Ten Asians Making the News in America

Jan 21, 2009
*Special to asia!

From shore to shining shore, America is made up of successive generations of immigrants. But it has always found it difficult to accommodate those who came via the Pacific instead of the Atlantic.

In 1882 the US Congress passed the first-ever racially discriminatory law. It banned the immigration of any more Chinese, who had been brought over to build railways and mine gold, now that the work was done.

In 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbour, a process began that would eventually send 120,000 US-born Japanese to internment camps for the duration of the World War II.

Exactly 50 years later, rioters rampaged through Koreatown in Los Angeles, burning and looting shops, and beating up local merchants. The riot was sparked by a broadcast video of LA police " white " officers beating a black man called Rodney King. It had not involved any Koreans.

In a 2003 incident that implicated a Vietnamese and created an uproar amongst San Diego's Vietnamese, two police killed Cau Tran, a 25-year-old mother of two, in front of her apartment. Tran, who always looked to the police for help, dialled 911 after finding herself locked out of her home. When the police arrived she was trying to open the lock with a dao bao, an eight-inch vegetable peeler. She waved the instrument and pointed at her door. Officer Chad Marshall thought she was holding a weapon, drew his gun, and shot her dead. A grand jury found Marshall not guilty of murder, or even manslaughter.

Often, in each of these incidents, Asians took it silently, virtually without protest, more intent on making a living and moving on than demanding restitution on their rights as American citizens. Until now.

Today, Asians are finding their voice in American society and politics. They have been active in local and regional politics. Some have reached high office. Mazie Keiko Hirono, of Japanese origin, was lieutenant governor of Hawaii. Gary Locke from Washington, was the first Chinese-American governor. Satveer Chaudhary is the first Indian-American and the youngest-ever senator of Minnesota. But now they aspire to a bigger stage. They want national attention, national recognition and, of course, national influence.

And the time is ripe for this. The proportion of America's 300-million population who call themselves Asian has reached 4%. This is a race defined by the US Census as anyone who can trace their ancestry to East Asia, South-east Asia or the Indian Subcontinent. Those with Middle-Eastern roots — which would include the likes of Osama bin Laden — are considered "whites". In 20 years, at 2028's presidential election, one out of 10 Americans will be of Asian origin.

Today's Asian-Americans are already more well-off and more integrated than their forebears, having overcome language barriers and discrimination that confined early-day Asians to various ghettos (Little India, Little Vietnam, Chinatown, Koreatown), where they practised age-old trades of running eateries, laundering clothes (and sometimes money), and keeping grocery stores.

They now cluster, still in metropolitan cities such as LA, San Francisco, New York and Houston, but not in the inner cities. They are found in the leafy upper-middle class suburbs. As a whole, the average income of the 12 million or so Asian Americans exceeds even that of the white majority.

Spotting their rising influence, the Democratic Party's two frontrunners in the 2008 elections are already playing their Asian cards. Hillary Clinton's is Californian congresswoman Doris Matsui from California, whom she named her national Asian American voter outreach campaign chairwoman. Barack Obama has his Indonesian stepfather.


asia!'s list of Asian newsmakers in the US reflects the community's demographics, i.e., dominated by those of Chinese or Japanese origins, simply because they have been in the country the longest. Their distinct physical appearance and linguistic differences hindered them from assimilating as easily into the American mainstream as the Filipinos, many of whom intermarried with locals. Compared with the later arrivals like the Vietnamese and Cambodians, they have had more time to establish themselves in their new home.

Several on our list are second-generation Americans, like Eric Shinseki. They tend to be more educated and keener to work in the government or the professional fields, than their parents. Shinseki rose to the rank of four-star general in the US Armed Forces.

There is, however, also US Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, a Taiwan native and daughter of accomplished parents from prominent families, who is living the quintessential American dream. But not every one is a success story. Recall Cho Seung Hui, who after more than a decade in the US still could not fit in and ended his life and those of 32 others in cold blood at Virginia Tech.

Yet for every Cho there is also a Yul Kwon, a fellow Korean, who is not only a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, but also a popular celebrity in his own right, after winning Survivor: Cook Islands.

The list's personalities are as diverse as the continents they represent. On the same list is John Choon Yo, the White House counsel who gave Bush the legal justification for holding inmates without trial at Guantanamo Bay; and Lieutenant Ehren Watada, sued because he refused to go to Iraq to serve in a war that he felt was not just.

Different as they may be, all 10 have something in common, apart from being Asian. They have all broken out of the mould of the meek silent Asian. Whether openly or behind the scenes, by choice or by circumstance, they are creating controversy in America.




1. Elaine Chao — an Asian-American woman, a double minority

''Elaine Chao believes deeply in the American dream because she has lived it.''—George W. Bush, 2001

Chao is the Bush administration's most prominent Asian American. The Labor Secretary is not only the cabinet's first Asian-American woman ever, but the only member to have served Bush in the same post for both terms as well.

One half of Washington's power couple, the former banker and Peace Corps director is married to Senator Mitch McConnell, the US Congress's highest-ranking Republican. More controversial, though, are her Chinese roots.

dan-chyi chua

Dan-Chyi Chua was a broadcast journalist, before forsaking Goggle Box Glitz for the Open Road. A three-year foray led her through the Middle East, China, SE Asia, Latin America and Cuba, and she's now grounded herself as a writer for theasiamag.com, content with spending her days in Jerusalem.

Contact Dan-Chyi