They had to endure racial and gender injustices. But these three are now the faces of the growing political clout of Asian American women.
“We’re never going to elect a Chinese person here,” a woman in Queens threw a campaign flyer at Grace Meng, who was then helping her father, Jimmy Meng, in his bid for a New York State Assembly seat in 2003.
“Me Chinese, me play joke, me go pee pee in your Coke,” Yuh-Line Niou recalls the taunt she often heard while in elementary school.
“You don’t vote, you don’t count,” Margaret Chin heard then New York Mayor Ed Koch belittling the Chinese American community’s protest actions against the proposed jail in 1983.
Today, Grace Meng is a congresswoman representing the 6th District of New York in the U.S. Congress. Yuh-Line Niou is a New York State assemblywoman representing the 65th District. Margaret Chin is a New York City councilwoman representing District 1 in Lower Manhattan . We view them today as dragon ladies, women of strength and power who have broken the glass ceiling of racial prejudice and of gender discrimination.
But all three of them attest to the racial bigotry that they were subjected to when they were growing up and when they were already fighting for equality and civil rights. Even today, even when they are already elected officials, they still experience racial and gender bias. Despite their achievements, they still feel the sting of being immigrants, of being non-whites, and being women.
Their election into their public offices may be proof of the progress the American society has achieved since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but the continued racial injustice thrown at them, and most Asian Americans like them, is proof that racial equality is still a work in progress, and that America still has a long way to go.
The term ‘Dragon Lady’ is a Western, not Asian, construct. The New York Times was among the first to popularize the term, using it to describe the Empress Tsu-Hsi who ruled China from 1098 to 1908. “The wicked witch of the East, a reptilian dragon lady,” said the NYT. Because of this and the oft-repeated hackneyed portrayal in Western media and movies, the term gained a negative connotation, so much so that in 1996, Merriam Webster describes a dragon lady as an “overbearing or tyrannical woman.”
But Asian American women nowadays are not shying away from the “Dragon Lady” label. In fact, they are owning it, claiming it and turning it around. Foremost of these movements was the book, Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire, by journalist and author Sonia Shah.
In the book, around 30 Asian American women – prominent writers, artists, and activists – discuss the growing politicization of Asian American women.
In her introduction to the book, Shah said ”a different sort of Dragon Lady is emerging – not a cold-blooded reptilian – but a creature who breathes fire.”
Meng, Niou and Chin are among this new breed of Asian American women. And these are their stories.
Congresswoman, New York’s 6th District,
United States House of Representatives
“When I first got elected (to Congress) in 2013, someone called my office and my staff answered, ‘Congresswoman Meng’s office’. The caller asked, ‘Where is Mr. Ackerman?’” Congresswoman Meng recalled.
“My staff explained that the newly elected representative of the district is Grace Meng.
“Then the caller said, ‘What kind of a name is that?’”
“And when my staff asked her where she’s calling from, she said, ‘I’m calling from America.’ Then she hung up.”
Grace Meng represents New York’s 6th Congressional District in the U.S. Congress. In 2012, when she won the election, she became the first Asian-American in the East Coast to be elected into the U.S. Congress.
The district she represents, which includes Flushing, Forest Hills, Middle Village, Kew Gardens, Bayside and Murray Hill, is one of the most diverse districts in Queens. Despite that, she still continues to be at the receiving end of racial discrimination, such as that one from the lady caller.
But that was not new to Meng. Growing up Chinese American even in racially diverse New York City wasn’t easy.
“The word ‘Oriental’ in Chinese has the meaning of ‘Yuan Fang’, which means ‘far away’. Why should we be called Orientals? It makes no sense.”
One incident remains etched in Meng’s memory. She was in law school when her father, Jimmy Meng, decided to run for the New York State Assembly in 2003. “I was helping my father pass out campaign flyers in Flushing, when a woman threw a flyer at me and said, ‘we’re never going to elect a Chinese person here.’”
“I was just very surprised and hurt that something like that could happen in Queens, New York,” Meng said.
Her father won to become the first Asian American to be elected to the New York State Legislature.
