More Than Money Troubles At The Harmony Palace

WHY in the world would Gov. Gary Locke's savvy campaign team of hotshot lawyers, public-relations consultants and seasoned politicos wait nearly half a year to disclose the names of numerous cash donors from New York City's Chinatown?

Readers may recall that in March, this column reported the Locke campaign's failure to identify 16 individuals who gave cash contributions over the state's legal currency limit before the fall 1996 election. By law, candidates must file publicly the names, addresses, amounts and dates of every donation. But the mystery cash donors from New York were not reported until I called the matter to the Public Disclosure Commission's attention - five months after the donors gave.

Locke campaign officials tell me the delay was simply a "glitch." "Human error." "One of those things that happens." Or maybe it was something else. One of the largest funny-money givers who attended Locke's fund-raiser at the Harmony Palace Restaurant in October may have ties to an Asian crime syndicate. Another donor co-owns a restaurant that has been sued by the state of New York for serious labor violations.

Wai Chee Chan, one of four New Yorkers who gave the Locke campaign $750 in cash, is co-owner of Harmony Palace. He is also national president of the On Leong Chinese Merchants Association, a Chinese "civic group" whose former bosses admitted they gave drug-dealing and contract-killing orders to the violent Ghost Shadows street gang.

Chan's immediate predecessor at both Harmony Palace and On Leong was a man named Wing Yeung Chan. There's no blood relation between the two Mr. Chans. But according to Wing Lam, executive director of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA), which fights for workers' rights in New York City's Chinatown restaurants, Wai Chee Chan is the "protege" of Wing Yeung Chan. The elder Chan controlled the Ghost Shadows, which teamed with two other neighborhood gangs to extort money from virtually every business in Chinatown - as much as $100,000 for allowing a restaurant to open, according to local news accounts.

Last year, Wing Yeung Chan was convicted on federal racketeering and murder charges. Under his leadership, both the Harmony Palace Restaurant and the On Leong Association were fronts for gambling, prostitution, extortion and narcotics traffic. Reporter Jerry Capeci of the New York Daily News, who covers the gang beat, wrote recently that Wing Yeung Chan continues to wield influence from behind bars. Ko-Lin Chin, author of "Chinatown Gangs" and professor of sociology at Rutgers University, adds that "while many gang leaders have been indicted or put away, the infrastructure for crime in Chinatown remains intact."

Wing's co-investor in Harmony Palace, Wai Chee Chan, confirmed in a brief phone interview that he gave cash to Gary Locke, but couldn't recollect how much: "You know, I give so much money at these parties. So many. It's hard to remember." He quickly changed the topic by inviting me to New York to visit his crime-linked establishment.

"Our dumplings," he noted, "are very good."

Tsui Chun, another $750 cash donor at Locke's Harmony Palace fund-raiser, is co-owner of New York Chinatown's largest restaurant, Jing Fong. The New York state attorney general and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund both filed lawsuits against Jing Fong earlier this year, charging that management paid workers "slave wages" and stole $1 million in tips from its waiters. The two lawsuits were the result of an investigation by the attorney general that dates back to 1995, when a fired waiter first came forward with allegations that employees were being underpaid. The charges led to an ongoing community boycott of the restaurant led by Wing Lam's Chinese Staff and Workers Association.

Notwithstanding the boycott, Gov. Locke held a campaign event at Jing Fong on May 15, 1996.

The Jing Fong labor dispute garnered national attention earlier this year after a huge fire broke out in an abandoned apartment located directly above the offices of the CSWA. The fire occurred less than 24 hours after Wai Chee Chan and other Chinatown restaurant owners denounced CSWA at a press conference. Police and fire investigators suspect someone was trying to scare the association, according to news accounts. A fire department official told AsianWeek that the three-alarm blaze was "definitely arson."

Locke's spokeswoman, Mary Lou Flynn, said yesterday that the governor was unaware of the troubles at Harmony Palace and Jing Fong. His cluelessness is preferable to complicity, no doubt. But at what point does excusable ignorance become inexcusable negligence by frantic politicians jetting across the country in search of campaign cash?

CSWA's Wing Lam points out that many leading public officials from New York and around the world have paid homage to these tainted Chinatown businesses.

"Politicians only care about money," Lam sighed. "They don't care about the people. They just want to get the money and that's it. It's a joke. Everyone knows all the restaurants in Chinatown are sweatshops. Harmony Palace and others just haven't got caught."

Michelle Malkin's column appears Tuesday on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is: