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  • Chyanne Chen

The San Francisco Standard: These Chinese American immigrant moms want to take over San Francisco politics


Sharon Lai knows how difficult it is to be a working mom while running for office in San Francisco.


“I don’t think that there is ever a true balance,” Lai said about spending time between work, life and politics. “This is at the sacrifice of my family. It’s about constant prioritization.”

Lai is one of three Chinese American immigrant mothers—along with Connie Chan and Chyanne (Xiao Yan) Chen—who will run for San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to represent three different districts with large Asian American populations, while raising families and kids in this notoriously childless city.


With Chinese representation declining sharply in San Francisco politics over the past decade, Chan, Chen and Lai, who are all in their late 30s or 40s, believe they can reverse the trend by getting more Chinese female immigrant voices on the board. All considered more progressive in the city’s political spectrum, they may even endorse one another, form a slate and campaign together—though they say it’s too early for a full commitment.


“We have a lot in common, and we are also very different,” Chan said. “We can still find ways to work together.”


Who are they?

Lai, Chan and Chen all immigrated to North America around middle school age—young enough to assimilate into American culture, but old enough to retain fluent Chinese and be fully bicultural.


Chan, who was born in Hong Kong and went to elementary school in Taiwan, is the incumbent supervisor running for reelection in District 1, which covers the Richmond District. With a large Asian population and many Chinese-owned businesses, the neighborhood is considered a “second Chinatown.” 


Lai, a former San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board member appointed by Mayor London Breed, is an outspoken public safety activist with some moderates supporting her. She is running in District 3 to represent Chinatown, Nob Hill, North Beach and the downtown area. Raised in Hong Kong, she later moved to Canada and Shanghai before settling in the U.S.


Chen, a progressive labor union leader active in national Chinese American groups, is vying for the southwestern District 11 seat, which has the largest Asian and Pacific Islander percentage among all the supervisorial districts. She’s from Guangzhou and moved to San Francisco at the age of 15.


All three of them face tough races as progressive candidates are seeing a major defeat in the March primary.


Chan, who is fighting to secure a seat on the Democratic County Central Committee, is facing off for the second time against moderate Democrat Marjan Philhour, who’s leading in the same DCCC race. Since redistricting brought wealthy enclaves like Sea Cliff into District 1, it’s seen as less progressive.


Lai has multiple opponents, including nonprofit executive Danny Sauter, who ran for the District 3 seat four years ago and received 40% of the votes. Chen has low citywide name recognition, and current District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí endorsed her opponent, Ernest “EJ” Jones.


No ‘tiger moms’

Despite packed schedules, the candidates are putting their mom roles first. Lai takes her first-grader son to jujitsu class on Saturdays. Chan often brings her 11-year-old to family-friendly community events, while Chen always has a Sunday play date routine with her teenage daughter.


All three of the women say they are not “tiger moms,” a stereotype of Chinese mothers that emphasizes strict parenting with high expectations around school grades and extracurricular performance.


“My husband’s the tiger dad, so I don’t need to be a tiger mom,” Chen joked in Chinese. “I can play a nice mom.”


Lai also joked that her husband’s quite disappointed that she “turned out not to be a tiger mom,” but she explained that she personally struggled with high expectations and overvaluing stability in her traditional Asian upbringing.


“I want [my kids] to challenge me, ask questions and come up with their own solutions,” Lai talked about her philosophy of raising children. “We need to break that mode.”


But Chan said she could be a bit more strict, maintaining high expectations of her son in many ways.


“You need to be great in your academics but also in your social development,” Chan said. “Getting A’s is not good enough. I also need you to be a good human being.”


Chinese representation

At the Chinese New Year parade, three moms gathered at the grandstand for a photo for The Standard, indicating strong sisterhood and political allyship. Chen’s campaign is still in the very early phase, as she announced last Thursday, and Chan has already endorsed Lai.


“We are all trying to raise a family and make a living here in San Francisco,” Chen said, highlighting the similar immigration experiences that had taught them the spirit of hard work and navigating through hardships.


Mabel Teng, a former supervisor in the ’90s and also a Chinese immigrant, said that she was fearless at the time, so she decided to run for supervisor. She sees the same quality in the three moms now running.


“You fear nothing. You are not too concerned about what people say and think,” Teng said, “but you believe in representation, and you believe that you can do it.”


Teng also acknowledged the difficulties of being an Asian immigrant mom in politics. Mothers are expected to be at home, put the children first, get food on the table and do homework with them.


“It’s tough,” Teng said. “It’s a lot of balancing act.”


As the only current Chinese supervisor, Chan said that she felt “a lot of pressure” representing the community. She hopes more Chinese immigrants on the board will add more diverse voices, although the three moms running in November share broadly similar political ideologies.

“I don’t speak for everyone. We are so diverse, and we are not monolithic,” Chan said. “Are three of us exactly the same as people? No. Do we have exactly the same politics? Also, no.”


Lai agreed, saying she respects them as women leaders of color and looks forward to teaming up.


But Chan, nearly four years in office, advised the moms that San Francisco politics can get ugly and too personal. 


“I’m just a bit more private about my family and their lives now,” she said. “I think that people are aggressive and toxic.”


Han Li can be reached at han@sfstandard.com


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