A son of China makes history in US city

Stephen Sham, a Bei­jing na­tive, serves as first Chi­nese-born mayor of Al­ham­bra, Cal­i­for­nia, Zhang Yuchen re­ports.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

Sit­ting in the in­side room of Vine­yard Cafe in Wu­daoy­ing hu­tong in Bei­jing, Stephen Sham looks no dif­fer­ent from a lo­cal busi­ness­man. When he be­gins to speak to or­der a latte in Man­darin, his ac­cent is ev­ery bit na­tive Bei­jinger.

Sham made history by be­com­ing the first Chi­nese mayor in 2006 in the 112-year history of the Los An­ge­les-area city of Al­ham­bra, Cal­i­for­nia. He was, how­ever, not elected mayor di­rectly by the peo­ple of the city.

Un­der the city’s sys­tem of gov­ern­ment, Sham serves as one of five mem­bers of a city coun­cil. Each coun­cil mem­ber rep­re­sents a dis­trict and is elected to the coun­cil by vot­ers of their par­tic­u­lar dis­tricts. The five coun­cil mem­bers take turns, serv­ing up to nine months as mayor on a ro­ta­tional ba­sis.

The city is ac­tu­ally run on a daily ba­sis not by the mayor, but by a full-time town man­ager. The mem­bers of the coun­cil serve part time and of­ten have other pro­fes­sions from which they make a liv­ing. Mem­bers of the coun­cil earn a salary of a lit­tle more than $10,000 a year. Ac­cord­ing to the city’s web­site, coun­cil mem­ber Luis Ayala cur­rently holds the po­si­tion of mayor, with Sham’s ninemonth stint hav­ing ex­pired.

Still, when Sham had as­sumed the role of mayor of Al­ham­bra, lo­cated at the gate­way of San Gabriel Val­ley, it was a mile­stone for the city, which has a larger pro­por­tion of Asians than many other cities in the state.

Since he first ran for City Coun­cil and be­came the mayor in 2006, Sham has made qual­ity of life is­sues his fo­cus. While in the role as mayor, he worked to see the com­mu­nity flour­ish.

“My pri­or­i­ties are to make sure Al­ham­bra is a safe com­mu­nity, where kids can get a qual­ity public ed­u­ca­tion and where busi­nesses and fam­i­lies can suc­ceed and thrive,” he said. “I want to make sure busi­nesses and fam­i­lies have ac­cess to the re­sources they need —well-main­tained streets, util­i­ties, and an en­vi­ron­ment con­ducive to busi­ness.”

When his latest term as a city coun­cil mem­ber be­gan in May, he was well aware that the pros­per­ity of a com­mu­nity must be achieved with the full par­tic­i­pa­tion of all res­i­dents, and in the case of Al­ham­bra, specif­i­cally by en­gag­ing the Asian or Chi­nese-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity.

Al­ham­bra has about 100,000 res­i­dents and of that num­ber more than 50 per­cent are of Asian de­scent. Of that per­cent­age, ap­prox­i­mately 65 to 70 per­cent — or around 30,000 res­i­dents — are of Chi­nese back­ground.

The Chi­nese-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion is larger than the to­tal pop­u­la­tion in many cities in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia in which Asians are the ma­jor­ity.

Since the 1980s, His­pan­ics and Asians, mostly Chi­nese- Amer­i­cans, have poured into Al­ham­bra. Sur­veys show that the rank­ing of the ma­jor lan­guages in the com­mu­nity are Chi­nese, Span­ish and English.

“Chi­nese peo­ple are used to work­ing hard and liv­ing a con­ser­va­tive lifestyle as im­mi­grants. Be­liev­ing in mind­ing our own busi­ness, we sel­dom get in­volved in pol­i­tics or any other civic en­gage­ment,” said Sham. “So we never par­tic­i­pated enough in the lo­cal so­ci­ety or rep­re­sented as part of our com­mu­nity.”

He added: “But as Chi­nese would like to pro­tect their rights and earn re­spect, they should know how to make their voices heard.”

Sham was born in Bei­jing and moved to Hong Kong with his fam­ily at the age of 10. He em­i­grated to the United States and en­rolled in a high school in Cal­i­for­nia, where has been liv­ing in the city of Al­ham­bra for more than 12 years. He still has rel­a­tives liv­ing in Bei­jing.

Sham, a nat­u­ral­ized Amer­i­can, feels his Chi­nese char­ac­ter­is­tics are deeply rooted in the cul­ture but he also shoul­ders more re­spon­si­bil­ity in his po­si­tion on the coun­cil to help other Amer­i­cans ac­knowl­edge the Chi­nese com­mu­nity and help Asian res­i­dents blend into the com­mu­nity.

