Oral Histories

Interview of Lily Lee Chen

Immigrant from Taiwan. City council member and mayor of Monterey Park, California. First female Chinese American mayor in the United States.
Suburban Chinatown: Chinese American Business and Political Leaders in the San Gabriel Valley
Asian American History
Biographical Note:
Immigrant from Taiwan. City council member and mayor of Monterey Park, California. First female Chinese American mayor in the United States.
Cline, Alex
Chen, Lily Lee
Persons Present:
Chen and Cline.
Place Conducted:
Chen's home in Monterey Park, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, series coordinator, UCLA Library's Center for Oral History Research; musician. Cline prepared for the interview by studying biographical information supplied by the interviewee.
Processing of Interview:
The interviewer prepared a timed log of the audio recording of the interview. Chen was given the opportunity to review the log in order to supply missing or misspelled names and to verify the accuracy of the content. Those corrections were entered into the text without further editing or review on the part of the Center for Oral History Research (COHR) staff. The original audio for session 5, which took place on 10/22/2015, was lost, the session that is published is a redo.
6.75 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The Suburban Chinatown series focuses on political and business leaders in the San Gabriel Valley who came to the U.S. in the post-1965 wave of Asian immigration after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished the quota system based on national origins. The series was undertaken as a collaborative effort between the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research and the American East Asian Cultural and Educational Foundation (AEACEF). AEACEF recommended the majority of the individuals interviewed and introduced the interviewer to the narrators. Many of the narrators are also featured in the AEACEF’s book Thirty Years of Chinese American Immigration in Southern California.
Early life in Tianjin, China—Father’s involvement with the Kuo Min Tang (KMT) and subsequent arrest, jailing, and torture by the Japanese—Father’s escape from prison—Family’s fleeing via boat from communist Tenjin to Taiwan in 1949 due to father’s KMT affiliations—Reflections on relationship with now deceased parents—Shared background with husband Paul Chen—Relationship with religion and mortality—Reflections on family’s politics—Relationship with sisters—Differences between life in Taiwan and life in China—Thoughts on the different groups of Chinese immigrants in the United States.
Immigration to United States as a student in Taiwan—Travels abroad via U.S. State Department’s Youth Leaders Training Program—Death of mother—Job broadcasting bilingually on the America Today radio program—Studies at San Francisco State University—Decision to study social welfare—Meeting husband Paul Chen—Marriage and birth of two children—Receiving master’s degree in social work from University of Washington—Reflections on politics of the 1960s and the shaping of personal beliefs—Relocation to Huntington Beach, California—Employment as a social worker for Los Angeles County and subsequent promotion to administrator for the Asian Pacific social welfare program—Early involvement in the Asian American community—Participation in National Conference on Families in 1980 and appointment to President Jimmy Carter’s Advisory Committee on Adult Education—Assessment of work ethic—Relocation to Monterey Park—Involvement in local government and election as mayor of Monterey Park—Thoughts on the publicity around being the first Chinese American female mayor in the United States—Appointment to the East West Center in Hawai’i by President Bill Clinton—Involvement with the Democratic Party.
Decision to adopt Western names for herself and family—Decision to seek second run for Monterey Park City Council—Anti-Asian hostility in white Monterey Park neighborhoods—Further reflections on initial losses and later mayoral win—Chen's on-going focus on promoting racial harmony—Attempts to create new voters amongst immigrant population—Publicity surrounding mayoral win—Successful campaign to host the 1984 Olympics in Monterey Park—The Chinese community’s involvement in the 1984 Olympics—Tensions resulting from influx of Chinese developers in Monterey Park—Tensions related to continued commitment to English as a Second Language (ESL) education and bilingual resources—Further reflections on appointment to the East West Center in Hawai’i—Lifetime achievement award from the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs (APAPA) association.
Review of Monterey Park City Council run—Tensions facing Chinese immigrant population attributed to influx of Chinese developers—Impact of changing demographics of Monterey Park—Father’s relationship with her political career—Feelings of distraction and wasted time during stint as mayor—Reflections on present-day politics in Monterey Park—Reflections on the suspicion surrounding Chinese immigrants in the United States—Being voted out of office and resolve to continue working for her goals outside of formal political channels—Relationships with up-and-coming Asian American politicians—More on appointment by President Carter—Honors from the Anti-Defamation League—Tensions between Koreans and African Americans following the civil unrest of 1992—Relationship with Japanese Americans—Commitment to being positive despite adversity—Current state of Chinese American immigrant population in the San Gabriel Valley—Plans for making a difference in her remaining active years—Lifetime Achievement award from APAPAA
Learning from political engagement—Empowerment through networking—Social work vs. public office—Using her heritage to help others—Pushing bilingual workers—Using broadcasting and communications background—Mentoring someone running for public office—Scapegoating and intolerance toward immigrants—Obligation towards new immigrants—Sharing Confucius and ethical foundation of Chinese culture with children and staff--Views on presidential candidates and the democratic process—Long established Chinese immigrants and newer Chinese immigrants--Potential devastation of a war between the U.S. and China—Stereotyping of Chinese immigrants—Benefits of global movement of Chinese scientists and scholars—Sharing her story