In the upcoming New York City mayoral primary, 60-year-old Jimmy Cheng plans to do the same thing for Andrew Yang that he did for John Liu eight years ago. Back then, he got up before sunrise and walked around the poll sites in Chinatown until they closed, passing out fliers for Liu, then the New York City comptroller and the first Chinese American on the ballot for the city’s top office.
Liu was losing ground in the polls after his campaign associates were convicted of illegal fundraising practices and had little chance of winning. But Cheng, the president of the American Chinese Voters Alliance Corp, an organization aimed at increasing Chinese voter turnout, believed if voters in Chinese neighborhoods could help Liu outperform his own poll numbers, it would be valuable for the community, even if he didn’t win.
It may have worked. Liu got 7 percent of the votes, three percentage points above his standing in the final Quinnipiac poll before the election. And in Manhattan’s Chinatown, he swept 80 percent of the vote.
This year, even with Yang ranking high in the polls, Cheng finds himself with a more challenging task. Compared to the 2013 primary, when the Chinese American community was almost unanimous in standing behind Liu, some community leaders have publicly endorsed Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, Yang’s strongest rival in the race.
“I’ve known Adams for many years, and I have friends blaming me for not supporting him,” said Cheng. “But as a Chinese American, is it wrong for me to support a Chinese American candidate?” Cheng is not the only person fending off criticism from his social circle. Chinese community leaders, many of whom are friends and frequently dine out together, now avoid their group lunches and dinners to avoid conflict.
William Su, a Chinatown hotel owner who backs Yang, said he was accosted by an old friend who is an Adams supporter when they bumped into each other at a dinner party. Steven Wong, president of Hotel Chinese Association, an organization providing social services to Chinese hotel workers, told Curbed that he was forced to post his endorsement of Adams on WeChat, the social-media platform popular among Chinese users, to stop being hassled by Yang-supporting friends. The two camps trade insults regularly on the platform, with people on opposing sides calling each other stupid or worse. In some WeChat groups, users have taken to calling Adams’s Chinese supporters traitors to their own race.
It’s rare for the Chinese American community in New York to split like this. It has a long history of rallying behind Chinese American candidates. But it’s already splintered by fights over the city’s plan to reform specialized high-school admissions (which many fear would reduce their chance of admissions) and anxieties about rising crime rates, especially the attacks targeting Asian residents.
Asian Americans, who make up 15 percent of the city’s population, now constitute about 8 percent of its voters. In a tight election like this one, in which Yang had been well ahead until Adams recently edged past him, a couple of points matter. And if results from the latest general election are any indicator, this bloc’s voting behavior is unpredictable. Asian New Yorkers have predominantly voted for Democrats since 2000 — but in Manhattan’s Chinatown, Flushing, and Sunset Park, Donald Trump was seen as the pro-meritocracy and anti–affirmative action candidate by many Chinese voters, and he received a bigger share of ballots in 2020 than he had four years earlier. In one district of downtown Flushing, Trump grabbed 41 percent of the votes, 29 percentage points higher than he had in 2016.
Adams and Yang are now squaring off for these voters. Many of them consider this race one of the most important one of their lives. “When Liu was running, it was right after Bloomberg’s administration, and New York was in good shape,” said Jerry Lo, a veteran community activist who helped organize large protests against the city’s specialized high-school-admissions reform and against defunding the police, two key issues that galvanize the more conservative factions of the community. “Now we Chinese are facing a critical moment, and the stakes are high.”
In fact, the two candidates’ positions on these topics are similar. Yang and Adams oppose defunding the police and support keeping the SHSAT, the entrance test for specialized high schools that Mayor de Blasio has been trying to toss out, in order to address the low admissions rates of Black and Hispanic students. Adams scores with these voters for vowing to maintain the current admissions policy, while Yang calls for the addition of other factors into the admissions process, such as teacher recommendations and personal statements. Lo, 62, once supported Yang, but has decided to back Adams instead. “Do you think an Asian mayor would like to fight hard for us, and risk being deemed as against Blacks and Hispanics?” he asked.
