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Chinatown's Margaret Chin Makes New York City History

By DNAinfo Staff on November 4, 2009 2:16pm  | Updated on November 5, 2009 1:21pm

On the photo taken on Nov. 2, 2009, Margaret Chin makes plans before election day in her campaign office in Chinatown. Chin is the first Asian-American woman on City Council and the first Chinese-American on City Council to represent Chinatown.
On the photo taken on Nov. 2, 2009, Margaret Chin makes plans before election day in her campaign office in Chinatown. Chin is the first Asian-American woman on City Council and the first Chinese-American on City Council to represent Chinatown.
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Suzanne Ma/DNAinfo

By Suzanne Ma

DNAinfo Reporter/Producer

CHINATOWN — From the moment she was born, Margaret Chin was given a name that changed the course of history — her family history, that is.

The third character in her Chinese name is "Mun" (as pronounced in Cantonese) and means beautiful, colored cloud. Until then, all the women in the Chin family had used the character "Mei," which means to flatter or charm.

After Chin's father gave her a new name, all the female cousins born after her followed suit. The third characters in their names were also "Mun."

"I guess he knew I was going to be different," Chin told DNAinfo. "He knew I'd start a new trend."

Chin, a 56-year-old immigrant from Hong Kong who grew up in Manhattan's Chinatown, may have started a very significant trend Tuesday night. She is the first Asian-American woman elected to the City Council and the first Chinese-American Council member to represent Chinatown.

Margaret Chin's Chinese name. In Cantonese, it is pronounced: Chen Sin Mun.
Margaret Chin's Chinese name. In Cantonese, it is pronounced: Chen Sin Mun. "Mun" means beautiful, colored cloud.
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Suzanne Ma/DNAinfo

Her success is a milestone in an increasingly active Asian-American community, said sociologist Peter Kwong, and the result of an long-time effort to educate Chinese-speaking voters on the issues and inspire them to political action.

"This is really a special moment in Chinatown history," said Kwong, a Hunter College professor and author of several books on Chinese Americans. In the past, "the motivation for political participation was not there. So American politicians did not see incentives to really engage the Chinese community," he said.

"Chinese Americans are now increasingly political and increasingly successful."

Chin remembers arriving in New York in January of 1963. Her father had left Hong Kong first for South America where he worked in Colombia for a year, before making his way to the U.S. as an undocumented worker. When the family's immigration papers came through, he returned to bring Chin, her mother and her four brothers to America.

Her father worked in a dim sum restaurant. Chin went to P.S. 130  in Chinatown and hung out on Mott St.

"My father made the best har gow," she recalled. "I still have not found a shrimp dumpling in Manhattan as good as his were."

Getting the Chinatown vote alone wasn't enough to claim District 1 — which encompasses SoHo, TriBeCa, the Lower East Side, Wall Street, and Battery Park City — and Chin campaigned on issues including affordable housing, improving infrastructure, immigration reform and better services for senior citizens.

Although she repeatedly stressed she would not favor Chinatown over the rest of her district, Chin admits her ethnicity was an advantage. The former public school teacher speaks three Chinese dialects: Cantonese, Mandarin and Taishanese.

"We have a lot of new immigrants and seniors and a lot of people who don't really speak the language (English)," Chin said. "There were some who felt they could communicate with me directly and ultimately talk to a City Council member without having to go through an interpreter."

Previously, many Chinese speaking voters struggled to recognize English letters and knew only Chinese translations for names. In the 1990s, Chin helped implement Chinese language election ballots.

According to political consulting firm Prime New York, there were 15,153 Democrats registered to vote in the Chinatown area of District 1 as of February; more than 10,500 of them had Asian surnames. Chin's campaign spokesman Jake Itzkowitz said their campaign registered 800 new voters in the district this year, and over 1,000 Chinese-American voters in the last couple years.

In the September primary, Chin beat two-term incumbent Alan Gerson by about 1,000 votes. Newcomer PJ Kim, a 30-year-old Korean American who speaks basic Mandarin, came in third.

Kim said the outpouring of ethnic pride for his former rival in Chinatown was something that all the candidates, including himself, could not withstand.

"I think ethnicity and race is intrinsic of who you are," he said. "Margaret will be an under-represented perspective to the City Council because of who she is. There was recognition in her community and I think a lot of non-Asian communities thought it was time for someone with her perspective and background."

On Tuesday afternoon, Kim told DNAinfo that he had already voted for Chin, contributing to her landslide election night victory. He said he planned to run again for public office in District 1, but he hadn't yet decided what positions he'll run for.

Kwong, the sociologist, said there is much potential for a real sense of political consciousness to blossom in Chinatown.

"Awareness has not penetrated to the mass level," he said. "On gentrification, for example, it's a serious crisis, but people who are suffering form it may not know how to get involved or may not care."

He's also seeing a new generation of leadership among second generation Chinese Americans, those born and raised in the U.S., who were never a major factor in the past.

"They introduce a different kind of politics," said Kwong who described an incredibly diverse Chinese community in Chinatown grappling with linguistic, political and now generational divides.

In a small room on the main floor of a co-op on Park Row, Chin and her army of volunteers spent many evenings on the phones calling potential voters, often switching in and out of Chinese and English from phone call to phone call.

All her volunteers, Chin assured, were well fed.

“One of the best things about being in Chinatown is that we can eat whatever we want. It’s not just pizza, although we do order pizza,” she giggled. “There’s Vietnamese or vegetarian. We can have dim sum. We’ve got everything here.”