The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An Orange County House race has become an Asian American culture clash

The battle between Democrat Jay Chen and Republican Michelle Steel reveals the nuances of identity

Jay Chen (D) is a Taiwanese American challenging the incumbent, Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.), a Korean American, in a hotly contested House race. (Jenna Schoenefeld for The Washington Post)
16 min

WESTMINSTER, Calif. — Ngan Nguyen can’t stop, won’t stop dancing. It’s such a joyous Friday night for the 80-year-old retired cosmetologist, a chance to gather with so many friends from so many years of political activism here in a strip mall parking lot in Orange County’s Little Saigon. Tonight’s “Rock and Vote” party, with around three weeks to go before the midterm elections, is a major deal in the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. Nguyen’s got a jaunty fedora and two large flags propped on each shoulder, so they flap behind her like wings. She twirls and twirls, in the glow of signs from a nail salon, two law offices and an acupuncturist.

More than 200 people have shown up to register to vote or meet candidates for local office. There’s a choir singing the Vietnamese national anthem and “The Star-Spangled Banner”; two crooners who look like Elvis; a troupe of teenagers in colorful silk costumes doing choreographed dances with flags and martial arts sticks; and one heartthrob who belts out a dual-language rendition of “God Bless the U.S.A.” with such passion you’d think he was auditioning for “The Voice.”

In a community of refugees like this, voting is always a celebration. Forty-seven years ago, when Nguyen was 33, she fled the only country she had ever known with her husband and three boys on the last day of the fall of Saigon. She never misses an election. The first ballot she cast as a U.S. citizen was for the president at the time, known for welcoming Vietnamese refugees: Ronald Reagan. Then George H.W. Bush. Then …

“We belong to MAGA group,” she says, proudly. “We vote for Trump and we vote for him again if he runs.”

That yellow-and-red-striped flag she’s carrying, along with an American flag? It’s for the defunct anti-communist country of South Vietnam. It has come to symbolize Vietnamese nationalism, and was spotted at the Capitol during the Jan 6. insurrection.

Nguyen’s also excited to vote again for Rep. Michelle Steel, a Republican who in 2020 was part of a trio who became the first Korean American women elected to Congress.

What about Steel’s challenger, Jay Chen, the Taiwanese American Democrat and active lieutenant commander in the Navy Reserve? “No!” Nguyen says. “He supports the China communists. Anybody who supports communists, we don’t vote for them.”

That’s a falsehood perpetuated by Steel’s campaign against Chen. And it’s apparently sticking.

Never mind that Chen’s paternal grandmother fled from China to Taiwan to escape communism. Or that he’s a U.S. service member who is part of the 7th Fleet, the Naval unit that maintains freedom of navigation in the Taiwan Strait. “So that is part of my job, confronting the threat of communist China,” Chen says the next day when I meet him at his campaign office.

How have charges of communism become a key issue in a House race, 31 years after the fall of the Soviet Union?

The hotly contested race in California’s 45th Congressional District is a microcosm of Asian American identity clashes and how those tie to voting preferences. Here we have two Asian American candidates fighting for one of the only chances Democrats have to flip a seat to blue, in a midterm election cycle where they are predicted to have major losses. And it’s happening in a district where more than a third of the voters are Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) — the largest chunk of whom, by far, are Vietnamese, whose older generations tend to vote conservative, with lingering, traumatic memories of their family’s escape from communism.

Among countless attacks, Steel has distributed a flier showing Chen in front of a group of students, flanked by portraits of communist leaders such as Mao Zedong and Ho Chi Minh, with a blackboard that reads, in Vietnamese, “Jay Chen invited China into our children’s classes.” There’s also a TV ad in which actors play communist intelligence officials crowing with delight about Chen’s candidacy. “He’s one of us!” says one. “A socialist comrade who even supported Bernie Sanders for supreme leader!”

Steel’s attacks all stem from Chen’s support 12 years ago, on a school board, for a program that would have taught Chinese in public K-12 classes. She accused her 2020 opponent, former congressman Harley Rouda, who is White, of being a communist sympathizer, too — and won, with support from Vietnamese Americans. (She declined The Washington Post’s requests for interviews.)

“If I had told you, without naming any names, that a Korean American was red-baiting a Taiwanese American about being friendly with Chinese communists in order to affect Vietnamese American voters, you’d think I was making it up,” says Tung Nguyen, a doctor and the founder of the Pivot Victory Fund, a SuperPAC that supports liberal AAPI candidates, including Chen. “I think it’s very cynical.”

Back in April, Steel threw the first accusation of racism in a race that has had many on both sides, saying Chen was making fun of her accent. Chen says a comment he said about her needing “an interpreter” was about her policy ideas being incomprehensible, and that she was using the moment as preplanned justification for her communism attacks.

People attended a “Rock and Vote” rally for Republicans in Orange County’s Little Saigon in Westminster, Calif., on Oct. 21. (Video: TWP)

Republicans clearly see Orange County Vietnamese Americans as a constituency worth investing in. Of the 38 “community centers” the Republican National Committee opened this election cycle, the first was in Little Saigon, with prominent party figures attending the launch. It’s in a strip mall office front, not labeled as an RNC hub. “But we all know what it is,” says Katie Nguyen Kalvoda, a board member of the AAPI Victory Fund.

For many Southeast Asian immigrants and their children, labeling someone a pro-China communist can strike incredible fear, especially since Chinese President Xi Jinping recently secured his unprecedented third term, tipping the country as close to one-man rule as it has been since Mao Zedong, analysts say. Several Vietnamese “Rock and Vote” attendees mentioned that China was “trying to take over Vietnam,” referring to ongoing territory and maritime skirmishes, despite Xi’s extravagant welcoming of Vietnam’s Communist Party leader on Tuesdayand that they saw a vote against Chen as a way to stop it.

Like Latinos, AAPI voters are often viewed as a monolith voting bloc, lumped together for both positive reasons (strength in numbers can increase access to attention and funding) and negative ones (i.e., people in power can’t tell us apart). There’s a reason Asian women of different ethnicities often joke that we can swap IDs and no one would notice — and why it almost always works. But anyone who has stared at a demographics survey and been unsure of which box to check knows that AAPI loyalties and divides are more complicated than any poll or census can capture. When your family immigrated, what country they came from and how old you were can all shape political identity. Someone whose family left China before World War II is going to have a different relationship with communism than someone who emigrated from China in the past three years.

CA-45 is a chance to see those dynamics play out in real time.

Steel is 67 and was born in Seoul. According to previous interviews, her parents met in South Korea after leaving communist North Korea during the Korean War. Her father, a diplomat, moved the family to Japan for his job. After his death, Steel came to Los Angeles on her own, followed by her mother, who spoke no English, and Steel’s three siblings. They opened a men’s clothing store and a sandwich shop. She married Shawn Steel, a prominent Republican operative, with whom she has two kids, and has a long history in Orange County government, including the Board of Supervisors.

Chen is 44 and was born and raised in the United States by immigrant parents. His father’s side came to Taiwan in exile from China. His mother’s side is indigenous Taiwanese, going back generations on the island. In the United States, his parents ran an import/export business back when bird cages were all the rage; Chen often talks about how he and his brother grew up assembling the cages, because their fingers were so small. He has the dream résumé to impress AAPI voters: Harvard graduate, active-duty military, cute family with his wife, Karen, and their two boys, 6 and 8. He’s on the board of a community college, has a commercial real estate business and spent a year in Kuwait fighting the Islamic State.

Steel’s communism charge sticks in part because many people read Chen’s last name as “Chinese,” which it is, without understanding that Taiwanese Americans generally come from a lineage that has been in constant conflict with communist China.

“Here’s the thing,” he tells me the next day in his campaign office, “I’m Taiwanese, but even if I was Chinese, that is still not a reason to doubt my loyalty.”

It reminds him, he says, of the persecution of Wen Ho Lee, the Taiwanese American scientist who was accused of being a spy for China by the federal government in 1999. Lee spent nine months in solitary confinement, at times shackled, before President Bill Clinton personally apologized and the New York Times printed a 23-paragraph editor’s note about “flaws” in its coverage. “And that’s exactly what [Steel’s] doing with these scare tactics,” Chen says, “trying to otherize me based on my perceived heritage.”

Drive down the main drag of Little Saigon and you’ll see a shopping-center-long wall of colorful campaign posters, almost all bearing Asian last names. Tri Ta! Nam Quan! Kimberly Ho! Chi Charlie Nguyen! Mark Nguyen! Lan Nguyen! Duy Nguyen! Some have photos of the candidate in a cross-armed, take-charge pose. Some have Vietnamese translations.

Then, way up high on lamp posts, are a flurry of small signs that are not like the others: bright red with yellow lettering and a yellow star, to mimic the Chinese flag. They read, “China’s Choice JAY CHEN.”

The fine print — too small to read from the street — says “Paid for by Michelle Steel for Congress.”

“Good thing is, from afar, all you see is, ‘JAY CHEN,’ so my name ID is getting up there!” says Chen, getting a laugh from a crowd of 30 supporters on a lawn in Fountain Valley, a suburb lined with $1 million ranch homes that in Orange County qualifies as middle class.

The O.C. is an incongruous setting for a race this ugly. The weather’s perfect. Palm trees abound, as does, arguably, the best pho and bubble tea in America. Disneyland (the happiest place on Earth!), Knott’s Berry Farm and any number of TV-famous beaches (Laguna, Newport, Huntington — take your pick) are no more than 40 minutes away, depending on traffic.

It’s the afternoon before that “Rock and Vote” MAGA rally, and the congressional AAPI A-team has arrived: Judy Chu, who represents parts of Los Angeles and San Bernardino; Mark Takano, from Southern California’s Riverside/Inland Empire region; and Grace Meng, who flew in all the way from Queens.

