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Asian Americans find their political voice in the heart of US casino country

Vida Chan Lin can remember a time when she wasn’t allowed to sit at the front of a bus because of her ethnicity.

As a second-generation Chinese American, the advocate for Nevada’s Asian American community not only heard about the hardships her parents experienced when they first came to the United States, but also endured discrimination herself during her childhood in the 1960s.

“I still remember the days when we had to sit at the back of the bus. I remember there were certain places we couldn’t go, or shops we couldn’t buy things from,” Chan said.

That was the life she led as a child in the 1960s, before she became an activist and founded the Asian Community Development Council (ACDC) in 2014 to fight for the rights of the Asian American community.

As a former business executive of an insurance firm and a former chairwoman of the Las Vegas Asian Chamber of Commerce, Chan’s resume fits the “model minority” label that is often attached to the Asian American population.

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But events that led to the death of her brother-in-law made her realise the importance of speaking up as a minority group whose suffering has often been overlooked.

The family tragedy began in 1994 when her nephew was bullied by a teacher at his school. Chan, who was at the time living in the San Francisco Bay Area, flew to Las Vegas to take care of the situation because her brother-in-law didn’t speak English well enough to complain to the school.

The family soon received threatening phone calls telling them to “go back to your country”. Her brother-in-law became so depressed he stopped eating and eventually died of a heart attack.

“He came to America for a better life for his kids and this is what happened,” said Chan.

“That’s when I realised that there was nowhere in Nevada we could turn to and get help and support from. We needed an organisation that serves the Asian community,” she said.

Twenty years later, Chan said the Asian American community is “still facing the same issues”. Asian Americans are no longer segregated, but the group’s presence has often been overlooked in American society.

“We have been so invisible. We were not counted. We have not spoken out. They don’t know we exist,” she said.

But things are changing. Asian Americans have replaced Latinos as the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States – with a growth rate of 3.4 per cent between 2014 and 2015, according to the US census bureau.

Nevada’s Asian population has grown faster than any other state across the country, doubling in size from 2000 to 2010 to reach 8.5 per cent of the state’s population.

The gambling and tourism industry and growing healthcare sector have attracted an increasing number of Asian workers to Nevada for job opportunities.

In addition, many Asian Americans have moved out of traditional Asian-heavy states such as California, Hawaii and New York to Nevada, drawn by its lower cost of living, pleasant weather and increasingly diverse community.

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The group, though still small in total numbers when compared to other ethnic minority groups in the state, has become more active in this election.

In a recent exit poll on early voting conducted by Chan’s ACDC partnering with the Asian Pacific American Labour Alliance (APALA) in Chinatown and the Filipino neighbourhood of Las Vegas, Asian Americans were more willing to share with the pollster who they voted for and why. Gloria T. Caoile, political director of APALA, said though the exit poll results had not been fully accessed, she had seen a significant increase in first-time voters from previous elections.

“I’ve been doing it for two decades. This is our best year,” said Caoile, whose organisation has offices in both Nevada and Washington DC.

The power of Asian Americans as a rising voting bloc has only been recognised recently as presidential candidates from both parties have started to reach out to the group.

In the last few weeks leading up to Election Day, both Clinton and Trump have run full-page adverts in Chinese in local newspaper the Las Vegas Chinese Daily News – a development described by local Asian Americans as “unprecedented”.

“Once upon a time, when we held an event, we couldn’t even get a dogcatcher to come and attend,” Caoile said.

“Because they would say – why should I bother? You have no voice. You don’t vote.”

Caoile said she had witnessed a significant change in attitude among politicians since the release of the US census in 2010, which confirmed the speedy growth of the Asian population.

Now, every event hosted by her organisation attracts attention from politicians, whose turnout sometimes outnumbers other participants, Caoile said.

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To make the voice of Asian Americans matter in the ballot box, Caoile and Chan have partnered in mobilising Asian Americans to vote, with initiatives such as holding talks on how to register as voters for casino workers, many of whom are Asian Americans.

“Sometimes in our culture, when you visit somebody’s house, you feel that you are not allowed to move the furniture,” Caoile said.

“Our message is – stop treating yourself as a guest here. You are not. You are part of this infrastructure … Now we have the right to move the furniture.”

But the sense of powerlessness is still often felt among the group – even among its more politically active members.

Elvira DeGuzman, a Filipino American who moved to the US in the 1970s, is an avid supporter of the Democratic Party and often volunteers to campaign for the party as well as for Caoile’s APALA in encouraging her fellow Asian Americans to vote.

“We Asian Americans always complain, but if we don’t vote, complaint is useless,” she said, “I don’t care who they vote for, the most important thing is to vote.”

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“But one thing I don’t understand is why they don’t discuss about Asians like they do about Latinos or blacks on TV,” said DeGuzman, who said neither main presidential candidate had paid enough attention to the group during the campaign.

Both Chan and Caoile said they believed the lack of attention from the top level proved that the group was still fragmented and had failed to come forward as a united voice.

“We don’t have enough people who run for office that look like us,” Chan said. She said she believed the lack of representation in higher offices and the group’s lack of understanding on policy issues were the major reasons contributing to a lack of enthusiasm for political participation among Asian Americans.

Chan has come a long way in fighting for the rights of the Asian American community, but there is still much work to be done – and she will continue to educate the community to lay the groundwork for the next election cycle.

“After the election, it’s time to begin our work,” she said.