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Why Chinese-Americans in NYC Are Turning Red
I'm talking about political parties, not the movie.
Chinese people sure love that color. The flag of China is all red with the exception of five yellow stars. In Chinese culture, red is the color of luck and joy. There’s a tradition in China where all kids are given red envelopes stuffed with cash for Chinese New Year. I remember being so excited every year for my parents to hand me an envelope full of money, so I could buy all the Yu-Gi-Oh and Pokémon cards I wanted.
Chinese Americans in New York City are turning red. And no, I’m not talking about that Pixar movie about pandas (it was about pandas, right?). I’m talking about politics. I’m talking about the massive surge in Chinese American and other Asian American support for the Republican Party in New York City.
Some political organizers on the left have seen this coming. On his Substack Vulgar Marxism, Democratic Socialists of America organizer Matthew Thomas wrote an excellent analysis of Hispanic and Asian voters in NYC during last year’s mayoral election:
In 2017, Bill De Blasio won Queens precincts that are over 75% Asian by 34 points against Republican nominee Nicole Malliotakis. This week, Adams won them by just 20 points over Sliwa: a 14-point swing toward Republicans. De Blasio won Queens precincts that are over 75% Hispanic by a whopping 70 points over Malliotakis. Adams won them by 40 points over Sliwa: a 30-point swing toward Republicans.
Last night, Sliwa got almost one-third of the vote in Hispanic enclaves and 40% in Asian ones, despite a massive resource disadvantage against Adams and limited exposure in the press.
This should disturb both conventional Democrats merely concerned with the party’s short-term electoral prospects as much as socialists hoping to build mass support for radical politics. At the moment, all that either faction can boast is that the other is flailing just as desperately as they are. But if the conservative turn among non-white, non-college voters continues to gain momentum, the only group that will succeed in building a party of the multiracial working class will be Republicans.
But the left can’t afford to chalk up all of our defeats to whitelash alone. This country is in the midst of a profound realignment along axes of culture and education that are about to make race and class seem like yesterday’s news. If we want to prevent this outcome, the first step is admitting that it’s happening. (emphasis mine)
That’s not the only article Thomas has written on how Democrats are hemorrhaging Asian votes. Same with another commentator on the left, Ross Barkan, writing about this year’s governor’s election between Democrat Kathy Hochul and Republican Lee Zeldin. In his analysis of the election, he writes
Had Zeldin performed a little better in New York City, he would have been elected governor. In Brooklyn and Queens, Zeldin found his staunchest support from two communities, one which is mostly lost to Democrats (the Orthodox Jews) and another that Democrats desperately need back if they are going to avoid a shock loss in the coming years.
The Asian American neighborhoods of New York City are now, officially, Republican strongholds. They are not all electing Republicans to the city and state legislatures, but some are beginning to, or will very soon. Zeldin dominated the heavily Chinese 47th and 49th Assembly Districts of Brooklyn and won a strong victory in the new 17th State Senate district, which was created in the redistricting process to elect an Asian legislator from Brooklyn. In the 49th, an Asian American Republican unseated a white Democratic assemblyman who was first elected in 1986. All of these districts take in, to varying degrees, the neighborhoods of Sunset Park, Dyker Heights, and Bensonhurst, all home to enormous Chinese immigrant populations. Zeldin outright won the 40th Assembly District based in Flushing, where Chinese and Korean immigrants have long made their home. He appeared, in every instance, to improve on the margins secured by the Republican mayoral candidate who ran a year ago, Curtis Sliwa. (emphasis mine)
Thomas and Barkan are, well, not Chinese American. Or Asian American. Or people of color. Or immigrants. And they don’t live in the working-class immigrant of color neighborhood I grew up in and live in: Sunset Park, Brooklyn. To use a term progressives love, they don’t have the Lived Experience™ that I have as someone whose parents immigrated when I was four years old, bringing me in tow.
If I was a professional-managerial-class social justice activist, I’d already be screaming on Mastodon about how about cis white men need to shut up and stop trying to speak over BIPOC voices. Not that Asians (and Latinos) will remain in the BIPOC club for long, especially after these voting patterns.
What affluent college-educated white transplant liberals fail to understand is how deeply unpopular their flavor of identify politics is with what should be, under their own theories, some of the most structurally oppressed people: working class people, non-white people, and immigrants. That’s how a conservative former police captain named Eric Adams managed to build a coalition of working class voters of color to get elected mayor, while a leftist candidate like Maya Wiley only managed to get the transplant vote and the “In This House We Believe…” vote.
Anyway, growing up, I went to a Chinese church. Everyone there was a recent Chinese immigrant. Like Korean churches, Nigerian churches, Salvadorian churches, Hasidic synagogues, Yemeni mosques, etc., Chinese churches weren’t just about worshipping a faith. Houses of worship double as community centers for new immigrants, where they can find people from where they immigrated from, all in one place. They are complex social networks that allow immigrants to build connections, find jobs, forge romances, and provide assistance in navigating America’s labyrinthine immigration system. There were many undocumented immigrants mixed in with the documented ones.
