The "A" List (Part 1 of 2)

Ten Asians making the news in America

From shore to shining shore, America is made up of successive generations of immigrants. But it has always found it difficult to accommodate those who came via the Pacific instead of the Atlantic.

In 1882 the US Congress passed the first-ever racially discriminatory law. It banned the immigration of any more Chinese, who had been brought over to build railways and mine gold, now that the work was done.

In 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbour, a process began that would eventually send 120,000 US-born Japanese to internment camps for the duration of the World War II.

Exactly 50 years later, rioters rampaged through Koreatown in Los Angeles, burning and looting shops, and beating up local merchants. The riot was sparked by a broadcast video of LA police " white " officers beating a black man called Rodney King. It had not involved any Koreans.

In a 2003 incident that implicated a Vietnamese and created an uproar amongst San Diego's Vietnamese, two police killed Cau Tran, a 25-year-old mother of two, in front of her apartment. Tran, who always looked to the police for help, dialled 911 after finding herself locked out of her home. When the police arrived she was trying to open the lock with a dao bao, an eight-inch vegetable peeler. She waved the instrument and pointed at her door. Officer Chad Marshall thought she was holding a weapon, drew his gun, and shot her dead. A grand jury found Marshall not guilty of murder, or even manslaughter.

Often, in each of these incidents, Asians took it silently, virtually without protest, more intent on making a living and moving on than demanding restitution on their rights as American citizens. Until now.

Today, Asians are finding their voice in American society and politics. They have been active in local and regional politics. Some have reached high office. Mazie Keiko Hirono, of Japanese origin, was lieutenant governor of Hawaii. Gary Locke from Washington, was the first Chinese-American governor. Satveer Chaudhary is the first Indian-American and the youngest-ever senator of Minnesota. But now they aspire to a bigger stage. They want national attention, national recognition and, of course, national influence.

And the time is ripe for this. The proportion of America's 300-million population who call themselves Asian has reached 4%. This is a race defined by the US Census as anyone who can trace their ancestry to East Asia, South-east Asia or the Indian Subcontinent. Those with Middle-Eastern roots — which would include the likes of Osama bin Laden — are considered "whites". In 20 years, at 2028's presidential election, one out of 10 Americans will be of Asian origin.

Today's Asian-Americans are already more well-off and more integrated than their forebears, having overcome language barriers and discrimination that confined early-day Asians to various ghettos (Little India, Little Vietnam, Chinatown, Koreatown), where they practised age-old trades of running eateries, laundering clothes (and sometimes money), and keeping grocery stores.

They now cluster, still in metropolitan cities such as LA, San Francisco, New York and Houston, but not in the inner cities. They are found in the leafy upper-middle class suburbs. As a whole, the average income of the 12 million or so Asian Americans exceeds even that of the white majority.

Spotting their rising influence, the Democratic Party's two frontrunners in the 2008 elections are already playing their Asian cards. Hillary Clinton's is Californian congresswoman Doris Matsui from California, whom she named her national Asian American voter outreach campaign chairwoman. Barack Obama has his Indonesian stepfather.

asia!'s list of Asian newsmakers in the US reflects the community's demographics, i.e., dominated by those of Chinese or Japanese origins, simply because they have been in the country the longest. Their distinct physical appearance and linguistic differences hindered them from assimilating as easily into the American mainstream as the Filipinos, many of whom intermarried with locals. Compared with the later arrivals like the Vietnamese and Cambodians, they have had more time to establish themselves in their new home.

Several on our list are second-generation Americans, like Eric Shinseki. They tend to be more educated and keener to work in the government or the professional fields, than their parents. Shinseki rose to the rank of four-star general in the US Armed Forces.

There is, however, also US Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, a Taiwan native and daughter of accomplished parents from prominent families, who is living the quintessential American dream. But not every one is a success story. Recall Cho Seung Hui, who after more than a decade in the US still could not fit in and ended his life and those of 32 others in cold blood at Virginia Tech.

Yet for every Cho there is also a Yul Kwon, a fellow Korean, who is not only a graduate of Stanford University and Yale Law School, but also a popular celebrity in his own right, after winning Survivor: Cook Islands.

The list's personalities are as diverse as the continents they represent. On the same list is John Choon Yo, the White House counsel who gave Bush the legal justification for holding inmates without trial at Guantanamo Bay; and Lieutenant Ehren Watada, sued because he refused to go to Iraq to serve in a war that he felt was not just.

Different as they may be, all 10 have something in common, apart from being Asian. They have all broken out of the mould of the meek silent Asian. Whether openly or behind the scenes, by choice or by circumstance, they are creating controversy in America.



1. Elaine Chao — an Asian-American woman, a double minority

''Elaine Chao believes deeply in the American dream because she has lived it.''—George W. Bush, 2001

Chao is the Bush administration's most prominent Asian American. The Labor Secretary is not only the cabinet's first Asian-American woman ever, but the only member to have served Bush in the same post for both terms as well.

One half of Washington's power couple, the former banker and Peace Corps director is married to Senator Mitch McConnell, the US Congress's highest-ranking Republican. More controversial, though, are her Chinese roots.

