Ying Tan is a Chinese American running for New York City Council in Southern Brooklyn on the Republican ticket. (Andrew Kelly for The Free Press)

These Asian American Candidates Want to Make America Great Again

Politicians from a voting bloc that historically leans blue say they want to ‘expand the boundaries of the MAGA agenda.’

The unofficial headquarters of the Asian American right-wing revolt is a fluorescent-lit basement in New York City’s Chinatown. 

The basement is littered with flyers and custard pastries and a poster emblazoned with Chinese characters that spell out the words longevity and perseverance. It is the campaign headquarters of Helen Qiu, 53, the single mother-turned-online pastor running for city council.

Qiu’s platform is dominated by a single issue: protecting elderly Asians and Jews from a wave of violent hate crimes.

“We honor human dignity, we honor our next generation, we honor children, and we honor God,” Qiu told The Free Press. “Now, in the progressive mind, they do not honor these things.”

Also on Qiu’s agenda: expanding affordable housing, limiting marijuana use to designated areas, reducing the flow of undocumented migrants to New York, and ensuring the city’s selective public schools retain their SAT-style admissions test, which has long enabled a disproportionate number of working-class Asian students to get in.

Like presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy and Hung Cao, running against Tim Kaine for the Senate in Virginia, Qiu marks the rise of a new kind of Republican—one who speaks the language of MAGA (railing against our “endless migrant crisis” and “open border”) but is younger, less angry, more ecumenical, and from a minority group that has historically voted with the Democratic Party.

“We’re expanding the boundaries of the MAGA agenda,” Kenny Xu, who is running in the Republican primary in North Carolina’s Thirteenth Congressional District, said in a phone interview. 

Xu, the 26-year-old author of School of Woke: How Critical Race Theory Infiltrated American Schools and Why We Must Reclaim Them, said Asian Americans’ rightward lurch was born of a feeling of betrayal.

His family immigrated to the United States in the eighties, and he was born in Maryland. “My parents voted for Obama in 2008, and like many immigrant families, mine had bought into the narrative that a diverse president represented us,” he said.

But in college, things changed. He meant the rise of identity politics, the racial splintering—what he saw as a not-so-subtle discrimination against excellence and, really, Asians. (Xu’s experience of being rejected by Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, despite having a 4.4 GPA and scoring 2310 out of 2400 on his SAT, helped form this view.) 

“The people who don’t speak out are the ones who get taken advantage of,” Xu said.

Lily Tang Williams agrees. Williams is running for Congress in New Hampshire’s Second Congressional District. She grew up in China under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution, and she came to the United States in 1988, two months before her 24th birthday. She was a graduate student in social work at the University of Texas at Austin.

“We are running away from American ideals, and people call you a racist for embracing them, but I believe in them,” Williams told The Free Press.

Ditto Helen Qiu in New York. Qiu wants to protect her community from a progressivism that, as she sees it, pretends to be inclusive while tacitly encouraging the violence engulfing the city. 

“It’s about whether we, as New Yorkers, unite to reject continued abuse,” she said. “It’s not about Republican versus Democrat.”

“My parents voted for Obama in 2008, and like many immigrant families, mine had bought into the narrative that a diverse president represented us,” says Kenny Xu, a Republican candidate in North Carolina. (Veasey Conway for The Free Press)

The point, says Williams, is that in America, if you work hard, then everything is possible. There are rules, and unlike China (or, for that matter, Vietnam or Kuala Lumpur or Pakistan), where the rules are murky or can change on a whim, people play fair in America. In America, there is a system.

The crime of the Asian American community, they said, is that they’d outperformed—they’d beaten the system. And now the system-makers, the people in charge, were moving the proverbial goalposts.

“We are being punished for succeeding,” Kenny Xu said. “The excuse when white people succeed is that they took advantage of a society that was stacked for them. We have no claim to that. If we succeeded, we did so fairly.”

“When the left cries for fairness, they’re actually making a country that is less fair.”

Whether the GOP as a whole takes advantage of this Asian American groundswell remains to be seen. 

“The party has always had champions for the cause of minorities, or at least, people who have tried to appeal to them—for example, Jack Kemp,” Charley Cooper, who worked on Bob Dole’s 1996 Republican run for president, and at the Department of Defense under Paul Wolfowitz, told The Free Press

Wai Wah Chin, the founding president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance of Greater New York, has her doubts Qiu can win—the district leans strongly Democratic, but she doesn’t think that matters long-term. What matters is that Qiu is running.

“People see this race and other races in Queens, Brooklyn, and elsewhere to mean that there will be more candidates, Republicans, who run in the next cycle and the cycle after that,” Chin told The Free Press. “I think that you will see more and more people in the Asian American community, which is a very broadly defined, almost amorphous community, who are encouraged and interested in running in the future.”

“We are running away from American ideals, and people call you a racist for embracing them, but I believe in them,” says Lily Tang Williams, a Republican Congressional candidate in New Hampshire. (David Degner for The Free Press)

To be clear, there is no easily defined “Asian American community” with a single political hue. “Immigrants from different countries have absolutely different expectations,” said Kit Lam, an activist who led the successful 2022 recall of San Francisco school board members.

