In San Francisco, voters are gearing up for an historic election tomorrow, with the city’s first Chinese-American mayor likely to win office. Ed Lee, the interim mayor is ahead, but he’s also contending with 15 other candidates, several of whom are also Asian-American.
And that means other Asian-Americans may be just as busy as the candidates themselves, including people like Hiu Xiao, who reports in San Francisco for Sing Tao Daily, a Hong Kong-based paper that, like five other Chinese-language papers, circulates widely throughout San Francisco.
“I cover the political and especially the elections,” says Xiao, who also goes by the first name Jane in the United States (she Americanized her name after arriving to the US from China in 2002).
And in this election, reporters like Xiao have power. Voting by San Francisco’s large Chinese population, comprising one-quarter of the city’s residents, may surge because of the ethnic Chinese candidates.
David Lee, head of the non-profit, nonpartisan Chinese American Voter Education Committee, says the strength of Chinese-language papers here cannot be underestimated.
“The Chinese community has a very strong history of newspaper readership,” he says. “And many of our senior citizens for instance, retirees, read upwards to three or four papers every day. So that they can get a full picture of what’s going on.”
While it’s tough to measure the Chinese papers’ exact influence over voters, the papers’ election coverage alone boosts the awareness of Asian-candidates—and perhaps their chances. That’s a factor not missed by mayoral candidates such as David Chiu, president of the San Francisco board of supervisors, and a candidate for mayor.
Chiu says the influence of Chinese language papers this year may be especially noticeable.
“Their readership is enormous,” said Chiu. “Every single day we have tens of thousands of San Franciscans who rely completely, read every single word of the major Chinese newspapers in town. This is why I have a regular sit-down with the Chinese press every two weeks. This is why we are in very, very close contact with the Chinese press.”
Walking through San Francisco’s historic Chinatown, Xiao points to campaign posters in Chinese for mayoral candidates Jeff Hitachi, Leland Lee, Ed Lee and David Chiu.”
Xiao’s paper is the only Chinese language paper to endorse candidates. Because the papers are all headquartered outside the United States, there is some concern they’ll be seen as a foreign influence on U.S. elections, or that they’ll ignore non-Asian candidates.
Shawn Lee, a 32-year-old editor at the World Journal, which caters to Taiwanese readers, says his paper doesn’t back any candidate just those reasons.
“We try to stay neutral on political issues, so we don’t speak for—we don’t work for—the Taiwanese government,” Lee says. He adds that his paper covers the election like other English-language papers. “We don’t take sides,” he says.
At the Sing Tao newsroom, while a radio station plays music from Hong Kong, editor Joyce Chen points to Jane Xiao’s recent piece about San Francisco election officials coming to Chinatown. She says that Chinese language papers are providing a civic duty.
“We encourage people to vote,” says Chen. “That’s how we know or understand what a democracy is. We are a minority in this country, we are immigrants.”
She adds that there’s a certain pride in seeing San Francisco elect its first Chinese-American mayor as “just a way to show we can do it.”
It’s hard to gauge the real influence of all the Chinese language papers. But there’s little question that they are being read. A lot.
Dan Chu, a real estate agent who moved to California from Hong Kong 30 years ago, lingers over a copy of Sing Tao at a Chinese bakery. He’s not satisfied by the San Francisco Chronicle’s small foreign news section.
“They’re very narrow,” says Chu. “Americans only talk about themselves. They don’t talk about other parts of the world. They don’t talk about Europe, they don’t talk about Asia.”
In contrast, with Sing Tao Daily, Chu says, “Look at all the pages, so many pages. You know I get to see the whole picture of the world.”
It seems that if local papers want to be relevant to tens of thousands of potential readers, not to mention voters, they might have to change their focus pretty soon.