By Sarah Toy
BU News Service
It was late October. She stood out in a sea of white Trump supporters: a petite Asian woman wearing red lipstick and a red “Make America Great Again” hat, taking selfies at the edge of the crowd.
Her name: Jenny Cheung.
She lives in Braintree, Massachusetts, and has two boys, 11 and 12. She is a Chinese American immigrant, a proud Trump supporter, and part of an informal campaign group called Chinese Americans for Trump (CAFT).
I was covering a Trump rally in New Hampshire that day and interviewed her briefly. She told me that CAFT was hiring a plane to tow a banner over Boston declaring Chinese American support for Trump as part of a 26-city aerial campaign. She told me to watch out for it.
Before she left, she wrote down her contact information in my notebook. I did not expect to see her again. After all, Hillary Clinton was leading in all of the polls.
Then came the election and Clinton’s stunning loss. It wasn’t long before I began to notice a pattern of conversation among my Asian friends.
“My father voted for Trump,” one told me quietly.
“My dad said he agreed with his policies,” another said in a hushed whisper one night, over beef tendon soup at a Korean restaurant in Allston.
I, like many others, had assumed that immigrants would not vote for Trump. My friends’ comments caught me by surprise. I rummaged through my desk to find my notebook with Cheung’s contact information.
We arranged to meet again at a Starbucks in Quincy, Massachusetts, one chilly November evening a couple weeks after the election. She looked a little tired that night. I asked if I could get her a cup of coffee. She said no, she didn’t drink coffee this late during the day.
Unlike the first day I met her, Cheung wasn’t wearing any makeup. She wore a silver-gray puffer coat and carried a large garbage bag. Her hair was slightly tousled. Her eyes looked smaller without eyeliner, but they lit up when we started talking about Trump.
“Here are the items you asked me to bring,” she said, opening the garbage bag to reveal several Trump-Pence signs and a red “Make America Great Again” hat. I had asked her to bring any campaign mementos she wanted to share. As I peered into the bag, she the told me that CAFT was currently on a break.
CAFT’s New England chapter has 250 active members and is made up of mostly Chinese American immigrants over 40 years old, according to Yi Li, the organization’s regional director. He says there are about 7,000 members nationwide. Both Cheung and Li are representative of a small, but fervent group who support Trump — foreign-born Chinese Americans.
One of the things Cheung wanted to make clear is that she does not think Trump is a racist. In fact, she said, one of the reasons she began to volunteer with CAFT was to “send the message out there that he is not racist.”
During the election campaign, Cheung and other CAFTers reasoned that if Asians were visible in their support of Trump, they would destroy preconceived notions of how minority groups think of him.
So she began to volunteer with CAFT. Although she lives in Massachusetts, she decided to volunteer in New Hampshire, a swing state with four Electoral College votes.
Cheung went door-to-door to talk to voters, sometimes wearing her red “Make America Great Again” hat, sometimes leaving it off.
“I persuaded some people,” she said proudly. “People would say, ‘I don’t like his mouth.’ And I would say, ‘Yes, I agree — he talks too much. He needs to shut up sometimes.’ But then I would say, ‘Forget the personality. It’s not a personality contest.’”
“You have to understand the mindset of the voter,” she said.
She also held Trump-Pence signs for hours by the sides of roads or on highway overpasses.
She recalled that things became tense on Election Day. “People yelled at us to go back to your country where you came from,” she said.
“And people say Trump supporters are racist?” She chortled. “No.”
Cheung does not identify as a Democrat or a Republican.
“We are open-minded people,” she said of herself and her husband. “We don’t belong to any party.”
It turns out that Cheung was a fan of Clinton in 2008. “I was rooting for Hillary,” she said. “I was ready for a female president.” Clinton lost the primary that year, and Cheung and her husband both voted for Obama in the general election. They liked Obama’s promise of change.
“We didn’t like the war,” she said, referring to the War in Iraq.
She added: “It would be a different feel to see what the country would be like being led by an African American president. We are open-minded.”
She voted for Obama again in 2012.
I asked Cheung how she made such a major switch — from rooting for Clinton eight years ago to voting for Obama to campaigning for Trump.
It came down to one thing, she said: Trump’s personality.
Cheung lowered her voice as she described how she felt when she first began to listen to his speeches.
“He was like a messenger,” she said.
“The way he says things,” she said in a low tone. “You really feel like he reads your mind.”
“Like he knows exactly what’s going on — something that you know and I know but you don’t really dare to say it, you know what I’m saying?”
She looked at me expectantly.
Her husband was the one who introduced her to Trump as a candidate. Cheung works out at her local YMCA on a regular basis, where there are big screen TVs. Trump’s rallies were broadcast in the gym and her husband would tell her to watch them while she exercised.
“My husband said, ‘Jenny you’ve got to see this. This is unbelievable. This is unheard of—you know, the political incorrectness.’ That really brought his attention. ‘This is amazing!’ And I said, uh, okay, I’ll listen with an open mind. And then there was this ‘wow’ effect.”
Although it was her husband who brought Trump to her attention, she was the one who ended up knocking on doors.
“He doesn’t like the spotlight,” she said of her husband. “He doesn’t like to get involved.”
The issue of immigration is near and dear to Cheung’s heart. Trump’s aggressive stance on deporting unauthorized immigrants appealed to her strongly. Cheung said she and her family waited eight years in order to obtain the initial visa to come to the United States from Canton, China.
She arrived in the U.S. in 1990 when she was 19, along with her parents and five of her siblings. They settled in an apartment in Brighton, Massachusetts. Cheung immediately set out to learn her new country’s language and culture, signing up for free English classes at local churches and community centers.
“My parents were looking for a better future for their kids,” she said. Unfortunately, her older sister, who was too old to qualify as a dependent, had to stay in China for another five years.
“She was left behind, living by herself in China,” Cheung said. “That wasn’t a good feeling.”
When Cheung arrived in the U.S. with her parents, she applied for green card status “like everyone else.” She became a citizen in 1995, at the age of 25.
Cheung’s friend, Jessica Zhang, whom she met through her work with CAFT, agrees with Cheung’s views on immigration. “If you come to the country illegally, that’s wrong. We come here legally. We respect the country’s regulations,” she said.
“We also work really hard,” she added.” When you work so hard and you don’t feel like people are doing the same thing, you feel like it’s not right.”
Zhaoyin Feng, a reporter for Hong Kong-based Initium Media who covered Chinese American support for Trump throughout the election cycle, says Trump’s immigration policies tend to appeal to Chinese American immigrants. “Most of them feel like they worked very hard to get the green card and citizenship. Not cutting the line is a major point.”
Cheung’s sister waited 13 years before she could get her visa. She is now a citizen and lives in Brighton, just a block away from the first home Cheung’s family stayed in when they first arrived in the U.S.
Feng thinks that Trump’s wealth is what attracts Chinese immigrant voters in particular. While she was covering Chinese Americans across the country during the election, she noticed some Chinese Trump supporters did not speak English. They didn’t understand Trump’s policies, but they liked his supposed business record.
“They think that because he’s a billionaire and successful businessman, he will be a good leader,” said Feng.
Feng said many Chinese Americans don’t mind Trump’s inflammatory comments. “In China, political correctness is not a thing,” she said. “It is not yet a part of our education.”
The Chinese Americans that Feng spoke to also emphasized Trump’s “very successful children.” They felt he had been a good father — therefore he would be a good leader.
Cheung told me she met Eric Trump while she was volunteering for CAFT. When I asked what the junior Trump was like, she said he was “very articulate, well-mannered and respectful.”
He also signed her “Make America Great Again” hat.