Most news coverage has presented San Francisco’s Chinese communities as overwhelmingly supportive of the recall of Board of Education members Alison Collins, Gabriela Lopez and Fauuga Moliga. But, like all generalizations, that assumption fails to accurately reflect a community that is far more complex, and one in which second- and third-generation voters are also changing the community’s political profile.
A recent example of this change: The diverging views on the 2020 California Proposition 16, which sought to restore affirmative action. While 37 percent of the voters who identify as Chinese in an exit poll voted no, 30 percent voted to overturn it and 27 percent were undecided, according to the data from AAPI data, a recognized publisher of data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Those voters who identified as Chinese remain more conservative than all Asian identified voters except Koreans, but they are far from united. And, while it’s unclear if they will even be decisive in the recall election, they are far from a monolithic voting bloc. It’s a complexity that some would like to see reflected in the media.
“I wish there was more time to have more nuanced conversations,” said Leslie Hu, a second-generation Chinese American and opponent of the recall.
Hu is far from the only critical member of the community.
The school board’s performance in the pandemic
For parents who firmly support the recall, the poor performance of the school board in the pandemic has been a deciding factor.
Among the many complaints, one common theme was the lack of a mandatory camera-on policy during distance learning, not Lowell admissions or getting back to in-person school. Kit Lam, who witnessed his son struggling to sing with students online, has become a particularly vocal critic of the school board. After collecting 12,700 signatures, mainly at farmers markets, he joked that some friends now refer to him as the “Chinese face of the recall.”
Ann Hsu, a supporter, had similar complaints about her son’s experience. “He was wasting 16 hours every day,” she said. Both of her sons spent weeks playing video games, chatting with friends, and watching YouTube while listening to the classes. Consequently, one of them who didn’t care so much about studies “got C, D and borderline F,” according to Hsu.
The difficulties were especially severe for students who suffer from pre-existing learning disabilities. Sarah Shang, a supporter, has complained that her daughter, who has ADHD, has been unable to focus on lessons. Shang has already filled out her ballot with three “YES” votes in support of the recall.
Still, not all members of the community were so critical of the school board’s performance.
The School Board “has done really thoughtful work,” said Chinatown native Diana Pang, whose opinion draws on her experience working with low-income families. “When they center on things like social justice, they include and don’t exclude their focus on ‘Chineseness.’ They’ve been very focused and centered on low-income students, people who are under-resourced. We all benefit from that.”
Alvin Lee, 31, who’s a board member of the Milk Club, feels the controversy surrounding the recall has been particularly prone to misinformation. “I do think that they’re being scapegoated for things that aren’t necessarily their fault,” he said. “During covid, it was really hard to please everybody, but I think they’ve always centered on the students.”
Alison Collins and her tweets
Former board vice president and current commissioner Alison Collins has been at the center of the controversy since March, 2021. That’s when her 2016 tweets looking to “combat anti-black racism in the Asian community” were unearthed and she faced an avalanche of anger from the Chinese community. After being removed as vice president, Collins filed an $87 million lawsuit against the debt-laden school district, The suit was dismissed in August.
A year after those tweets surfaced, the anger of many Chinese voters remains, but is not necessarily aimed at the recall. While Kit Lam and others will describe the tweets as racist, that view represents only one perspective in the Chinese community.
“I read the tweets. I don’t see them as racist. She was saying basically, ‘we’re in all this together,’” said Diana Pang, who is against the recall.
Others fall somewhere in between. “Personally, I think she should have apologized,” said Jennifer Chan, an SFUSD parent who is also against the recall. But “I truly believe that her heart is in the right place.”
Alvin Lee, who is also opposed to the recall, finds it particularly important to consider that the tweets were posted in 2016, but only caused an uproar last year. “The tweet was taken out of context by the media and people on social media,” he said. “I think some recall sites are opportunistic with this tweet and are sort of stoking more outrage without providing the full context of it.” It did not help, however, that when officials from the Chinese community reached out, Collins rebuffed their appeals.
Ideological differences over democracy
Again and again, opponents of the recall expressed squeamishness at undoing the election results, because they saw it as fundamentally undemocratic. Many also mentioned the waste of resources, and the fact that the recalled members are up for re-election this November.