Taiwanese-born Chao migrated with her parents to the US when she was just eight. Her father, James, went to Shanghai's Jiaotong University with Chinese President Hu Jintao, whom he still meets on a regular basis. James Chao's shipping company Foremost not only does business with China, he has also long worked with the Tungs, the influential family of Hong Kong's former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

Secretary Chao's mother is herself related to the Hsus, another powerful shipping dynasty in Hong Kong. Elaine Chao's ready connections in a country where connections, or guanxi, count tremendously make her invaluable in facilitating Sino-US contact. Personally, she feels China has been demonised in the US because of a need to find a post-Cold War enemy, and supports Bill Clinton's policies of constructive engagement and strategic partnership with Beijing.

This doesn't go down well with those afraid of the emerging Dragon. But for an America waiting to tap into a market of 1.3 billion, she is perfectly poised.

2. Lolo Soetoro — a virtual unknown

Depending on the source's political leaning, Lolo Soetoro was either a "Muslim student" or a "radical Muslim". He married divorcee, Ann Obama, and they took young Barack to live in Indonesia.

Barack Obama spent four years there studying in a local school and the Democratic presidential candidate is now suspected of being a Christian who is really a closet Muslim.

In a bid to uncover the truth, international media descended on Sekolah Dasar Nasional Menteng 01, the only Indonesian state school to be listed in the online encyclopedia Wikipedia. They exposed it as a madrassah preaching jihadism, a "fact" later discredited by further investigation.

It seems ludicrous but clearly some believe Obama talented enough to be schooled in the art of holy war when he was just six. Bandung Winardijanto, who attended the same school, remembers "Curly Eyelashes" to be more pre-occupied with breaking school fences and taking food from vendors, which his parents had to pay for at the end of every week.

Barry Soetoro, as he was known then, was a scout, but not a very good one at that. After a short stay in Indonesia, he was sent to live with his grandparents in the US.

As if being black and trying to be president isn't hard enough. Obama's Asian connection is obscure but proof enough for some Republicans, to make him Muslim and a potential terrorist as well.

All this because Lolo Soetoro couldn't afford to send his stepson to an international school.



3. Edmund Moy — The boy who collected coins now prints money

In 2005, the United States Mint made more than 15 billion coins, and generated US$1.7 billion in revenue. This made the Treasury US$775 million richer. Thanks are due to the director of the US Mint, Edmund Moy.

The Chinese-American is also the Special Assistant to the President for Presidential Personnel at the White House. He recommends candidates to head eight of the 15 US Federal Departments including Energy, Education and Labor, and bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Social Security Administration. In all, he recruited more than 3,500 people for both terms of President Bush, whom he notes has appointed more Asian-Americans than ever in US history.

A highly regarded layperson in evangelical circles, Moy sits on the board of directors of Christianity Today International, which publishes religious magazines and produces, among other materials, church-management software and Christian audio-visual resources. The organisation is founded by world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham, the man President Bush says "planted a mustard seed" of faith in his soul, after their meeting in 1985.

Anyone who has the ear of the president, his hand in the US cash supply, and the backing of the powerful evangelical lobby patronised by Bush himself, is an influential man to watch.

4. David Kuo — No separation of church and state

"I call my philosophy and approach compassionate conservatism....with this hopeful approach, we will make a real difference in people's lives."—President George W. Bush, 2001

When President Bush set up the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives in 2001, he promised US$8 billion to help the poor, and charities that would previously not have been given federal funding because of their religious nature, could now apply.

This was Christmas come early for David Kuo. After swinging from volunteering for the Democrats under Ted Kennedy to working for conservatives like former Attorney-General John Ashcroft, the self-professed Compassionate Conservative saw in this a chance to put his evangelical faith into practice.

He lasted 2 1/2 years in the Bush White House, 23 months as Deputy Director of the new office, before quitting. In an interview with 60 Minutes, he said the President promised to be "the leading lobbyist on behalf of the poor" but the lobbyist "didn't follow through".

Leaving politics, he wrote an exposé accusing the Bush administration of using compassionate conservatism as "political seduction" to win support from faith-based constituencies, and Bush aides of calling controversial televangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell "insane" and "ridiculous". Oh and only US$60 million of the promised US$8 billion has come through.

"It all comes down to the fact that if the president wanted it, he would have gotten it," Kuo asserts. The Office's last director Jim Towey calls this naivete.

Through his various statements, Kuo does appear to display the naïve idealism and goal-focused single-mindedness that outsiders sometimes find so incredulous about many Americans. But within the country, he has made yet more Americans question something else about a president whose credibility has already taken a beating.

Kuo insists Bush is a good, caring and compassionate man. In trying to reconcile the president's personal and political personae, he concludes that the politician may have won.

Bush may begin his day reading My Utmost for His Highest, a Christian guide to living, but we now learn as Kuo did, who moves the American presiden

>TO The "A" List (Part 2 of 2)



Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

dan-chyi chuaDan-Chyi Chua began her writing career with Channel News Asia, a regional cable network, before forsaking broadcast journalism to hit the road for a three-year sabbatical through the Middle East, China, Central America and Cuba. She has now grounded herself as a writer for asia! Magazine.

[email protected]