I love New York City’s Chinatown. I spent many afternoons wandering its streets when I was an art school student in the 1970s in Brooklyn, and I spent nights wandering its streets when I worked for six months in Jersey City on the other side of Manhattan several years ago. There’s no feeling like it — crowded streets teeming with people, shops overflowing onto the sidewalks, amazing arrays of food and enticements everywhere, the sound of Cantonese and now, more often Mandarin, echoing everywhere. The streets are a tangle; they start out like a grid but then alleyways curve off and what looks like nooks hide more restaurants to try.
San Francisco’s Chinatown is more of a straight line, and though it’s also great, it doesn’t hold the same sense of discovery that New York’s does. Chicago’s is good. LA’s is nice. Boston’s is cool too. DC’s is kinda pitiful.
But New York — THAT’s Chinatown! Carved out as if it were its own country with Canal Street serving as the hard boundary between it and Little Italy just to the north, Chinatown rises above New York’s energy with a spirit that’s its own, and unique.
So imagine my surprise when I found out recently that that bustling district of Manhattan, along with the Wall Street area south of Chinatown, has never had a Chinese American representing its citizens and businesses in New York’s City Council.
Until now, that is. Margaret Chin, a 56-year-old longtime community activist who was born in Hong Kong, is the front-runner to win that pioneering position this Tuesday. (Thanks to APA for Progress for turning me on to the CNN story about Chin.)
One of the issues Chin will tackle is one that more often associated with Hispanics than Asians in the mainstream media conversation: immigration. It’s a topic she understands deeply because of personal experience. The CNN story reports:
Chin’s American story began almost a half century ago, during the Kennedy administration. Her father, seeking new opportunities, left China for Colombia. A few months later, he became an undocumented U.S. worker, scratching out a living as a waiter in the Bronx section of New York.
When the family’s immigration papers came through in 1963, he borrowed money to bring them to America. Margaret, the third of five children, remembers her dad’s exhaustion and pain after spending long days on his feet. …
Chin’s father died a long time ago, but his decision to pursue the American dream — starting as an undocumented immigrant — left a lasting impression on his only daughter. Today, immigration reform is one of her passions.
“People are here because of the opportunities America has to offer,” she said. “They work hard. They struggle. We need to fix our immigration system so more people can help build the country.”
As a community activist, Chin has pushed for a lot of causes — jobs, healthcare, city infrastructure and housing — and ran unsuccessfully for council (and lost) three times before. But the time may be right for her election.
In the past decade, the total nationwide population of Asians and Pacific Islanders jumped to almost 13 million, a nearly 50 percent increase since 1990, according to the Asian American Action Fund.
While Asian-Americans make up roughly 4 percent of the nation’s population, they have been slow to win office on the national or state level. They currently hold only 1 percent of the seats in Congress, the Action Fund notes.
In politically powerful California, according to the Action Fund, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders account for well over 10 percent of the population, but hold less than 8 percent of the seats in the state legislature.
The growing bloc of new voters is more savvy, and more Americanized … which means the younger generations understand the system and are more willing to be part of the political process than their immigrant parents and grandparents.
In fact, on Tuesday New York will usher in a new era for Asian Americans. Chin is one of three AAPIs positioned to win seats on City Council, and John Liu, the Democratic nominee for comptroller, is likely to be elected as the first Asian-American to win a citywide office.
These are clearly cool times for Asian Americans in the Big Apple. I wish them all the best, and especially Chin, because it’s also significant that she’s the first AAPI woman to win that council seat.
If you live in New York — especially if you live in Chinatown — be sure to vote for whomever you support in your districts!
It’s tempting to say that because we have more AAPIs at the highest levels of the White House than ever before, that we’re coming of age politically. But that’s just not the case. Just look at the Action Fund’s numbers. This process needs to bubble up, not trickle down.
The first crucial step for Asian American Pacific Islanders to get more visibility in the U.S. is to just cast that ballot. Then volunteer for community boards, then run for elected office. Until we fill the pipeline and get comfortable within the workings of Democracy, we’ll never be represented accurately at the top levels.
Here’s a video of Margaret Chin from YuoTube: