Community efforts encourage Chicago’s Chinese to vote

By Sophie Zhang

Debbie Liu spends a lot of time talking to people in Chinatown, trying to get traditionally reluctant residents to register to vote.

“Asians have a traditionally lower than average voting habit,” said Liu, community development coordinator at the Coalition for A Better Chinese American Community, which has been mobilizing Chinese voters since 2000.

Every year, the organization aims to register new voters within the Greater Chinatown Area, which extends from Armour Square to Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Brighton Park and the South Loop. The Asian population in that area reached 28,000 in 2010, reported the U.S. Census Bureau, and is comprised mostly of people of Chinese descent.

The 25th Ward, which covers the area, had low turnout in local elections in 2015. During the 2015 mayoral election, voters there cast 7,742 ballots, 31 percent of total registered voters, according to the Chicago Board of Elections. The group aimed to register an additional 1,000 voters in Chinatown last year, where only 2,000 voters were registered. Today, that number has reached about 5,000 new registrants, according to Liu, whose organization educates potential voters through candidate forums and distributing informational flyers.

Chinese residents, especially first-generation immigrants from mainland China, are too unfamiliar with the democratic process, said Dick Simpson, a University of Illinois at Chicago urban politics professor.

“Meaningful democracy is not practiced in China, and people don’t have the experience to make voting decisions,” Simpson said, noting a deep-rooted political culture that produces low expectations of making a change by voting.

In Chinatown, at least one businessman agrees with Simpson’s analysis.

“Many Chinese don’t understand why it is important to vote because they have never done this back in China,” said Honghai Wang, a Chinese businessman who has been in Chicago for 25 years. “They are thinking ‘my vote is only one vote and it won’t change anything.’ ”

Jane Lau, who specializes in Chinese voter outreach at the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, said Chinese residents have plenty of access to information, and it is the mission of advocacy groups and her office to try and assure it is being used.

Sixty-one precincts in Chicago are categorized as Chinese precincts, where bilingual volunteers are required to help voters at the voting booths. And all the information on the Board of Elections website has Chinese translation.

“The question they ask most is ‘Whom should I vote for? I don’t know any of them,’” Lau said.

Knowing little about voting, people aren’t active enough to volunteer at the precinct booths, Lau said. To cover precincts where Chinese voters are likely to show up, she still had problems finding enough people who speak Mandarin and Cantonese.

After years in the United States, Wang is still a green card holder who can’t vote, but he still engages in the process by donating money to local politicians, organizing fundraising events and persuading others to vote.

“I don’t care they are Democrat or Republican,” Wang said. “If they are paying attention to Chinatown, I will give them money because there’s such a lack of Asian representation in the legislature.”

Residents often feel discouraged from voting because they feel no one can understand their culture and fully represent them, Wang said. Statewide, Asians account for 5 percent of the population, but none of the state representatives is Asian American, and no Chinese representative has ever been elected from the Chinatown area.

“After visiting the voting booth with my friends for the first time, I got inspired by the atmosphere and started to learn the whole thing,” says Xiaoli Jiang, who runs a real estate firm in Chinatown. “I didn’t vote because I didn’t have the habit.”

Now she is among the many businesspeople who knock on doors to talk people into voting. That’s important to her because she wants to create a better environment for her kids to be recognized as Americans.

“Contributing greatly to local economy and being competitive in academic fields, Chinese still feel like guests in the city because we are not politically strong,” Jiang said.

Wang and Jiang are excited about Theresa Mah’s candidacy for state representative because she is a Chinese American Democrat who used to work for the coalition for years.

“We just want someone who looks like us to stand up in Springfield,” Jiang said.

Born and raised in San Francisco, where Chinese helped to elect the first Chinese American mayor, Mah hopes her presence will encourage Chinese in Chicago to do the same.

“[Politicians] currently don’t pay much attention to Chinese voters because we haven’t proven ourselves to come out at large numbers to affect the election,” Mah said. “My race will be an opportunity for the community to prove themselves to get noticed.”

Photo at top: Many restaurants in Chinatown have Theresa Mah’s campaign poster on their doors and windows to show support. (Sophie Zhang/MEDILL)