One by one, the representatives, who are Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese American, respectively, step forward to condemn Steel. Chu calls her tactics “offensive” and “unacceptable.” Takano calls them “despicable.” They all call them “racist.” They talk about Chen’s service record and how the government would never give him top-secret security clearance if he was a communist. (“All those documents at Mar-a-Lago, I can read them,” Chen says.) There are plenty of other reasons they’re opposed to Steel, given that she co-sponsored a bill that would create a federal ban on abortion and voted against gun control, protecting same-sex marriage and lowering the price of insulin.

This strangely C-shaped, entirely inland turf that is causing so much intra-Asian fighting was carved out in a redistricting shuffle last year specifically to empower Asian Americans. At about 37 percent AAPI, it’s about double the percentage in California and more than six times the share of the nation. It’s also about 36 percent White, about 23 percent Latino and about 3 percent Black.

House candidate Jay Chen (D) spoke on Oct. 21. Chen is challenging incumbent Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.) in the state‘s 45th Congressional District. (Video: TWP)

Chen talks about his top priorities: lowering gas prices; passing the Chips Act, which would increase domestic manufacturing of computer chips and reduce reliance on China; passing gun laws — popular after the past few years of violence against AAPI Americans, and especially important in Orange County, where in May a man who was born in Taiwan but considered himself part of a Chinese ethnic group opened fire in a Taiwanese church.

Then there’s his support for abortion rights, which polls better with Asian Americans than any other major ethnic group. It makes sense, Chen says, given the community’s familiarity with China’s government control over reproduction with its one-child policy. Although, in Little Saigon, several people I met said they were pro-life because they’re Buddhist.

It’s hard to tell who will win, because there’s no reliable polling. Steel’s an incumbent and is well-known in local government. Orange County is a longtime GOP stronghold that went for President Biden plus nine. But Democrats also lost two seats to Steel and Young Kim in 2020, after flipping four seats to turn the entire county blue in 2018.

The following morning, after a canvass launch in Cerritos, a few AAPI Chen supporters speculate on where he could find votes, given that he probably won’t get many from the Vietnamese community. Some Latinos and South Asians lean Democrat, they say, and there are pockets of liberal White people — although this is Orange County, remember? The land that launched Reagan and Richard M. Nixon.

They also engage in casual speculation about AAPI demographics: Are old-school Chinese less likely to vote for Japanese candidates because of the 1937 invasion, as Ernie Nishii, 55, a Japanese American who’s running for reelection to the local school board, says? Did some Korean American immigrants become more conservative after the Rodney King riots? Do Chinese American kids become liberal in college, then turn Republican once they have to start paying for things?

“Older Japanese Americans I knew usually registered Republican because it was a Democrat who put them in camps,” says Hope Yoneshige, a 57-year-old writer who has roots in Okinawa and Hawaii and who became a Democrat because of “all the hippie teachers” she had in her youth.

Much of this is conjecture and stereotypes, but it’s rooted in lived experience. The conclusion, really, is that it’s hard to be an immigrant. It’s hard to leave your home and go somewhere totally new, especially when you have no choice, when it’s to save your life or your parents’ or your children’s. Says Danny Hom, a 37-year-old environmental activist of Cantonese descent: “Immigrants are often a little slow to trust, because you don’t know who’s on your side.”

When Kalvoda, the AAPI Victory Fund board member, wants to explain the conservatism of the Vietnamese American community to outsiders, she often makes an analogy to Cuban Americans in Miami, who tend to vote Republican. “A lot of people who are Cuban American still have a very firsthand story around communism, right?” Kalvoda says. “And so do the Vietnamese, in the sense that we are not far removed from that event in 1975. It was all in our lifetime.” She was 18 months old when her parents fled the Vietnam War and spent over a year at a refugee camp in Malaysia before making it to the United States.

Toward the end of “Rock and Vote,” Chi Charlie Nguyen, a Vietnamese American candidate for mayor, remarks in an interview that he is not a fan of Biden (“He can’t even go out and speak in public”) and is convinced that Chen is a communist, no matter what he says. That’s the thing with communists, he says: “I will never, never, never trust them.” When he was 11, right after the war, the communists took his father away. “They said three days for reeducation, okay? But they took my father away for three years, for five years, for 10 years,” he says. When his father came back, he was a different person. “They are so cruel.”

He had to drop out of school to work to support his mother and siblings, and when he was 15, his mother insisted that he escape to the States on his own, just before the military would have drafted him. He made up for the school time he lost. He got a master’s degree. He became an executive at Boeing. He opened his own real estate business. He has vowed to protect the United States from communism. “We had to live under that regime and we escaped it,” he says, “But I will never, never accept that.”

And now here he is, running for mayor on a beautiful night in Orange County, surrounded by friends in a strip mall parking lot. He wants this on the record, sent out to America: “I want to say: Thank you for the opportunity.”

Hannah Knowles contributed to this report.