2008.041.006 Oral History Interview with John Liu
In 2001, John Liu became the first Asian American elected to legislative office in New York history, representing District 2 in northeast Queens as a New York City Councilman. John learned early in life that strong communities could only be built with hard work, vision and leadership. His story is similar to that of many immigrants – one full of determination and a desire to succeed. Liu begins by recalling his efforts as president of the Chinese American Student Union at Binghamton University to fill a need on campus by organizing quality programming in which students and faculty could learn more about Asian Americans. Liu recounts the work that went into bringing one such program to campus, including trekking to the offices of the New York Chinatown History Project to pick up a traveling exhibit and carrying it down three flights of stairs. Liu notes that being a leader requires stepping up when something needs doing but no one else is willing to take the lead. This applied to his efforts on campus and also later in life to his involvement in electoral politics. He highlights instances of racial insensitivity, including one in which his city council member made derogatory comments about Asians, and how these have driven him to step up and respond politically. He expresses a wish that he was not the first but rather ninth or tenth Asian American since Asian Americans had been running for his office for nearly twenty years; however, he is gratified to see increasing numbers of Asian American elected to all levels of government across the country.


So I was President of the Chinese American Student Union at Binghamton University and we wanted to do some good stuff for the campus, really bring some quality programming so that the students and faculty could learn more about Asian Americans. We heard about this place called the Chinatown History Project and they had a wonderful exhibit and I was trying to figure out how we were going to try and bring it to our campus, how much work was involved, called up and spoke with Charlie Lai and he said, "Oh yeah, just come on down, you just pick it up, It's all in a box." So it seemed a little bit amazing but I went down to the history project and it turned out to be a really big box. It was quite a scene watching the two of us lugging that box down three flights of stairs at 70 Mulberry and getting that thing into the truck, quite an adventure.

It was really just, there was a need on campus, a need among my fellow students and uh, I wanted to do it and people wanted to let me do it. And sometimes it was because nobody else wanted to do it. And that's often times what leadership is about; it's about stepping up to the plate.

So after I was elected, there was a whole big stink made about how, "oh wow, the first Asian was elected to a legislative office", it's a big to a lot of people. Honestly, it wasn't a big deal to me. I had actually been Asian my whole life.

Growing up even in New York, you're reminded of what your identity is, sometimes whether you like it or not. When you're in second grade and the one out of a hundred kids on the block that gets spat upon by other kids or whether there are certain days when they are serving rice during hot lunch and the entire class does you a favor and passes you all their plates of rice. Those are instances where your identity is truly reinforced.

But in terms of really, the first Asian, I really wish I was like the ninth or tenth because Asian Americans had actually been running for this office for close to 20 years. And that manifested itself in terms of rising numbers of registered voters, and also issues that became more and more relevant. Issues that really came to a boil when actually, a member of the city council, my member of the city council talked about how Asians were nothing more than rude merchants, illegal aliens, and criminal smugglers. For that, someone like that, someone to be able to say something like that, in this day and age really, uh, it makes your blood boil. But really, uh, really emphasizes the fact that something needs to be done and that people once again need to step up to the plate.

So, when Representative Brown in Texas suggested that we, Asians, should just maybe change our names so that it will be easier for Americans to deal with. When you hear something like that, you really don't know whether to laugh or to cry. And we certainly demanded an apology but just try to laugh it off as much as possible and apparently Saturday Night Live liked it too because they put it on and I guess, thanks to Betty Brown I was on Saturday Night Live.

It's gratifying to see that other Asian Americans are getting elected to various offices in this region and all throughout the country. And in fact, we all know that it is something that's needed for our community, to have a voice at all levels of government in every part of the country. And sometimes, of course, on the ground there is some built-in competitive pressure that the founding fathers introduced into our system. But nonetheless, at the end of the day, we all realize that we have a job to do, and that job is to raise our voice and to make a change for the better for the future.

My name's John Liu. I am a native New Yorker, made in Taiwan.

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