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Why Jintao's Visit Should Help Chinatown Politics

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Why Jintao's Visit Should Help Chinatown Politics
Why Jintao's Visit Should Help Chinatown Politics

When Chinese Big Daddy Hu Jintao comes to Chicago next week, he’ll be visiting a city with the third-largest Chinatown in the U.S., after only New York and San Francisco. But we have not yet achieved something that’s taken for granted in those towns: we’ve never had an Asian alderman.

It almost happened four years ago, when Filipino-American Naisy Dolar narrowly lost to 50th Ward Ald. Berny Stone in West Rogers Park, which has a large South Asian population. If Dolar had run again this year, she’d probably win, but she moved to Florida to open a barbecue restaurant. There is one Asian candidate in the race, Ahmed Khan, but the seat will probably go to Debra Silverstein, wife of state senator and committeman Ira Silverstein.

Asians make up 4 percent of Chicago’s population, enough to fill two wards, but they have two problems. The first is in Chinatown, which is gerrymandered among four wards: the 2nd, 3rd, 11th and 25th. The second is that there are numerous Asians nationalities in Chicago -- Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos -- and they are scattered throughout the city.

Writing in a 1991 issue of Illinois Issues, Tribune reporter Manuel Galvan speculated that Asians are less likely than other ethnic groups to see politics as a form of advancement, choosing the professions instead:

Geography and the desire to assimilate have weakened the chances for any strong Asian districts. Unlike blacks, and to a lesser degree Hispanics, different Asian groups have dispersed themselves throughout the Chicago area. Often skipping the historic, blue-collar stage of many stage of many emigrant groups, Asian business people and professionals have moved right into the middle-class neighborhoods of Chicago and, more often, into the suburbs. Today, 59 percent of the area’s Asian population lives outside the city, up from 51 percent 10 years ago
 Culturally, Asians often do not view political jobs as desirable because of the servitude involved and the low pay. That view leads to yet another reason for Asians’ lack of clout. You don’t move up political riders unless you pay your dues. So, with no political jobs at stake, a significant number of Asians have also bypassed the ethnic voting-bloc stage of blacks, Hispanics and many other groups before them.

In honor of this visit by China’s president, we should at least give our local Chinese community a better shot at clout. (Ironically, "chinaman" is the traditional Chicago term for a political sponsor.) It may help build our relationship with China. After all, San Francisco just got its first Asian-American mayor. We’re about the redraw the aldermanic map. Let’s put Chinatown in one ward this time.

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