In Columbus Park in Manhattan’s Chinatown, elderly men crowded around two people simultaneously playing checkers and mahjong, a Chinese tile-based game. In the distance, kids shot hoops in hoodies and sweats. It was a typical, cold winter afternoon in this densely populated Asian American community.
Although New York is home to the second-largest Asian population in the country, Asian Americans are underrepresented in both state and city governments. At the federal level, Andrew Yang is the only Asian American running for president. Though he is not the first to vie for the office – Hiram Fong was a candidate in 1964 – he is the first to achieve some measure of mainstream success.
“I do think it will be interesting to have an Asian American president. We never had one before, so the fact that he’s a minority, given the current climate, it would be pretty interesting,” said 16-year-old Samuel Choy.
Though he didn’t qualify for the Jan. 14 Democratic debate in Iowa, Yang was the fourth most-tweeted-about politician that night behind Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden. He is popular with the Asian American community; according to NBC News, he’s the top recipient of donations from that group.
“It just shows how much support you can get from the Asian community and how, when there’s [a non-Asian-American] running for office … you don’t have that group of people supporting them,” said Damaon Chen, a 16-year-old Asian American.
What’s been working for Yang is strategically appealing to a younger audience. Though he is not the youngest person running – that’s Pete Buttigieg – he has been able to attract a younger crowd to his campaign rallies.
“I’ve worked with young people for the last 20 years,” Yang said in an interview with Teen Vogue. “I think I naturally am somewhat more youthful in energy, even than those other candidates who might be of my generation.”
It seems to have worked. Choy has noticed his friends expressing their admiration for Yang as well as commenting on how he’s more in tune with their generation.
While it may feel natural to see your background and culture represented on the national stage when you’ve grown up in a community of peers, Yang has had an outsized impact on young Asian Americans living in less diverse areas.
Asian Americans make up only 5.6 percent of Florida’s total population. Growing up in South Florida, 18-year-old Lincoln Le didn’t find many people that he could relate to outside his family or the community he saw in church. To see Yang make it this far has been meaningful for him.
“You don’t really see Asian people doing this kind of stuff,” said Le. “Being able to see someone who looks like us, who knows our own struggles, who knows what we go through … it’s amazing. You don’t realize what you and your people are capable of until it’s actually done.”
Tan Van, a 21-year-old South Floridian and Yang supporter, hasn’t felt the same isolation as Le, but is still excited to see an Asian American running for the highest office in the country. Van also acknowledged that it will be an uphill battle. “He has a lot of adversaries against him, media and all that,” he said, alluding to what Yang’s supporters have dubbed the #YangMediaBlackout.
It started in Aug. 2019, when CNN forgot to put Yang on an election graphic, causing an uproar from his supporters. In Nov. 2019, Yang went on CNN and demanded an apology from MSNBC for “frequently denigrating and outright ignoring his campaign.”
Whether he wins or loses the Democratic nomination and presidency, Yang has already won by making it this far, according to Chen. “I don’t think the point is whether he’s going to win. I think the point is he’s taking a chance to actually be like ‘I’m going to show how there’s still this huge community that hasn’t been represented,’” said Chen. “So I think the point of him already being in the polls, he already won … He may not be in the history books, but he will be remembered.”