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November 30, 2000

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Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 19, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 46

Wake-Up Time
Once politically dormant, Asian Americans have heard an alarm go off

Finding Their Voice: A voter-registration stall aimed at Chinese in South Pasadena, California
Asiaweek Pictures

They are the quiet Americans. They work hard, excel, pay taxes and stay out of trouble. Traditionally, they have also stayed out of voting booths - not calculating the price of their non-involvement. But Asian Americans now appear to be waking up to their civic responsibilities and are at last finding a political voice.

This is especially true in California, where one-third of the country's fastest-growing minority lives, and where it makes up more than 10% of the population. Steering clear of politics may have been judged the wisest course among past generations of Asian immigrants, but the predictable consequences of that attitude can now be seen - a lack of proportionate representation in the highest levels of public, corporate and academic life.

"The cost [of non-involvement] became clear to me more than 10 years ago, and I still feel shame and anger when I think of it," says Paul Zee, 49, a former mayor of South Pasadena, near Los Angeles, and a current member of the city council. "I don't remember the controversy any more, but I overheard two politicians talking. One said, 'But what about the Asian response?' The other guy just looked at him and said, 'I don't have to worry about the Asian response, do I? They don't vote.'" Zee, who arrived in the U.S. from Hong Kong in his 20s, says that was his personal turning point. "I thought to myself, okay, I'd better get involved here. If we're not at the table, in the conversation, it will be a different conversation and we will be left out or at least left behind."

Accusations earlier this year against Taiwan-born American Lee Wen-ho over the alleged theft of American nuclear secrets have underscored the need for an activist Asian political agenda. Lee lost his job at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and his life is now in shambles - even though authorities have acknowledged there is only circumstantial evidence against him and no real proof that any theft occurred. The "secrets" he was alleged to have passed had been widely circulated among hundreds of State Department and Pentagon officials, none of whom have apparently came under serious suspicion.

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A place at the table
Led by California's Senate hopeful Matt Fong, Asian-American politicians come of age

Asian Americans were also indignant that their political contributions automatically became suspect following allegations - still under examination - that overseas Chinese tried to buy political influence with President Bill Clinton in the 1996 presidential election. Some complained that merely having a Chinese family name seemed to be enough to attract suspicion. Ordinary businessmen reported how they lost face when ordered to testify in Washington over their perfectly legal donations.

But even before these incidents, Asians were beginning to realize they needed a voice if they were to receive equal treatment. By the time of the general election in November 1998, Asian voter participation in California had doubled compared with polls two years before. Less dramatic increases were also noted around the country. This new enthusiasm can be traced to a number of factors. The most significant was probably an upsurge in the number of Asian-American candidates standing in local, state and national elections, particularly on the West Coast. Oregon elected Taiwan-born David Wu as the first Asian-American U.S. senator, and Gary Loc, an American of Chinese descent, won the contest for governor of Washington State - despite the fact that Asians make up only a small percentage of the electorate in those two states.

Several organizations were formed with the express purpose of registering new Asian voters, educating them about the issues, and getting them to the polling booths. One of them, Vision 21, was founded by former mayor Zee. A non-partisan group, it concentrates on an internship program in which college kids train with elected officials and learn how to run for public office. Vision 21 also funded publicity for Asian candidates in the last election. Says Zee: "We Asians account for more than 10% of the population, but we make up less than .1% of public-office holders. We are badly under-represented. The trouble is that we're not aggressive enough. We're shy. And Asian parents don't encourage their kids to go into politics."

Vision 21 volunteer Tina Chang is not what you would call the shy type. This feisty mother of two may speak in thickly accented English, but no interpreter is needed to understand her zeal for the political process of her adopted country. "It's the squeaky wheel that gets the oil," she says, cutting to the essence of participatory democracy in the U.S. Chang and her husband immigrated from Taiwan over 20 years ago and are the only Asians living on their quiet, tree-lined street in South Pasadena. She has voted ever since receiving her citizenship 15 years ago, though she acknowledges that at first she followed her husband's advice.

She now makes her own decisions, and is committed to giving Asians a political voice. "We have to organize to protect our interests," she says. "We will experience discrimination as long as we stay separate." Chang, 44, is typical of the new wave of grassroots activists drawn to the Asian-American cause. She says one problem with getting Asians to register to vote is that they don't like to sign anything they do not completely understand. And then there is the matter of traditional attitudes. "The experience of many Asians is that most politicians are horrible. So why bother to vote?" As for discrimination, Chang says she sometimes encounters careless comments such as "So when are you going back home to China?" Her standard reply: "I've been here for 20 years. When did you move onto the block?"

CAUSE (Chinese-Americans United for Self-Empowerment) is a "top-down" organization that supports Asian Americans campaigning for office and seeks to influence legislation through a network of well-placed contacts. Among these is its president, Hong Kong-born Charles Woo, an articulate spokesman on minority issues and slated to be the first Asian president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. Says program coordinator Sandra Chen: "We find that a lot can be done at a high level by people in positions of influence."

Chen was born in Beijing and came to America as a six-year-old. Now 25, she doesn't sound like or behave like a first-generation immigrant. For a start, she hasn't chosen a conservative career path designed to yield a good income within a few years. "My mother wanted me to be a doctor, or at least a pharmacist," the CAUSE activist says. "She has told me many times that no man will want a wife with such a strange career."

Nonetheless, the political science major has the support of her father, who knows better than most Americans what can happen when a country is run with no elections and no restraints on the power of politicians. He was persecuted during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the mid-1960s and sent to the countryside for re-education. His daughter says most immigrants from China are well-educated and do not want to be perceived as troublemakers, but as sophisticated people who know how to work effectively within the system. "But in this country, you have to vote," she insists. "You have to know the issues, or you lose out. That's the way it works. So parents do a disservice to their kids when they tell them to stay away from politics and just focus on getting high grades and making money."

A new national political action committee, 80-20, has set its sights on next year's presidential election. It undertakes to deliver the Asian vote (at a ratio of 80% to 20%) to the party that promises to appoint Asians to top-level positions. One of its leading activists, former Lt.-Gov. of Delaware S.B. Woo, says its website, which went up last year, is helping to create a large Asian block-vote. That should be enough to catch candidates' attention.

Says Matt Fong, a former treasurer of California whose bid for the Senate last year failed despite his getting 80% of the Asian vote: "In California, a vote swing of 4% to 5% can win or lose an election. And that's about the percentage of the electorate Asians control. That vote is up for grabs." Fong, 45, is a top fundraiser for front-running Republican presidential contender George W. Bush, and obviously hopes that his early commitment will be rewarded with some kind of office if his candidate is successful. But whether it's Bush, Democrat Al Gore or some other in 2000, Asian Americans finally seem determined to make sure their days as scapegoats - and outsiders - are over.

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