Posted on February 14, 2014
San Jose City Councilmember Kansen Chu holds a campaign handout in Berryessa, San Jose. Yu Wei / China Daily
When he was elected to the San Jose City Council seven years ago, former Berryessa union school board member and businessman Kansen Chu became San Jose’s first Chinese-American councilmember in the city’s 157-year history.
“I was very excited but felt a great responsibility at the same time,” said Chu. “My first comment was: I’m the first Chinese American to win this position and I hope I’m not the last.”
Chu, who won a landslide victory in 2007 with 64 percent of the votes, was re-elected without opposition to a four-year term in 2008 and again in 2012 for his final term.
Born in Taiwan, Chu moved to the US in 1976 with his family. He received his master’s degree in electrical engineering from California State University Northridge, started working at IBM in 1978 and stayed there for 18 years.
In 1989, Chu became the president and owner of one of San Jose’s largest Chinese dining establishments – Ocean Harbor Chinese Restaurant. Along the way, he got to know many leaders of community-based organizations.
“They would choose my restaurant to host community events and it brought me into their society,” Chu said.
That’s when Chu’s career as a community activist began.
He devoted himself to civic activities and services in many local organizations, including the Organization of Chinese American-Silicon Valley, the Asian Law Alliance and Shin Shin Education Foundation. He joined the board of trustees of Berryessa Union School District in 2002.
Chu said public service taught him the necessity of enhancing Chinese Americans’ involvement in politics.
“Chinese immigrants began settling in San Jose as early as the 19th century, however, Chinese Americans’ political influence has always been limited here,” he said.
Chu said it was sad to mention the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed by Congress in 1882 lasting 60 years and was the first and only federal law in US history that restricted a single group of people from entering the US and denied them naturalization.
“Because of this tragic history, we should use our right to vote to make our voice heard in government,” he said.
Chu credits his first major accomplishment in boosting Chinese-American political participation to his involvement in the Asian Law Alliance (ALA), a nonprofit that provides legal services to the Asian and Pacific Islander communities of Santa Clara County.
Chu and the ALA played a key role in making ballots available in Chinese in Santa Clara County, which Chu said made a big difference in getting more Chinese Americans to vote.
“That was only the first step,” he said. “Getting those people to actually vote is the hard part.”
Those experiences made Chu start thinking about becoming a policy maker.
“I believe that the government should be a reflection of the people,” he said. “Given the large number of Chinese Americans here, the group should have their own representatives in government.”
“In 2004, we had our first Vietnamese-American councilmember in San Jose,” said Chu. “The history of Vietnamese immigration to the US is very short compared to the Chinese, but they were able to have a councilman in the US’ 10th-largest city in such a short time. That got me going.”
The fact that Chinese were the second-largest Asian-American ethnic group in San Jose but had no representation on the city council made Chu decide to run. However, his first foray into politics ended in failure when he was defeated by current San Jose mayor Chuck Reed for the council seat in 2000.
Chu said the first electoral defeat only ignited his fighting spirit, adding that he learned from his experience and has won six elections since.
Chu said his mission to get Chinese Americans more involved in politics has never faded.
“I recruit three to five Chinese-American interns in my office every year, giving them the opportunity to engage in politics. Ninety percent of my employees are Asian,” Chu said.
Chu said he is currently preparing to run for California State Assembly District 25, representing Alviso, Berryessa, Milpitas, Newark, North San Jose, Santa Clara and South Fremont.
“Chinese Americans’ contribution to the economy and technology is obvious, but their political influence is far behind,” he said. “I think it is a crisis. We pay lots of taxes but have little representation.”
Chu said District 25 is home to the second largest Asian-American population in California. “There was no other Asian-American candidate for this position,” he said. “I think I need to step up to give it a try.”
Chu said he is confident of winning since he “is a calculated risk taker”.
“I expect one day significant numbers of Chinese Americans will show up at the ballot box, significant enough to affect the outcome of elections. Then we may have a Chinese-American president,” he said.