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Politics & Policy

In liberal San Francisco, Asian immigrants are joining the Republican Party in droves

A man stands before two boxes with golden animals—a donkey on blue, an elephant on red—in an urban setting.
Illustration by Clark Miller for The Standard

Jason Zeng has a bold prediction: “I think the Republican Party will win in San Francisco in the next 10 years.” 

Zeng, 32, an immigrant from China, is a registered Republican running for Congress against longtime Democratic Rep. Nancy Pelosi. 

It’s a provocative suggestion, considering the GOP long ago lost most of its visibility and influence in local politics. The last time the city had a Republican mayor was in 1964. And the city’s last elected Republican official, James Fang, a Chinese American, was ousted from the Bay Area Rapid Transit Board of Directors in 2014. Just 7% of the city’s registered voters are Republican.

But Zeng and others say Asian Americans are turning more conservative while becoming more active, particularly since the pandemic and the rise of the Stop Asian Hate movement. In San Francisco, one-third of residents are Asian, and the community played a key role in ousting progressive elected officials in 2022, including three school board leaders and District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

People in masks, one holding a "PROUD TO BE ASIAN AMERICAN" sign, seemingly at a gathering or protest.
Galvanized by the Stop Asian Hate movement, Asian American voters in San Francisco helped to oust progressive elected officials in 2022. | Source: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Nationwide, the majority of Asian American voters are Democrats: A 2023 Pew Research poll showed that 62% were Democrats or lean Democratic. But there are signs that support could be eroding. In Southern California, where the Asian population is growing, the 2020 victories of Republican congresswomen Young Kim and Michelle Park Steel, both Korean immigrants, signaled a more diverse, less white American conservatism.

In San Francisco, Republican activists and candidates see an opportunity for growth in the Asian population, particularly among recent immigrants. 

According to the San Francisco Republican Party, the number of registered Republicans who were born overseas in Chinese-speaking regions has increased by 60% since the pandemic—far outpacing the increase in overall party membership.

The data, obtained and confirmed by The Standard, showed that there are 4,526 current registered San Francisco Republicans born in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Malaysia or Singapore as of early 2024. In late 2019, the number was 2,841.

Over the same period, the city’s Republican Party increased its membership by 11% while Democrats gained 9%. Voters with no party affiliation dropped 19%, according to voter statistics analyzed by The Standard. The number of foreign-born Chinese Democrats also grew about 17% to roughly 1,5000 voters, which isn't surprising in deep-blue San Francisco. But the trend may be changing.

“There has been a steady increase in foreign-born Chinese (Republican) voters in San Francisco,” said Rodney Leong, vice chair of the SFGOP. “We see a spike in registration for the 2020 election followed by growth from 2022 to 2024 during the anti-Asian hate epidemic.”

The data may understate the trend. There may be immigrants born in other parts of Asia, such as Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia, not included in the data. 

But Leong, a Republican Party member on and off since 1998, said he’s seeing a trend of more active Asian immigrants embracing conservative politics. The March 5 primary election is the first time in years, he says, that so many Asian candidates are running for offices.

Among them is Bruce Lou, 26, a Chinese American and political newcomer running against Zeng and Pelosi. He said he joined the Republican Party because he was frustrated with Democrats’ incompetence in handling crimes against Asians.

A crowd of people, mostly elderly with masks, sitting outdoors with a police tent in the background.
Republican Party registration has surged among immigrants from Chinese-speaking countries since the pandemic. | Source: Justin Katigbak for The Standard

Lou received the endorsements of the SFGOP and California GOP in his long-shot congressional bid. He believes a conservative turn in San Francisco led by the Asian community will make a national impact.

“If San Francisco is willing to make a change, if we are willing to turn our back and reject years of failed policies,” Lou said, “I think people are going to take notice of that nationally.”

Similarities with moderate Democrats

Jennifer Yan, an immigrant from Shanghai and an investor in the tech industry, is another first-time Republican candidate.

Yan wants to start her political career at the local Republican party board. She’s running on a slate to challenge the traditional SFGOP members.

“SFGOP hasn’t organized its members well in the past years,” Yan said in Mandarin, “not to mention their non-existent political organizing in the Chinese American community.”

Yan emphasized that as a Republican in San Francisco, she shares similar positions on local issues with many moderate Democrats, such as supporting the recalls of Boudin and school board members in 2022. And she said education and public safety shouldn’t be partisan issues.

A woman smiling at the camera, with a US flag backdrop, wearing a plaid blazer. Partial views of others are seen.
Jennifer Yan, a political newcomer in San Francisco, is looking to start her political career at the local Republican County Central Committee. | Source: Gina Castro/The Standard

Jay Donde, who is leading Yan’s Republican County Central Committee slate, also said the Democratic Party in San Francisco has arrived at a point of complacency and is taking the Asian American community's vote for granted.

“I’ve seen an increasing dissatisfaction among Asian Americans with the Democratic Party,” Donde said. “The far-left policies that have been embraced by the local party present an opportunity for groups like mine and the Republican Party.”

Donde and his slate members believe that San Francisco needs to double its police force to ensure public safety and preserve merit-based admission to the elite Lowell High School, which are positions that they think could be appealing to many Asian Americans.

Democrats’ soul-searching

Given San Francisco's overwhelmingly liberal electorate, it seems unlikely that Republican candidates will enjoy any major success anytime soon. But Asian American Democratic leaders are doing a lot of soul-searching, too.

Wilson Chu, a board member of the moderate-leaning Chinese American Democratic Club, agreed that public safety and education have been issues of concern for the Chinese American community and the far-left politics of the local party has driven away Chinese voters.

But Chu said he’s optimistic about the future of the Democratic Party with Chinese Americans, pointing to the rise of younger Asian American activists.

Members of the Rose Pak Democratic Club, one of the most progressive voices in the city’s Asian American community, say they are not surprised by the right turn of the Asian immigrant community.

Jeremy Lee, a co-president of the club, said since the loss of prominent Chinese American leaders like former mayor Ed Lee, who died in 2017, and power broker Rose Pak, who died in 2016, the city has failed to serve the Chinese community.

A woman speaks into a microphone, a smiling man beside her, with trees and a person in the background.
Rose Pak and Mayor Ed Lee, both prominent Chinese community leaders, died in 2016 and 2017, respectively. | Source: Sonja Och/SFChronicle/Getty Images

“We don't have a Chinese American voice in power to make the city and Democratic Party accountable to the community,” Lee told The Standard. “So some community members are looking for alternatives, other options.”

Still, Lee, who’s running for a seat on the local Democratic party board, pushed back on the narrative that the local Democratic Party is too far left, pointing out that local voters sided with the party on over 30 ballot measures since 2020.

“The moderates are just searching for another boogeyman to blame,” Lee said. “They got their picks for school board and DA. Do residents feel safer? Is SFUSD fixed? Have attacks on seniors stopped? I don’t feel much has improved.”

The wake-up call

Zeng believes there are many Chinese and Asian Americans who are unaware they are conservative or Republican because they just don’t understand the political system.

He thinks that many people in the Chinese and Asian American communities are aligned with conservative values, such as smaller government, free markets and fiscal responsibility, and that more and more Asians are finding their way to the Republican Party.

“Chinese Americans who first moved to San Francisco don't understand it, because they see that a Democratic Party is a large party,” Zeng said. “So they think even if their views are Republican, they have to join the Democratic Party to do anything.”

Zeng tries to emphasize that being a Republican doesn’t mean you are powerless.

“It's not that you have to vote for the Democratic Party to make any political significance,” he said. “When you stand for a Republican Party, that could be a thing in the future.”

A young woman stands in front of a blurred banner with an American flag partially obscuring her face.
A supporter of former Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Elder holds an American flag at a rally in Westminster, California in 2021. | Source: Ringo Chiu/AFP/Getty Images

Jeff Wang, vice mayor of Union City in the East Bay, may be one of the highest-ranking Republican officials in the Bay Area. Wang, a Chinese immigrant, has been active with the community and the party for decades.

“I am glad to see many Chinese Americans are involved in the Republican Party now,” Wang told The Standard in Mandarin. “But we still need to learn how to organize and show our power. We still have a long way to go.”