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Taiwanese Americans Take Long Flight Home to Vote

An estimated 7,000 from the Southland return to cast votes in today's tight presidential election.

March 20, 2004|William Wan | Times Staff Writer

In the 20 years since he left Taiwan, Simon Huang has stayed in Alhambra while countless relatives and friends had birthdays, weddings and funerals back home. But today's presidential election in his home country was one event he could not miss.

"This year is too important," said Huang, 52. "The election is so close. Even one vote could make a difference."

So Thursday night, after closing up his used-car dealership, Huang boarded an 11:30 p.m. flight headed for Taipei. His plane was scheduled to arrive with a few hours left to cast his ballot before the polls close.

This year, officials from both political parties in Taiwan have heavily lobbied loyalists in Southern California, home to one of the nation's largest Taiwanese communities. The parties estimate 7,000 Taiwanese from the Southland will fly home to vote in the tight race.

In the last 10 days, China Airlines has flown about 10,000 people from America to Taipei for the express purpose of voting -- 6,000 of them from Los Angeles, airline officials said. Because of the election, flights from Los Angeles to Taipei have been booked solid for the last two weeks on both China Airlines and Eva Air, with many tickets sold for about $550.

"Voters from both parties are often stuck on the same 14-hour flight," said Sonia Hua, an administrative manager at China Airlines. "But the two groups have gotten along fine."

This is the first year that Taiwanese living overseas for more than two years could register to vote. And this prompted Taiwan's two main political parties to focus heavily on American voters. Not only are Taiwanese Americans casting ballots in record numbers, they have also raised more than $1.7 million for the campaigns.

On one side is Lien Chan of the Nationalist Party, former vice president of Taiwan before the ruling party lost power in 2000. The defeat was the party's first since Communists in China drove the Nationalist government into exile on the island in 1949.

On the other side is President Chen Shui-bian of the Democratic Progressive Party. The party launched a referendum, asking whether the country should demand that China withdraw missiles aimed at Taiwan and, if not, whether Taiwan should build up its defenses. The referendum also asks whether the island should enter into negotiations with China to resolve questions about Taiwan's diplomatic relations with the mainland. Chen's opponents have criticized the referendum as an unwise move that could antagonize leaders in Beijing.

By this week, James Chou was the only volunteer left at the Nationalists' headquarters in El Monte. He said that was a measure of his party's success.

"Everyone's gone back already," he said. "We lost last time. Nationalists need to win back this time. Otherwise we have no chance in the future."

Chin-Ho Liao, a retired engineer, flew to Taipei last month to lead a group of 30 San Gabriel volunteers, called "Little Bumblebees," campaigning for the Democratic Progressives. For the past month, they have worked every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., handing out fliers, singing in train stations and marching to rallies in favor of Chen's reelection .

"I'm sorry. I can't speak that well anymore," he said from Taipei, his voice hoarse from shouting down opponents in the city's marketplaces.

Liao, who has dual citizenship, said the presidential race in the U.S. was nothing compared with the Taiwanese version of campaigning.

"Here, it's so rowdy and everybody's so high on passion," said the 55-year-old San Gabriel resident, noting that nightly rallies are attended by as many as 200,000 people. "People go crazy."

Despite their differences, Taiwanese Americans on both sides of the campaign said they had been saddened and angered by Friday's assassination attempt against President Chen and his running mate. Chen suffered a flesh wound in the stomach from a single bullet. Vice President Annette Lu was wounded in the knee. Liao's group, which had spent weeks campaigning for Chen, was gathering for a rally when the shooting occurred. It canceled the rally for fear of riots.

"We were singing songs, and everyone was in tears on the way back to headquarters," Liao said. "Older women went to the Buddhist temple to pray for President Chen and peace."

A Nationalist from Marina del Rey, Paul Chang, disagreed with Chen on almost all issues but called the shooting "a tragedy."

"A debate should never come to this," he said.

Party officials hope that the increased participation from Americans will be a permanent fixture in Taiwanese politics.

In 2000, a few hundred voters flew back from the L.A. area for Taiwan's last presidential election, said Matthew Chou, deputy director general of the representative office in Los Angeles.

This year, the Democratic Progressive Party has raised about $1.7 million in the U.S., with $500,000 coming from the West Coast headquarters in Rosemead.

The Nationalist Party declined to disclose fundraising figures but estimated more than 3,500 supporters flying back to vote.

"The passion and enthusiasm of our people in both parties is amazing," Liao said from Taipei, as he prepared to head to the polls. "It's very different than in the United States. It's touching to see."

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