There are 22 million Americans whose families come from China, Korea, Japan, India, Thailand, and so on, who comprise about seven percent of the U.S. population. Each subgroup has developed its own reputation over the years—Vietnamese, for example, are said to be “the Cubans of Asia,” embracing more traditionally conservative, anti-communist politics. Indian Americans and Koreans are generally a notch or two to the left of Chinese.

But over the last few election cycles, “Asian American voters” have become something of a self-contained voting bloc. That bloc is made up mostly of Chinese Americans—who comprise nearly a quarter of all Asian Americans, followed by Indian and Filipino Americans—and is held together by a shared conviction that the country is abandoning itself, that it has forgotten what it means to be American.

This new political identity first came into focus in 2013, when a group of Asian Americans sued Harvard and the University of North Carolina on the grounds that affirmative action is discriminatory.

Then, in February 2016, New York City police officer Peter Liang was convicted of manslaughter after fatally shooting an unarmed black man. Asian Americans nationwide protested, believing Liang was being scapegoated. Wai Wah Chin called the Liang case an “inflection point.” 

Then, in late 2020 and 2021, with progressives demanding the police be defunded, Asian Americans called for the opposite. In November 2021, voters in 137 of New York City’s 317 Asian-majority districts backed Republican mayoral candidate Curtis Sliwa over Democrat Eric Adams. (Sliwa averaged 44 percent in mostly Asian districts versus 40 percent in mostly white districts and 6 percent in mostly black ones.)

It was the first time that Asian Americans—who had trended Democratic during the aughts, with Barack Obama reeling in 73 percent of the group’s vote in his 2012 reelection bid—lurched right. 

Last year, the number of Asian Americans who voted for New York State’s Republican gubernatorial candidate jumped by 23 percent from the previous election. (In a good sign for Helen Qiu, Lee Zeldin, the GOP nominee, won Chinatown.)

This political shift has mostly revolved around New York City, with 1.25 million Asian American residents, the largest community in the country. But it is also being felt across the country.

City Council candidate Tan, who is running on an anti-crime campaign, says elderly Chinese people in her community are targets because they carry cash and don’t report attacks. (Andrew Kelly for The Free Press)

In San Francisco, Kit Lam was angry. It was late 2020, and the public schools had been locked down for almost a year.

“My son was in Zoom classes, and he told me he was really struggling,” Lam told The Free Press. “I told him, ‘Okay, I’ll do whatever I can to help.’ ”

Lam had emigrated from Hong Kong, he was bilingual in Cantonese and English, and he was an address fraud investigator with the San Francisco Unified School District. 

“I started paying attention to what the school board members were doing, and they did not have plans to reopen schools,” Lam said. “They were focusing on renaming schools. They even rejected the superintendent’s proposal to reopen schools. One of the board members at one of the meetings, Alison Collins, said that by hiring a consultant—to help reopen the schools—‘we are promoting white supremacy.’ ”

In February 2021, Lam joined the then-nascent campaign to recall school board members. “I told the organizers, in order to succeed, we need to mobilize the Chinese American community in San Francisco.”

It was all about getting enough signatures to force a vote. Lam set up a table at the local farmers market, near Golden Gate Park, every Sunday, and he’d reel in at least 200 signatures. 

Then, he went on Chinese radio. Then, he went to Chinatown—he knew the owner of a bakery, who let him sit outside and collect more signatures. The bakery fed Lam barbecue pork buns, pineapple buns, and other treats. He took his son. It was a gold mine. 

“People would sign and then go to the bakery,” Lam said. 

In the end, Lam snagged just shy of 12,700 signatures, the recall made it onto the ballot, and, in February 2022, three school board members, including Alison Collins, were recalled.

Three months later, San Francisco recalled its hyper-progressive district attorney, Chesa Boudin.

Meanwhile, in Texas, Asian American voters backed Republican governor Greg Abbott over Democrat Beto O’Rourke, 52 percent to 46 percent. In Georgia, Governor Brian Kemp, sensing a new opening with Asian American voters, stepped up efforts to woo them.

Back in New York, voters in Chinatown and other Asian American hubs across the city were dismayed by all the progressives decrying the police at the same time the city was descending into chaos.

“Our store—we used to stay open until eight,” Jasmine, who works one of the registers at Sun Vin Grocery, on Mulberry Street in Chinatown, told The Free Press. “But now we close at 6:30.” 

She had moved to America in 1989, the same year as the Tiananmen Square massacre, in Beijing. 

“A lot of people come here to steal my things,” Jasmine said. “I chase them, and they fight with me. And after that, they come to my store and take all my candies and stomp on it.” 

She went on: “One girl, she went in the back and stole a tea set. I chase her. I said, ‘You stole my things!’ She said, ‘No! No! No!’ and used the bag to hit my face. The police told the girl to give the things back. But then she came back and did the same thing with instant noodles.”

