Allan Eng-Achson’s Timeless Gift
Past, Present and Future Generations
Every building and every structure tells a story. Some of these stories invoke the noblest aspirations of humankind. Such stories are lenses through which we can better understand our culture and ourselves.
Discover the story of Allan Eng-Achson through Confucius Plaza that makes built environment come alive. Allan has had an important role in revitalizing Chinatown. Explore the work of a Chinatown realtor and humanitarian Allan and see how Confucius Plaza grew out of his involvement.
Allan Eng-Achson (aka Gee Ock Lum) was born in Fook On Village, in Toishan, one of the districts in Kwangtung Province. His father Eng Yu Born (aka Gee Chung), a golden mountain visitor returned from East Orange, New Jersey to bring his son to the U.S.
In the summer of 1928 both Gee Ock Lum and his father Gee Chung entered Seattle, Washington on the S.S McKinley.
Gee Chung, owned and operated a Chinese hand laundry. Gee Ock Lum arrived at his new home and found himself sleeping on a wooden plank stretched across two wooden crates in the back of his father’s hand laundry on 6 Oak St. in East Orange.
After serving as a technical sergeant in the 1st Armored Division during World War 2, Allan was naturalized. He finally was able to take on his true identity, Allan Eng-Achson.
This is the story of my father’s contribution to New York City’s Chinatown.
I consider my father’s life a gift to the New York City Chinatown community that he loved so much. Allan was an important contributor to the cultural fabric of Chinatown. By sharing my father’s story I add one more immigrant story for future generations to ponder and preserve what we have inherited. May we reflect on the impact of Allan’s service to the Chinese American community and his mission to promote humanitarianism.
My hope is that everyone who reads this article will get a glimpse into Allan’s heart and spirit and know what he treasured.
As a young boy walking along Skid Row on Bowery Street, I distinctly remember a dark and depressed triangular area at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge where one had to walk around homeless alcoholics.
By the late 1950’s Allan was a pioneering figure in New York City’s Chinatown. He was the first Chinese American real estate broker and property manager in the community. At this time Allan had a fledging real estate business on 24 East Broadway. He managed buildings where elderly people were living in dark, dingy tenements. These heartbreaking images were the seeds of a dream sown in Allan’s heart. His dream germinated and continued to grow over the years. This vision would influence every part of Chinatown. Allan set himself on a self-proclaimed “quest for humaneness”.
In the 1960’s there was an outcry for affordable housing and quality of life in this blighted-area. There was a need for residential and commercial rehabilitation and new construction in this neglected, under utilized area. There was also a need to improve Chinatown’s appearance and economic viability.
Residents were fleeing Chinatown and moving to the suburbs. This was a burden for those who worked long hours in Chinatown and had to commute home.
I consider my father a pivotal figure in Chinatown history. Allan spent a lifetime of servicing the housing needs of Chinatown and the Lower East Side that he loved.
Allan, a visionary thinker and doer along with two other men, set their sights on creating a special building. Little did they know that their vision would improve and transform the landscape of Chinatown on that triangular piece of land at the foot of the Manhattan Bridge. As a result, The Association for Chinatown Housing was formed. These men created a building that would breathe life back into Chinatown.
Subsequently, The Association for Chinatown Housing became a co-sponsor with the Chinese Chamber of Commerce giving birth to a new entity called Chinatown Apartments, Inc. Opportunity came knocking and Allan became one of the original members of the Board of Directors.
From 1965 – 1978 Allan served as a real estate consultant for this Mitchell-Lama housing project in New York City’s Chinatown.
In 1973 Allan was employed by Sulzberger-Rolfe, Inc. the sales, rental and managing agents. He managed their office at 32 East Broadway for the sale of cooperative apartments. He had a staff of four others who interviewed and screened applicants to pre-qualify for occupancy in this housing project.
After this 762 apartment Mitchell-Lama project was erected, Allan became its first manager. His responsibilities consisted of rent collection, oversight of the physical maintenance of the building, security, hiring staff, and all administrative aspects in operating the complex. However, Allan’s greatest contribution was naming it Confucius Plaza.
Originally Confucius Plaza was going to be called Wah Yuen, but Allan strongly suggested that Confucius Plaza would be more apropos because Confucius was an influential and a well respected historical figure among the Chinese. Confucius’ teachings helped shape Chinese government, education, and attitudes toward correct personal behavior and the individual duties to society.
In every culture bestowing a name is very important. To bestow a name places a great responsibility on the recipient to live up to that name. When Allan chose the name “Confucius Plaza” he had in mind a way of life, a moral and social code to live by, a standard to strive towards. The genius behind bestowing the name “Confucius Plaza” was a reminder to abide by the precepts and principles of Confucius. To this day the statue of Confucius on Division Street serves as a moral compass for the Chinatown community.
Allan had the foresight and vision to see Chinatown teeming with people. He dreamed of a utopia where senior citizens would not have to worry about poor living conditions and where everyone would live in harmony with each other.
