Lily Lee Chen : Her Roots--and Perhaps Her Political Goals--Lie Beyond Monterey Park

Times Staff Writer

Tradition had always dictated that the outgoing mayor of Monterey Park pass the ceremonial gavel without much fanfare, but then Lily Lee Chen has never been one to be bound by ritual.

Chen ended her historic 9 1/2-month tenure as mayor of Monterey Park on September 10, 1984, in a time-honored ceremony in the council chambers of City Hall. The first Chinese-American woman to serve as mayor of a U.S. city, Chen was to preside over the swearing-in and installation of David Almada as the new mayor.

But instead of giving brief opening remarks, Chen spoke for 15 minutes, recapitulating her accomplishments during the previous months and expressing her hopes that her agenda would continue under a new administration.

On a night set aside for Almada, fellow council members said, Chen ignored the tradition that reserved speechmaking for the incoming mayor and upstaged Almada. It was another example, they said, of Chen going her own independent way, no matter what convention might dictate.

"That was my evening," Almada said. "I don't think that speech should have been given that night. Lily should have kept with tradition. She has to take a look at things like that, to be cognizant of other people. She has to learn how to operate within the system."

"I felt a sense of obligation to let the people know what I was able to do for them and what I was looking forward to," Chen explained. "Critics can be so vicious. They can literally kill you. There's a saying in Chinese that when the pig gets fat and a person becomes well-known, they both should become concerned."

In nearly four years as a member of the Monterey Park City Council, Chen has taken a maverick's approach to public service that has drawn both numerous supporters and vocal detractors.

Her supporters acknowledge that the 49-year-old councilwoman might not always be a team player, but they insist that she is a selfless politician who rarely fails her constituents. During her term as mayor, they said, Chen took a leave of absence from her county job and worked full time to accomplish several objectives, including helping to close a local landfill and to secure long-sought funds for the expansion of an elementary school.

Democratic Party leaders call Chen a rising political star in a region and state where Asians are emerging as a new and potentially significant political force. Mindful of the promise of that vote, Chen has registered hundreds of Chinese voters in Monterey Park and assumed the role of spokeswoman for an ever-growing Asian population in the San Gabriel Valley.

Her critics complain that Chen, who sometimes refers to herself as a "historic first," is ambitious to a fault and has trouble accepting anything but center stage. They say she can be petty and vindictive, pointing to a recent campaign she is said to have organized in which several businesses pulled advertisements from a local Chinese-language newspaper critical of Chen.

What becomes clear when talking to Chen is that she is driven not so much by political ambition as she is by a desire for recognition and love from her father. Chen said her 85-year-old father, a retired educator and a member of the Taiwan legislature, has never quite gotten over the fact that his wife never bore him a son. Chen called it a terrible disappointment

to the family and said that she has spent her life trying to be a son to her father.

It is what prompted her to insert the family name Lee as a permanent part of her name the night she won election to the council three years ago.

"That was my way of telling my father that it was all right that he didn't have a son," said Chen, director of public affairs for the county's Department of Children's Services and a council member since 1982. "I had achieved something and the family name would carry on."

As Lily Lee Chen traipses from one political function to another, from a recent award dinner recognizing her longstanding commitment to the Boy Scouts of America to one to be held Sunday honoring her work fostering better relations between Asians and Jews, it is hard not to take notice of this woman with a penchant for bright red dresses and misplaced modifiers.

Reds and Greens

"I like bright colors, reds and jade greens," explained Chen, whose style of speech is characterized by the pauses and grammatical errors of someone speaking in their second language. "My consultant tells me I ought to look more subdued, that bright colors make me look too aggressive. I guess I'm not as conservative as I should be."

Some believe that the frenetic pace set by Chen, her appearance at countless political functions, the acceptance of honors both trivial and important and the registration by her supporters of hundreds of Chinese voters in the San Gabriel Valley all point to a run for higher office.

"Lily has a real grass-roots, fundamental idea of what people need," said Michael Eng, a Los Angeles attorney and president of the Chinese-American Political Action Committee, which has registered nearly 500 Asian voters in Monterey Park since 1984. "You can advocate until you're blue in the face but can you move people to action? Lily has that unique combination."

John Emerson, who is chairman and co-founder of the newly organized statewide group California Democrats for New Leadership, said Chen's prospects for higher office are excellent, considering population gains among Asians and her ability to raise substantial funds. Emerson praised Chen's policy of open trade with Far East countries and Mexico.

"She's very progressive in her views, particularly on trade with the Pacific Rim countries and California's role in that trade," Emerson said. "Her vision in that regard and others really marks her as one of the rising stars of California politics."

Fund-Raising Episode

Last year, when it was unclear if Rep. Matthew G. Martinez (D-Monterey Park) would seek reelection in 1984, Chen organized a dinner to raise funds to campaign for the congressional seat.