Some comments were not meant to be mean, but the undertone was unmistakable. Encounters were not racist on purpose, like the one when Meng was still running for Congress. “After the first debate for Congress in 2012 debate, an old lady came up to me and she was almost crying. She said I spoke so beautifully and she was so impressed. I was confused because it wasn’t a long debate and I thought I didn’t say enough to impress her. Then she said, ‘I didn’t know you could speak English!’” Meng said with a laugh.
In 2015, Meng introduced a bill, H.R.4238, which aimed to remove the term “Oriental” from Federal law and replace it with “Asian Americans”. The legislation was passed and signed by President Obama during the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in 2016. During Meng’s tenure as a New York State Assemblywoman, she also authored a law that eliminated the use of “Oriental” in all official State documents.
“The word ‘Oriental’ in Chinese has the meaning of ‘Yuan Fang’, which means ‘far away’,” Meng said. “Why should we be called Orientals? It makes no sense… It is an offensive and derogatory term.”
Meng said the term ‘Oriental’, which was used to refer to immigrants from Asian countries, was meant to otherize Asians Americans.
“A lot of people say and do things to Asians, because there is a stereotype or belief that we won’t say anything, and we won’t do anything.”
Born and raised in Queens in the 1970s and 1980s when there were very few Asian kids in the borough, Meng actually was the only Chinese kid in her class. “I used to beg my parents not to give me Chinese food for lunch or snacks. Kids in school were kind of like making fun of it, saying ‘What’s that? What’s that?’ I just bow my head and eat.”
Meng said she’s grateful that the situation today is not as bad as when she was growing up. Raising two sons with her husband Wayne Kye, who is of Korean descent in Queens, Meng said that her sons are actually asking her to give them Chinese or Korean food to bring to school. “I’m glad that they don’t have to go through the same experiences as I did,” Meng said.
But of course, there is still a long way to go for Asian Americans.
Based on the 2010 U.S. Census, there are 14.7 million Asian Americans, which make up almost 5 percent of the total U.S. population. Moreover, Asians are the fastest-growing race group in the U.S.; its population grew by 43.4 percent from 2000 to 2010.
“There are only 13 APIA (Asian and Pacific Islander-American) members in Congress,” Meng laments. “We would be in a meeting where Congress members talk about how this issue will affect the black community, how this issue will affect the Latino community. And then the meeting is over.”
“I always joke that oftentimes, my job in these meetings is to raise my hand and say, ‘What about the Asians?’” she said.
Meng said in a lot of congressional meetings, you’d be lucky to see one Asian congressman. And sometimes there’s none.
“We actually let congressmen join the Asian Caucus even if they’re not Asian. If they represent a district with a big Asian population, they’re welcome to join as well,” Meng said. “We try to make sure that Asian-American concerns are part of the issues that the Congress are working on.”
Still, Meng said there were instances when she and her family are subjected to racial slur. Meng recalled that recently she was walking with her two sons in the city and someone from afar called out “Chink”.
“They are age 7 and 9. Sometimes we experience things and I have to always figure out how to explain these to them.” Meng said, “I try not to get angry because I don’t want them to see me yelling at someone. But I always make it a point to talk back to the person.”
“I want my children to know that you don’t have to curse someone, that you don’t have to fight someone, but you should at least understand that it’s your duty to speak up and let that person know what they said is not respectful,” Meng said.
“You’re not going to change someone’s heart just because you spoke up and talk back to him, but it’s important that you do. A lot of people say and do things to Asians, because there is a stereotype or belief that we won’t say anything, and we won’t do anything…
“People would be very surprised to see an Asian person talking back and fighting against stereotyping and racial harassment. But it’s very important to fight that stereotype. We have to continue to fight racial discrimination.”
Assemblywoman, 65th District
New York State Assembly
“Me Chinese, me play joke, me go pee pee in your Coke.”
It was just a rhyme that some elementary school kids in El Paso, Texas used to chant to taunt her in the early 1990s. The rhyme didn’t make any sense, but the trauma it caused still haunts Yuh-Line Niou until now.
“My classmates took turns spitting on me, then they laughed and chanted the rhyme,” Niou, who represents District 65 before the New York State Assembly, said. I ran home to my mom, cried to her, then I said to her, ‘I hate you for making me Chinese’.”
