Remembering Pvt. Danny Chen, at a Precarious Moment for Chinatown

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Private Chen died by suicide at the age of 19 after being killed by fellow soldiers in Afghanistan. Ten years later, his family sought the upliftment of the community that raised him.

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Even before he was an Army private, the events of his tragic death sparked a national resonance on the military haze and mobilized his neighbors to demand justice, before his name stood at the corner of Canal and Elizabeth Streets. An opera that was inspired by his life on road signs, Danny Chen was just a teenager from Chinatown.

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When he was not in school or in Chinese lessons, he spent most of his day playing handball, eating McDonald’s, and walking around Manhattan’s Chinatown, where he was born and raised. He had a dream of serving in the army and after high school joined the army.

That normalcy was eased on October 3, 2011, when he died by suicide after being brutally beaten up by his fellow soldiers and subjected to racist treatment in Afghanistan. He was 19 years old.

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Ten years later, Chinatown residents, community advocates, public officials and members of the Chen family gathered on Sundays to hang out at local businesses and restaurants.

The tour served as a way for both of them to remember who the private chain was in their everyday lives and to underscore some of the broader issues affecting their community today, such as the pandemic’s toll on local businesses. and the escalation of violence against people of Asian descent.

“My thought this year was, ‘What if Danny was still here? How would Danny feel if he were alive?'” said his cousin, 27-year-old Benny Chen. “He’s probably the things happening with the community in Chinatown. will feel sad about. And the one thing he wants is to continue to see Chinatown come alive.”

In Columbus Park, the group recalled memories of 10-year-old Danny playing tag with his friends while his grandmother played cards. At a Dashop Corp hobby store a few blocks away, the owner reminded her to shop for Yu-Gi-Oh trading cards. There was also a stop at the Good Field Trading Company, which sells Chinese stationery and newspapers, where her parents buy her red envelopes, fill them with money and give them as gifts to their only child – a Chinese tradition. .

Outside Public School 130, where Danny went to elementary school, his former teacher, 50-year-old Renee Fong, described him as a bright, bubbly student who wore a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and was on a program of genius and genius.

“I always remember this smile,” said Mr. Fong.

Danny was one of the tallest people in the family, Benny Chen said, standing at over six feet. He was also the comedian who was most comfortable with adults of all children. He served as their main go-between, and his death left a hole in the family’s cross-generational connective tissue.

The group stayed outside their childhood home, a third-floor apartment overlooking Elizabeth Street, where their cousins ​​remember playing with Yu-Gi-Oh cards in the building’s courtyard—actually just a “slab of pavement”. , she said with a laugh.

Danny always knew which restaurants were hidden gems, his cousin said, and introduced him to pho and jumbo hot dogs near the Manhattan Bridge, which cost $1.50. They both got involved in handball and spent the whole day wandering around in search of empty courts to play.

The normality of Danny’s life is what makes his death even more terrifying, his cousin said: the idea that what happened to him could have happened to anyone.

As Danny grew up, he dreamed of becoming a police officer, and eventually, to the dismay of his parents, a soldier. He enlisted in the army and was posted to Afghanistan’s Kandahar province in August 2011.

Soon after his arrival, he faced intense hatred and racist taunts from his fellow soldiers and his superiors, his family said. In one incident, after forgetting to turn off the water heater, she was dragged off the bed and across the floor by a senior.

A few days later, on October 3, he killed himself. Eight soldiers were indicted in connection with his death, one of whom was fired from the army and the others given demotions and short prison sentences.

The 10th anniversary of his death comes at a particularly poignant moment, amid a surge of anti-Asian sentiment and hate crimes during a year, much of it filled with racist narratives about Asians, who are fighting the coronavirus pandemic. broadcast during.

Organizers said that this year in particular, the anniversary served as a reminder of how little things have changed, in some ways, the way this country treats Asian Americans.

Wellington Jade Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership, a neighborhood development corporation, was among the community members who rallied behind the family a decade ago.

“It’s heartbreaking to see the parents,” he said. “This is his only child, almost 6-foot-4, and he came back in the bag weighing less than 80 pounds.”

Elizabeth R., former president of the York chapter of OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates, a non-profit organization Ooyang said it was Benny Chen’s idea to use the anniversary to give back to the Chinatown community, on whose strength the Chen family relied for support. Troops’ Trial and the years that followed.

“It was a community that created Danny, and it was a community that fought tooth and nail and advocated for Danny,” said Ms. Ouyang. “And now the community needs our help.”

Margaret Chin, a city council member representing Chinatown, said it was also an important time to raise awareness of the ongoing problems around racism and bullying in the military.

“He wanted to serve the country,” Ms. Chin said. “That’s why they recruited. And I think it’s a proud history. We still need to make sure our sons and daughters stay safe. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Although the Chinatown community remembers Danny’s life every year, his parents have stayed at home in recent years to watch via livestream as their sadness runs rampant, Ouyang said. But they still help with planning, and they picked out all the places on the Sunday tour.

“If we cannot remember the sacrifice of an American soldier of Chinese descent and how he was treated, it is a reflection of how the rest of our community will be treated,” Ms. Ouyang said. said. “It’s not an issue of ‘can’t forget.’

It is this mantra that has inspired her parents to go through their worst days over the past decade, Ms Ouyang said. His only wish is that people should remember his son.

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