New York's Chinatown Makes Election Day History

New York City may have one of the country's largest Chinatown's, but its historically never been represented politically by Chinese immigrants. For the first time, a Chinese American has been elected to the City Council to represent this neighborhood. Host Michel Martin talks with Margaret Chin on her recent election victory.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And finally, we have one more story about an election that has led to an historic first. For the first time, New York City's legendary Chinatown will be represented on the New York City Council by a person of Chinese heritage. Chinatown is believed to be one of the largest Chinese communities outside of mainland China. Democrat Margaret Chin won the race last night. She will become one of three Asian-Americans on the 51-member city council and the first Asian-American and she's with us now.

Congratulations. Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MARGARET CHIN (City Councilmember, Democrat, New York): Thank you. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: I think a lot of people are surprised by this. I mean Chinese-Americans are four out of 10 residents of Chinatown. Why do you think that is, that you're the first person of Chinese heritage to represent that area?

Ms. CHIN: Well, Chinatown is part of District 1. And District 1 is a very diverse district and it has a lot of different communities there, like Tribeca, Battery Park City, City Hall, Soho, the Village. So Chinatown, even though it has the largest population in the district, but it has many other neighborhoods.

MARTIN: Did you grow up wanting to be in politics? And I should mention that you have a very, you know, compelling personal story, as a lot of people in New York do. Your father came here illegally. He was able to bring you and your mother here legally later on. And then you grew up in the city, and you watched them both working long hours, your mother in the garment district, your father in the restaurants. Did you grow up wanting to be in politics?

Ms. CHIN: No I didn't. I grew up wanting to be a teacher and I was a teacher and I grew up wanting to do community service - to help others, immigrants and other communities who are in need because I grew up as an immigrant. I saw what the family has to go through. So all throughout my education, I try to find time to help people.

MARTIN: You've run three times before for this seat, never could make it past the primary. What do you think made the difference this time? You beat a two-term incumbent I should mention, so that's no easy thing to do. What do you think made the difference?

Ms. CHIN: Well, I think the long journey. Along the way I picked up a lot of support and a lot of experience. And also along the way, many, many more people from the community registered to vote and they came out to vote this time. And so I think just all the pieces just add together. And also from the other neighborhood, people cry out for change. And also because of the term limit extension that bypassed the voter and a lot of people were also very upset about that so...

MARTIN: Which is one of the reasons and factors in Mayor Bloomberg being able to run for a third time, you think a lot of people were just not pleased to see this previous law being bypassed, as it were?

Ms. CHIN: Yes.

MARTIN: You think it sort of created some anti-incumbent feelings? Do you think it matters to have a Chinese-American representing Chinatown? Do you think it's important?

Ms. CHIN: I think it's important to a lot of the voters in Chinatown, especially the one that are - the older citizen, the one that don't speak English fluently. It's their hopes and aspiration, want someone who can understand them and talk to them directly - understand their needs. And that's, you know, and that's what happened. And they were very proud, and they came out to vote.

But I think for myself, who grew up here, I'm the best one to really bridge all the communities because I grew up in Chinatown. I work in the Lower East Side, in different part of the district. I live in the Financial District so I'm pretty mainstream. I grew up here, so that I can work together with many different communities. And also I speak three Chinese dialects so that's...

MARTIN: Really? Which ones? I'm not going to test you. Trust me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: So which one's?

Ms. CHIN: Cantonese, because I was born in Hong Kong - that was my first dialect. Toy-Chinese(ph) because when I first came in '63 a lot of the Chinese old-timers, that's all they spoke, so I had to learn for them to talk to me. And then, when I was a teenager, I learned Mandarin.

MARTIN: Wow. Very impressive. So what is going to be your focus as a councilmember now that you're there? Almost there, you have to be sworn in.

Ms. CHIN: Yes. The first thing is really to bring all the communities together. One of the things that I campaigned on was that we have so much in common - so a lot of time people don't know each other. So one of my first goal is really to get the community to get to know each other, the different community groups from across the district. And we will work on issues like traffic, housing issues that are common to all different communities in the district.

MARTIN: And your mother's still alive, I take it.

Ms. CHIN: Yeah.

MARTIN: Your father's passed on. Is she - she must be very proud.

Ms. CHIN: Yeah. She was there last night at the victory celebration. She didn't come on stage but she got up. I can see it in her face.

MARTIN: Well, congratulations to you and to her.

Ms. CHIN: Thank you,

MARTIN: Margaret Chin just won a city council seat in the first district in New York City. She is the first Chinese-American to represent Chinatown. She joined us from New York.

Thank you so much.

Ms. CHIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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