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One On 1: Wellington Chen Reflects On Personal, Professional History

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The man in charge of Chinatown's future development is skillfully applying his own personal history to the task at hand. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.

When Wellington Chen tries to get people in Chinatown to work together, he often cites Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon.

"He said, 'after all these decades, we need to go back more and see how previous it is, in this vast universe, in this vast galaxy, this little oasis, that over 70 percent is water and ocean, can we get along'," says Chen.

Chen is the executive director of the Chinatown Partnership. The partnership has cleaned up the streets, initiated the food festival "A Taste of Chinatown", and tried to unite residents, business owners and community groups for the neighborhood's future.

He is officially an architect, urban planner and community advocate. But when it comes to creating strategies for Chinatown, he is equal parts philosopher.

"I no longer look as a narrow point of view at buildings or architects or anything like that. It's a fabric. It's a living organism. So, there's one thing constant about this community, it changes," says Chen.

And his passion for policy is suffused with a sense of history -- from the historic town hall in Flushing, where Chen worked as a community advocate for decades, to Chinatown.

Chinatown's economy suffered badly after the September 11th attacks. Chen says he was hired in 2006 because he was considered a neutral outsider, coming from Flushing.

"I'm fluent in multiple dialects in Chinese. And you thought you'd fit in with that all that. But in fact, the layer goes much, much deeper. The bad blood goes back decades. And the factional, the sensitivity is amazing," says Chen.

Chen says on Mott Street alone, there are 62 different community associations. He's long espoused the mantra of individual sacrifice for the common good.

One of his main goals has been to establish a business improvement district, or BID. But he says too many stores and businesses think of it as a tax.

"I remember as a kid, the Chinese medicine are bitter like this and you say, 'I'm sick already, why would you ask me to drink this stuff?' But for your long-term health, we all drank it, because in order to get better, you have to swallow it," says Chen.

Chen's first task in Chinatown had nothing to do with philosophy.

"We hauled away 13 million pounds of garbage, we power washed 7,000 storefronts," says Chen.

But even in this project, Chen employed a piece of Chinese history.

"This is a color (yellow) that in the old days, only the royal family or the emperor's family could own, can wear. You're not supposed to be associated with the emperor's color. So I made sure that every one of our cleaners, as a Chinese American, is wearing one of these," says Chen.

For five years in the early 80's, Chen cut his teeth as an architect working for IM Pei. He is still applying the lessons learned 25 years ago.

"Evolution, not of revolution. I'm not coming to Chinatown to start a revolution. It's a continuous refinement of what you have over time, and continue to do it better the next time," says Chen.

Chen says he is trying to prepare Chinatown for the revitalization of downtown. But it's a balancing act. Getting the neighborhood ready for the future, while respecting and reveling in its past.

"The question is whether Chinatown will be dark and dingy and whether we're going to join the party or are we going to be like Cinderella, scrubbing the floors. That's all there is," says Chen. "That's the simple question. Do we want to join the party? Seven million people that are coming every year for the next 50 years, that will sustain your community, do you want to do it? Do you want to step up?"

What's in a name? In Wellington Chen's Chinese name, a lot.

Part of Wellington Chen's name means boatmaker, connecting his family's history to his current desire to build a bridge from Chinatown's past to its future.

"If you have to make a bridge you have to carry the engineers across to the other side to make a link. So in the old days the way you make it across and be a bridge is to be a boatmaker, so that's what it means," says Chen.

Chen grew up in Taiwan, and had to grow up fast. He says his grandfather supported Dr. Sun Yat Sen, considered the father of modern China.

His grandfather was assassinated for speaking out against a local warlord. Years later, when Chen was 10-years-old, his father, a sea captain, went down with his ship in a typhoon.

"At the very least, it gives you a provocative reflection to say, 'what is this all about? Why are we here?'" says Chen.

Chen's mother later took him and his brother to live in Brazil.

The 48-day boat ride from Hong Kong featured many stops along the way, including a port in South Africa, which helped form his future philosophy.

"They use a line that goes out with multiple hooks and it's like a chandelier and the hooks will just grab all the fish back up and you throw it back down and pull it back up and you see a simple as fishing, there many methodologies," says Chen.

Chen says the Brazilians were very warm, and he started to learn Portuguese. But much to his chagrin, his mother decided that the future looked brighter in New York.

"In hindsight, they were right, but at the time, if you had asked me to vote, I would vote against her, just like the town will vote against me now. But, in a few years, they will recognize, this is the necessary step," says Chen.

He worked in a wig factory on Canal Street, and eventually attended CUNY's School of Architecture and Environmental Studies. Just as he was about to graduate, Chen volunteered to help revitalize Flushing, where he lived and fell in love with its history.

"When I first got here, people were still mentioning about swimming in the river and crabbing and bringing home to their mothers for salad," says Chen.

He watched the rapidly growing Asian-American community in Flushing and spent decades trying to shape public policy to revitalize the neighborhood.

"You're intimidated by the public, because there will be people yelling, deliberately yelling at the back of your ear. And saying that their way is the right way," says Chen. "And in years to come, you will learn that usually they're wrong. Because if there's logic and merit to the case, you don't need to shout."

Chen eventually became the first Asian-American to serve as a commissioner on the New York City Board of Standards and Appeals to regulate land use, development and construction.

Now, as executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, he has turned his attention to the future of one of New York's most historic neighborhoods, armed with 30 years of experience in Queens.

"You're not gonna fool me, somebody, a false panacea in Chinatown, because I've been down those alleys before," says Chen.

Chen has a strong sense of history. Family tragedy, a boat trip to a new world and a bold move to New York are all part of his personal history.

And the history of first Flushing and now Chinatown makes this architect and community advocate philosophical about his purpose.

"It fascinates me, too, because it's like layers. You do a little discovery and then you find out more and then you find out more," says Chen. "And it is, it actually has been an odyssey. I think the way that I would think about it, is I took the long way home, as they say." ClientIP:, UserAgent: CCBot/2.0 ( Profile: TWCSAMLSP