Chinatown in Limbo

Will Asian Americans Ever Elect a Councilmember of Their Own?

For Rocky Chin, May might be the cruelest month. The civil rights attorney, an early front-runner in this year's crowded race to fill the downtown Manhattan City Council seat being vacated by Kathryn Freed, had hoped to win the endorsements of both the gay and lesbian independent Democrats and the village independent Democrats, two famously liberal political clubs. But earlier this month both groups voted to back Brad Hoylman, a young gay lawyer for the New York City Partnership. Chin came in second twice.

It is still early in the political season, Chin notes, and he remains undaunted. Still, it's hard to suppress the suspicion that despite his impeccable liberal credentials—he is a staffer with the city's human rights commission and boasts a progressive résumé that stretches back through the David Dinkins and Jesse Jackson campaigns—Chin seems to be butting up against the same obstacle that has derailed Chinese American candidates in every race since the notoriously bipolar Council District 1 was created 10 years ago.

From Chinatown west to Soho, Tribeca, and Battery Park City, District 1 features one of the starkest racial and class divides in New York politics. And in three campaigns for the seat, beginning in 1991, Freed defeated Chinese American candidates in races with an East/West split. Freed's opponents won support in Chinatown and the district's sliver of the Lower East Side, while Freed carried the largely white, largely affluent West Side. Those results are a source of intense frustration to many in Chinatown—and across the city's Asian American communities.

Asian Americans register in Chinatown: Political diffidence seems to be waning.
photo: Corky Lee
Asian Americans register in Chinatown: Political diffidence seems to be waning.

For the remarkable fact is that despite an Asian presence virtually as old as the city itself, New York has never elected an Asian American to the City Council or to any citywide office. The upshot, as then mayor Ed Koch put it inimitably in 1983 (while dismissing a massive Chinatown protest against a proposed jail): "You don't vote, you don't count."

Behind Koch's put-down was the bromide that Asian New Yorkers are indifferent to politics. It is true that Asian Americans have traditionally naturalized, registered, become Democrats, and voted in low numbers. Of course, for the better part of this century, anti-Asian laws slowed the growth of Asian American communities—not to mention prevented Asian immigrants from becoming citizens, putting them outside the purview of once mighty Tammany Hall. But political diffidence seems to be waning.

The recent census revealed that in the 1990s the city's Asian population grew by 54 percent, making one out of 10 New Yorkers Asian American. And years of anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from Washington, capped by 1996 laws that cut off many benefits to noncitizens, helped spark a boom in naturalization. More than a million of New York's immigrants became citizens statewide in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, according to John Mollenkopf, director of CUNY's Center for Urban Research, evidence from November's elections showed that for the first time Asian Americans were just as likely to vote as were other New Yorkers. Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund exit polls found four times as many Asian Democrats in the city as Asian Republicans. Indeed, Asian Americans favored Al Gore and Hillary Clinton by larger margins than city voters as a whole. Says Mollenkopf: "We are beginning to see the fallout of the 1996 legislation: the surge of naturalization, and the registration and voting of those newcomers."

Add to this evidence of political awakening another "real revolution," as Kwong Hui, a labor activist who is also running for the District 1 council seat, calls the term-limit law that is forcing 35 of the 51 councilmembers (including Freed) to step down. The term-limit coup, along with a generous campaign-finance law that makes it easier for political neophytes to run, has led to a profusion of Asian American candidates. Some 13 are running for seven council seats.

But even as this rush is galvanizing Asian Americans, many are ambivalent about the pileup, especially in District 1, where three Chinese Americans (Chin, Hui, and housing advocate Margaret Chin) are squaring off against each other as well as three white hopefuls. "It's a good thing so many are running," says David Chen, executive director of the Chinese-American Planning Council, "but if your platform is about empowerment, then you ought to be able to unite."

To be sure, the racial determinism of New York politics has given Asian Americans plenty of reason to unite, but there are also fundamental divisions—involving nationality, language, and class—within Asian New York. Nothing illustrates these tensions better than the story of District 1, the Frankenstein that has hobbled Asian American hopes—though it was crafted by Chinatown politicos themselves.

Longtime Chinatown activists agree about one thing: The last time there was a similar surge of political excitement in the community was in 1991. That year, the City Council was revamped to add 16 seats in a bid to bring more people of color into the body. Those moves upped the number of black and Latino councilmembers from nine to 21.

But in Chinatown, a bitter battle developed over which neighborhoods would be linked to the community, with one side—led by Margaret Chin and her Asian Americans for Equality—lobbying for a district that soldered Chinatown to the wealthy West Side. Meanwhile, a coalition of Asian and Latino activists, including AALDEF director Margaret Fung and current District 2 councilmember Margarita Lopez, proposed joining Chinatown to the heavily Latino Lower East Side. Among other things, the dispute involved competing visions of Chinatown. As Fung puts it, "The question is, are the community's interests allied to affluent whites or to working-class immigrants of color?"

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