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Fujian Americans push to make change: ‘We’ve waited 100 years’

Fujian Asian Americans
Posted at 1:39 PM, Apr 02, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-02 15:39:01-04

There are more than 2.5 million Chinese immigrants in America. Many make the journey to the U.S. and share a similar experience to Yi Andy Chen’s father.

“He got punched. He got locked up in different jails in different countries from South Asia to Mexico, and he didn’t even know where he was supposed to go the next minute,” said Yi.

In the early 90s, it took his father two years, walking across mountains and hitching rides on boats, to get from Fujian Province, China to New York City. Throughout the entire journey, Yi and his family had no communication with Yi’s father.

“At one point, we didn’t even know if he was alive,” Yi said.

His father made the dangerous journey out of desperation.

“At that time in China, we were not allowed to have two boys at home, and I was the second son,” Yi explained.

The second son had to be hidden for fear of being taken away by the government at the time. Yi’s father didn’t want to live with that fear forever, and he wanted the chance at giving his children more opportunities in the land of opportunity: America.

“I grew up in China until 14 years old,” said Hailing Chen.

Hailing is of no familial relation to Yi, but their families do come from the same province in China. Chen's father made a similar journey from Fujian to the U.S. as Yi’s father, except Chen’s father, who chose to never speak about that part of his immigrant story

“I know it was tough,” said Hailing. “And I learned some stories that he worked in the restaurants and lived in the basement, and those kinds of stories really break my heart.”

Like most first-generation immigrants, both Chen’s fathers worked low-wage jobs for long hours, often seven-day work weeks and 12 to 16-hour days in restaurants. They lived extremely modestly, often boarded with a dozen other people in a small New York City one-bedroom apartment in order to save up for their families to legally come to the U.S. and to give their next generation a better chance in life.

“You know, he gave me a chance to go to college,” Chen said of his father.

Chen and Yi both went to college. Yi now lives the quintessential American dream, owning a small business in Queens. Chen studied accounting but found his passion was actually fighting for immigrant rights and has since become an advocate. After turning to Uber for work during the Great Recession, Chen helped immigrant drivers fight for union rights and protection.

“We were able to successfully pass a number of bills that are on the state and city level to provide job protection, to provide minimum pay,” said Chen.

This year, Chen decided to further stand up for his community by running for office in the biggest city in the country. He is the first immigrant from the Fujian Province to ever do so. Yi became the second, and now, there is a third candidate. They are running in different districts, which means they all have a chance of winning their races and NYC could see all three potentially as the first-ever Fujian council members.

"Once we announced our candidacy for city council this year, all the community leaders, they said, 'We have been waiting for this moment for far too long. For almost 100 years,’” Yi recalled.

Their candidacies are a potential moment for representation in America that each of them and their community hopes lead to better a better understanding and acceptance of their people and all immigrants.

“We come here because not only do we think we can get something from this country, but also we think we can contribute,” said Chen. “Immigrants have always demonstrated a bonus and bravery to this country.”

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