She was 7, and Niou can still remember the look on her mother’s face at that moment. “What I said really broke her heart,” Niou said.
“My parents told me since I was a kid that as an Asian American and as a girl, I always have to work twice, three times, and even four times harder to be treated as an equal.”
On September 13, 2016, at the age of 33, Niou won the six-way Democratic primary race, and then went on to win a State Assembly seat in the November general elections. Winning 76 percent of the vote, Niou made history by becoming the first Asian American from Manhattan to be elected into the New York State Assembly. The 65th Assembly District covers an area that includes Chinatown and Lower East Side.
Niou’s victory was significant for at least two reasons. One, the 65th District used to be controlled by one of the most powerful politicians in the Empire State, then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, who represented the district for almost four decades.
And two, Niou is one of the few elected Asian officials who kept their original Chinese name and refused to adopt a so-called ‘American name.’
“I’m proud of it.” Niou said, “My name is also American – Yuh-Line. It’s an Asian American name.”
She added: “All of our names are from different languages. So one day I hope, all of our names will be perceived as ‘American’ — because we are all Americans!”
Niou said her electoral victory serves as a reminder to people that “our country is very diverse. We are a country of immigrants”.
“My parents told me since I was a kid that as an Asian American and as a girl, I always have to work twice, three times, and even four times harder to be treated as an equal. That’s sad for parents to have to tell their kids about that, but that’s the reality.”
As a young woman of color running for office, Niou not only competed against other candidates, but she also fought against almost every stereotype of being Asian and female. During the campaign, she had to deal with criticisms that had nothing to do with her political beliefs nor her program of action.
“Your hair is too long or too short. Your skirt is too long or too short. Your heels are too high or too low. You should wear skirts more often. You should wear pants more often,” Niou laughed as she recalled her days of campaigning. “Women are convenient targets.”
“No matter how many generations you have been here, if you look Asian, a lot of people still see you as foreigner.”
There were also criticisms that the 33-year-old Niou was “too young” to run for an Assembly seat. “I was told so many times that ‘maybe you’re too young, you should let people who are older than you run instead’. But there are so many men younger than me who ran for office,” Niou said.
She pointed out that former Assemblyman Silver was first elected at the age of 32. “But very few people would question male candidates about their age,” she said.
Also, being an immigrant — being Asian — was another challenge Niou faced during the campaign. “No matter how many generations you have been here, if you look Asian, a lot of people still see you as foreigner,” Niou said.
She remembered during the campaign, she was met with questions such as “Are you going to represent only Asian people?”
“Why doesn’t anybody ask elected white officials the same question?” Niou said.
From the quiet bookish little Asian girl from Texas to one of only two Asian representatives in the New York State legislature, Niou thought Asian Americans need to build a solid coalition. “We need to get together and refuse to be pitted against one another.”
“It’s time to tell our stories and give ourselves a voice.” Niou said, “That’s why it’s important to vote.”
From being the girl who told her mom that she hated being Chinese, Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou has definitely gone a long way.
Councilwoman, 1st District
New York City Council
Up until she entered college, Margaret Chin had barely thought about discrimination and racism, even though it was the 1960s. “During the early days of my life, I wasn’t exposed to many things. I just stayed within the community and schools; I really wasn’t confronted by any of that.”
Chin is the first Asian American to represent Chinatown in the New York City Council and the first first Asian American woman to sit in the country’s most diverse city.
Chin recalled that when she arrived in New York City at the age of 9 with her whole family from Hong Kong in 1963, they lived with her grandparents on Mulberry Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown: “I went to P.S. 23, and in my class, there was like 99.9 percent Chinese. I didn’t really need to speak English because everybody in class were all recent (Chinese) immigrants.”
Six months later, she and her family moved to an apartment on Mott Street in Little Italy and transferred to P.S.130, where the student population was more diverse. Still it is just next to Chinatown.
She then attended the Bronx High School of Science, which was the only one of the three elite public high schools that was then accepting female students in New York City. “In high school, I remembered in history books, all I read about (Chinese Americans) was one sentence: ‘the Chinese helped build the rail (Pacific Railroad)’. That was it!”