When at­tend­ing meet­ings across the US, Sham finds many Amer­i­cans raise is­sues about China, such as copy­rights, hu­man rights and other stereo­types, but rarely see other ar­eas.

“Af­ter trav­el­ing much back and forth be­tween China and the US, I re­ally see the changes hap­pen­ing to the coun­try and we’d bet­ter be well aware of them,” he said, “and then we can grab a bet­ter un­der­stand­ing in our com­mu­nity.”

As for his Chi­nese neigh­bors in Al­ham­bra, Sham is al­ways ready to of­fer ad­vice about busi­ness and life.

“Many cul­tural dif­fer­ences are not writ­ten in the rules, but hid­den in the ex­e­cu­tion of daily life. It is not easy for Chi­nese peo­ple, though a ma­jor group of cit­i­zens in our city, (to blend into the com­mu­nity) well,” he said.

Con­nect­ing com­mu­ni­ties as well as en­cour­ag­ing more civic en­gage­ment is among the first of three pri­or­i­ties Sham set since his first term.

Sham has been a part of the Al­ham­bra com­mu­nity for decades. In ad­di­tion to be­ing a res­i­dent for 12 years and busi­ness owner for 20, Sham has served as pres­i­dent of the Al­ham­bra Cham­ber of Com­merce, Ro­tary Club of Al­ham­bra, and many other as­so­ci­a­tions.

“I regularly con­vene the Asian press and have made it a pri­or­ity to at­tend eth­nic events and meet­ings in the area, en­gag­ing the Asian- Amer­i­can com­mu­nity to dis­cuss is­sues of con­cern and work with my fel­low coun­cil mem­bers to make sure City Hall is reach­ing out to the larger com­mu­nity,” he said.

One thing he tried to do to en­hance com­mu­nity par­tic­i­pa­tion is to sup­port the open­ing in 2013 of an Al­ham­bra Po­lice Depart­ment Weibo ac­count, a Twit­ter-like plat­form, for the eth­nic Chi­nese res­i­dents in the neigh­bor­hood, through the ini­tia­tive of Al­ham­bra Chief of Po­lice Mark Yokoyama.

Most of the con­tent on the so­cial media page is nec­es­sary in­for­ma­tion for liv­ing in lo­cal neigh­bor­hoods, with some di­rectly trans­lated from the po­lice depart­ment’s Face­book page.

Sev­eral crime tips have been re­ported to the po­lice through the online so­cial plat­form, said Wal­ter Yu, who is among a younger gen­er­a­tion of im­mi­grants be­tween the ages of 24 and 36, the group that is a main tar­get of the two-way com­mu­ni­ca­tion at­tempt. The feed­back from the younger gen­er­a­tion of users has been very pos­i­tive.

“It is more im­por­tant to give all a sense of be­ing at home who live, serve and work in Al­ham­bra,” said Sham. “By all means the com­mu­nity is a home to all res­i­dents.”

Though Sham has made it a pri­or­ity to en­gage the Asian-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity since he was elected, it turns out mi­nor­ity vot­ers, es­pe­cially Asian-Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos, have a lower voter turnout rate than other groups, ac­cord­ing to the lo­cal re­source cen­ter in Al­ham­bra.

De­spite his re-elec­tion to the coun­cil this year, many Chi­nese-Amer­i­can did not show up to vote. Some of them have no knowl­edge of how to vote while oth­ers sim­ply showed lit­tle or no in­ter­est.

The eth­nic Chi­nese res­i­dents in that com­mu­nity were re­ported to score sig­nif­i­cantly lower on neigh­bor­hood be­long­ing, col­lec­tive ef­fi­cacy and civic en­gage­ment com­pared to whites and Lati­nos, ac­cord­ing to Al­ham­bra Source, a lo­cal news web­site that uses jour­nal­ism to bridge the gap be­tween mul­ti­lin­gual res­i­dents and city gov­ern­ment and to pro­mote civic en­gage­ment.

Sham in his en­gage­ments with peo­ple in China has strug­gled to ex­plain to them Al­ham­bra’s sys­tem of gov­ern­ment and the mayor’s part-time role within that sys­tem.

“It is hard for me to ex­plain it to my coun­ter­parts in China,” he said. “I feel it is like I am bridg­ing the com­pre­hen­sion gap.” Con­tact the writer at zhangyuchen@chi­nadaily.com.cn


Stephen Sham

Stephen Sham, first Chi­nese-born mayor of his Cal­i­for­nia city

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