Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Standing up for victimized students

The day after 30 Asian students were attacked by a group of mostly African American classmates at South Philadelphia High School, senior Wei Chen stood surrounded by a swarm of TV cameras.

Wei Chen speaks to the media on Dec.11. ( April Saul / Staff Photographer )
Wei Chen speaks to the media on Dec.11. ( April Saul / Staff Photographer )Read more


The day after 30 Asian students were attacked by a group of mostly African American classmates at South Philadelphia High School, senior Wei Chen stood surrounded by a swarm of TV cameras.

Amid the glare and tussle, Chen assuredly answered reporters' questions, pointing out that many black youths had befriended Asian students, and saying it was school supervisors who had failed. Then he handed out something most teenagers don't carry: his business card.

People wondered: Who is this kid?

The answer: He's a whole lot of things.

Chen, 18, is articulate, smart, and frighteningly organized. He's never on time for meetings - he's there early, to help set up.

He possesses remarkable poise, stony determination, and a more than ample quantity of guts. When many Asian students hid their faces behind protest signs, afraid they would be identified and beaten up, Chen stood front and center.

Mostly, having been swept to the streets of South Philadelphia from the shores of southeast China less than three years ago, he's someone pushing the school district to address long-standing problems of violence. Within a week, starting with that tense Dec. 4 news conference at a Chinatown church, he emerged as a leader.

"He is always calm," said Xu Lin, an organizer with the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp. who often translates for Chen. "When some of the students were losing their tempers, he'd calm them down."

The Dec. 3 attack sent seven students to hospitals and sparked a contentious, eight-day boycott by about 50 Asian students. Throughout, the youth with the long hair and immaculately laced, deliberately untied NSS sneakers was the most visible. The standoff ended Wednesday after students met with Superintendent Arlene Ackerman.

"It could be dangerous to show my picture in the media, but I have nothing to hide," Chen said in an interview last week. "What I say is from the heart."

Teens who know Chen say he's a steady presence, personable and dependable.

"He's the type of guy who is very mature," said Tatman Chio, 15, who stood with Chen during the boycott although he attends Benjamin Franklin High.

Helen Gym, a board member at Asian Americans United, said she was struck by Chen's composure when he testified before the School Reform Commission on Dec. 9, facing a board of heavyweights.

"At 18, he's doing what people haven't done for a very long time, which is take a stand around youth safety at schools," said Gym, who is among the city's most prominent advocates.

Asked whether she thought Chen would become the next Helen Gym, she said, "Oh, he's going to be light-years beyond me."

Chen performs Chinese opera, writes calligraphy, and works in papercut, the art of snipping plain sheets into magical, see-through images of animals and deities. He wants to learn graffiti art. And hip-hop dance.

Chen grew up in Fujian Province, where the people forever stare out at the sea and wonder what lies across it.

When Chen was 9, his father emigrated to the United States, undertaking that complicated legal process in hopes of assuring his children a brighter future. A job in construction allowed him to send money to his family to build a strong, hurricane-proof house in China.

Seven years passed before Chen saw his father again.

He, his mother, and two sisters arrived here in January 2007. Chen's mother prepared her then-15-year-old son by talking about the American dream, how hard work brought financial reward.

The family settled in South Philadelphia, which during the last 30 years has filled with immigrants from Cambodia, Vietnam, and China. The tight housing market in Chinatown, for more than a century the regional gateway for Asian émigrés, has forced newcomers to settle farther south and north.

For Chen, day-to-day reality was not the lofty aspirations of the American dream, but a school where he struggled to speak the language and where Asians were taunted and punched. Many among the school's Asian minority - the student body is 70 percent African American - are learning English.

Chen realized something else: In the United States, he was permitted to speak up. As a teen in China, he knew protesting against the government could lead to jail. Here, he heard teachers talk about the groups and people who fought for change across more than 200 years of American history.

Around him, Chen saw a school with a sizable Asian population, 18 percent among 927 students, but divided by ethnicity. The Chinese youths were divided even among themselves by language.

Some spoke Mandarin, some Cantonese, others Fujianese, a dialect that's almost a separate language.

Chen wanted to bring them together - and, sadly, violence provided an impetus. In October 2008, five Asian students were chased into the Snyder Avenue subway station and beaten.

Three months later, Chen founded the Chinese American Student Association, and has twice been elected its president.

He told the students to speak Mandarin, the language taught in Chinese schools, so they could communicate. And he told them that if they had a problem, they should call him for help.

"I wanted to help the new students to learn American language and culture," Chen said. "This country will help you address your goals, but not give them to you. You have to be hardworking."

It was the beginning of an organization furthered and connected by QQ, the Chinese instant-messaging service, that eventually coalesced around the boycott.

Chen said the tumult of last week - the walkout, the district's promises of improved safety - were a start, not an end. New student leaders must step forward. He will graduate in June.

His plan is to keep improving his English and head first to a two-year college, then to a major institution. He wants to study communications and social work, and continue to advocate for the Asian community.

"But not only for the Asian community. For different cultures and languages," he said. "The long-term solution should be that people from different backgrounds should communicate."