the reporters set up base.

Though described as "elected" among "the major of the new arrivals" in Flushing by the New York Times earlier this year, Chu said he doesn't intend to go into politics.

And when it comes to the possibility of danger he could face for being such a community activist in Flushing, Chu says, "I have been very cautious. When I am alone, I have to lock the door. Actually I am thinking about buying a bullet-proof jacket."


 Michael Chu: Making Flushing more livable

Michael Chu, who runs a travel agency, has assembled a team of volunteers to patrol Flushing in New York every week night. Xing Xudong / China Daily

(China Daily USA 04/11/2014 page11)