Helen Ying is the public face of Portland's Old Town/Chinatown.
She's been a vocal presence, urging the city to cleanse the neighborhood of drugs and vice. But she now finds herself torn between Chinatown residents who hate its status as a late-night party zone, and her allies in the Chinese-American business community who want to cash in by opening a new strip club.
Ying complained to the City Council on Oct. 7 about the drug dealers and street kids she says despoil Chinatown.
"Today I want to come before you to address the lawlessness and behavior," Ying said. "What do we want Portland to look like 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now?"
But Ying's good work is at odds with one of the neighborhood's latest projects. She is also at the center of a growing controversy over a proposed strip club at Northwest 4th Avenue and Everett Street, in a long-dormant building.
The club's landlords include several influential members of Portland's Chinese-American business community, including two with long-standing ties to Stephen Ying, Helen's husband.
Helen Ying is now under fire from neighborhood residents, who say strippers will attract exactly the kind of vice and crime she's decrying.
"What will it do for us," asks Daniel Howe, a resident of Pacific Tower Apartments, a low-income building nearby, "except keep us up at night?"
On Sept. 28, Ying confirmed in an email to another Pacific Tower resident, Ruth Ann Barrett, that the owners of the building—a Chinese business group and social club called Hop Sing Tong—are planning to put a strip club in a derelict tea room.
"I learned from Raymond Wong, a representative of Hop Sing Tong who owns the property, that their tenant finally started remodeling a few weeks ago," the email reads, "and plans to run it as a juice bar to a clientele of 18-to-21-year-olds."
(A juice bar is a strip club, open to patrons age 18 and over, that is not authorized by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to sell alcohol. In order to turn a profit, many juice bars stay open until 4 am or later.)
City records show the new tenants in the former tea room are so eager to open a strip club that they began renovating the space without a city permit.
Damien Hawke, the current manager of Gold Club, a strip joint in Milwaukie and one of two managers preparing the Chinatown building to its new incarnation, told WW that workers were simply cleaning up the space. A city inspector, however, discovered Oct. 2 that the work was done without the necessary permits.
"The goal was to convert previous restaurant to strip club," wrote city building inspector Jacob Carringer in his report. "I advised that at this time they should submit a permit application."
And although Ying's email said the new strip club would be an 18-and-up "juice bar," Hawke says he plans to apply for a liquor permit.
Residents like Barrett and Howe are already frustrated by the all-weekend party, known as the "Entertainment District," that attracts loud, late-night revelers from all over the metro area. And they say a new strip club will only exacerbate Old Town's lawlessness.
They'd prefer businesses that cater to residents rather than another night club.
"I would like to see a grocery store, even a convenience store," says Howe. "Something with fresh fruits and veggies."
To be sure, strip clubs are hardly a new phenomenon in Old Town: The venerable Magic Garden operated down the street from the new strip club location until just last year.
Strip clubs are often seen as magnets for drugs, sex trafficking and violent crime. There have been at least eight deaths associated with Portland-area clubs in the past four years.
Exactly who owns this Northwest 4th Avenue location, and is renting it out to a strip club, is complicated.
Ying's Sept. 28 email states that Hop Sing Tong owns the building. Hawke, the strip-club manager, says he represents a Pennsylvania company that is leasing the space. He signed the lease, he said, with Raymond Wong, who represents Hop Sing Tong.
"We've dealt extensively with the Hop Sing Association," he says. "Obviously, they were eager for action in the building—they wanted to bring some kind of life and energy to that corner."
Records also show the building is owned by Yick Kong Oregon Corporation. Yick Kong, which loosely translates as "public good," is a company presided over by Richard Louie, current treasurer and former president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association.
Stephen Ying, Helen's husband, serves on the association's board of directors with Louie and Wong.
Stephen Ying and Wong did not return calls from WW seeking comment. A man who answered the phone at Louie's home refused to give his name, or discuss the ownership of the Old Town building. "This is none of your business," he said.
Helen Ying tells WW she shares the frustrations of Old Town/Chinatown residents sick of all-hours partying, but claims there's nothing she can do.
"I devote my time as a volunteer to help improve things as much as I know how," she says. "What we don't want is to have any business come in that would hurt the neighborhood. We want to find ways to solve the problem rather than sitting and watching that happen."