The Chinese Center on Long Island celebrated its 60th anniversary last week with more than 400 attending a gala at Leonard’s Palazzo in Great Neck over greetings with elbow-bumps and dance performances.
The center, which is the oldest ethnic nonprofit devoted to Chinese culture and education on Long Island, was founded in 1960 by four families who wanted their children to learn the language and culture of China and for the adults to socialize with each other, according to its members.
“It was a home away from home,” said George Wing, 81, a lifelong resident of Carle Place and a board member of the center. “It’s important we have a Chinese center where people can go and enjoy themselves.”
The organization first operated out of a donated 28-room mansion on 5 acres in Old Westbury, but moved to a 2,400-square-foot building in West Hempstead in 1967.
Through its Mandarin and Cantonese language classes and programs in dance and mah-jongg, organizers said the center is a community gathering place for families to bond over cultural activities and for children of Chinese descent to learn their heritage.
Over the past decade, the Fong family of East Meadow has spent almost every Sunday at the center on Hempstead Turnpike.
“This is a perfect way to connect with our roots,” said Olivia Fong, 14, whose father is Chinese and her mother Guyanese. “I want to reconnect with all of me. … It feels like I’m growing closer to a part of me.”
Fong also teaches a Chinese popular-dance class with several other teenagers, including her sister Alyssa, 18.
“I took Mandarin for more than a decade. It never stuck with me,” Alyssa Fong said. “But it helped me get a grasp and appreciation of what we do learn here.”
She added that the exposure deepened her understanding of her identity and sparked an interest in anthropology. She plans to study molecular anthropology in college.
Organizers said the mission of the center now as an apolitical, cultural entity is even more relevant because of rising discrimination against Asians over fears of the coronavirus. The outbreak that started in December in China has sickened more than 1,000 Americans and killed thousands of people worldwide.
“If you have activity and get to know people, you have a better basis for brotherhood and solidarity,” said Helen Chin, 78, a vice chairwoman of the center’s board of directors and a resident of Port Washington. “If you don’t have this understanding and brotherhood for each other, you are going to have a lot of hate and discrimination.”
For Alyssa Bernstein of Merrick, the center has long been a haven outside school where she teaches dance with the Fong sisters and hangs out with her friends. Despite her struggle learning Mandarin, Bernstein, 18, whose mother is Chinese and whose father is Jewish, said her identity has deepened in recent months.
“Because of the virus, now things seem to go backwards in terms of racial acceptance,” Bernstein said. “It makes me want to be more connected to my Chinese background and be proud of it.”
A PROUD HISTORY
- 1960: John Hwang, Dun Li, George Lee and Peter Louie founded the organization.
- 1962: The group incorporated as a nonprofit.
- 1967: A 2,400-square-foot building on Hempstead Turnpike in West Hempstead was purchased, and Chinese language programs began.
- 1972: Members burned the mortgage when it was paid in full.