June 4, 1990, was anything but an uneventful day in New York City: on that temperate late-spring afternoon, Donald Trump's panicky bank creditors began imposing belt-tightening measures on the debt-laden billionaire; scandalized Covenant House, its future funding in jeopardy, announced plans to slash up to half of its programs and staff; the Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed more than 34 points to reach an all-time high of 2935.19; and the Mets' beloved long-time manager, Davey Johnson, was replaced by squirrely former shortstop Bud Harrelson. However, an event more momentous than any of these passed virtually unnoticed by New York City's jaded residents that day: the New York Daily News quietly withdrew the long-running daily comic Ching Chow, ending once and for all a shameful and embarrassing episode in the paper's otherwise proud history.
For over twenty years, Ching held forth from his modest newsprint pulpit in the back pages of New York's Picture Newspaper--an oasis of peacefulness and sanity in a world that was all too often filled with fear and hate. His daily pronouncements, simple but sagacious pearls of Oriental wisdom, harkened back to a more innocent age, a time without deadlines, bills, and the pressures of modern city life. "The wise man sees more with his heart than the fool with two eyes"; "'Tis work, not words, that bespeak a faith"; "Fame, like man, grows pale with age"--Ching's maxims are still stunning in their spareness, the very picture of humility and artlessness. Or are they?
Unfortunately, a careful look beneath the surface reveals quite a different story. Far from being the utterances of a selfless sage, Ching's words--when dissected by anyone with a working knowledge of codes and ciphers--can be seen to hide an ugly pattern of lies, greed, and reactionary political thought. As far back as 1968, with peace, love, and women's liberation in the air, Ching was already making it clear where his allegiances lay. On February 19 of that tumultuous year, his strip contained what appears to be a sensible and benevolent piece of advice: "He who tries may fail, but he who never tries fails more." However, applying the Gronsfeld cipher, we see the odious male-chauvinist message encoded within: "A woman's place is washing my socks."
Over the next two decades, Ching used his strip as a platform to speak out on a wide range of issues. Whether it was Vietnam, abortion, the minimum wage, the Middle East, or Reaganomics, Ching took great pleasure in airing his ultra-rightist views for the few with the skills to decipher them. When in November 1979 dozens of Americans were taken hostage by Iranian radicals, the beginning of a long nightmare for then-President Carter, Ching Chow's public communiqué of the day--"A good man will never be troubled by a bad conscience"--had a more chilling one tucked inside, by way of the Porta cipher: "Nuke the scumbags now, Jimmy." Among the causes that Ching devoted his life to were the death penalty (of which he was an ardent supporter), a return to the twelve-hour workday, and the establishment of "separate but equal" bathrooms for African-Americans at the News's Forty-Second Street offices. He also favored the use of scabs during the baseball strike of 1981, and backed Alexander Haig in his unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1988.
Well aware of which side his bread was buttered on, Ching was more than happy to work with the top brass at the News. He could always be counted on to help settle scores with traitorous employees, for example. On the week of September 26, 1988, shortly after award-winning columnist Jimmy Breslin left to accept a job at New York Newsday, Ching's six strips contained an unequivocal message; taking every third letter of each of them, stringing them together, and reversing them, we get: "Breslin, you snake, set one foot near Third Avenue and Forty-Second and you're dead meat." And more recently, with striking union employees engaged in a bitter struggle with News management, the counterrevolutionary nature of Ching's politics was again bared for all to see; applying the Phillips Polyalphabetic cipher to his homily of May 9, 1990, we get: "Murdoch knew how to handle labor problems: lock the money-hungry bastards out."
Readers often wondered why Ching, one of the News's most esteemed properties, was buried in the very back of the paper, far away from Peanuts, Motley's Crew, Hagar the Horrible, and the rest of the paper's comics stable. Several Asian groups even went so far as to level charges of racism against the editors, but the latter's motives here were, if anything, downright noble. Ching's home was smack-dab in the middle of the sports section, and for good reason: he was a nearly infallible source of horse-racing tips. For those in the know, there was gold just a couple of column-inches away. Ching's prowess at picking winners was legendary, and many a racing enthusiast with a minimal knowledge of cryptography made a comfortable living off his advice. From his June 20, 1970, recommendation of Liz's Lollapalooza in the fifth race at Belmont (18 to 1) to his stunning $930 hit on the Meadowlands Trifecta on August 5, 1987, Ching's loyalty to his betting buddies never wavered.
Not all of his friendships were so ideologically pure, however; his longstanding relationship with the brutal Chinese government, for example, was deplored by everyone from Jeane Kirkpatrick to Amnesty International. In what was perhaps Ching Chow's darkest hour, and eventually compelled the News's editors to drop their increasingly hot potato once and for all, the strip offered unequivocal support to the Beijing leaders during their massacre of the Tiananmen Square protesters in June 1989, and stood firmly behind them during the subsequent cover-up. The fallout from this political fiasco grew with each passing day, and the News's management made no secret of their displeasure with the devastating publicity. A year later, their hands tied, it became clear to them that there was only one solution: Ching Chow had to go. Drained and exhausted, the embattled philosopher accepted the paper's decision.
Resting last month on his secluded Connecticut estate, his long and painful ordeal behind him, Ching Chow was at last enjoying the quiet anonymity that he claims is all he ever wanted. Having survived the long journey from a humble farm in rural southeastern China to the center of a maelstrom in the world's greatest metropolis, he was still full of hope for a future without mistrust and hatred. When I asked him if, during his rocky forty-year career, he has ever had any regrets, Ching's only comment was a wistful "Fools fear adversity, but the wise man listens only to his conscience"; or in other words, "You've got exactly thirty seconds to get off my property before I start shooting, hippie."
[Previously published in "LCD"]