Among elected officials who have some influence over the city’s Asian voters, Yang has gained the endorsement of Congresswoman Grace Meng, a major boost for his campaign, and of City Councilmember Margaret Chin. However, Peter Koo, the only other Asian American City Council member, backs Adams. John Liu, who is now a state senator, says he is still deciding. “Ethnic pride is part of the equation. But I’ve never seen it as the only factor in the equation,” said Liu. “Andrew is a very strong candidate. His disadvantage is probably that people don’t know him very well, whereas people have known Eric for many years, and Eric has been working hard in the community.”
Adams’s track record in the Chinese community is well-known. The candidate himself likes to talk about how, when he was a New York City cop, he helped issue a reward to catch those who killed a Chinese deliveryman about 20 years ago. As the Brooklyn borough president, he promoted a project (and devoted $2 million in funds) to bring a Chinese archway from Beijing to Sunset Park. While the archway project has stalled, Adams’s involvement helped him to build extensive relationships in the community. He often shows up at traditional ceremonies in the Chinese community dressed in a red silk jacket embroidered with golden dragons. “Adams loves Chinese culture. He is closer to the Chinese community than Yang,” said Wong, the leader of the Hotel Chinese Association, who pointed out that Yang, unlike Adams, had no involvement with the Chinese community until he ran for president. Before Yang announced his mayoral campaign in December, many community leaders were leaning toward Adams.
But Yang’s Asian face alone was enough to flip some. “I am closer to Eric personally,” said Jimmy Li, 42, president of the Asian American Democratic Club, which endorsed Yang. “But when Asians are attacked by hate crimes, and when we are told by racists to ‘go back to your own country,’ Yang’s election would make us visible and send out a message that ‘we belong.’ He could be Asians’ Barack Obama.”
Beyond the plain fact of his ethnicity, though, Yang’s cultural ties seem, to some observers, weak. “Sometimes it appears Yang doesn’t understand Chinese culture as well as some non-Chinese,” said John Chan, 67, president of Asian American Community Empowerment, a Sunset Park–based organization advocating for the civil rights of Chinese Americans. When Yang posted on Twitter about his childhood memory of eating mooncakes during the Lunar New Year holiday, followers pointed out that those are traditionally for the mid-autumn festival and called him “whitewashed.” And in a Washington Post op-ed last April, Yang confessed he once felt “ashamed” of being Asian and called upon Asian Americans to “show our American-ness” to combat rising anti-Asian hate. This backfired badly. At a recent rally in Chinatown, a passerby asked Yang in Chinese whether he still felt “ashamed,” which he avoided answering.
In fact, Yang’s public stances on a wide range of policy issues has repelled two poles of the Chinese American voter base. While he initially enjoyed the support of young Asian American liberals, especially at the launch of his presidential bid, hundreds of progressive Asian Americans recently signed a public letter opposing his mayoral bid. Meanwhile, his flagship campaign promise of a universal basic income (UBI) — or at least something resembling it — doesn’t sit well with conservative Chinese either. “To distribute free cash to people sounds to me like socialism. If I liked socialism, why did I come to the U.S.?” asked Andrew Tai, 51, a registered Democrat who voted for Trump last year. Tai, who works as a private math tutor, has not only decided to vote for Adams, but has also told the parents of his students to not vote for Yang.
Adams is not above reproach either. Some Chinese American leaders were disappointed at his reaction to a Brooklyn nail-salon brawl, in 2018, between Chinese employees and Black customers, over a $5 payment. As borough president, Adams supported the district attorney’s decision to drop charges against a Black customer. This year, when Yong Zheng, a Chinese Good Samaritan, was killed by a group of Black robbers in Sunset Park, Adams didn’t speak out about it. “I am leaning towards Adams. But I haven’t made a decision yet because of these incidents,” said Chan of AACE.
Yang’s campaign didn’t reply to inquiries from Curbed. Jose Bayona, a senior adviser for Adams’s campaign, said Adams “will never pit one community against another … he will continue to serve as a mediator for conflict and misunderstanding as a mayor for all New Yorkers.”
“I don’t think unity can be achieved among Chinese anytime soon,” said Chan. “This, of course, is not a good thing for the community.” But others, like Liu, believe the most effective way for a minority voting bloc to flex its power in an election is not through unity, but with a high turnout. With the narrow margins between the candidates and the high level of anxiety about the future, that is likely to happen this year. Even those who are campaigning hard for their favored candidates agree that this is the silver lining in the division. “Sharp competition between candidates is not a bad thing, as long as we all back our views with reason,” said Cheng. “And it drives up turnout.”