But when Martinez announced plans just days before the fund-raiser to seek another term, Chen was forced to back down in the name of party unity. She returned thousands of dollars in contributions.

"The Chinese culture has a different perception about political donations," she said. "Many Chinese will give money for a particular campaign but they don't believe in a candidate building up a war chest. So I had to return literally thousands of dollars the night of the fund-raiser."

Chen disavows any immediate intention to run for higher office. She faces a reelection fight next April that will probably focus on what her critics say is her support of numerous development projects bringing "unrestrained growth to Monterey Park." While conceding that Monterey Park has grown in an unorganized fashion, Chen said she has voted against as many proposed projects as she has supported.

Her critics, including former city councilman Irv Gilman, who was unseated by Chen in 1982 and said he may run against her next April, say this growth has brought traffic and crime problems and a proliferation of Chinese-language signs.

In many ways, the sign issue has come to symbolize the frustration of longtime residents who say their once-quiet community has been transformed by waves of Asians moving here. The frustration has led to a proposal for a ballot measure next April symbolically declaring English the city's official language.

Sign Ordinance Issue

Chen said she has long been aware of the potential for Chinese-language signs to divide Monterey Park, a city of 60,000 whose Asian population has grown from less than 10% in 1970 to more than 40% today. In April, she proposed an ordinance requiring some English on all foreign-language signs.

The ordinance, which is now in effect, was immediately criticized by Asian newcomers as unconstitutional and by longtime residents who said it was so watered down that the mere presence of an address in Roman numerals would fulfill the English requirement.

The International Daily News, a local Chinese-language daily, published an editorial condemning Chen's proposal as a violation of First Amendment guarantees and implying that it represented a betrayal of her people.

Two days later, more than a dozen Chinese-owned businesses pulled their advertisements from the paper. Several kept their ads out for up to a week. Anthony Yuen, managing editor of the paper, said some advertisers later confirmed his suspicions that the campaign was organized by Chen as a "show of force."

"It was meant to be a warning," Yuen said. "Lily Chen wanted to remind us that she has friends and is willing to use them if necessary to punish us."

Role Denied

Chen denies any role in the incident. "I have heard that rumor. I'd like to know a single advertiser who would confirm that."

But two Monterey Park businessmen told The Times that a request to pull the ads came a from Chen assistant. Chen still denied any involvement.

"We were contacted by her assistant who asked that we do this as a sign of support for Lily and to protest the articles against her," said one businessman, who asked not to be indentified because of a long friendship with Chen. "There was no doubt that the assistant was operating on behalf of Lily."

The sign issue illustrates a dilemma in which Chen often finds herself as she seeks to represent a polyglot constituency. Chen said her actions must take into account a complex maze of relationships, tensions between the newcomers and longtime residents and between American-born Chinese and recent arrivals from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

Often, she said, China's unresolved civil war comes into play and the tensions involve supporters of the Taiwan government, with whom Chen aligns herself, and members of a Taiwan dissident movement. Chen is viewed warily by some in the Chinese community because of her father's position as a Taiwan legislator and her unqualified support of that martial-law country.

Chen said she spends a great deal of her day representing the interests of newcomers from Taiwan and other Asian countries who are often unaware of their rights and responsibilities. This is a departure from her earlier career, which focused on social issues such as women's rights and the breakdown of the traditional family.

Mixed Feelings

She has mixed feelings about the role change. "It's taken away from my efforts to represent everybody else. I've been labeled and typecast as an Asian representative," she said.

Chen was born in 1936 in Tianjin, a port city just outside Peking, the capital of mainland China. She left China with her family in 1949 on what she says was the last boat departing the mainland for Taiwan, where the Nationalist Party had formed a government in exile.

As a young student, Chen excelled in public speaking and won a national speech contest. She recalls practicing her delivery in front of her father, Lee Yao-lin, a discerning critic who never seemed satisfied with his middle daughter's accomplishments. As a birthday gift, Chen said, her father once gave her a full-length mirror so that she might perfect her speaking style.

Chen said she was in grammar school when her father, the chancellor of a teacher's university, planned a banquet in anticipation that his third child would be a boy. When his wife bore him another daughter, Chen said, Lee had to be hospitalized for a time out of sheer disappointment.

Chen said her mother, an uneducated but proud woman, offered to stand aside so that her husband might marry another woman who could provide him with a son.

"In Chinese culture, a good wife is supposed to produce a son," Chen said. "It was a terrible letdown for my father."

"I really think my drive is compensation for the guilt my mother had for never having a son. She died with that guilt," Chen said. "I want to give my father a message that despite (his) never having a son, I could achieve as much as any son could."

