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Donghui Zang campaigns for City Council near his Forest Hills, Queens home, Sept. 15, 2020.
Donghui Zang campaigns for City Council near his Forest Hills, Queens. home.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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‘This is Our Time’: Chinese-American Candidates Look to City Council Seats in Bid to Build Community Power

During the Labor Day weekend, some local Chinese Americans and a political consultant named Patrick Jordan gathered in Donghui Zang’s Queens backyard.

With an augmented map of Council District 29, which includes Zang’s home neighborhood of Forest Hills, on a board and several laptops buzzing, they scrawled some dos and don’ts in their notebooks.

They were there to help Zang, a former Wall Street banker, become the next City Council member for the area — replacing the current representative, Karen Koslowitz, who must leave at the end of next year because of term limits.

The father of two teenage boys knew hardly anything about American politics until he joined protests in the summer of 2018 against Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plans to alter the admissions process for the city’s specialized high schools.

Donghui Zang is running for City Council to represent his Forest Hills, Queens neighborhood, Sept. 15, 2020.
Donghui Zang, of Queens, is running for City Council.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Both sons now attend such schools, where entry is determined solely by an exam that Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza has asked the state Legislature to eliminate.

Zang registered with the Campaign Finance Board (CFB) as a candidate soon after the backyard strategy discussion. “The city has overlooked Asian interests for too long,” he told THE CITY.

He became the second Chinese New Yorker to confirm he is seeking the Council seat. A third is deciding whether to join the battle, which currently has 10 registered candidates.

For a district that’s not predominantly Asian, having multiple Chinese candidates may seem unusual.

But this is an unusual time.

‘This is Our Time’

The number of Chinese New Yorkers running for public office in the city has reached a record high, a review of city Campaign Finance Board records shows, indicating growing political involvement and influence.

“We’ve been waiting for this for many years,” said John Chan, president of Asian American Community Empowerment (AACE). “This is our time.”

Three City Council districts in areas with major Chinatowns — District 1 in Manhattan, District 20 in Flushing and District 38 in Sunset Park — all have two Chinese candidates already registered for next year’s elections for seats that will become vacant because of term limits. And a Chinese candidate is vying for the Queens borough president’s seat this November on an independent party line.

Having multiple Chinese candidates in a single race is not unprecedented in the city. But such contests have only happened a few times in Manhattan’s Chinatown and Flushing in Queens — the city’s two biggest centers of Chinese-American residents.

Moreover, those candidates were mostly American-born Chinese or immigrants from Taiwan and Hong Kong who arrived before China and the U.S. resumed diplomatic relations in 1979 — and mostly liberals.

The current cohort is not only greater in numbers, but is more diverse in background and political views.

There are those who have deep roots in politics — like Gigi Li, chief of staff for Chinatown council member Margaret Chin. Li is hoping to succeed Chin, who is term-limited.

Also eyeing Chin’s seat is Jenny Low, Council Speaker Corey Johnson’s community engagement director and a longtime Democratic district leader in Chinatown.

For Sandra Ung, special assistant to Rep. Grace Meng (D-Queens), the goal is to succeed the term-limited Councilmember Peter Koo in Flushing.

There are also novices such as Hailing Chen, a 27-year-old Uber driver running in Flushing, and Yu Lin, a 28-year-old adult day care center operator running in Sunset Park.

The Immigrant Experience

Four of the candidates are relatively new immigrants from mainland China, a group that had been largely absent from citywide elections until recently.

They include Chen and Lin, whose fathers left their home villages in China’s southeastern province of Fujian when the candidates were babies. Once in the U.S., their fathers worked in restaurants and interior construction. Lin was 8 when he joined his father, and Chen was 13.

City Council candidate Yu Lin wants to develop land around the Eight Avenue Sunset Park, Brooklyn subway station, Sept. 16, 2020.
City Council candidate Yu Lin wants to develop land around the Eighth Avenue subway station in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Zang and Dao Yin, a candidate for Queens borough president, both came to the U.S. for graduate school in the 1990s.

“The last time I saw Chinese Americans in New York pouring out such great passion on politics was in 1989,” said Ellen Young, an immigrant from Taiwan and a former state Assembly member from Flushing who has been pushing the Chinese community to register voters since the early 1980s.

That was the year when she was among a handful of Chinese who participated in elections for New York City’s now-eliminated school boards.

Young sees some similarities between the situations then and now.