Allan’s hope for the future of Chinatown was to have a body of principles to guide the residents of Chinatown in good conduct with family, neighbors and society at large. Allan stood on the shoulders of Confucius and Mencius reminding generations to come that they have a responsibility to live up to the moral teachings of this great philosopher. Not only did Allan remind us of this, he modeled it in his daily contact with the residents and everyone he came in contact with. “Jen” is the nucleus of Confucius’ teachings. Jen may be summed up as the social virtues that help maintain social harmony: altruism, benevolence, charity, dignity, diligence, goodness, loving kindness, magnanimity, sincerity, and respectfulness. Anyone who knew Allan experienced these virtues. His ideals for Confucius Plaza and Chinatown reflected his inner character. He modeled these values as well the values from his personal Christian faith.
Allan’s gift of Confucius Plaza to Chinatown reminds me of a children’s book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. It is a story about a tree that keeps on giving.
The Giving Tree follows the life of a female [apple] tree and a boy who are able to communicate with each other; the tree addresses the human as “Boy” his entire life. In his childhood, the boy enjoys playing with the tree, climbing her trunk, swinging from her branches, and eating her apples. However, as time passes he starts to make requests of the tree.
After entering adolescence, the boy wants money; the tree suggests that he pick and sell her apples, he does and sells them. After reaching adulthood, the boy wants a house; the tree suggests he cut her branches to build a house, which he does. After reaching middle age, the boy wants a boat; the tree suggests he cut her trunk to make a boat, which he does, leaving only a stump.
In the final pages, the boy (now a shriveled old man) wants only “a quiet place to sit and rest,” which the stump provides. The story ends with the sentence “And the tree was happy.”
Confucius Plaza is like that Giving Tree. Chinatown enjoys the fruits of Allan’s vision and community service. Allan’s gift to Chinatown was Confucius Plaza. It was the right dream at the right time. Every generation needs to have a place that they can see and not just read about. Confucius Plaza is that tangible reminder.
Confucius Plaza is Chinatown’s Giving Tree, which gives generously, to generation after generation. For those in their sunset years, Confucius Plaza gives “a quiet place to sit and rest.” Trees in the plaza provide shade on hot, muggy summer days. Medical offices are strategically located right below their apartments to give medical services. Residents can conveniently walk to work in Chinatown. It gives education to children through the public school, that is adjacent to it. Confucius Plaza is a timeless gift that keeps on giving to Chinatown. Like the Giving Tree, the story ends with the sentence “And the tree was happy.” My version “And Chinatown was happy with Confucius Plaza.”
Confucius Plaza is a cultural, economic and social anchor. It retained and revived the Chinatown community. Confucius Plaza has and will continue to be an edifice that keeps on giving to the Chinatown community economically, socially, and culturally for generations to come.
Confucius Plaza defines Chinatown as a community, what Chinatown seeks to become and what she cherishes. Naming Confucius Plaza embodies Allan’s legacy, a timeless gift that underscores the fact that Confucian ideals still matter for all generations.
This landmark building will influence every part of Chinatown for generations to come. These social virtues have set the tone for social harmony and are worth preserving. Which still continues to this day.
Confucius Plaza is an edifice that educates the public about interpreting the complex stories and rich cultural heritage of Chinese immigrants and their descendants. It has a role in preserving and shaping Chinatown’s past, present and future.
Allan Eng-Achson dedicated his entire life helping the Chinatown community. He was an outstanding realtor/humanitarian who distinguished himself in his profession. His sincere dedication, made a substantial contribution to the welfare of his beloved community.
Fifty years later as an adult, instead of seeing homeless individuals on Skid Row/Bowery Street, I see a vibrant and thriving community. Allan’s vision of a clean, safe, affordable and dignified place for seniors warmed his heart and continues to warm the hearts of all who have been touched by Confucius Plaza.
It does not surprise me that 50 years later, that an immigrant/paper son , living in the back of his father’s hand laundry, sleeping on a plank of wood supported by two wooden crates during the depression would create affordable housing in New York City’s Chinatown in the 1970’s.
To this day my mother tells me that the children and grandchildren of the elderly are grateful for Allan’s foresight in providing affordable housing for the elderly.
Confucius Plaza stands like a formidable soldier, whose job is to stand and keep watch over its community for generations to come.
Allan’s lifetime of servicing the housing needs of Chinatown and the Lower East Side established him as a pivotal figure in Chinatown history.
For Allan, Confucius Plaza was more than a project or building. He cared about the Chinatown community.
In my eyes my father not only made history, he made a difference across past, present and future generations.
In every corner of this community known as Chinatown, the impact of Allan’s contribution can be felt, for Allan was honored and respected by the community. He epitomized the best side of Chinatown. He rolled up his sleeves.
This article is a tribute to the life of Allan Eng-Achson. May Confucius Plaza continue to bring joy, inspiration to all who come to this happy place… a plaza where the young and old of all ages can laugh, learn, play and grow together.
The New York City Chinatown Community
Salutes Allan Eng-Achson’s Ardent Efforts