Meets Future Husband

Chen left Taiwan in 1958 and moved to San Francisco to continue her college education. There, she met her future husband, Paul Chen. The couple married in 1960 and moved to Seattle, where her husband took a job with Boeing as an aerospace engineer and Lily worked as a correspondent on the Chinese desk of Voice of America, a U.S. government news and propaganda agency that beams its foreign-language programs to countries worldwide.

Chen hosted her own talk program, heard throughout Southeast Asia. Between 1960 and 1964, Chen received a master's degree in social work from the University of Washington in Seattle, gave birth to a boy and a girl 11 months apart and moved with her family to Los Angeles to begin a career in social work. She remembers the 1960s as a heady time.

"The space industry was booming and so was the field of social work," she said. "We were a part of something important."

Chen's first campaign for elected office, a bid for a vacant Monterey Park City Council seat in a 1981 special election, fell short by 28 votes. When three council seats opened a year later, Chen tried again. This time, she received 5,834 votes, topping the seven other candidates and outdistancing her nearest opponent by more than 1,200 votes. It was the largest vote total for any candidate for municipal office ever in Monterey Park. Chen was therefore the first of three new council members to serve as mayor, a job rotated among council members every 9 1/2 months.

On Nov. 28, 1983, Chen was sworn in as the first female Chinese-American mayor in the nation.

"There were special editions to the Asian newspapers," Chen said. "Senior citizens would call me and express their pride that an Asian could be mayor. I had stories about me in magazines in Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. I had a lot of attention placed on me. I had to perform."

Chen took a leave of absence from her county job and elevated the usual part-time work of mayor to a full-time job. She pressured county and state environmental agencies to monitor the Operating Industries landfill, which was suspected of releasing harmful air pollutants, and she eventually helped win closure of the facility. She fought successfully against the construction of a helipad at a planned bank and organized a city-funded literacy project to teach Asian newcomers basic English.

School Improvements

But Chen said her most gratifying accomplishment was helping win a $1.7- million state grant for a new auditorium and cafeteria at Monterey-Highland Elementary School. It was 14 years after she had first joined the school's PTA, helping with bake sales to raise the funds.

"That was my proudest moment as mayor," Chen said. "It seemed to make everything worthwhile."

Some of her colleagues say Chen has found it difficult to relinquish the reins of mayor. Since giving up the post, they say, Chen often has moved hastily on issues without touching base with the rest of the council. They cited an August community forum on crime as one example.

"I didn't know too much about it until I walked into the council chambers and found Sen. Alan Cranston on the podium and Lily next to him," said Monty Manibog, a City Council member since 1976. "The panelists were already seated and no member of the City Council had been chosen except for Lily, who organized the whole thing. No one else seemed to know anything about it."

A similar incident involving a public hearing at City Hall was the subject of an angry memo directed at Chen from Almada, who was mayor at the time. The memo, sent to the council, described how Chen had given the opening remarks at the county-sponsored public hearing, which had been organized without the knowledge of Almada and other council members.

"I still don't know today if Lily or the county organized that meeting," Almada said. "All I know was that I wasn't invited as mayor and I didn't appreciate that."

Chen said she did not organize the meeting and gave opening remarks at the request of county officials. She attributes the criticism from her colleagues to intra-council jealousies and denies being a publicity hound.

"You don't know how many interviews and invitations to speak that I turn down," she said. "People want to use me as a role model to inspire others. Even today, I still have people asking for my photograph and autograph. People are interested in knowing the historic first."

Even her staunchest supporters say Chen's eagerness can get her into trouble. In January, Chen spoke before a Jewish Federation Council meeting in Covina espousing closer ties between the Asian and Jewish communities. For her efforts, Chen on Sunday will receive the 1985 public service award from the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

But while praising Chen's intentions, some Jewish leaders said they found her approach disconcerting because it implied that Jews had achieved full political success by simply spreading their money around.

'Much to Learn'

"We have much to learn from you," Chen was quoted as telling Jewish community members at the Covina meeting. "Asians want to know how they can have their piece of the pie . . . how you translate your money into political clout."

Council members said Chen's occasional impertinence was responsible for a pending $2-million libel suit against Chen and the city of Monterey Park after she wrote a letter to a service station owner denouncing him for allowing a "racist" sign to be posted at the station. In his suit, the service station owner contends that the sign, "Will the last American leaving Monterey Park please take down the American flag," was posted without his knowledge after the station had gone out of business.

Chen's colleagues said she could have easily expressed her displeasure without involving the city in protracted litigation.

Aida Maldonado, who was appointed by Chen to a commission on the future of Monterey Park, said the councilwoman sometimes cannot help herself.

"Lily is full of self-confidence. She wants to say something and she just says it. I think it's a refreshing quality that sets her apart from the rest."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°