Asian Americans urged to vote, run for office
QUINCY — When C.C. Yin was growing up in China, his elders warned him to mind his own business.
Take care of yourself; don’t cause trouble, they told him.
This was Yin’s cultural inheritance, a strategy for survival shaped by thousands of years of religion and rule. Buddhism, a religion based on meditation and detachment from the world, farming, a family-centered way of life, and a succession of authoritarian dynasties had conditioned the Chinese to keep their heads down, their hands busy, and their minds on their work.
But on a recent Sunday afternoon in Quincy, the city with the state’s fastest-growing Chinese population and 22,968 Asian-Americans, according to the last census, Yin was challenging that very mindset.
Register to vote, he urged about 200 people gathered at the China Pearl restaurant. Learn about your government. Run for public office, he said.
Yin, the octogenarian founder of the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association, based in Sacramento, was among a half-dozen speakers at a gathering to officially launch the organization’s Boston chapter. Other speakers included state Representative Tackey Chan, Quincy City Councilor Nina X. Liang, Cambridge City Council candidate Vatsady Sivongxay, and keynote speaker Connie Dai, a Boston-area attorney who specializes in business law.
Asian-Americans living in Greater Boston have participated in politics for some time, but involvement has grown slowly. A number of groups, including the 50-year-old Asian American Civic Association, have quietly provided social services, English language and other classes, and civic education for waves of Asian newcomers.
What distinguishes the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association is its single-minded focus on political involvement.
Yin was a successful entrepreneur in California when a group of Asian community leaders asked for his help 16 years ago. Asians, especially Chinese, had been in California for 150 years, ever since the Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. But in 2001, not one Asian-American held a state elective office, the leaders pointed out. Something needed to change.
Yin agreed, and he soon created an organization focused on civic education — voting, running for public office, and volunteering in the community.
“We want to build a bigger pie for everyone to share,” said Yin, who arrived in America in 1964 at age 28 with $100 and little knowledge of English.
Today the association he started has a membership of 35,000 and is represented by 22 chapters, including the new one in Boston.
The idea for the Boston chapter was planted last year in Washington, D.C., where Yin met Frank Poon, outreach coordinator for South Shore Elder Services, based in Braintree. Poon was there to receive an award for his work.
“We started talking at noon and were still talking at 4 a.m.,” said Yin, who asked Poon to help start the new chapter.
Poon, 64, didn’t hesitate to get involved. A former commercial photographer, he came to the United States on a work visa in 1983 and stayed on after receiving a job offer from a local company. But he made an about-face in his career after his son was born with Williams syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes developmental and health problems.
Poon said he and his family would have been lost without the community support and resources they received after his son’s birth. The experience convinced him to leave his job and find work at a nonprofit where he could help other people who didn’t know where to turn.
“I know how it feels,” he said.
He also recognized that, even with the best intentions, he was accepting a challenge in starting a group focused on getting typically reticent Asians to become more invested in the American political process. The path to civic and community engagement for any new group is paved with obstacles, everything from language barriers to hostility toward newcomers.
So while he was organizing the kickoff, Poon also put together a book — something he would have wanted to read when he was a young immigrant making his way.
On the recent Sunday, he distributed the first 500 copies of “You Can Achieve It,” a collection of inspirational stories, published by the Civic Leadership Forum Foundation, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.
Paul Y. Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said that starting the Boston chapter is “important,” given the historically cold reception that Asian Americans have received upon arrival in America.
Racism and nativism have not abated, he said.
“Like other immigrant groups who come to the United States, they want to be involved and treated respectfully and fairly,” Watanabe said. “The opening of the [chapter] is an opportunity to address the larger issues.”
According to the Pew Research Center, immigrants from the Far East, Southeast Asia, and the Indian subcontinent are the fastest-growing racial group in the country. They also have the highest incomes and the best educations, and almost half of them live in the Western states.
For Yin, voter registration, voter education, and voter support are important ideas to plant and grow in these new Americans. So is passing on the stories of older generations of Asians who came to America and realized their dreams.
“We want to give back to America what it gave to us, to pass it on to the younger generation,” said Yin, who worked as a civil engineer for 20 years before he opened a McDonald’s restaurant, the first of more than 30 he and his family now run in California.
“The message to the next generation is, do something for the community,” he said.