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Political Power Couple Facing New Dynamic

Some question whether Judy Chu and Mike Eng still represent an Asian community far different than when they entered politics in the 1980s.

June 02, 2006|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

Judy Chu and Mike Eng arrived on the political scene in the early 1980s during a tumultuous moment in Southern California's Chinese community.

Thousands of immigrants had moved into Monterey Park from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong -- sparking a backlash among longtime residents in the suburb who sought a ban on Chinese-language storefront signs. A sign posted at one gas station in the city came to symbolize the divide: "Will the Last American Leaving Monterey Park Please Take Down the American Flag."

Chu and Eng, both products of UCLA and the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, became voices for Chinese Americans in the battle and eventually helped beat back the rules limiting signs to English.

Twenty-five years later, they are the community's undisputed power couple -- she, a veteran assemblywoman now running for the Board of Equalization; he, a Monterey Park councilman seeking the seat she will vacate.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday June 03, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 68 words Type of Material: Correction
Monterey Park politics: An article in Friday's California section about Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) and her husband, Monterey Park Councilman Mike Eng, described former Monterey Park Mayor Lily Chen as the first Chinese American mayor in the nation. In fact, she was the first Chinese American female mayor in the nation. An Oct. 13 California section article about a Monterey Park mall project made the same error.

But the married couple represent a local Chinese community that is far different than when they started in politics. Some question whether they have changed with the times.

The Chinese community has become an economic powerhouse, especially since the rise of China, which is Southern California's No. 1 trading partner with more than $85 billion in two-way trade.

Issues of social justice and race relations that the couple have long championed are still of concern. But among small-business owners and entrepreneurs, other issues have gained importance, such as taxes, trade and labor laws.

Eng and Chu are unabashed Democratic liberals who have parlayed support in the Chinese community with labor and Latinos. This has been crucial, political observers say, because the Chinese vote is not enough to get elected to many offices.

Some of their positions have raised eyebrows -- like Chu's support for a union at a local Chinese newspaper and a local hospital, as well as her approval of same-sex marriage.

"She wants to be perceived as the spokesperson for the Chinese American and Asian American communities. That's not totally correct," said John Wong, a Republican who is chairman of the county assessment appeals board and is running in the Republican primary for a seat on the Board of Equalization.

Chu, 52, is the more famous of the couple. She is a household name in the Chinese community, largely because of her sustained tenure in elected office.

As the most prominent local Chinese American official in Sacramento, she wins the support -- and financial contributions -- of some Chinese Americans who admit that they don't support all her positions, but rarely voice their complaints in public.

Charlie Woo, board of directors chairman for the Center for Asian Americans United for Self-Empowerment, said he was privately criticized by Chinese business owners when the assemblywoman spoke in favor of employer-paid health insurance for workers at a forum his organization held two years ago.

"They wanted to know why would I allow her to use the forum to advocate her philosophy," Woo said.

Still, Woo said many of those with concerns continue to support her. "When you have one leader, not everyone is going to agree 100%" with you, he said.

Yong Chen, a history professor at UC Irvine, said Chu's revered status among many Chinese has given her cover to stake out positions on issues that might traditionally not be so popular in the community.

"To many Chinese, traditional families are very important. Most will not support gay marriage," he said, adding that it is hard to classify the community as either right- or left-leaning. "There is indeed a lot of money and a lot of rich people coming in from China. At the same time, there are also a lot of people who fit the profile of a Democrat supporter: immigrant workers."

Chu said she realizes not all her supporters might agree on every one of her positions but said she could not betray her beliefs.

"You can't box the Chinese American community in anymore," Chu said. "As the community has grown, it has become more liberal in some ways and more conservative in other ways. I've worked very hard to be responsive to the community and represent their wide divergence of views as best I can in the state Legislature."

She said it would be hypocritical of her not to support same-sex marriage, considering that a century ago the Legislature was using similar rhetoric to prohibit Chinese from marrying whites.

Eng, a 60-year-old immigration lawyer, acknowledged that the Chinese in Los Angeles County -- who number about 280,000, the largest concentration in the United States -- are much more established than they were when he arrived on the scene in Monterey Park. But he said many in the community are still struggling.

"I think that's really a stereotype," Eng said of the view that the Chinese American community is now universally prosperous. "We live in a society of complexities. Such a broad brush isn't true."

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