the fixers
Interview

Lily Chen

Lily Chen is the former mayor of Monterey Park, a suburb of Los Angeles. Born in China and raised in Taiwan, Chen came to the United States in the late 1950s.

Ron Brown | APAC


Q: From the vantage point of somebody who has chosen to live here, what does America represent?

Chen: It represents the system of democracy, represents opportunity, represents the freedom of pursuing our dreams, and represents a better education for ourselves and our children, and opportunities to work and to enjoy our lives here.

Q: How is politics here different than politics in your original home?

Chen: ....I have to say that the United States of America has really the best form of democracy. Asia, China, many other nations will have plenty to learn from us - our freedom of expression, every single citizen will have a chance to really listen to the candidate, to really vote the person of their choice.

Q: Let's talk about the growing involvement of Asian-Americans in politics.

Chen: ...I think that [people] like Leo McCarthy, our former lieutenant governor, [and] Michael Antonovich, who is now the chairman of the county board of supervisors, these political figures have been working closely with Asian-Pacific communities, and like Leo who hired Asian staff, and others, I think there are probably two major reasons as to their involvement.

First of all, they began to see the increase in the Asian population, and also there are many immigrant Americans who do have some fear about dealing with governmental entities. So it does help to have Asian staff persons to bridge the gap so that the population will have a chance to communicate with our political representative.

Also, they do see the potentials among Asian-Americans who are willing to donate for a long time, since Pres. Reagan was running for president and later on, whether it be a presidential candidate or local candidate, state or local. They began to see the pattern of Asian-Americans donating to political campaigns.

So if you have to do an informal survey, I'm sure on a national basis we probably have more immigrant Americans donating to political candidates than otherwise. These are the new citizens who are eager and wanting to participate.

Take the Indochinese population for example, and many now new citizens from Vietnam, the majority who are now citizens, and they treasure the freedom they enjoy over here. They understand firsthand how it is. They understand firsthand how it was without political power, without a political voice, and they suffered. So they are eager to become Americans. They are serving in the military, and they're donating to political campaigns. The pride of being a US citizen is really very, very vivid.

So I think the politicians do see that the Asian-Americans donating to their campaigns, and I think I also observe from my experience in political fundraising,... most of these donors are really not expecting anything. Maybe if I'm doing a fund-raiser for Diane Feinstein, for example, I would go and ask my friends, I'd say, "Would you buy a table, would you buy a ticket," and they do so because I ask them.

When I was running for Congress, I had a nationwide fundraising, and so I had people donating money to me from North Carolina to Minnesota, and they were eager, they were anxious to give their hard-earned money to me, because they are looking forward to have the first Chinese-American to serve in Congress. So far we have none.

So they're not looking for anything, and when they donate to Presidential campaigns, they feel a sense of honor to participate....From my experience,...Asian-Americans when they donate they're really talking about personal friendship and pride and opportunity to participate. They're really not asking for anything in return.

Q: Tell me about the phrase "guanxi".

Chen: Guanxi means "relationship", it means having contact and relationship. Guangxi can also connote friendship. Guanxi means "I know you," and when I know you, when we know each other, we can communicate, you can help me. Obviously, communicating, having guanxi with a political representative is one way of communicating.

Q: Can President Clinton have guanxi with people in the community, or is it more indirect than that?

Chen: ... Many of us, some of the people do have direct guanxi with the President, with the Party. And others would be indirectly having guanxi. So it does mean something to the population.

Q: Is it a two-way street?

Chen: ... I would say now that the Asian-Americans have guanxi with the President, with the White House, with the Democratic Party. So the more we vote, the more we donate, the more we would get some attention so that we can voice our concerns. We have a channel of communication. Maybe the Administration and the Party will listen to us a little bit more.

Q: This newer generation of Asian-Americans is not necessarily wealthy.

Chen: I think we're talking about the average working class people. They are professionals, they're engineers.....We have a large number of Asian population serving as technical technicians, technical personnel in the area. So whether it be computer technology, you will see more scientists, engineers among Asian-Americans than many other groups.

Q: Are these wealthy people whom a politician with his eye on some money would necessarily look at and say, "This is big money?"

Chen: Not really. I think not big money, but many of them are willing to give.

Q: Even though they don't have a lot, they're more willing to give because they believe in the system?

Chen: Because they believe in the system, because they value the system, because they feel that they have the freedom......When I say they I really mean including myself. We appreciate the system here. We appreciate what America has to offer us. To many of these people, it's a way of showing our gratitude. And also appreciate the freedom, too, "Gee, I can donate $50 and $100 and be a part of participating in the American political system."

