Chinatown Nonprofit Marches On After Loss

A neighborhood came together for Chinese New Year after a fire breaks out in a community building

A Chinese lion parades through Chinatown during New Year.

A Chinese lion parades through Chinatown during New Year.

Chung Hing Sin gathered his kids around him last Saturday. More than 30 members of the United East Athletic Association, some as young as seven, huddled under the Columbus Park pavilion awning. Bundled in ponchos or blue and orange sweatshirts emblazoned with their logo, they listened intently to Sin, the association’s chairman, as they prepared for the Chinese New Year parade.

“Treasure this,” Sin said simply. “Remember this feeling.”

The United East Athletic Association, a large nonprofit youth group in Chinatown, has felt supported since it opened in 1976. But this year, after a fire in a building where it has its headquarters, that sense of belonging and support was magnified.

Cheers erupted once the first crack of the drumstick echoed down Mulberry street. The ringing cymbals and the booming gong followed, the crowd clapping along with them. Then two Chinese lions appeared. They circled each other and wove through the crowd in a traditional dance. The dancers bobbed up and down, shaking the lion heads in wave-like motions.

Association members quieted everyone as the lions stopped in front of a scorch-marked building where first responders sifted through the ash and debris.

Sandwiched between a brick building and metal police barriers, the blue and red costumed dancers bowed to their home. The crowd followed suit in the pouring rain, honoring the community building.

Late Thursday night, a fire broke out at the building at 70 Mulberry Street, two floors above the association’s clubhouse. News spread rapidly. Pictures and video made their way through Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook, reaching members throughout the city. The fire was believed to have damaged more than 85,000 items—including art and historical documents—belonging to the Museum of Chinese America. The Chen Dance Center, Chinatown Manpower Project, and the Chinatown Senior Center as well as the United East Asian Athletic Association were also affected by the fire.

“Devastating. This was absolutely devastating to everyone who uses this building,” said Xia Wang, who has lived in Chinatown for more than 30 years. “The non-profits here were very important to the community and we want all the organizations to be able to go back in. We need this [building] to bring the community together.”

Association members said they did not know how badly their own clubhouse was affected by the fire. Officials told them they wouldn’t be allowed back in in time for Chinese New Year. But even if they could have gone back in, lion team dance coach Sunny Chang said, they might find that their maps, costumes, and instruments might not be usable.

Chang said younger kids, who had been practicing four times a week leading up to Saturday’s parade, cried when they heard it might be canceled. But older members, like Cora Wu, said they were determined keep the parade going.

They borrowed equipment from other lion dance teams that had reached out—the drum and cart from Chinatown Community Young Lions and costumes from Brooklyn Lion Club. Wu and other members ran to make new copies of route maps and tokens to give out during the parade. Residents like Wang walked alongside the association on Saturday for more than three hours in the rain.

They paraded through Chinatown, weaving through Mulberry, Mott, and Elizabeth Streets, and performing for any local businesses that were open. Souvenir shops set off fireworks and showered them with confetti as the procession came by. Association members pushed the red cart with the drummer, his drum covered in trash bags against the rain, down the cobblestone streets. The older kids guided the lions through the crowd and into small restaurants, gnawing on fresh pork buns to warm up in between stops.

Shop owners and patrons rewarded the dancers with hóngbāos, traditional red envelopes filled with money, as thanks for bringing good luck. The money, Wu said, would go right back to the association.

“We not just relying on donations,” Wu said. “We’re going to earn it.”

Sin stood across the street away from the procession. He pulled up his blue hood and watched the kids he has mentored work together with the community members trailing behind them. He helped United East Athletic Association grow from one soccer program to now include badminton, basketball, and chess. Losing the building, he said, was heartbreaking, but seeing the crowd on Saturday meant it wasn’t in vain. They’d be stronger he said.

“Seeing them come out we have hope,” Sin said. “People are still passionate for what we are even without the roots of our house. People are trying to lift us all together.”

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