And we were all pretty poor. While middle-class Asians salivated over the movie Crazy Rich Asians for its Asian representation, it also promoted one of the most untrue and destructive stereotypes about Asian Americans. In New York City, 23% of Asians live in poverty. As the linked article says,
About one in four Asian adults in New York City lived in poverty in 2020 — a rate that is significantly higher than the citywide average, according to a report released today by Robin Hood, a local non-profit, in collaboration with Columbia University.
Rich Buery, Robin Hood’s chief executive officer, said if the experiences of Asian New Yorkers remain poorly understood, some of its members will continue to be underserved.
Researchers found that 23% of Asian New Yorkers lived in poverty in 2020, comparable to the rate of poverty experienced by Black and Latinx New Yorkers, and higher than the citywide average of 16% of all New Yorkers.
“Usually, many people think Asians are better off economically than Blacks and Latinos, but our data show, no, that's not true,” Gao said. “So that's something that needs to be known and to be really digested and understood a bit.”
Apparently, the CEO of Robin Hood is named “Rich Buery”. Talk about anti-nominative determinism.
All of us immigrants went to church on Sundays. The church is one of the centers of community organizing for Chinese immigrants. The other is an app called WeChat.
WeChat is a social media platform for Chinese people that is like all social media apps and Venmo rolled into one. Many Chinese immigrants whittle away hours of their lives scrolling through its content. People are naturally drawn to content warning about what may cause harm to them. For suburban wine moms, that’s true crime podcasts. For Chinese immigrants, it’s videos of Asians being attacked. Lots of them. Ones that look like this:
Both these attacks happened in New York. Then there were the murders of two Asian women, Michelle Go and Christina Yuna Lee. The grisly alleged details: being shoved onto the subway tracks, being stabbed over 40 times in her bathtub, shocked many Asian New Yorkers.
News of these attacks and murders spread through the WeChat ecosystem, as well as the Korean social media app KakaoTalk. Both suspects in these cases had long rap sheets, leading to many Asians blaming policies like the 2020 bail reform laws.
Many Asians also felt gaslighted by Democrats. Many Democrats blamed Donald Trump for spreading “China Virus” rhetoric. They framed anti-Asian hate as a thing white supremacists did. But unlike the hate crime committed against Empire actor Jussie Smollett, these Asians weren’t attacked by white supremacists shouting “This is MAGA country”. Most of the suspects were non-white themselves. So when Democrats kept blaming Trump and white supremacy, many Asian immigrants felt like Democrats weren’t taking Asians seriously and only bringing up anti-Asian hate when it fit the narrative.
In comes the Republican Party. Long known for promoting “law and order” policies, they promised to end the bail reforms and they didn’t tell Asians that “white supremacy” was the cause of the attacks. All Republicans had to do to win over Chinese immigrants was not be Democrats.
The other big issue that won over Chinese voters was over education. Asians in America have long been stereotyped as highly valuing education. In Chinese neighborhoods, there are prep centers everywhere promising a higher score on tests and entrance into to high schools and colleges. They look like this:
Since Asians are penalized by colleges, the pressure on young Asian kids to do well has gone even higher than most non-Asian students. The big worry for Chinese immigrants is a test known as the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). The SHSAT guarantees admission to some of the best public high schools in the country. I took it and got into Stuyvesant High, considered the hardest to get in. During the last mayoral election, two of the Democratic candidates (Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales) were both Stuy alumni. Other Stuy alumni include jazz musician Thelonious Monk, Substack writer Jessica Valenti, BitTorrent inventor Bram Cohen, actress Lucy Liu, and “Bros” director Billy Eichner.
In recent years, Democrat politicians have been trying to abolish the test, supposedly because it discriminated against black and Latino students and was therefore racist. In other words: Asians, who get into these schools the most, don’t count as an oppressed minority.
The SHSAT was created by the Hecht-Calandra Act, passed in 1972 by the 179th New York State Legislature. I looked through every name of the legislature to see if there were any Asians. Out of the 207 people on that legislature, 0 were Asian. A few were black or Hispanic, like Samuel D. Wright, Louis Niñé, and Armando Montano.
So, then, how is a test passed into law by a grand total of zero Asians so dominated by Asians? And how is that racist? Back then Jewish immigrants dominated the top schools. Now it’s Asians.
Remember those white supremacists in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us”? Well, when I look at how Stuyvesant’s student body has changed over the decades, it’s clear that Jews now have the right to chant “Asians will not replace us!” We have replaced Jewish people in elite NYC public schools, at Ivy League colleges, and at medical schools. If you notice carefully, Asian jokes about doctors and overbearing moms are just rehashed Jewish jokes.
