Chinese New Year Celebration Marks Year of Political Awakening for Houston’s Asian American Community
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- February 2nd, 2019
The Year of the Pig was welcomed with a hefty side of politics at a Chinese New Year festival in southwest Houston Saturday.
Candidates for office stumped as advocates registered once-reluctant voters at the Texas Lunar Festival. The heightened political awareness among Asian Americans was triggered by President Donald Trump’s policies regarding trade and immigration, said Wea H. Lee, who hosts the celebration that thousands attend in the parking lot of his Southern News Media Group.
“U.S. and China relations are the most important trade relationship in the world. We, as Chinese Americans, really need to be aware of what’s going on in Washington D.C.,” he said. “We want to see the current trade disagreements resolved; that is very important to our community.”
Lee has operated the Southern News Group for 23 years and has hosted the Lunar New Year Festival each of those years. His business has grown to include 10 Asian-American newspapers published across the United States. Over the same span, Lee said he’s watched more than 500 new businesses, almost all run by Asian-American immigrants, open in southwest Houston.
The diverse community of new immigrants includes Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and African Americans. He said many are disappointed by Trump’s immigration policies and the effect it has had on Houston’s Asian American community.
“We need to attract more highly educated immigrants to this country. But, the current government doesn’t really encourage foreign students to immigrate to America any more. We need to fix that,” he said.
Sandwiched between dancers, bubble tea and colorful clothing at the festival sat a table with voter registration forms and information distributed by the non-profit group United Chinese Americans.
“It is so important to get folks registered and involved in the process, particularly in the Houston area because our community is so diverse,” said volunteer Raj Salhotra, who is running to an at-large seat on the Houston City Council in the November election. “Everybody’s voices need to be heard and everybody’s voices has to be represented.”
The former Teach for America teacher attended Harvard Law School and then returned to Houston to help with the issues he saw working at YES Prep — a cycle of poverty.
“I think what we’re seeing now is the Asian American community is realizing that elections matter and that voter is important,” he said. “I think our community is awakened and we are hungry for more candidates and more representation because ultimately you have to have a seat at the table. I think that is what our community is trying to get.”
United Chinese American volunteer Helen Shih said she also felt inspired to help with voter registration at the festival.
“Our organization works very hard to educate and advocate for Chinese Americans and to help them understand the importance of voting,” Shih said. “But, there are so many different minority communities that have been disenfranchised. They live in fear and they don’t know what to do. They feel they have been bullied or maybe intimidated. It’s very important to help them to come out and vote.”
Shih said recent wins by local Asian American candidates had brought new energy to the political community. But, there was still much work to do.
“We have some interest but I see there is still a lot of reluctance. Many Chinese Americans leave their home countries out of fear and came to the U.S. because it is a free country. Back home, they feel they have no voice. But here in America, they feel empowered,” she said.
Shih said there are many older Asian Americans who have never voted and don’t know where to go or how to begin.
“Because they grew up in a very different political and social environment, many people from China are very afraid of the government. There is fear. But, in 2016 many Chinese Americans realized how dangerous this country is becoming and if they don’t vote, they don’t have a voice and they will become a victim,” Shih said. “That’s why we are here, to help being those in the Asian American community into the conversation and show them they can have a place at the table.”