Motivated by more than just support for Sam Yoon, a relatively high turnout could be a good sign for community in the future

By Adam Smith, Sampan

Nov 18, 2005 – While his mother spoke to a reporter, Raymond Pang, age four, grabbed a sheet of paper from his mother’s hands, folded it into an airplane, and threw it over the sidewalk of the Josiah Quincy School.

Ms. Pang had taken her son to the Chinatown polling site when she voted for the first time on November 8. She came to the U.S. from China seven years ago and became a citizen this year. She said she wanted to vote to “fulfill her civic duty” and pick out the right people to represent Boston’s Chinese community.

The piece of paper her son had folded into a miniature jet had a few minutes earlier served as Pang’s voting cheat-sheet. Before the election, she had studied over the candidates and marked on the paper who she wanted to be elected.

Pang was one of 768 Chinatown residents who cast ballots in the November 8 city election at the Ward 3, Precinct 8 polling site. Voter turnout in the neighborhood was 32%, slightly below the citywide voter turnout of 35.6%, but still strong compared to some other neighborhoods.

Chinatown had many reasons to vote in this year’s election. More than two-thirds of Chinatown voters in the November 8 election arrived at the polls to choose Sam Yoon — the first Asian American to run for city council — for councilor at-large. Chinatown’s district councilor Jim Kelly — who has represented district 2 for nearly a quarter century — was contested, allowing voters to have a say in the fate of the representation of their neighborhood. And this was the first final election to occur after the voting rights settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the City of Boston, leading to increased Chinese-language voting instruction at the polls.

“It was very impressive, the support that Sam got in Chinatown,” said Michael Liu, associate researcher at the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston. “There’s fairly strong evidence that turnout… tends to increase significantly when you have candidates that are from your own community (running),” said Liu. Through Yoon’s work in the Asian Community Development Corporation, a Chinatown-based nonprofit, he has become a familiar face in the community, especially around issues dealing with affordable housing development.

Chinatown residents also came out to vote overwhelmingly against their long-time district councilor, Jim Kelly, who at Ward 3, Precinct 8 received only 188 votes compared to his challenger, Susan Passoni, who received 305 votes. But Passoni, a newcomer to the local political scene, lost to Kelly overall in district 2, which represents parts of the South End and South Boston, where Kelly won high percentages. District-wide, Passoni took only about 39% of the vote, compared to Kelly’s 61%.

Passoni campaigned for a part of election day outside the Josiah Quincy School. “I door knocked the whole district,” she said that afternoon.

Some Chinatown residents said the fact that candidates showed up at the polls in Chinatown made them feel better about voting.

“They really seem to care more about the voice of Chinatown (this election time),” said Jian Hua Tang, a Chinatown resident, of the candidates.

This was the first Boston election besides the September preliminary race to occur after the voting rights settlement between the U.S. Department of Justice and the City of Boston. While Chinese immigrant voters — along with Vietnamese immigrants and Hispanics — will feel most the effects of the lawsuit next year when bilingual ballots become mandatory, election officials say they had stepped up the number of bilingual signs, instructions and “specimen ballots” for the November 8 election.

And residents say they’ve noticed the difference. Ms. Tan, who is a Chinese immigrant living in Chinatown, said that though she doesn’t need the translations, it will help other immigrant voters, including her own family members. “It’s easier,” she said, “It (sends) a positive message.”

Ms. Pang said the translations helped when she cast her ballot. “I think it’s really clear and detailed.”

The DOJ had filed a lawsuit against the City of Boston in July, accusing Boston’s government of discriminating against voting citizens of Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese descent and violating the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. In a settlement reached September 15, Boston agreed to provide ballots, registration notices, and other voting materials in Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese, as well as provide translators for voters and trained poll workers.

Lydia Lowe of the Chinese Progressive Association, which had accused the city of mistreating Chinese voters in past elections, said she didn’t see anything alarming during this election, besides some minor errors in Chinese instructional information at the polling sites at Ward 3, Precinct 8 and nearby Ward 5, Precinct 1.

“Inside, it seemed orderly,” she said.

Another draw for Chinatown voters, according to Liu, was also the ongoing voter awareness efforts by community groups such as the Chinese Progressive Association.

The association went to major Chinatown area apartment buildings and spoke to residents about how to vote, how local government works, and what candidates stand for.

“It’s kind of like city government 101,” said Lawrence Joe, who works for the association, of the voter workshops.

Challenges to Chinatown Vote

Chinatown’s vote has historically had one major obstacle: citizenship.

A study by the Institute for Asian American Studies published in 2004 shows that in most of the greater Boston area, only about half of all Asian American adults are citizens, compared with 84.1% of the total population.

Because of the time it takes for immigrants to become citizens, and because Chinatown has a high immigrant population, many Chinese Americans live in the U.S. for several years before being able to cast their votes.

Yet Chinatown’s political clout could change over the next several years as more affluent and established residents move into new high rises. In recent years, Chinatown has seen an influx of hundreds of new residents who have moved into the luxury Millennium Towers on Avery Street and into the mixed-income Metropolitan building on Oak Street. The luxury high rise Park Essex, which is under construction, and Kensington Place, which is slated to break ground soon, will together invite hundreds more new residents.

“A lot of these people have means,” said Liu of the incoming residents to Chinatown. “So I would expect them to be more moderate on economic issues but more socially liberal…. In terms of economic interests, they are different from the bulk of the Asian population in Chinatown.”

Many Chinatown residents earn low incomes and live in housing that is subsidized, while most on the new housing being created is at or above the market rate.

“But I also think,” Liu said, “they will insist on a more democratic and open process within Chinatown.”


Adam Smith is English Editor of the Boston-based Sampan, New England’s only Chinese-English newspaper, published since 1972 by the Asian American Civic Association of Boston.

This article was originally published in Sampan, and appears here with permission.  Please do not reproduce without seeking permission of the copyright holder. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.