Chinese Americans risk losing political power

WASHINGTON - Chinatown in San Francisco used to be the first port of call for Chinese immigrants. But what used to be a hub for the Asian community, where they could go to look for help with employment or immigration issues, has become a tourist trap, where visitors take photos under the Gateway Arch and browse in shops selling lanterns, fans and other oriental kitsch. 

The decline of Chinatown has been ongoing and echoed across the nation in cities like New York and Washington DC. The reason for the changing face of Chinatown is always the same: gentrification. 

In San Francisco, it is tech millionaires who are sweeping into the city, raising rents and pushing out many original residents. 

For Mr David Lee, executive director of the Chinese American Voters Education Committee, that change isn't just an inequality problem like the ones plaguing Chinese enclaves in other parts of the country; it is a political one too.

"San Francisco is the capital of Chinese in America. It is not only the cultural home for many generations but also the political centre for Chinese Americans," he said, stressing that the departure of this group from San Francisco could seriously hurt the community's ability to project political power.

Chinese Americans made up about 20 per cent of the population of San Francisco in 2010, but there have been no official statistics since then. 

He notes that the city is where most of the Chinese community organisations operate and where most of the little political fundraising takes place. The city now also has an Asian-American mayor in Mr Ed Lee.

One possible solution would be to move the political centre to where the community eventually finds itself, but Mr David Lee says this still would not be ideal. 

He notes that all of California's most famous politicians - Senators Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi all come from the city even though it represents only a fraction of the state's population.

There is a geopolitical diference to having a political power in Cupertino as opposed to San Francisco, he said. "San Francisco projects in the state and nationally."

Lamenting the continued movement of Chinese Americans to the surrounding cities, Mr Lee said: "It has taken over 150 years to get us politically powerful, at the very moment of that power, they are getting pushed out of the city.

"That's the irony, you fight all the way up the hill, you get to the top and the hill just evaporates."