Q: Tell me about your relationship with late Commerce Secretary Ronald H. Brown.


Chen: ...In the summer of 1992, we were registering Asian-Americans and we had a campaign headquarters in South Bay. And I helped to establish a campaign headquarters in San Gabriel Valley, in Monterey Park, specifically targeting the Asian population, and we were really very enthusiastic, we worked hard. It was a great experience.

...[Ron Brown] was a tremendous, vivacious speaker. He generated enthusiasm and he was very personable....He attended the kickoff event in Southern California for Clinton/Gore [in Torrance].

Q: What would his role have been vis-a-vis the Asian community in Southern California?

Chen: ...He was here supporting what we were doing and helping us to sort of give us some encouragement and showed his appreciation for our efforts. I honestly felt that he was interested in including Asian-Americans to participate in the system.

Q: How did you know?

Chen: ...Because he never asked for money from me or from us. When he talked he was talking about how many people have you registered, the inclusiveness of the population. So I felt good.

Q: Was it hard at that time to get everybody behind Clinton?

Chen: ... It was difficult in the summer of 1992 trying to help President Clinton because we had other Asian-Americans helping President Bush and he was incumbent. It's much easier to have an incumbent President than a candidate.

Also,...in our efforts to help the Asian-Americans to register to vote for Clinton, we more or less emphasized the point that the Democratic Party is more inclusive and they're good for minority people, we're minorities, and that the Democratic Party do value family and education also, not just the Republicans.

So we really had to do some convincing, I must say, we had to do quite a bit of convincing. Of course, we had better ammunition this time around in 1996 when we saw the... anti-immigrant sentiment in the air...Besides, he was a sitting president. He was an incumbent, so that was easier.

Q: Give me the state of play in 1996.

Chen: We were enthusiastic because we really thought we want the continuation of the Democratic leadership, and we had the whole experience already working on the first campaign for President Clinton.

As a matter of fact, I remember attending the Chicago convention. I said, "Gee, the past image of Asian-Americans [was that they] only donate money. We are having a change this year." They were having greater number of votes as well. It was just very exciting.

...One of the highlights was the President was coming, the President was going to meet with Asian population, with Asian-Pacific fund-raisers in Southern California, in Los Angeles. So for the first time we had a sitting President coming to Los Angeles specifically meeting with the Asian population. So we were elated, we were very proud.

Q: What was that like?

Chen: We felt honored because we had this sitting President meeting with the Asian-Americans.

Q: Did you get to meet him?

Chen: Yep....He's very, very warm, very personable, and we just felt so honored.....

Suddenly this explosion, almost as if we're driving this car on our way up to a greater future for the Asian-Americans, and suddenly we're hit by this terrible accident.

Q: Why do you figure we in the press reacted so strongly to the revelations about Lippo and John Huang, et al.?

Chen: We look different. And I think it's just very unfortunate because I don't want this episode to really change and to damage the hardworking average Asian-Americans who have been quietly going to work every day, raising children, participating in schools, and contributing to America, and suddenly we're all being lumped together as if we're foreigners.

Q: It's this idea that there's this whole new market out there of Asia sending money in through your constituents to Washington.

Chen: First of all, foreign companies, foreign people cannot donate. It's just the law prohibits them from doing that. We just cannot have a few individual incidents to just sacrifice, victimize the entire population. That's unfair.

Q: One of the down sides is that just as politicians back away so do donors and other people.

Chen: I do see that sentiment, and I think that somehow as a result of this tremendous press and what have you that many of my personal friends are scared. They're being discouraged and they say, "Gee, here I am trying to participate, but instead of encouragement I'm being told 'We really don't want you.'" That is really terrible.

Q: Was the Asian Pacific Advisory Council-Vote group in Torrance, Calif., effective?

Chen: ...Yes, it was helpful, it was a good idea, and it is a particularly good idea to register more voters and to generate enthusiasm.

Q: Do you think it really did?

Chen: I do not know the specific number, that's always hard to calculate. I think it was helpful.

Q: Was it a fundraising thing?

Chen: No.

Q: No money raised?

Chen: No, I didn't participate in any fundraising activities with the group, but rather what we called Get Out To Vote to encourage more Asians to register and get out to vote.

....I'm just concerned about the negative impact on our entire community....I think that as a result of this episode and controversy, our hard work and our contribution are being ignored. So I will be so glad when the whole thing is all over and we can go on to lead a normal life.

[END]

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