It’s clear that us Asians aren’t taking away spots from black and Latino kids. We’re taking spots away from Jews. So on behalf of Asian people, I apologize for our antisemitism. I also apologize to Jewish women looking for a Nice Jewish Boy for us making the shidduch crisis worse for you all.
A few days ago, I went to Eighth Avenue, the heart of Sunset Park, to take some photos of candidate posters for this article. I counted which candidates had signs and how many signs there were.
In my totally accurate sample of political beliefs based on signage (Nate Silver would approve), I counted:
Lester Chang - 14
Vito LaBella - 9
Iwen Chu - 5
Jimmy Li - 5
Maud Maron - 3
Andrew Yang - 1
“In This House We Believe…” - 0
Stop Asian Hate / Black Lives Matter - 0
Here is one of each candidate that I saw:
This one is for Andrew Yang (formerly D), the former Presidential candidate that later tried to run for mayor. Why is it still up after he dropped out of the NYC mayoral race over a year ago? Maybe she supports Yang’s new Forward Party? The truth is, many of these immigrants are simply too busy working to be bothered with removing these signs.
Here’s one for Maud Maron (D), who was running in the NY-10 race months ago. I knew who Maron was from an article I read chronicling her journey from being a model public defender at the Legal Aid Society that fought tirelessly for poor defendants of color, to being attacked by her own organization for wanting better education for all children: a stark reminder of the price one pays for speaking out against the mob, and of the fear of many white American liberals of being called “racist”. It was not a surprise that a candidate wanting kids to get a better education would realize to put her posters up in Sunset Park.
The other NY-10 candidate that still has posters up is Jimmy Li (D). he co-founded the NYC Asian-American Democratic Club, as well as Asian American Community Empowerment, a nonprofit coalition of Asian American organizations. he stated that the 3 biggest issues for him were Racial Equity and Hate Crimes, Education and Poverty, and Immigration. He basically tailored his entire pitch around the core Chinese American concerns. That also made him not appealing to non-Asian voters. That’s the thing about Asians as a voting bloc: appealing to Asian voters requires a mix of certain views by both right and left, leading to hard choices.
This one is the funniest. Iwen Chu (D) and Vito LaBella (R) ran against each other for NY-17, yet organizers from both sides managed to get their posters plastered right next to each other. And here’s the craziest thing about this election: Chu only won this race by 0.6%, despite running in a heavily Chinese area. That means many Chinese voters rejected identity politics and voted for the candidate that they felt like would support them.
And then we have Lester Chang (R). He made his platform very clear. FUND NYPD and SUPPORT SHSAT are fully capitalized just to get the point in. He mentions that he is a Navy veteran that fought in Afghanistan, which is the type of appeal one would usually see in Staten Island, not immigrant Brooklyn. He made shockwaves when he unseated incumbent Peter J. Abbate Jr. (D), who had held that seat for 35 years. Then he made more shockwaves when the State Assembly announced that they will refuse to seat him because he lived in Manhattan until recently, and thus was not allowed to represent Sunset Park.
And here is the deal for Democrats now: either seat him as he won the election, or block him over an arbitrary rule. Democrats are, of course, famous for their election denial. Remember when they refused to honor the 2020 election results because “BlueAnon” told them to? Or something like that.
This squabble isn’t just about one seat. This incident could affect Chinese immigrant attitudes over New York Democrats for years to come. Lester is the guy people voted for. If Democrats invalidate the results, Sunset Park will remember what you did.
And plus, not seating Lester would just mean another election, one where Democrats could lose again. Then it would have all been for nothing.
Finally, my advice on how to win Chinese Americans and other working-class Asian immigrant communities:
To Republicans: Keep pushing a populist message. Attack Democrats as soft on crime and frame them as a party of educated ivory-tower elite snobs who look down on the common people and live in safe neighborhoods while supporting policies that kill poor people of color. Entice Asian voters by promising to keep the SHSAT. And although many immigrant communities of color would agree with your party on culture war issues like “Latinx”, women’s sports, and drag queen story hours, they care much more about economic issues and safety, so talking about pronouns is not a winning issue.
To Democrats: Make pro-immigrants’-rights a forefront of your platform. Offer expended legal and cultural services for immigrants. Run on your reputation as the traditional party of labor and social safety nets, the party of FDR’s “a chicken for every pot” and LBJ’s Great Society. Attack Republicans by framing them as a bunch of racist white Staten Islanders and rich billionaires. Say that you support many social welfare policies for the poor, and that Republicans want to take away many welfare programs and social services from poor and immigrant people. Do not waste your time with issues like January 6th or abortion.
To the DSA: Listen to your Class Unity caucus. Don’t spend your time on pronoun circles and land acknowledgments. Make it known that you are for the working class and not a social club for downwardly-mobile graduates of elite colleges. Tap into Huey Long style populism.
And to all: don’t take any votes for granted.
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Liked this essay? Read more.
More of my articles about Asian Americans:
Article about the elitism of social justice and its lack of appeal to common folk: