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Politics & Policy

These Chinese American immigrant moms want to take over San Francisco politics

A woman is kneeling, tying the belt of a child in a blue judo uniform, both smiling in a dojo with gear on shelves.
Sharon Lai puts a belt on her son at a jujitsu class. She is one of the three Chinese American immigrant moms running for San Francisco supervisors. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Sharon Lai knows how difficult it is to be a working mom while running for office in San Francisco.

“I don't think that there is ever a true balance,” Lai said about spending time between work, life and politics. “This is at the sacrifice of my family. It’s about constant prioritization.”

Lai is one of three Chinese American immigrant mothers—along with Connie Chan and Chyanne (Xiao Yan) Chen—who will run for San Francisco's Board of Supervisors to represent three different districts with large Asian American populations, while raising families and kids in this notoriously childless city.

With Chinese representation declining sharply in San Francisco politics over the past decade, Chan, Chen and Lai, who are all in their late 30s or 40s, believe they can reverse the trend by getting more Chinese female immigrant voices on the board. All considered more progressive in the city’s political spectrum, they may even endorse one another, form a slate and campaign together—though they say it’s too early for a full commitment.

A woman serves dim sum at a busy restaurant table where a child looks on eagerly. Cups of tea and various Chinese dishes abound.
Chyanne Chen, center, enjoys dim sum with her daughter and family friends at Riverside Seafood Restaurant on Feb. 25. Chen is running for the Board of Supervisors District 11 seat. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“We have a lot in common, and we are also very different,” Chan said. “We can still find ways to work together.”

Who are they?

Lai, Chan and Chen all immigrated to North America around middle school age—young enough to assimilate into American culture, but old enough to retain fluent Chinese and be fully bicultural.

Chan, who was born in Hong Kong and went to elementary school in Taiwan, is the incumbent supervisor running for reelection in District 1, which covers the Richmond District. With a large Asian population and many Chinese-owned businesses, the neighborhood is considered a “second Chinatown.” 

Lai, a former San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board member appointed by Mayor London Breed, is an outspoken public safety activist with some moderates supporting her. She is running in District 3 to represent Chinatown, Nob Hill, North Beach and the downtown area. Raised in Hong Kong, she later moved to Canada and Shanghai before settling in the U.S.

Chen, a progressive labor union leader active in national Chinese American groups, is vying for the southwestern District 11 seat, which has the largest Asian and Pacific Islander percentage among all the supervisorial districts. She’s from Guangzhou and moved to San Francisco at the age of 15.

A crowd with "FIX OUR CITY" signs at a protest, a child in a soccer shirt looks forward.
Supervisor Connie Chan, center, and her son Edo Marsullo attend a labor union rally in San Francisco on Feb. 16. | Source: Courtesy San Francisco Labor Council

All three of them face tough races as progressive candidates are seeing a major defeat in the March primary.

Chan, who is fighting to secure a seat on the Democratic County Central Committee, is facing off for the second time against moderate Democrat Marjan Philhour, who's leading in the same DCCC race. Since redistricting brought wealthy enclaves like Sea Cliff into District 1, it’s seen as less progressive.

Lai has multiple opponents, including nonprofit executive Danny Sauter, who ran for the District 3 seat four years ago and received 40% of the votes. Chen has low citywide name recognition, and current District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí endorsed her opponent, Ernest “EJ” Jones.

No ‘tiger moms’

Despite packed schedules, the candidates are putting their mom roles first. Lai takes her first-grader son to jujitsu class on Saturdays. Chan often brings her 11-year-old to family-friendly community events, while Chen always has a Sunday play date routine with her teenage daughter.

All three of the women say they are not “tiger moms,” a stereotype of Chinese mothers that emphasizes strict parenting with high expectations around school grades and extracurricular performance.

A woman hugs a joyful child at a sunny park, with others and houses in the background.
Chyanne Chen plays with her daughter at Carl Larsen Park on Feb. 25. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

“My husband’s the tiger dad, so I don’t need to be a tiger mom,” Chen joked in Chinese. “I can play a nice mom.”

Lai also joked that her husband's quite disappointed that she “turned out not to be a tiger mom,” but she explained that she personally struggled with high expectations and overvaluing stability in her traditional Asian upbringing.

“I want [my kids] to challenge me, ask questions and come up with their own solutions,” Lai talked about her philosophy of raising children. “We need to break that mode.”

But Chan said she could be a bit more strict, maintaining high expectations of her son in many ways.

“You need to be great in your academics but also in your social development,” Chan said. “Getting A’s is not good enough. I also need you to be a good human being.”

Chinese representation

At the Chinese New Year parade, three moms gathered at the grandstand for a photo for The Standard, indicating strong sisterhood and political allyship. Chen’s campaign is still in the very early phase, as she announced last Thursday, and Chan has already endorsed Lai.

Three smiling women in traditional attire stand behind a railing against a festive backdrop.
From left, Chyanne Chen, Connie Chan and Sharon Lai pose for a photo at the Chinese New Year Parade in San Francisco on Feb. 24. | Source: Han Li/The Standard

“We are all trying to raise a family and make a living here in San Francisco,” Chen said, highlighting the similar immigration experiences that had taught them the spirit of hard work and navigating through hardships.

Mabel Teng, a former supervisor in the ’90s and also a Chinese immigrant, said that she was fearless at the time, so she decided to run for supervisor. She sees the same quality in the three moms now running.

“You fear nothing. You are not too concerned about what people say and think,” Teng said, “but you believe in representation, and you believe that you can do it.”

Teng also acknowledged the difficulties of being an Asian immigrant mom in politics. Mothers are expected to be at home, put the children first, get food on the table and do homework with them.

“It’s tough,” Teng said. “It’s a lot of balancing act.”

As the only current Chinese supervisor, Chan said that she felt “a lot of pressure” representing the community. She hopes more Chinese immigrants on the board will add more diverse voices, although the three moms running in November share broadly similar political ideologies.

“I don't speak for everyone. We are so diverse, and we are not monolithic,” Chan said. “Are three of us exactly the same as people? No. Do we have exactly the same politics? Also, no.”

A woman exits a Jiu Jitsu studio onto a rainy street, with a child peeking from inside.
Sharon Lai walks her son to jujitsu class in San Francisco on Feb. 17. Lai is running to replace Aaron Peskin, who terms out next January, for the District 3 seat on the Board of Supervisors. | Source: Jason Henry for The Standard

Lai agreed, saying she respects them as women leaders of color and looks forward to teaming up.

But Chan, nearly four years in office, advised the moms that San Francisco politics can get ugly and too personal. 

“I’m just a bit more private about my family and their lives now,” she said. “I think that people are aggressive and toxic.”