“Discrimination happens when people think you don’t speak out.”
It wasn’t until college at the City College of New York that Chin started to learn about the history and struggle of Chinese Americans. “I took courses on the history of Chinese in America by Professor Betty Lee-Sung.” Chin recalled, “Her class was the first opportunity for me to really learn about the history of Chinese Americans, and understand that our ancestors went through so much discrimination and struggles. It shaped the way that I want to contribute (to our community). It really was a turning point in my life.”
In the 70s, at the height of the civil rights movement across the country, the 20-year-old Chin helped found the Asian Americans for Equality (AAFE), and started to engage in civil rights activities. Today, the AAFE is one of the largest non-profit community organizations in New York City.
She was very active in calling for equal opportunity for Chinese workers. In 1974, the AAFE held demonstrations to protest the policy of the construction company building the Confucius Plaza’s not to hire Asian workers. After weeks of sustained demonstrations, the company, DeMatteis Corp., finally agreed to hire Chinese workers in the government-funded housing project in Chinatown.
Chin also organized protests against police brutality. The AAFE organized a 20,000-strong rally at City Hall to seek justice for Peter Yew, a young Chinese American who was badly beaten by the police and then arrested on charges of resisting arrest and assault on a police officer.
“There was a famous phrase to describe that moment. It said: ‘The head of the dragon was at City Hall and the tail was still in Chinatown,’” Chin said, adding that those days were able to create a whole new image for Asian Americans.
Chin remembered one incident during the Chinatown protests against the proposed jail in 1983. It was that time when New York City mayor Ed Koch dismissed the Chinatown protests. “You don’t vote, you don’t count,” Koch said.
“Discrimination happens when people think you don’t speak out,” Chin said, remembering that Ed Koch moment.
It was because of this that Chin decided to forge voter coalitions, and to do voter registration and education. She filed a lawsuit against the Board of Elections, demanding that ballots and voter materials be provided in Asian languages in districts where more than 5 percent of the voters read and speak these Asian languages.
Chin ran and lost three times – first in 1991 and then in 1993 and 2001 – for the City Council District 1 seat. She tried again in 2009 and finally won the City Council seat.
District 1 is one of the most diverse city council districts. It includes Chinatown, Little Italy, Battery Park City, East Village, Financial District, Lower East Side, SoHo, Tribeca, Greenwich Village and the West Village.
Chin said there is a troubling perception among the general populace that haunts most elected Asian American officials. “It happens a lot in community meetings. People look at me and say things like ‘you’re only going to bring resources to your people’ or ‘you’ll just represent the Chinese.’”
“You need to support other people’s struggles. We need to be part of their struggles, because we are part of this country.”
“There is still that stereotype.” Chin said, “We (Asians) look different and some people still look at us as foreigners.” Chin mentioned an incident involving Michael Luo, a New York Times editor of Chinese descent. “He is a professional but he still got yelled at with the same slurs that Chinese restaurant delivery workers get.”
In her opinion, the best way to fight against discrimination is to engage people in conversation. “Communication is really key. That’s why I spent a great part of my career trying to get people opportunity to learn English. I did that when I was working with La Guardia Community College as an English teacher, and when I was at AAFE fighting for the ESL (English as a Second Language) program,” Chin said.
“I always encourage Chinese residents who live in public housing to go to the meetings, because you face the same issue as your neighbors do. But if you don’t participate, your neighbors see this as ‘okay, we fight, we win, and you only benefit.’ That’s not good.”
Through her decades of fighting for Chinese Americans, Chin learned one basic lesson: the importance of multicultural solidarity.
”When we fought for Chinese workers’ right during the construction of Confucius Plaza, the black community and the Latino community came to help us. They taught us how to do demonstrations, how to stop the work.”
“You need to support other people’s struggles,” Chin said. “We need to be part of their struggles, because we are part of this country. We can’t just do our own thing in a small community. We’ve got to be part of the larger community.”
Disclosure: Council Member Margaret Chin has funded the Asian American Writers’ Workshop.