She said the eruption of interest in 1989 stemmed from the politicization of the Chinese community in the U.S. after the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin by a pair of white autoworkers in Detroit. Angry at surging sales of Japanese cars in the U.S., they attacked him believing he was Japanese.

That same year, mass protests of as many as 10,000 opposed the building of a detention center in Chinatown.

Galvanized in Battles

More recently, three issues have ignited much of the new Chinese involvement in New York politics.

There was the 2014 indictment of Officer Peter Liang, who accidentally shot and killed Akai Gurley, a Black man, in the darkened stairwell of a Brooklyn housing development.

Liang was ultimately convicted of criminally negligent homicide and is serving a sentence of probation and community service. Many Chinese New Yorkers felt the Chinese-American officer was scapegoated.

The mayor’s proposed specialized high school reform has infuriated Chinese parents who believe their children’s chances of getting into top high schools — whose student bodies are now majority Asian — will be diminished.

And the creation of a borough-based jail system will replace existing detention centers in Chinatown and in Kew Gardens, near Forest Hills, with towering new facilities to accommodate the planned closing of Rikers Island.

On Monday, a state Supreme Court judge invalidated permits for the Manhattan jail, after a Chinatown group sued.

But Young says the biggest difference this time around is the involvement of new immigrants from China. “This is significant because, unlike immigrants from Taiwan or Hong Kong, these are people who are not familiar with democracy,” she said.

“Older immigrants from mainland China worked hard to raise their families. They stayed away from politics to avoid getting into trouble, and they have language barriers too,” said AACE’s Chan. “The new generation are educated in the U.S. They know how to play the game. But it was only after the Peter Liang protests that a lot of them really started paying attention.”

New Party Approach

New immigrants from mainland China tend to be more conservative than earlier immigrants, and they are far less loyal to New York’s liberal establishment.

A significant number, by New York City standards, are Trump supporters, observers say. A recent nationwide poll found that nearly 60% of Chinese-American voters identify as independent or Republican.

Although all of the current crop of candidates running in the city are registered as Democrats — other than Yin, who is running under his self-created “Red Dragon” party — the stances on schools, policing and jails blur the party line.

“I don’t pledge allegiance to the Democratic or the Republican Party,” said Lin, who aims to solve the quality of life issues brought by the growing population in the Sunset Park district he looks to represent. “I am only loyal to my family, friends and my community.”

City Council candidate Yu Lin speaks with restaurant manager Joe Lin in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Sept. 16, 2020.
City Council candidate Yu Lin speaks with restaurant manager Joe Lin in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

He offers a sharp contrast to Whitney Hu, a 29-year-old American-born Chinese running for the same Sunset Park seat.

“I know some groups aren’t happy that I am running,” said Hu, who supports the Democratic establishment on all the push to reform the NYPD and specialized high schools, among other issues. But she says she looks forward to having some tough conversations with the Chinese community.

“If I can show them there are alternative ways to maintain quality education and street safety, it’s still possible to mend the divisions,” said Hu. “I want to pull together a multi-generation and multi-racial coalition to fight against gentrification, climate change, and for better schools.”

Advantageous Alliances

Another twist in the prospects for Chinese-American candidates is ranked-choice voting, which will launch citywide next year.

In the past, when more than one Chinese candidate in Flushing or Chinatown ran for the same office, they often ended up cannibalizing each other’s votes and lost to non-Chinese candidates. That tended to create a lot of tension.

But this time, voters will be ranking candidates by preference instead of voting for only one of them. In cases where no candidate gets the majority, the ballots will be reallocated based on preferences to decide the winner.

“This way, the election is no longer a zero-sum game for candidates who share the same base,” Young said. “I’m sure we’ll see even more Chinese running for office in the future.”

People shop along 71st Avenue in Forest Hills, Queens, Sept. 15, 2020.
People shop along 71st Avenue in Forest Hills, Queens.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

In Forest Hills, Zang and his American-born rival Eddie Wong say they are retaining the amiable relationship they’ve built through past community activities.

They’ve shared similar stances challenging the political mainstream on school admissions, borough jails and Liang’s indictment — though on policing reform, Wong believes the mayor’s plan to redirect some funding to violence prevention can make the city safer, and Zang doesn’t.

“I don’t consider him an opponent but a congenial friend,” said Wong, who is pushing current City Council members to launch an initiative to help more Asians get into the City Council.

“All Chinese running should get together to show support for one another even though we are running against each other,” said Wong.

Zang agreed: “I think the more Chinese run, the better.”

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