I Wor Kuen

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I Wor Kuen (traditional Chinese: 義和拳; simplified Chinese: 义和拳; pinyin: Yìhé Quán; Cantonese Yale: Yih-wò Kyuhn) was a radical Marxist Asian American collective that originally formed in 1969 in New York City’s Chinatown. Borrowing from the ideologies of the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, IWK organized several community programs and produced a newsletter series promoting self-determination for Asian Americans. Initially consisting of students from Columbia University, the group worked in conjunction with residents of New York City’s Chinatown to address the community’s needs for healthcare reform, draft counseling, and childcare. The group expanded nationally with the Red Guard in San Francisco in 1972 to create a nation IWK.


Manhattan’s Chinatown during the late 1960s-1970s was heavily affected by the repeal of the immigration quota system from the 1920s with the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965. This allowed immigrants from Asia, as well as other continents, to be able to immigrate into the U.S. without having to be barred due to national quotas from specific nations. By 1970, Chinatown’s population more than doubled to over 40,000 people in the neighborhood.[1] However, with the influx of new Chinese immigrants, there was also a rise in Chinese youth violence and vandalism within the neighborhood. The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), an organization that was seen as the local leader/representative of Chinatown, had neglected the needs of the increasing population, failing to provide public health care/awareness, neglecting to restore the public recreation center (which would reduce youth crime), and promoting tourism/voyeurism into Chinatown. Mayor John Lindsay’s administration (1966-1973) failed to address the needs of the community members properly, “sanctioning slums, evictions, demolition of sound homes and spiraling rents.” [2]

Taking into consideration all of the domestic circumstances and sentiments of politically engaged Asian Americans during the late 1960s (both nationally and within NYC), we can see how IWK formed as a product of these surrounding factors. The organization established itself in New York’s Chinatown in late 1969 and is named after the peasant group that fought against foreign intrusion and influence in China in 1898 during the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion, which officially began in 1900. Translated to “Righteous and Harmonious Fists,” IWK was established by a group of young people and students who participated in the Triple A and Columbia’s AAPA, and eventually other radical Chinese nationals (Wei 212-3). Inspired by their namesake from the Chinese Boxer Rebellion and with Mao Tse-tung, the members of IWK were heavy proponents for self-determination and community service on varying levels. Within New York City, IWK worked predominantly around issues affecting the immediate Manhattan Chinatown. They protested the tourist buses that came into the community; participated in a “housing crimes trial” forum at Columbia U with Metropolitan Council on Housing, Black Panthers, Young Lords, City Wide Coordinating Committee of Welfare Rights Groups, Social Service Employees Union; hosted free movie screenings about the People’s Republic of China; organized a the first Chinatown Health Fair in 1971 with other organizations in the neighborhood as a reaction against the CCBA’s neglect to the community [3] and worked on demonstrations to raise awareness on how to avoid the draft.[4]

In addition to their public organizing, IWK was also known for their nationally distributed and bilingual newspaper, Getting Together. In it, IWK focused on “national liberation struggles around the world but paid particular attention to the People’s Republic of China…[and] the oppressive conditions in Chinatown."[5] By pushing out a publication such as Getting Together, IWK believed that they would be able to share their particular observations and stories of oppression to the rest of the nation. Eventually, IWK spreads out nationally towards the Bay Area, joining forces with the Red Guards (a similar organization based in San Francisco). The group was also generally persecuted by more conservative groups within the Chinese and Asian American community, like the CCBA, who denounced IWK’s revolutionary activities as being disruptive to Chinatown (Wei 215). They were also under FBI surveillance when they began to use the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA) as a means of public recruitment.

In the end, however, IWK became defunct, as its ideologies were merely a minority within the Chinese and Asian American community. Although their mission was to help serve the people, in many ways, due to their radicalist tendencies, their goals were not properly aligned with the community’s. This not only shows how IWK was struggling against the larger systems of oppression and “imperialism” that was touted throughout the time since TWLF, but it also conflicted ideologically within Chinatown. As there was already a split between Communist PRC, Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), and apolitical/assimilationist ideology, it was difficult for IWK to truly propagate their goals to the rest of the community. In many ways, this is reflective of organizing today, where differing ideologies/methodologies of activism can cause groups to split. Although IWK is rarely remembered in the larger scheme of Civil Rights and social action in New York, their narrative is still important in that it reveals a specific radical past of Asian America. Their fight for local self-determination not only is a good example of how organizing functioned at a specific point in time, but also proves how a disconnect between the activist and the community can create unnecessary tensions that can hinder the progression of justice.

In 1978 I Work Kuen and the Chicano Marxist-Leninist organization August 29th Movement were both dissolved and a new organization, the League of Revolutionary Struggle was founded.


  1. ^ Arnold, Martin (5 August 2014). "Teen-Age Gangs Plague Merchants in Chinatown". New York Times. Retrieved 10 May 2014. 
  2. ^ "A Mock Trial Here On 'Housing Crimes' Censures Lindsay". New York Times. 7 December 1970. Retrieved 10 May 2014. 
  3. ^ "Youths in Chinatown Open Health Fair". New York Times. 1 August 1971. Retrieved 10 May 2014. 
  4. ^ Ching, Frank (12 November 1971). "Peking Backers Here Stage Welcome". New York Times. Retrieved 10 May 2014. 
  5. ^ Wei, William (1993). Asian American Movement. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.