By Shirley Ng, AsAmNews Staff Writer
A landmark in New York’s Manhattan Chinatown is in disrepair and an effort is underway to restore it.
The memorial arch which honors veterans of Chinese ancestry is just 2 blocks from my childhood home, but it wasn’t till I was much older I took notice of what was etched in the granite on top. It reads in gold Chinese calligraphy and English in all caps, “IN MEMORY OF THE AMERICANS OF CHINESE ANCESTRY WHO LOST THEIR LIVES IN DEFENSE OF FREEDOM AND DEMOCRACY.”
In 1962, The American Legion Lt. B.R. Kimlau Post 1291 installed the memorial arch four blocks from its headquarters at KimLau Square. Although the memorial arch it is not the official Chinatown gateway arch, it should be noted it is “the” only arch in New York City’s Chinatown.
In Chinese architecture, arches commemorate achievements or a family’s ranking, therefore it is most fitting that this memorial was installed to honor the achievements of the Chinese American veterans, but sadly over time, the memorial arch has shown recent cracks at the top of the supporting two pillars. For over a year and half now, steel railings have been placed around the memorial to keep pedestrians and visitors at KimLau Square from disturbing the memorial’s delicate condition. One of two stone benches that flank the memorial arch has been damaged over the years.
Lt. B.R. KimLau Post 1291’s was established in 1946 in and named after Benjamin Ralph KimLau, a Chinese American born in Massachusetts and was a pilot during WWII. He unfortunately died in a battle. Many Chinese Americans that served in WWII unlike KimLau, were not citizens due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, yet they bravely served to defend a country that did not grant them many civil and legal rights.
It also boasts the largest membership of Chinese American veterans in the US, currently at 530 members. It has become a place for camaraderie for its members for many decades. Their adjutant is Gabe Mui.
“We have been meeting with the Department of Parks (DOP) before the pandemic. They have suggested the memorial should be rebuilt, but we’re still waiting for an engineering study to make that decision,” Mui told AsAmNews. Any rebuilding of the memorial will include preserving as much of the original materials since the memorial would need to be taken down and be placed on a stronger foundation.”
The memorial arch sits in KimLau Square, managed and owned by NYC’s Department of Parks. It has been the location for the Lt. B.R. Kimlau Post 1291’s annual Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day services, but due to the pandemic the services have been cancelled this year.
With it’s open space, KimLau Square has conveniently served as a location for other community events. In October, a community vigil was held to remember the four homeless men that were killed in Chinatown last year, one in 2014 for NYPD Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos who were killed in their patrol car, and a 2015 rally for justice for ex-NYPD officer Peter Liang who accidentally killed Akai Gurley in a dark stairwell . KimLau Square has become a place for people to gather and have their voices heard for social change, but lately due to the pandemic, it has also become a home for homeless.
For 58 years, the memorial arch has remained in the same location, but what has changed is Chinatown. The population has increased as well as the amount of vehicles that drive through the ethnic community, which a majority of the population are seniors. With its many ramps and streets that lead to bridges, tunnels, and highways, Chinatown is in reality, a hub and a true gateway. With increasing amount of vehicular traffic since the memorial arch was first installed, the surrounding grounds vibrate, causing man made seismic activity which may have led to some damage in the arch, and now it’s integrity is in question. How much longer will the arch hold up?
According to Mui, DOP has plans to conduct an engineering study sometime this year, but the pandemic delayed that study. The DOP confirmed to AsAmNews that the study has not yet begun.
DOP’s Press Officer Megan Moriarty told AsAmNews that an “investigative study” will be conducted as part of the reconstruction project and that it is “expected to begin later this year.” It remains to be seen if they will be able to start before the new year.
The study will evaluate the memorial arch’s current condition and to learn what will be required for the repair work, which is expected to take 10-16 months. I asked for more details as to what the study would involve, but she gave no details.
Council member Margaret Chin’s office already allocated $630,000 in July to the memorial arch’s repairs, according to Community Liaison, Ian Chan. “Kimlau Square is a very important landmark and meeting place in Chinatown,” Chan wrote in an email.
Will $630,000 be enough to repair the memorial arch? The answer lies in the investigative study.
With the Mayor Bill De Blasio’s term ending, there will be a new mayor of the cash strapped city in 2021. The $630,000 funding for the memorial arch that Council Member Chin allocated could be used towards other projects if if the funds aren’t spent on the memorial arch before De Blasio’s term is up. Therefore, the study is important to get things moving along to save it, but with only two months left to 2020, will the DOP really start the study before the new year?
Let me remind you that this arch in Chinatown has unofficially served as the Chinatown gateway arch. Many Chinese New Yorkers are envious of other Chinatowns in the US that has a proud majestic gateway arch, while there is none in New York City. With New York City being one of the oldest immigrant gateways for so many Chinese Americans since the eary 1800s, it bewilders so many why New York City still does not have a gateway arch like San Francisco, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston- just to name a few. There have been unclear reasons, but it’s been heard that funding and location is an issue, including getting the city’s approval.
E. Samantha Cheng is the visionary of the Chinese American Congressional Gold Medal Recognition Project. Many volunteers and communities were involved in this project from 2016-2018 to advocate to Congress to support the bill, H.R.2359, to recognize Chinese American WWWII veterans for the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2018, President Trump finally signed H.R.2359 into law before the government shut down in December of that year. Lt. KimLau Post 1291 played a huge role in the passage of the bill and the emotional efforts for this recognition leads us back the memorial arch. We did it for our ancestors.
In Cheng’s new book, Honor and Duty: The Chinese American WWII Veterans, she has compiled over 18,000 names of Chinese American WWII veterans through the Congressional Gold Medal Recognition Project. She had Fang Wong of Lt. B.R. Kimlau Post 1291, the former National Commander of the American Legion (2011) who is also the only Asian American to have held that position, write a forward for her book
“Today, we Chinese Americans, pleased with our progress in America, must not forget the Chinese proverb, “When drinking water, think of its source.” World War II ended 75 years ago. With each passing day, more and more of these heroes are fading away from us. We are fighting against time in paying our respects to them by giving them our nation’s highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal (CGM).”
This memorial arch is for us, to be proud of our Chinese Americans and to represent our place in America, but it is battling weather, environment, and now time.
On this Veterans Day, it should be underscored that the resilience of the men and women of Chinese ancestry that gave their lives to defend the freedom that we take for granted, should be reflected in a restored and fortified landmark that honors their lives. It is with much hope that the memorial arch will be repaired soon to it’s original grandeur.
AsAmNews will keep our readers updated on the progress of this important repair project.
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