Leading up to the 2018 midterms, a podcast host rallied conservative Mandarin speakers to unseat a Democratic senator in Ohio. A veteran journalist who just returned to North Carolina after two decades in China became alarmed by the rise in conservative Asian voters. A professor of race theory tried to make sense of racial violence in the South. And a gun-toting tea partier contemplated another bid for a House seat.
These are four of the main characters in director Yi Chen’s debut feature documentary, “First Vote,” which follows a quartet of middle-age Chinese American voters in two swing states.
The immersive hour-long film, which will air on the World Channel Oct. 20 to 25, examines the shifting politics and allegiances of the Asian American electorate — the fastest growing voting bloc in the country.
Chen, who emigrated from China in 2003 and became a U.S. citizen last year, said she pitched the project after seeing how the 2016 election divided the Chinese American community and birthed a new “Chinese for Trump” movement. As she prepares to cast her first ballot next month, she said shooting the film also proved a valuable learning experience.
“Knowing I was becoming a citizen, I wanted to understand the voters on both sides of my own community and why they vote the way they do,” she said, adding that she wanted to find stories in swing states to step out of the “blue bubble” of Washington, where she lived for more than a decade.
An estimated 11 million Asian American and Pacific Islanders are eligible to vote in November, and recent polling shows that the group favors Joe Biden over President Donald Trump by a wide margin. But the level of support fluctuates by ethnicity, generation and region, and available data doesn’t show how AAPI voters in the South and Midwest might diverge from those in deep-blue California.
As the election approaches, the subjects of “First Vote” provide insight on the issues and cultural values that inform the politics of the AAPI electorate.
On one side of the ideological spectrum is Lance Chen, an assistant professor at the University of Dayton, Ohio, who gave up his Chinese citizenship in 2016 so he could vote for Trump. A former member of Chinese Americans for Trump, the group formed by mostly naturalized citizens from mainland China, Chen ran a political podcast to educate Mandarin-speaking voters about current affairs and “balance the lies of the mainstream media.”
Since 2016, Chen said his support for Trump has only strengthened. Aside from the tax overhaul, Chen has been happy with Trump’s accomplishments on foreign policy, including his historic trip to North Korea and trade war with China, which Chen considered a “long overdue process.”
The two Republicans profiled in the film are both naturalized citizens, while the two Democrats — a university professor and an editor of a China-focused news site — were born in the United States. Sue Googe, a realtor and tea party member who unsuccessfully ran for North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District in 2016, decried at length about the Democratic Party’s apparent support for communism and socialism.
For first-generation AAPI voters, foreign affairs and the system of governance in their home countries often shape their political allegiances in America, said Chen, the director. Domestic politics, such as the "Green New Deal" and protests against police brutality, may hold less sway.
Many older immigrants who grew up in a communist regime, Chen said, may harbor a stronger emotional attachment to authoritarian leaders than democratic ones. Trump’s ideas may connect with them because he speaks their language. Chen said she was surprised to find that the film resonated with viewers from other racial groups, especially Cubans whose lived experiences under Fidel Castro inform who they support in the U.S.
“Watching the film now and looking at what’s going on today, I think it’s more relevant in terms of U.S.-China relations, Covid-19 and anti-Asian racism,” Chen said.
The film also moves beyond the personal politics of the four central subjects to interrogate where Asian Americans stand in the larger struggle for racial justice.
In August 2017, during a movement against white supremacy, students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill toppled a Confederate statue known as Silent Sam.
Jennifer Ho, who was teaching race theory at the university when the incident occurred, said that people in the South often have an incomplete, misguided idea about the AAPI identity. Rather than as “people of color,” she said in the film, Asian Americans are often seen as “honorary white people.” Examining racial tensions in this country can help young Asian Americans develop their political voice, she added.
“Anyone who has an awareness of what it feels like to be ‘racial other,’ who has experienced racial discrimination, won’t see the GOP as their party,” she said, noting that her father was a refugee. “Because racial oppression is something I think about constantly, I cannot not put social justice in the forefront of decisions I make.”
Kaiser Kuo, a journalist and rock musician who shares Ho’s liberal politics, put the stakes of the upcoming election in more blunt terms. “It’s amazing how Trump wears his racism so clearly on his sleeve,” he said. “How can anyone possibly support a man who’s so nakedly racist against Asians is just astonishing to me.”
Despite their ideological differences, Ho said, the film’s four subjects, like Asian Americans in general, share a sense of confusion about their place in this country.
“We all have a unified desire to be seen as belonging to the U.S.,” she said. “We all want our vote to matter.”