By Jay Kim
The second Tuesday of November 1992 was Election Day in America. Polling stations in the U.S. are usually open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., and are set up in public places that can be easily found and accessed, such as schools or private homes.
Campaigning usually stops on the day of election, since it’s forbidden to disseminate campaign materials within a quarter mile (402 meters) of a polling station.
My campaign for a seat in the House was over. All I had left to do was to wait. Early that morning, I went to church alone and prayed quietly to myself. Now all I could do was to wait for the results of the election between myself, the Republican candidate, and the Democratic candidate Bob Baker.
I won that day by a decisive margin (60 percent to 30 percent). Suddenly, in front of hundreds of volunteers and numerous reporters, I had become a hero in the history of American politics. More than two dozen reporters representing Korea, China, Japan, and Taiwan had come to report on my election.
But when they asked me for my thoughts, I found myself at a loss for words. Had I really become a U.S. Congressman? The thought hadn’t really hit me yet. I managed to thank my campaign staff and volunteers for their devotion to my cause, but couldn’t think of anything else to say.
The following story comes from while I was still a Congressman-elect, waiting until the new session of Congress on Jan. 3 of the following year to take my oath of office and become an official Congressman.
There are three groups of Chinese in the U.S. ― those from the China mainland, those from Taiwan, and those from Hong Kong. A translator is needed for communication from the Taiwanese and the Hong Kong folk, since Mandarin is spoken in Taiwan and Cantonese is spoken in Hong Kong. At the time, mainlanders did not have much presence in the U.S.
Those from Hong Kong were concentrated in northern California (near San Francisco), and those from Taiwan were concentrated in southern California, where I lived. There is a Taiwanese town next to Diamond Bar (where I had been mayor), where many successful Taiwanese businessmen had taken residence.
One day, five Taiwanese-Chinese who had helped my campaign visited me and suggested I visit Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Beijing with them, on the invitation of then-Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui.
They brought an invitation from Lee with them. I accepted the invitation, and a week later I was in Taiwan with half a dozen of my Chinese supporters. It was the first time in my life that I’d received such great red-carpet hospitality.
I felt like a superstar, surrounded by scores of welcoming dignitaries and reporters in the airport. I soon learned that there’s hardly a country that lobbies as much as Taiwan does in the U.S., second only to Israel. On my way to a restaurant for dinner, I was ushered to my destination by a police escort. That is the level at which Taiwan treats foreign dignitaries.
Neither Korea nor the U.S. recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation, treating it instead as a part of China. Taiwan, for this reason, clings to the U.S. diplomatically, allowing its people to lead economically comfortable lives.
During that time, there was a major conflict between those who wanted Taiwan recognized as part of China and those who wanted to claim Taiwan’s independence. This was a serious conflict, occasionally literally becoming a life-or-death scenario when one Taiwanese American was beaten to death in San Francisco over a particularly heated debate.
Even in my district of California, there was a violent incident between the two sides. I became distressed over which side I should be on, knowing that whichever side I took I would instantly create a host of enemies.
Because it’s the U.S.’s policy to acknowledge a unified China, I took the pro-China side. I also figured that Taiwan would be absorbed by China eventually, and that it would be politically wise to side with the larger power.
As expected, on one hand, the “Taiwan Independence Newspaper” attacked me constantly; on the other, I became liked in China for my stance.
I did not think at the time that China would become the economic power as it is today; after all, at the time there were rumors that China would be divided into five independent nations (China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Kwantung). Now that I think about it, this was sheer nonsense.
I visited Taiwan for a second time the following year, this time with House Speaker Newt Gingrich. I still remember President Lee’s look of disappointment as he said that it was Korea, the first nation recognized Taiwan as a part of China, severing their diplomatic ties with Taiwan.
This was during a time when this small island country dominated world trade and products stamped with “Made in Taiwan” were virtually everywhere. After two days in Taiwan, where I found that the island had very few places for sightseeing, I arrived in Hong Kong, in those days still a British colony.
In 1997, 155 years after England annexed Hong Kong in 1842, I was invited as a representative of the U.S. Congress with Gingrich to the ceremony for the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from the U.K. to China.
The British attending the ceremony cried as they sang “God Save the Queen” and the British flag was slowly lowered, and there were cheers outside from the Chinese welcoming the independence of Hong Kong.
It was agreed that Hong Kong would have a certain degree of autonomy from China as “one country, two systems” for 50 years, until 2047. Every influential man in Hong Kong was at the ceremony. It was strange in that these men distinguished people mainly by their wealth (i.e. their monetary assets, how many buildings they owned, etc.) when they introduced themselves to me.
After a long period of colonization, it seemed as though they could not help doing this, because there was no way for them to move up in the colony’s government. I thought this was a shame.
In fact, I could feel their envy in the way they looked at me, a foreign student from Korea that became a U.S. Congressman. They may as well have thought it was the same as if they’d moved to the U.K. and become a member of the British Parliament.
Somehow, I felt flattered by this idea. I spent two dreamy days in Hong Kong, feeling like I was floating above the clouds.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Washington Korean-American Forum. For more information, visit Kim’s website (www.jayckim.com).