CHINATOWN — Yuh-Line Niou, following her victory in Tuesday's general election, is poised to take over New York's 65th Assembly District seat as the first Asian American to represent not only Chinatown, but any part of Manhattan within the state legislature.
The significance of the election — signaling an unprecedented breadth of diversity within the city’s representation in Albany — is not lost on Chinatown's residents and advocates, who see her ascent as a victory for a previously underrepresented minority.
"We're 40 percent of the district, but for the Chinese community we've always felt we were underrepresented," said community activist Karlin Chan, who is also senior director of the New York Chinese Freemasons Athletic Club.
He added that he had felt there was a gap between the Chinatown community and longtime seat-holder Sheldon Silver, whose career ended in disgrace when he was convicted of a host of corruption charges.
"Sheldon Silver dealt with some community nonprofits, but he really didn't deal with anybody else in the community — in all my years of advocacy, I'd never dealt with him at all."
Chan said the enthusiasm of Asian American voters in the district was palpable, as many felt they had a newfound voice as they headed to the polls.
"Over here, they feel like they have a voice now, when they went out and voted — this actually encouraged people to go out and vote."
A longtime community advocate said Niou's victory will do much to amplify the Asian American community's voice — particularly that of the Chinese voters — and expressed hope that it will set a precedent for greater representation throughout the district and citywide.
"I'm very pleased," said Wellington Chen, executive director of the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation "Any time we can add more representation — because our voice is marginal — any time we can increase our representation and our voice we greatly welcome it.
"Since 1664, other than [Councilwoman] Margaret Chin we had no one else to represent us," he continued, referring to the official founding date of New York City. "As a Chinese person I'm very pleased that finally, after so many years, there's a second one — but we have a long way to go."
And Niou's victory is more than symbolic, said advocates, with some arguing it signals a new era of accessibility for Chinese Americans in the district who had previously felt underserved with a lack of language services or a forum to air community concerns.
As former chief of staff for Queens Assemblyman Ron Kim, Niou is uniquely poised to represent the interests of Asian American constituents, said Chan, who recalled her as a resource for Chinatown residents even then, working behind the scenes to hold forums on hate crimes against Asian Americans, or simply assisting community members who were unable to find adequate translation services in their own neighborhood.
"I had to reach out to [Kim's office] for Asian American issues — crimes against Asian Americans and whatnot," he recalled. "We didn't have a voice here."
Niou herself recognizes the significance of her victory as an Asian American politician. But she said what's even more significant is the fact that a newcomer was able to topple the incumbent-based machinery of Albany by connecting to voters, going door-to-door throughout the district and speaking to their needs.
“I just think that one of the most difficult things is, it’s hard to run," she said. "It’s really, really hard to run, and I think folks don’t have the resources or the support to be able to take the chance. Especially when you have a state legislature that is so based on incumbents, it takes somewhat of a machine. I think that’s what’s more significant about this race. I didn’t have that kind of club machinery or anything happening for me, and I think it was voter’s choice, and it really made a difference."