Banking on Racism

For centuries, virulent anti-Semites have groused about “the Jews owning all the banks.” But, in recent years, equally unfair allegations have been leveled against banks originally established to serve the Asian American community.

My first experience with this was in 1993, when I served as campaign communications director for Michael Woo, the first Asian American to run for mayor of Los Angeles. Woo was also the first — and so far the only — Asian American member of the Los Angeles City Council, serving from 1985-93.

Woo’s grandfather and father were instrumental in founding Cathay Bank, based in L.A.’s Chinatown, in 1962. The first Chinese American bank in California, it was established to help recent immigrants who were underserved or denied credit altogether by mainstream banks. In 1985, Cathay opened a representative office in Hong Kong, and in 1987, it established an office in Taiwan.

Our opponents seized on his family’s connection with this institution to wage a negative, racially tinged campaign against Woo, a native-born, U.S.-educated American who didn’t even speak enough Chinese to order at a Chinese restaurant. In the runoff election, Richard Riordan’s campaign pumped out ads and mail pieces falsely insinuating that Hong Kong banks were illegally financing the Woo campaign. They included a gratuitous color photo of the Hong Kong skyline, and they outrageously accused Cathay of being racist because it made most of its home loans to Chinese-surnamed customers.

Then in early June, just days before the runoff, I debated former L.A. Police Chief Daryl Gates on his KFI-AM radio show. Woo had been the first elected official to call for Gates to resign after the infamous 1992 Rodney King beating, and Gates, a Riordan friend and supporter, was on a jihad against Woo.

At one point, here’s how that conversation went:

Gates: As you know, early in [Woo’s] campaign there was a lot of cash coming from people in Chinatown into his campaign, and then being laundered in his dad’s bank.

Me: No, that’s not true, either.

Gates: Did any of that money come from the tongs [Chinese gangs] in Chinatown?

Me: That is an absolutely despicable accusation, and I can’t believe you would make it on the air.

Gates: You can say you don’t know. Hey, I’ve been dealing with Chinatown for years. Do you know there are tongs? Has Michael Woo not gone all over the nation going to the Chinese and asking for money?

Me: Well, so what? He happens to be Chinese. That’s illegal?

Gates: Do you know that tongs exist?

Me: What are you trying to say? Are you trying to link Mike Woo in some fashion to organized crime?

Gates: I’ve simply said cash came into his campaign, and I’ve simply asked if any of that money came from tongs.

Me: Of course it did not. What are you trying to suggest?

Gates: I’m not suggesting — I asked the question because I know tongs, and I know tongs give cash money and that comes from years of experience. I just asked you the question.

No harm in asking. Think things are better today? This past April, East West Bank announced it was acquiring Desert Community Bank, a nine-branch institution in the High Desert area near Los Angeles. A Chinese American bank founded in 1973 to serve Chinese Americans, East West has become a multi-ethnic institution that is currently the second largest independent community bank headquartered in L.A., with 58 branch locations across California. It has been widely praised for its innovative and responsible lending policies and outreach to other minorities.

When the takeover was made public, East West Bank and its long-time chairman, Dominic Ng, were attacked on air by talk show host Barbara Stanton on KIXW-AM, a Clear Channel station in Victorville.

“Look,” Stanton told her listeners, “there is a Chinese-looking guy… a foreigner, let me say that, with the last name of Ing, Ng, I don’t know how to pronounce it. I’d better get used to it, I guess.

“We are going to see more Chinese faces in the bank than ever before,” she continued. “They’re going to bring their own staff. Oh yeah, it’s going to be a big time for all, except for us, the true Americans.” She then urged her listeners to withdraw their deposits from Desert Community Bank — a possible violation of state banking laws.

As it happens, the true American here is actually Ng, a U.S. citizen, as are his wife and kids. East West has one of the most diverse board of directors and senior management of any bank of any size in California. It has never been a foreign bank, and its only overseas presence is a branch in Hong Kong and a representative office in Beijing. Clear Channel quickly did the right thing and axed Stanton. But this Don Imus-like racist rant gave me an awful sense of deja vu: Cathay Bank all over again, 14 years later.

Banks even figured in a racial stereotyping remark made by Republican gubernatorial nominee Bill Simon in 2002. Being squired around Oakland’s Chinatown, his host pointed out the number of banks and observed that the Chinese were big on saving. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, Simon quipped, “Not just gambling?” Then, he laughed.

Hard as it is to believe, 125 years after the racist Chinese Exclusion Act was passed and 60 years after innocent Japanese Americans were forced from their homes and interned in desert camps, some people still think they can make sport of Asians with racist remarks or insults, and do so with impunity. Too many times, they can.

Part of the frustration in dealing with incidents such as these has been the lack of immediate, outraged reaction from the Asian Pacific American community. The unpleasant reality is that the APA community simply does not yet have the same sort of well-developed, long-standing defense and response mechanisms that other minority groups do.

The Jewish community has the Anti-Defamation League, Latinos the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, African Americans have the NAACP. There are fine organizations out there, many of them tax-exempt, designed to protect the interests and defend the reputation of the APA community. But too often, in this era of instant news and 24-hour news cycles, their reaction is too little, too late and too muted.

Although I’m white, I feel part of the APA community through adoption and absorption. My wife is a Mandarin-speaking native of Taiwan and our son, James Ru-Shiao, is half-Chinese. My in-laws are both Chinese and Japanese. So I humbly submit that I have standing to offer some advice.

Asian Pacific Americans now represent the second largest and fastest-growing minority in California, making up nearly 13 percent of the population — by far the highest percentage of any state. This state sent the very first Asian to Congress in 1956. We sent the first Asian American from the 49 continental states to the Senate in 1976. We now have the highest-ranking APA officeholder outside of Hawai’i, state Controller John Chiang. There are now Asian Americans for the first time in the leadership of both the state Senate and Assembly.

But in my view, the APA community simply will not reach its full maturity or potential until it develops more effective and aggressive rapid-response strategies, not only to react immediately to anti-Asian slurs and attacks, but to discourage them from happening in the first place.

And you can bank on it.