Chinese-American Chris Miao Takes On Menchaca

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The sun is hot and heavy on crowds outside of TenRen’s Tea & Ginseng Co, 5817 8th Ave in the heart of Sunset Park’s bustling Chinatown.

Inside, Chris Miao sits at a low counter, a cold almond milk tea in his hand. Gold canisters labeled in Chinese line the shelves and employees prepare bubble tea. Raising his voice to compete with the chatter of customers and the whirring of blenders, Miao recalls the first time he participated in city civics.

TenRen’s Tea & Ginseng Co., in the heart of Sunset Park’s bustling Chinatown. Photo by Phoebe Taylor Vuolo

“In high school I had my first exposure to politics. I was a volunteer to register voters in Flushing for [former City Comptroller] John Liu, when he was running for city council,” said Miao. “And I didn’t even know what City Council was then, I was just like ‘It looks good on a resume, I’ll do it.’”

Now Miao is running for City Council, up against incumbent City Council member Carlos Menchaca (D-Sunset Park, Red Hook), former council member Sara Gonzalez, and State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz, among others, vying to represent District 38. Miao says he is confident in his qualifications and perspective, especially when it comes to the large Chinese-American population in the district.

“I wouldn’t run if I didn’t think I had a chance of actually winning and holding the seat and representing the community,” Miao explained. “It would just be a waste of everybody’s time.”

When Miao and his partner Godfrey Lee opened a law firm in Manhattan’s Chinatown in 2011, they received support from local City Council members, business owners, and association leaders. He said that this experience, as well as working with the Chinese Hotel Association, gave him insight into city politics. But it was the result of the presidential election in November that got him into the City Council race.

“On the local scale you definitely have to be willing to make policies and get more and more people involved,” Miao said.

Chris Miao meets with a voter.

Miao says that he would like to work on alleviating traffic and overcrowding in the area. In addition, 38 percent of the district’s residents are Asian, 89 percent of whom are Chinese, and so Miao wants to work with the challenges unique to immigrants and first generation communities that are a large part of the district. 

“A lot of the voters, citizens, constituents in this Chinese area, they don’t speak English, or English is not their primary language,” said Miao. “So if we have someone who is not a Chinese-American communicating with the area, the message is not going to get through.”

Miao was born in Shanghai and came to the United States at the age of five. He argues that in addition to assisting constituents who struggle with the language barrier, it’s important to give local children the resources they need, extending after school programs and funding prep programs for children.

“I think the biggest challenge growing up was trying to learn English on my own while my parents worked a full schedule,” Miao said. “For each immigrant community, it’s the same struggles. Having time for your children, that’s the biggest struggle for every community.”

According to a 2015 NYC Community Health Profile, 47 percent of Sunset Park residents are foreign-born. In addition to the large Chinese-American population, 44 percent of the neighborhood is Hispanic. Menchaca was the first Mexican-American elected to the council. Each candidate is faced with reconciling the needs of a demographically split district.

Miao hopes to bring the district together, and argues that the first step is to reach out to each enclave through educational forums meant to inform voters about services available to all constituents.  

“Educating the population, not just the Chinese American population, the entire district of what’s available to them,” said Miao. “Just so they understand what it is that a city council member does. Some people have no idea at all.”

Miao says that his favorite thing about the district is 8th Avenue, citing the vibrant Chinese tea shops and food carts selling Chinese pork buns and rice dishes, as well as the Hispanic part of the neighborhood a train stop away. He says that his knowledge of law and real estate, coupled with a “fresh perspective,” makes him uniquely suited to support the district.

“We could affect a lot of change, and keep the various communities alive as well,” said Miao, waving around the busy tea shop to add: “I’d rather have this than a Starbucks.”