In Chinatown, Matters of Tea and Trust
By DAN BARRY
For the last 35 years, Shuck Seid has come with the job. If you rise
in the Police Department to become commander of the Fifth Precinct in Chinatown,
perquisites include an office in the ancient headquarters, certain distinction on Mulberry Street - and the counsel of a slight Chinese man who will turn 78 before
Mr. Seid was beside the Fifth Precinct's current commander, Capt. William
Matusiak, yesterday, as usual, this time for the monthly news conference
at the Chinese
Consolidated Benevolent Association. He blotted away some rain from the captain's suit with a tissue, and carefully translated the captain's comments about the
continued drop in crime, marred only by a recent murder on Division Street.
And when Captain Matusiak left for another meeting, Mr. Seid offered
him his umbrella. The burly captain smiled, declined and said goodbye to
the small man who
advises him on that city within this city, that Chinatown.
Shuck Seid has been a lucky name, but it is not his given name. When
he arrived from Hong Kong in 1940 as a 14-year-old boy, he assumed the
name of the man who
had slyly arranged his immigration. "The first thing I want to tell you is my name in Chinese," he says. It is Bai Rui Lei.
He served in the Army, married the daughter of a Mott Street shop owner,
went to Georgetown University on the G.I. Bill, and got a job at the Health
the years, he demonstrated a knack for narrowing the cultural gap that is part of the Chinatown landscape.
In 1969, Mr. Seid and a few other leaders bought some uniforms and created
an auxiliary police operation. Too many Chinatown residents were being
preyed upon, they
argued, and too few were reporting crimes to the police.
Mr. Seid answered the question why by sharing one of the many Chinese
sayings he relies upon to explain things: "Take care of the snow in front
of your own doorstep
and don't bother with the frost on the roofs of others."
"I had to break that down," he added.
At first the police resented the 13 auxiliary officers working beside them. "They said we were informants for the community," Mr. Seid recalled.
Gradually, though, the Fifth Precinct came to value this earnest band.
The Fifth has 143 auxiliary officers now, more than any other precinct.
No one at headquarters
blinked an eye the other day when a Chinese New Year offering of a roast pig was placed before a statue of General Kwan, the red-faced patron of law enforcement.
The statue of the general is in the basement, across from the desk Mr.
Seid uses as the commanding officer of the auxiliary police. He has other
desks as well at the
precinct - as assistant to Captain Matusiak, and as the director of a community-outreach program called the Chinatown Project.
But Mr. Seid does more than provide translation. He has instructed a
succession of commanding officers - 23 over 35 years, according to a list
he keeps in his wallet - on
which civic leaders are really civic leaders; on how to properly present one's business card; on how to tap two fingers lightly on the table to signal thanks for the tea just
His influence with top police officials, from Commissioner Raymond W.
Kelly on down, has brought criticism that he represents the old Cantonese
guard at a time when a
new Fujianese guard has emerged.
But Captain Matusiak, who took command last summer, said Mr. Seid provides him with an understanding of all of Chinatown.
"You need Shuck Seid," he said.
Of course, there are more important matters than even the Fifth Precinct.
Mr. Seid and his wife, Nancy, raised three children in Chinatown. No. 1,
Sylven, is a college
professor. No. 2, Lorraine, is a senior pattern maker for Baby Gap. And No. 3, their boy, Stuart -
"I'm sorry to tell you, we lost him in World Trade Center," Mr. Seid said. He then dipped into another language of our time. "Sandler O'Neill. One-hundred-fourth floor."
Stuart Louis was a top executive at the Sandler O'Neill investment firm;
he was 43, with a wife and family. In a photograph on the wall of Wing
On Wo & Co., the
family's gift shop on Mott Street, the commanding officer of the Fifth Precinct Auxiliary Police stands in full uniform beside his adoring grandson, Evan. Stuart's boy.
Responsibilities, like life, go on. Yesterday, he provided translation
for the commanding officer. And on Friday, the commanding officer born
Bai Rui Lei will patrol the
crowded streets of Chinatown, where the gutters still glitter with a new year's confetti.