When Sophie Wong won a seat on the Alhambra Unified School District in 1990, she boosted the number of Chinese Americans serving on San Gabriel Valley school boards to three--a meager count considering the expanding Asian population in the region.
On Nov. 2, that number jumped to eight. With those victories, confidence is growing within the region's Chinese American community that it is making major strides toward acceptance in mainstream politics.
Barriers persist, with Chinese American leaders complaining that stereotyping and cultural misunderstandings have damaged campaigns, especially for offices other than school boards. Indeed, Chinese Americans were unable to expand their numbers on San Gabriel Valley city councils in the recent elections (five currently hold seats).
Nevertheless, Chinese American leaders were galvanized by the overall results. They are now looking to future victories and planning nonpartisan support networks for emerging politicians.
Wong has begun recruiting Chinese American elected officials to participate in a group that would provide campaign advice and other support to aspiring candidates. "We have a lot of experiences to share, so that the candidates who are thinking about running in the years to come, they will have a place to come and seek advice," she said.
And as more Chinese Americans get elected to local offices, Democratic and Republican lawmakers are increasingly looking to them as crucial links to a once-inaccessible community.
"You only get people to notice you when you get results, such as the Nov. 2 election," said Monterey Park City Councilwoman Judy Chu, who next year plans to run for the 49th District state Assembly seat now held by Diane Martinez.
Among the Nov. 2 winners: Rosa Tao Zee, whose seat on the San Marino Unified School District board makes her the first Asian elected to public office in that city.
In the Hacienda La Puente Unified School District race, Joseph Chang was the top vote-getter, as was Melody Yu in the neighboring Rowland Unified School District. In South Pasadena, school board president Alice Hwang ran ahead of four other candidates to win reelection, and David T. Lau won a seat on the board of the Garvey School District, which encompasses portions of Monterey Park, Rosemead and San Gabriel. In the Rosemead Unified School District, lone candidate David Leong automatically won the open seat.
A total of eleven Chinese Americans ran for school board seats.
Two Chinese-Americans made unsuccessful bids for city council seats--Mei Mei Ho-Hilger in Walnut and Bob Chiu in Diamond Bar.
In a sign of growing political sophistication, many of these recent campaigns relied on mailers written in the first language of voters and painstaking efforts to check on Asian American households to secure their support.
Chang used a database to identify high-frequency absentee voters--the majority of them Asian American. He then visited every household, dropping off absentee applications and picking them up again. Many Asian Americans in his district prefer to vote absentee because they work in other cities in the West San Gabriel Valley or Los Angeles.
He also targeted the Chinese, Korean and Filipino immigrant communities with mailers in their first language. While the Asian American vote provided a strong base, Chang said his broad appeal won him the election: Not only was he the top vote-getter of 11 candidates vying for seats in his district, he pulled in 5,800 votes--more than twice as many votes as any candidate in the past.
The recent election results demonstrate slow but steady progress toward mainstream political involvement by the San Gabriel Valley's Asian American community, particularly the Chinese Americans who comprise the bulk of it, said Don T. Nakanishi, director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.
"Just by the natural process of beginning to see role models, to suddenly see people winning, I would imagine in time (these candidates) will become the presidents of their school boards and mayors of their cities," he said.
Eugene Chang, a Hacienda Heights resident and president of the East Valley chapter of the Chinese American Assn. of Southern California, echoes Nakanishi.
"It's like the farm team theory in baseball. You get your major league candidates from your farm teams," he said.
To speed this process, he is attempting to recruit candidates for April's round of local elections. "School boards, planning commissions, water boards, community college districts--these are the breeding grounds for your farm team."
Non-Asian politicians in the San Gabriel Valley clearly are taking note of these developments and reaching out to their Chinese American constituents.
State Assemblywomen Martinez (D-Alhambra) and Hilda Solis (D-La Puente) both participated recently in a Chinese-language telethon to solicit funds from the Chinese community for Midwest flood relief.
And Assemblyman Paul V. Horcher (R-Diamond Bar) became a familiar fixture at recent fund-raisers for Chinese American candidates in his district, impressing audiences with his appeal for votes--in Mandarin.
"I don't think there's any segment of the voting population any politician can afford to take for granted or to write off," said Horcher, who continues to bone up on his Mandarin, as well as Korean, Japanese and Indonesian.
While winning campaigns advance the fight against stereotypes, Nakanishi warns that an often subtle racism persists, slowing Asian American political advancement.
"Particularly in relation to some other (ethnic) groups, there is still some fear among large groups of people about Asian Americans being in these positions of leadership, whether it's leadership politically or someone being your supervisor," he said.
"People trust Asians for education, but people still don't trust Asians for administration or management," Eugene Chang said.
He added, "Traditionally, Asians project a weak image, comparatively speaking. It's hard for people to trust Asians for city council jobs. . . . The only way to convert that image is to get more (Asian Americans) elected (to) city councils and up."
Other misunderstandings have hampered the campaigns of Chinese Americans in the San Gabriel Valley. For instance, hefty contributions flowing to Chinese American candidates from community members throughout the Southland have spawned criticism by opponents.
When Allan K. Yung ran for a council seat in San Marino last year, he was portrayed by opponents as trying to buy the election, he said. This year, Bob Chiu of Diamond Bar, who collected more campaign money than his 10 opponents combined--much of it from the Chinese community outside Diamond Bar--ran up against similar criticism.
Wong says political loyalty among ethnic groups is a common phenomenon. "It's not any different from Latinos or Armenians," she said. "When (former Republican Gov. George) Deukmejian ran for office, Democrats switched parties for the primary just to donate to him."
Chu added that Asian American candidates are being held to a different standard. "I've observed this kind of (negative) reaction going on for many Asian candidates, and I think its unfortunate," she said. "Any candidate, regardless of their background, will solicit funds from their friends and business contacts."
In the case of Chiu, who lost despite his well-financed campaign, fractures within the Asian American community also played a role. One of Chiu's rivals was Jong M. Lee, a Korean American whose candidacy split the Asian American vote.
About a year before the election, Chinese American community leaders approached Lee to see if he would run for school board instead, or postpone his council bid by two years, but he declined, said Eugene Chang.