She felt like she was living in another country. “Usually, America is a dream,” Jasmine said. “It was a dream for us to come. But now it’s not safe.”

“When the left cries for fairness, they’re actually making a country that is less fair,” says Xu, photographed in his campaign office in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Veasey Conway for The Free Press)

It isn’t just crime—it’s violence directed at Asian Americans.

Reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans had skyrocketed 342 percent nationwide, and it seems like every Asian in New York, and probably Los Angeles and San Francisco too, has seen the videos of men, mostly black, assaulting Asian Americans. (Ying Tan—like Helen Qiu, a Chinese American Republican running for New York City Council—said everyone knows who’s attacking whom, but no one talks about it publicly. “I don’t want to go there, because they’ll think I’m racist,” Tan told The Free Press.)

There was the 65-year-old Filipina woman in Yonkers, north of the city, punched 125 times. And the 61-year-old Chinese man in East Harlem whose head was repeatedly stomped on; he died. And the 65-year-old woman in Hell’s Kitchen, who was identified only as “Asian,” punched in the stomach and kicked in the head. 

Reporters, academics, and progressives, including left-leaning Asian American groups, blamed the attacks on xenophobia fueled by the pandemic and, by extension, former President Donald Trump, who had called Covid “the Chinese virus.” 

Wai Wah Chin smirked at that. “The Chinese themselves called it the Wuhan Virus,” she said. “Saying all these Trump supporters are white supremacists who are going around attacking Asians—that was not happening. The attacks came mostly because law and order was breaking down.”

Nowhere was this framing more evident than in the coverage of the March 2021 mass killing at an Atlanta massage parlor, which left six women from China and South Korea dead—even though the suspect, who was white, blamed his sex addiction. (Apparently, he felt the only way to end that addiction was to kill the women he frequently visited.) “This was a story about sex trafficking,” Chin added. “That’s the inconvenient truth.” 

Ying Tan, the city council candidate, said older Chinese have taken to walking around with umbrellas to ward off would-be attackers. They are vulnerable because they are frail and they almost never call the cops—that wasn’t how you did things in China—and because they usually have cash on them.

“The practice they have in China, the older generation, they’d rather have cash,” Tan told The Free Press. Tan is 32 and petite, and she was seated in a booth at Café Gossip, in Sunset Park in Brooklyn, squeezed between the wall and her portly campaign manager. “They think this is the real money. Sometimes they have, like, $20, $40.”

Tan said most Chinese Americans rely on the social media platform WeChat to share information about recent assaults. “It’s very popular,” she said. The problem is people usually only share their experiences—like getting beaten up—in one of their WeChat groups, and the news doesn’t spread outside that. “If you’re not in the chat group, you’re not going to see it,” she said. 

She estimated that in Brooklyn, there are 10,000 Mandarin-only WeChat groups.

Johnny Li, a hairstylist in a beat-up salon, emigrated to Chinatown from Saigon in 1981, six years after Vietnam fell to the communists, and he loved that you could do anything here. But the city was getting more dangerous, he said, more like it was when he first arrived. The graffiti, the muggings, the feeling that things were becoming unbalanced, unhinged. “I never stand too close to the subway edge,” he said.

He likes Democratic mayor Eric Adams, he said, because Adams wants to stop undocumented immigrants from coming to the city.

He doesn’t care for Joe Biden. “He’s so old,” Li said. When asked whether he voted for Trump in 2020, he said, “I think I voted for Trump.” Then, in a whisper, he added: “Yes.” 

People “want to be thought of as human beings who are bigger than just how they vote,” says Williams in her New Hampshire campaign office. “That’s really what’s at stake here.” (David Degner for The Free Press)

Lily Tang Williams said the goal of all this is to make America less political. Less politicized. It’s about returning to the way things once were. People, she said, are tired of being viewed as representatives of a political cause. 

“They want to be thought of as human beings who are bigger than just how they vote,” she said. “That’s really what’s at stake here. It’s about everybody saying hello to each other, smiling at each other, rejoining their communities, enjoying their friends and family, going to church, having a barbecue. This is what matters.”

The problem, she said, is “we’ve forgotten that, and we need to remember it again.” The virtue signaling, the curated brands, the hashtagging—all that was a kind of dissembling that made it impossible to break through to other people.

She recalled, as a girl, listening to the government radio station in 1970s China, and it was always state-sponsored blather about the glorious future they were building for everyone. 

But then, at the station break, they would play a snippet of classical music, and she remembers Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata—and that was real. That was a glimpse of what human beings everywhere really felt. It was a kind of beautiful, invisible connection between all these strangers. It made her feel a bond with millions of people across the radio-wave divide.

“I remember the first time I heard this,” Williams said. “It was like this moment when everything changed. I’m not really exaggerating. I mean it. I cried.”

Peter Savodnik is a writer and editor for The Free Press. Read his piece about RFK Jr. and the Populist Wave, and follow him on X (formerly Twitter) @petersavodnik. Kiran Sampath is an editorial assistant for The Free Press.

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