For Asian Americans across the country, it has been a year filled with hate and harrowing attacks against our community. A year in which many elderly Asian Americans lived in fear after a wave of brutal, random attacks. A year in which six Asian American women were murdered in a mass shooting in the Atlanta area, any one of whom could have been our grandmother, mother, sister, daughter, or auntie.
But the atmosphere has been different in Boston these last few weeks. We watched Michelle Wu carve an improbable path to making history. Tuesday night, it became official when Boston elected the 36-year-old daughter of Taiwanese immigrants as mayor, its first woman and first person of color to be voted into the top job at City Hall.
“It’s this huge moment of hope and light in the midst of all of this,” said Leverett Wing, a longtime Wu supporter and political activist.
It’s hard to overstate what her mayoralty means for Asian Americans in Boston and beyond.
It’s not just a seismic political moment on par with Deval Patrick’s election as Massachusetts’ first Black governor, or Ayanna Pressley becoming the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress.
Wu’s victory transcends politics. It could be the cultural reckoning Asian Americans have been waiting for, certainly in the Commonwealth, perhaps in the country. Not so long ago, the idea would have seemed far fetched: An Asian American woman who wasn’t born in Boston, the most insular of communities, becomes mayor with a mandate for change.
She is mayor-elect not because of the Asian American vote, but because she was the majority choice in wards across the city. For Asian Americans like myself, it’s like we’ve been seen. We feel accepted, that we’ve gained entry. We can no longer be called the perpetual foreigner.
At last, we are Boston, too.
Her victory feels surreal to Wai Chow an immigrant from Hong Kong, as he contemplates how much Boston has changed since the 1970s. Growing up in the South End during the tumultuous desegregation of city schools, he remembers being bused to Charlestown, where he and other students of color were greeted by rocks and protesters.
“To me, Michelle Wu is like Bruce Lee,” said Chow. “She broke down the barriers that Chinese people can be leaders.”
Already, Wu has inspired Chow’s daughter, Julia, a 17-year-old senior at Weston High School. Julia Chow decided in December, when Wu was a long shot to oust incumbent Marty Walsh, that she wanted to volunteer for her campaign. She was so shy when she first started working at a Wu phone bank that she stuttered during calls. By the summer, the Chinese American teen was canvassing the city, knocking on doors.
Julia Chow, who met Wu at least a couple dozen times during the campaign, said she now wants to some day run for office herself. Politics, she discovered, “it’s my passion.”
Wu has become the role model she herself never had growing up. The Harvard-trained Roslindale lawyer, who has been serving as a city councilor, often tells a childhood story of how there were so few Asian American women to look up to that people suggested she become an Olympic figure skater like Michelle Kwan.
Before Wu, Sam Yoon dreamed of becoming Boston’s first Asian American mayor. Yoon, a Korean American and another Boston transplant, ran a grass-roots campaign in 2005 to become the first Asian American to serve on the City Council. After his second term, Yoon made an unsuccessful bid in 2009 to unseat Mayor Tom Menino. He placed third in the primary.
Yoon famously never worked again in Boston, having dared to challenge Menino. He and his family decamped to the Washington, D.C., area. He teaches high school algebra in Arlington, Va., but has been following how Wu has carved a path to the mayoralty.
It brought back memories of the way Boston was, and made him realize how much the city has evolved today.
“I would walk into City Hall into my own office and still have a feeling I didn’t belong there, when you see the photos on the wall and the history of the city and City Hall,” recalled Yoon. “The fact that she could possibly claim, as Michelle Wu, the power and privileges of that office ... it’s just amazing.”
“It points to where our country is going,” he added, “and needs to continue to go.”
Wu triumphed because she built a coalition that brought together white progressives and the Black and Latino communities. But Asian Americans, since her election to the City Council in 2013, have been a critical part of her political playbook.
During Wu’s mayoral bid, she picked Mary Lou Akai-Ferguson, a Japanese American, as her campaign manager. Asian Americans dominated Wu’s finance committee, co-chaired by Geoff Why, a Chinese American and a Boston law partner who also worked in the Patrick administration. Then there has been Uncle Frank, aka Frank Chin, whom generations of politicians have courted to get out the Chinatown vote.
Crucially, Asian Americans, not known for their political giving, donated in droves. Among them: Paul Lee, a retired Boston partner at the law firm Goodwin Procter who grew up in Chinatown. He and his wife, Mary, donated more than $100,000 to a super PAC backing Wu. They got to know Wu while she was at Harvard Law School, and later during her run for City Council when she became the second Asian American to serve.
For the Lees, supporting Wu’s mayoral bid was about gaining representation at the highest level of City Hall.
“What we want is not to be overlooked anymore,” said Paul Lee. “It opens up a conversation about how much talent there is in our community, but we have been limited because of stereotypes and expectations. Michelle really opens up a big lane for us to get involved in local government and politics.”
At Wu’s election night party at the Cyclorama in the South End, Asian Americans were out in force. Wu seemed eager to keep them engaged. Wearing a bright red dress, the color of good luck and fortune in Chinese culture, Wu delivered a line of her Tuesday night victory speech in Mandarin.
And to explain how someone who grew up in the Chicago area could choose to settle in Boston, she told the crowd: “I came to this city, as a homesick college kid, but as soon as I set foot on the Red Line to Chinatown, T token in hand, I knew I was home.”
Today, a lot of us feel more at home.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.