After hearing a Lin-related pun for the 500th time in about two weeks, I called Eddie Chiu, a community leader in Manhattan's Chinatown, who said he could take me to a subterranean clubhouse frequented exclusively by people named Lin.
Chiu is a Chinatown powerbroker, a sort of 21st-century ward boss. He runs a mutual-aid society on Mott Street for people from southern China. He's a real New York character, one of those fast-talking self-promoters with enough energy to light up the Empire State Building. One story has it that he once showed up to work in mismatched sneakers. "I never go to any party or dinner," he likes to say. "I’m working."
His work mainly consists of listening to the complaints of constituents over endless Styrofoam cups of tea. Chiu settles disputes among businessmen, disburses burial funds to the bereaved. Until now, the job had required absolutely no knowledge of basketball at all, but the sudden rise of the basketball player known locally as Lin Shuhao tied Chiu's fate to that of the New York Knicks. A dispute between Time Warner and the MSG Network meant that for a time the majority of Chinatown residents had no way of watching the games. "Everyone is calling," he said the day the conflict ended. He kept repeating the word "crazy."
When Chinese immigrants first came to America by the boatload in the 1850s, they formed family associations called "tongs," initially in San Francisco, then in New York. There was a Lee tong, a Wu tong, a Fu tong and so on. Some tongs evolved into the notorious Chinatown street gangs, like New York's Ghost Shadows and Flying Dragons. The windowless cellars and winding back alleys of Mott Street were well suited for illegal activities, namely gambling and prostitution.
In recent decades, the criminal element has moved away from Mott Street to the rougher eastern edge of Chinatown and the outer boroughs and New Jersey, but the tongs of Mott Street survive, serving their original purpose as family clubs. Chiu said he could take me to the tong of Lin.
I met Chiu at his mutual-aid society's headquarters, a social hall on the second-floor of a Mott Street tenement building. He led me through a back door down two flights of stairs and out another door to a fire-escape-like balcony overlooking a narrow alleyway. Then we went down another flight of stairs and along a dark passageway until we came to another door. Chiu reached up and tapped a wooden plaque engraved with a Chinese character. "This is Lin," he said.
He pushed open the door and I ducked inside. I mean I literally ducked. If Jeremy Lin had visited, he would have had to double over. Twenty or thirty people in their 70s and 80s sat around plastic tables pushed so close together that the backs of their chairs were practically touching. The clatter of mah–jongg tiles fell silent. "Everybody Lin," said Chiu, referring to the crowd. A man in a gray sport jacket with a dusting of gray hair came over and began talking to Chiu in Cantonese. The man looked confused. Chiu mimed the motion of shooting a basketball. The man laughed and there was a flurry of excited conversation. Chiu translated for me. "They say he brings the team together," Chiu said, sounding surprised. "I don't expect they know anything about this young kid."
The man in the sport jacket said he ran the club. His name was Kai Wing Lum. Chiu explained that Lum is the Cantonese version of Lin, which is Mandarin. Lum invited us to what he jokingly called his "office." It was a desk in the back of the room. A watercolor of an old man with a sword blade of a beard hung near the desk. The painting depicts the "great-great-great grandfather" of the Lin clan, Chiu said. Some incense sticks, a bottle of Chinese liquor and three tiny cups of tea sat on a shelf below the painting. Next to the picture was a framed document of some sort. "This is the story of the Lin family," Chiu said, leaning in. Then he said, "This is not the story."
The man in the sport coat brought over a Lin family yearbook. Every year, the Lins have a reunion in a different city. This year's book featured a picture of dozens of Lins gathered somewhere in Toronto. Lins had sent in news about their accomplishments from cities around the world: This Lin got married in Melbourne, that Lin started a law practice in Mexico City. Next year, perhaps, the book will bear news of a Lin who came out of nowhere to lead a desperate New York basketball team to seven consecutive wins.
The man in sport coat said something and Chiu translated again. "They say they are very proud of this young man," he said, adding that they believe Jeremy Lin is a relative.
Back upstairs, in the social hall, Chiu took a seat at a table covered with Chinese newspapers. "Lin, Lin, Lin," he said. "Everywhere Lin. It's crazy." He turned the pages, sipping from his Styrofoam cup, and then said, "Chiu and Lin is connected."
I asked what he meant.
"We have a Chiu association down the street. Every year, any big event, I have to go to the Lins' family association with the whole barbecue pig and give them respect," Chiu said.
"The story is just like this: Sung Dynasty, the king is Chiu. That's my great-great-great-great grandfather," he said proudly. "I'm the 22nd whatever."
Eventually the Yuan clan chased the last king of the Sung Dynasty into hiding, Chiu said. "The last emperor is a child. We went to a village -- Lin family's village." The Lin family hid the child king and his mother. "They hid them and then save the life." But then the Yuan soldiers killed a child of the Lin family. "They think that's the Chiu family's son," Chiu explained.
In other words, I said, the Lin family had saved the Chiu family, just like Lin had saved the Knicks. Chiu gave me a look that said I'd gone too far.
"They save the life and they lost their own child's life," Chiu said. "That's why we're going to respect them forever."
See a slide show of scenes from the Lin family association's clubhouse on Mott Street.
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