By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
It took more than 200 years for the White House to formally recognize Lunar New Year since the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants in 1785. The Jan. 26 event was historic, extraordinary, and strategic on multiple levels.
“This is not my house, but yours, your house,” said President Joe Biden.
“It’s such a special moment for Asian Americans to be recognized. It’s our time,” said Jeffrey Roh—one of the four local Asian American leaders invited to the event. Roh, the CEO of IntuitiveX, is an avid Democrat supporter and donor. He once hosted a fundraiser for now-Vice President Kamala Harris.
“Jill (First Lady) and I are honored to welcome you to the first Lunar New Year Reception of this scale held in the White House—your home,” said Biden. “This is your home…This is the People’s House…Jill and I are very temporary residents in this home,” eliciting laughter among guests.
The celebration was not the kind of event that many would have anticipated. Roh had been at the White House before, and there was little fanfare. I have also visited the White House twice, and witnessed no decorations, even for special honorees. It’s common knowledge that the White House decorates for Christmas in December and rarely on other occasions. For Lunar New Year, we wondered what kind of format the White House would employ for cultural appropriateness.
What would be the other significant implications for the celebration? And would the president seize the moment by mentioning the recent shootings in Los Angeles and Half Moon Bay—or would he just wish the community good fortune in light of new year traditions? Who were the 100-plus invited guests? And who would Biden single out in the spotlight besides his own people?
The White House was completely transformed. A festive red-and-gold theme, fans and lanterns were designed in one of the rooms. A towering floral arrangement on an antique vase welcomed guests at the entry. In line with Asian traditions, “fortune,” the Chinese character, was elegantly printed in gold on red paper top to bottom on a mural hanging on stage. Watch on YouTube and you realize that the Biden administration had invested diligently to make everything memorable.
”They dressed it up to make us feel welcome,” said Roh, “a community coming together for an elaborate Lunar New Year celebration. It’s a special and important moment in our history.”
The program began not with the typical flamboyant entry music, “Hail to the Chief,” for Biden and First Lady Jill Biden entering the room, but in soft classical music style. The first couple was accompanied by an Asian American leader, Elaine Tso of Ohio, who later introduced the president.
The opening speaker was Jill Biden, dressed in a classy Asian floral design of red, yellow, and purple, matching her gold bracelets, gold chain necklace, and diamond earrings, a custom during Lunar New Year for good luck. Instantly, the First Lady mentioned the shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay—breaking from tradition to avoid talking about death and grief during Lunar New Year. Comforting families and the community being affected, she said, “Today, as we are meant to celebrate, our joy has been shattered by two horrifying mass shootings this week…our prayers are with the family of those lost…we grieve with broken hearts alongside every member of this community.”
The president echoed Dr. Biden’s words about the shootings, but focused on teachable moments, and especially the hero of the shooting at Half Moon Bay. He said he spoke with Brandon Tsay, “a genuine hero, a 26-year-old whose family has owned a dance studio for some time.” Instead of worrying that he would be killed facing the man holding a pistol, Biden praised “Tsai’s courage to act, charged the gunman, wrestled him to the ground, and took away his semiautomatic pistol from him. The guy just shot and killed 11 people and wounded several more.
“Think about this profoundly. Someone shooting has a semi-automatic pistol aimed at you and you think about others.”
Biden considered canceling the event and going instead to California to be with the community. But Congressmember Judy Chu said no. Chu was once the mayor of Monterey Park, where the shootings occurred, and now represents the district.
He said, Chu’s message was “‘Don’t give into fear and sorrow…Stand in solidarity in the spirit of toughness that this holiday is all about.”
What Biden said next was just as surprising!
“Lunar New Year offers an opportunity to acknowledge the many ways you’ve enriched this country through diversity of culture, the breadth of achievements including a record number of Oscar nominations that were announced this week—and that are long overdue.”
Then, he quickly noted, “I know nothing about entertainment. But I know when people are picked that is best.” These statements reflect his sensitivity towards our community that Asian Americans have often been overlooked not only in the entertainment industry, but many other fields, and the fact that Asian Americans have not been given the opportunities for upward mobility that they deserve.
Of all the stars in the room, Biden acknowledged Nathan Chen, three-time world champion figure skater, and asked him to come on stage; and Katherine Tai, daughter of Taiwanese immigrant parents and the first Asian American woman of color to serve as U.S. Trade Representative.
In one unparalleled act, Biden touched on Asian Americans in politics, sports, business, entertainment, and courage against gun violence—reflecting the breadth of contributions and capacities of the Asian community. His recognition of us in the national spotlight, will shape the new perspectives of the greater society towards Asian Americans. His Lunar New Year reception would be momentous as well as consequential.
Not long ago, former president Donald Trump made fun of the Asian community through words like “Kung flu” and “China virus.” Now, Biden’s administration has helped to implement the Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act to counter anti-Asian hate crimes.
Biden warned that the community shouldn’t let the attacks on elderly immigrants go unreported.
“Silence is complicity. We cannot be silent. I will not be silent. Ban assault weapons.”
What percentage of Asian Americans Pacific Islanders serve in his administration? “13.7%,” he said rhetorically. “The next highest was 7%. That’s why the hell I’m doing so well right now.”
And Biden was strategic in inviting some of the most powerful and nationally-recognized Asian American leaders in the room—a setup for his re-election if he decides to run for a second term. The other Washingtonians in attendance were Taylor Hoang, Katherine Cheng, and Sam Cho, president of the Port of Seattle Commissioners and also the youngest and first person of color in that position.
A lion dance was performed at the end of the speeches. A reception of appetizers and drinks were served. Most of the finger food was Western-style, except maybe two items, fried wonton and potstickers.
President Obama did have a proclamation in 2015 with a video message recognizing Lunar New Year. Biden’s White House hosting the new year party was a first.
Hoang, Amazon’s Senior Manager of Community Engagement, called the reception “beautiful, thoughtful, and inclusive. It was great to have the president and Dr. Biden acknowledge the tragedies in California.”
“It was such an incredible experience,” said Cheng, Seattle Mariners’ Vice President. She has worked for former Gov. Gary Locke, and former presidents Clinton, Gore, Obama, and Biden, planning trips for the White House. Recently, she staffed Biden’s trip to London for the Queen’s funeral, Israel, and Rome. For her to compliment the event as an insider reveals how wondrous the reception truly was.
As Tso said, “[It’s] the most celebrated holiday by Asians across the world. It means so much to the Asian American community that the White House is hosting this first-ever Lunar New Year event. Because of it…we feel seen, we feel heard. …we feel valued and acknowledged as members of this amazing country that welcomes and supports a vibrant community—from diverse origins.”
The Chinese first immigrated to the U.S. in 1785 with three Chinese crewmen arriving in San Francisco. The immigration ended abruptly in 1886 as a result of the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act; thus, continuing and perpetuating cycles of racism to this day for the unjust reason that Asian Americans were considered “foreigners.” What a remarkable journey for Asian Americans in 2023 to finally be greeted into the White House in the welcoming presence of the U.S. president and first lady amidst appreciation and validation.
“Nobody paid us any attention a decade ago,” said Roh. “Now, we are politically more powerful…We are part of this country.”
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.