Despite being aware of this fact, Kit Lam, an SFUSD employee, remains steadfast in his support for the recall. He feels the situation in SFUSD, which has lost 3,500 students over the past two years, is too bad to wait. “People have lost faith and trust in the district. We need to immediately repair that harm,” he said.
For some, the recall represents something larger for all of San Francisco’s Chinese community. “If the Chinese keep silent, people will regard Chinese as dumb,” said Shurrin Zeng, former vice chair of the Parents Advisory Council. “The Chinese are silent most of the time, and once they are not silent anymore, they will do great things.”
Bayard Fong, president of the Chinese American Democratic Club, agreed. “Our government has established this vehicle, the recall, as a means in a non-violent way to protest and seek action and redress.”
Others feel the situation isn’t severe enough to merit a recall. “If somebody committed a crime and violated their oath of office, they should be recalled,” said Lily, despite being aware of the anger many voters share. Still, she believes, “you can express your anger by voting during the general election this November.”
For Leslie Hu, a San Francisco native, the violent contention over the recall hints at deeper cultural divides: “I can only make guesses. If you did not grow up in a democracy the way that I have, and we have different experiences of what democracy is, then I think that might help with this. That may be a part of this conversation. I don’t know.”
Ideological differences over the most ideal kind of education
The recent transition of Lowell High School, with its predominantly Asian student base, from a merit-based admissions system to a lottery, is also contentious and complex. Ding Lee, former president of Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association and a recall supporter, thinks Lowell should hold to its original model of “the survival of the fittest.”
“The first-tier kids should not be mixed with the lower tier. They wouldn’t be able to catch up,” said Henry Chen, a recall supporter whose older daughter graduated from Lowell.
Chen, who dropped out of school early, is deeply proud of supporting both of his daughters’ education through decades of hard work. In China, he said, “When I wanted to go to school, I wasn’t provided with the proper education. Now the younger generation are deprived of their opportunities.”
For 54-year-old Josephine Zhao, supporter and activist, this divide is representative of the older generation’s belief in a strict education system. In her opinion, many in the community believe only Lowell “has the level of rigor that can support the gifted, talented and driven students.”
In 2018, Zhao’s bid for the school board failed after she became embroiled in a transphobia scandal. This time, Zhao’s company, Prosperb Media, has received $111,202 from the recall campaign for circulating petitions.
Laurence Lee, a recall supporter who runs a newsletter and a Twitter account lamenting the current status of public education in San Francisco, looks back fondly on his time at Lowell. “I had a fantastic experience as a student,” he said. But for him, the inequality of the school system is representative of a larger problem. “I want all public schools in San Francisco to be as good as all the private schools.”
Over the years, Henry Der, former director of Chinese for Affirmative Action who remains undecided on the recall, has witnessed many Chinese parents desperately trying to get their children into Lowell. “Lowell is just one high school,” he said, mentioning that many students struggle after admission because of the heavy workload. “Is it fair to push them? Because they don’t get straight A’s, a parent will consider a kid to be a failure, and his life is destroyed.”
Jessica Huang, who graduated from Lowell in 2002, was one of those unhappy kids. “My personal experience was that it was a very big school, it’s very easy to get lost. I had some good memories, but it’s not like I felt very connected to the school as a whole. I certainly didn’t feel like my own academic needs were met there.”
Despite her opposition to the recall, Huang’s opinion echoes Lee. “I think that all schools should be sought after like a Lowell, all schools should have similar appeal,” she said. “Do we really believe that certain students are better or more well deserving than other students?”
Jennifer Chan, who is against the recall, is not surprised to see similar arguments on both sides. “I think it depends on the population, and what the district has done that has directly impacted them. It depends on where they are receiving information from,” she said. “For example, right now on KTSF (a Bay Area television station that primarily serves the Asian community), a lot of the commercials are yes on the recall. There haven’t been any commercials on no on the recall. Because they see it on TV, or if they see an ad on Sing Tao, the big Chinese newspaper. That’s where they’re getting most of their information from.”
For Alvin Lee, the fervor over the recall is a symptom of today’s disorienting media landscape. “Social media can be deceiving,” he said. As an opponent of the recall, he’s unhappy with a feeling of being outspent by the other side, which he feels may misrepresent the actual beliefs of the community.
“I’m hoping that people who want to do a recall are a small but loud minority,” said Lily, who is also a Lowell alumnus. “I think everybody should exercise their democratic privilege and vote.”