Huan Kun Chen grins as he bags chunks of deep-fried tofu, delighted that Democrat Gary Locke was elected governor.
Locke is the country’s first governor of Chinese descent
“It’s exciting,” says Chen, an employee at a specialty grocery store in Seattle’s International District. “He’s the first in the whole U.S. We’re very happy to see that.”
At the Chinese bakery up the street, Fok Chan, 40, an immigrant from Canton, China, says Locke is a great role model for her 13-year-old son, Aaron.
She fills pink paper boxes with sweet red bean crisps, pineapple buns, egg tarts, and moon cake with lotus seed paste made there at the bakery, named Mon Hei, or Million Happinesses.
“His example for the Asian people coming here is that if they work hard, they can do very well. Like him. We are changing U.S. history. It’s very exciting.
“No one could believe he would be governor. No one knows what will happen tomorrow if you work hard for yourself.”
Locke’s victory is already getting international publicity from news organizations in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Australia, London, and Paris, not to mention extensive national coverage.
But his election has special resonance in Seattle, a city that once persecuted Chinese immigrants but now traces a big chunk of its economy and ancestry to the Pacific Rim.
Thousands of Chinese were brought to America to do the hard labor of building railroads through mountain passes with hand tools. When those projects were finished, they began to compete for other jobs, which grew scarce during the hard economic times of the 1880s.
In 1885, the territorial Legislature attempted to pass bills making it illegal to hire Chinese people, and barring Chinese residents from owning land.
Tacoma mobs ousted Chinese residents, stole and dumped their belongings and burned their homes.
In Seattle, Chinese residents were rounded up and forced onto the steamer Queen of the Pacific tied up at the dock, bound for San Francisco. U.S. troops were required to protect the lives of the 100 or so Chinese who did not fit on board.
Today, giant orange cargo cranes tower over the same port, loading ocean liners bound for Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong. They are filled with apples, wheat, beer, wood, newsprint, aluminum, frozen fish, and other Washington goods for Asian markets.
Tugboats tow freighters in and out of Elliott Bay, moving a steady flow of goods to and from the Pacific Rim worth $35 billion a year and growing.
One in five jobs in the state is linked to trade, and Pacific Rim countries, including Japan, China and Taiwan, which are by far the state’s most important trading partners.
About 6 percent of the state and 11 percent of King County residents are of Asian or Pacific Island descent, 1995 state statistics show.
In Seattle, Locke’s hometown, the International District is papered with Locke for governor signs, tucked in the windows of tiny shops.
Chinese newspapers sold in neighborhood groceries are full of pictures of Locke and his family, celebrating victory.
A Chinese-American from humble roots, Locke represents the American dream that drew many immigrants or their ancestors to the Pacific Northwest. Locke’s grandfather immigrated from Canton, a major Chinese port, and found work in Olympia as a houseboy. He also worked in logging camps and canneries.
Locke, 46, was born in Seattle and raised in public housing. His father owned a grocery store, and ran a restaurant in Pike Place Market.
His family is well-known in the International District, a tight-knit community in the shadow of the Kingdome that has followed Locke’s political career from the state House, where he served 11 years, to the top elected post in King County, and now the governor’s mansion.
“It’s hard for me to think of myself as a role model,” Locke said after his election. “I’m just an ordinary, average guy.”
But role model he is, for Chen the grocery clerk and other Asian Americans.
“It shows Asians if they want, they can do something for America,” Chen says as he rings up customers buying steamed buns, frozen pot stickers, and chunks of bamboo for soup.
There’s canned star fruit juice and lotus root drink in the cooler. A shelf running the entire length of the store is devoted to nothing but varieties of tea in bags, cans, and boxes.
Tsung Hsing Chu, the store’s owner, shows off the shop’s specialty: tofu, a soybean cake. Chu runs a tofu factory that cranks out tofu in every conceivable form: juice, pudding, chips, chunks, noodles, bows, fried, pressed, marinated and baked.
Chu also runs a dumpling house next door. Building the store, tofu factory and restaurant business took 15 years of hard work, Chu said, seven days a week.
Along the way he earned a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and raised two daughters, including one now enrolled at the University of Washington.
Chu said Locke’s victory makes him proud.
“Especially for Chinese people, it’s like breaking the ceiling. This could only happen in the United States. It is a great country.”
At the China Gate restaurant nearby, lobsters do a slow waltz in bubbling tanks. Sonny Wong, an owner of the restaurant, is originally from Hong Kong. He said he’s amazed that Locke - one of his customers, he proudly points out - is going to be governor.
“It shows whoever you are, it doesn’t matter. You have a dream, you can do it.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo