Yuh-Line Niou Is Fighting For Chinatown’s Survival
The first Asian-American woman to represent Chinatown in New York’s legislature is facing an existential crisis and fighting for justice for all.
The sound of ambulances just outside my apartment is disrupting my Zoom conversation with Yuh-Line Niou, the New York State Assemblywoman representing Manhattan’s 65th District. It’s early April, and I’ve been hearing the sirens for weeks. Soon, I’ll learn that in the nursing home a few blocks away 55 people died of Covid-19 in March alone. The steady repetition of sirens have just become more background noise, like the episode of Sesame Street I’ve put on to distract my one-year-old daughter while I talk to Niou. I never would have conducted an interview with my daughter playing at my side before, but things are different now.
The 36-year-old Niou, the first Asian-American Assemblywoman in Manhattan, and the first Asian-American legislator that Chinatown has ever had, fully grasps this inflection point in our country. Her district, which has the largest income disparity in the state of New York, includes the Lower East Side, Battery Park City, and the Financial District, but no neighborhood has been as radically devastated by the spread of COVID-19 as Chinatown.
“A lot of our small businesses started to see a decline of almost 50% of their sales as early as January. So we're literally two months ahead of everyone on the economic downturn of this virus,” she says. “And in my district, the racism, the xenophobia, and the hate-mongering of the President and members of Congress go hand in hand with the economics.”
Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Niou is a passionate advocate for her constituents, a grass-roots organizer, and a woman who pulled off a surprise victory in the insular male-dominated world of politics. Elected in 2016, she is one of a group of hard-left-leaning Democrats who defeated incumbents in both primaries and general elections in 2018, flipping New York’s State Senate and Assembly. Within this group, many are women, many are people of color, and all of them are broadly united by the idea that poverty is a failure of government, a cycle perpetuated by bad policy, cronyism, and a lack of diversity — both economic and racial — among decision makers. They’ve faced pushback from Republicans and Democrats alike in Albany and been dismissed as “progressive,” a coded way of calling them “radical” and “socialist.”
We first met in late January for breakfast in her district, a month-and-a-half before New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a mandate closing most public spaces because of the pandemic. Niou had texted me that she was running a few minutes behind, but she arrived just moments later in an all-black outfit I instantly envied: a fitted coat over a dramatically flared midi skirt. She looked like a fashion-conscious, semi-retired superhero.
“I’m so sorry!” she said, out of breath but smiling, and eager to begin our conversation. Niou ordered tea and an egg dish, and as we ate we discussed the realities of being an Asian-American woman in the New York State Assembly.
“Government is not built for people like me,” she said with a shrug. "I think that we can change it so that it's built for anybody to run someday. We’re lucky enough here in New York to have had people like Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug. We're lucky enough to have the women who were willing to run despite the odds. This place wasn't built for us, but we're going to build it differently now for other people who are going to come after us.”
When she’s in Albany, Niou shares an apartment with State Senators Alessandra Biaggi, who represents parts of the Bronx and Westchester, and State Senator Julia Salazar who represents the 18th district of Brooklyn. The three women are colleagues and friends, and the living arrangement makes Albany less alienating for them all.
"This place wasn't built for us, but we're going to build it differently now for other people who are going to come after us.”
“We have some younger women and women of color that really get together,” said Niou. “We're very supportive of one another, and I think that it's powerful, because I was very lonely up in Albany. I didn't have a lot of peers. Diana Richardson [Assemblymember for Brooklyn’s 43rd district] and I are very close. Obviously, of course, there's Alessandra, Julia, and Jessica [Ramos, a State Senator for Queens] that were able to come in and switch up the Senate in a lot of ways.”
That solidarity and support became very clear when the legislature met in January of 2019 to discuss The Child Victims Act, which extends the length of time that victims of sexual abuse have to file civil and criminal cases. When it was her time to address the Assembly, Niou gave a raw and emotional account of the sexual abuse she’d endured when she was 13. About the teacher who abused her, she said, "I can still smell him."
What Niou didn’t know at the time was that three other legislators would also be discussing their experiences with abuse. In the Assembly, Rodneyse Bichotte of Brooklyn and Catalina Cruz of Queens gave powerful and personal testimony in support of the bill. In the Senate chamber, Biaggi was doing the same thing. The bill, which had languished for years in the Republican-controlled legislature, finally passed.
Though Niou’s current fight for the survival of her district is a response to the pandemic, combatting racism and financial disenfranchisement are nothing new to her. Born in Taiwan, she and her family emigrated to the U.S. when she was a toddler. She moved around as a child, from Idaho to Texas and then Washington state. At one point, she was the only Asian-American student at her school, until her younger sister enrolled.
“As a kid, I thought everything that other people were doing was normal, and everything my family did, because it was different, must not be normal,” Niou told me at our first meeting. “There’s a power differential that I didn't even realize I had internalized as a child: Whatever is not white is ‘other.’ It was just like, PB&Js and Wonder Bread and a thermos with soup is normal, and then my leftover Chinese food that everybody is making fun of as ‘worms’ is wrong.”
Niou began working within the Washington State Legislature after she graduated from Evergreen College, first as a legislative aide and then for an anti-poverty advocacy group. Her focus there was on predatory financial products, like payday loans and check cashers who target communities of color and low income areas that traditional banks have failed to serve. In addition to her political work she was a karaoke hostess, and, as an ally of sex work decriminalization, she made the daytime stripper mix at the (now defunct) Lusty Lady — the first unionized and worker-run co-operative strip club in the country.
Niou came to New York City to pursue a Master’s degree at the City University of New York’s Baruch College. Her first job in her new home was as a bartender at the beloved (and recently reopened) Chinatown karaoke bar Winnie’s, where she served up red punch and chatted with her customers. Soon, though, she was recruited by Assemblymember Ron Kim to run his re-election campaign in Flushing, Queens. The two had met briefly at an Asian Americans For Equality conference and he was impressed with her legislative and policy experience.
After Kim was elected, Niou served as his chief of staff, and was stunned by the casual racism they faced from other members of the legislature. “We walked into the chambers and somebody ran up to [Kim]. He’s our colleague, a nice man, but he just ran up to Ron and was like, ‘Do you dance Gangnam Style?’ Then he said to me, ‘Congratulations on winning Congress,’ because he thought I was [New York Congresswoman] Grace Meng. I was like…” she trails off, rolling her eyes.
“I was like, ‘Why would I run for a seat?’ I think a lot of women, a lot of young people, and people of color especially, we just don't think that’s something we should do.”
Niou worked with Kim in the legislature for four years, while it was still under Republican control. It was a firsthand lesson in being an outsider working to change things from within the system. This was made clear when she was recruited to run for ousted State Assemblyman Sheldon Silver’s seat. Silver had been voted into the Assembly in 1977 and became Speaker in 1994, a position he maintained until 2015, when he was arrested on charges of corruption and extortion. Silver was an old school, quid-pro-quo New York Democrat, and at first Niou thought the suggestion that she run as his replacement — or even at all — was ridiculous.
“I was like, ‘Why would I run for a seat?’ I think a lot of women, a lot of young people, and people of color especially, we just don't think that’s something we should do.”
But she did run. In an April 2016 special election against Alice Cancel, a Silver ally, Niou lost. Though devastated, she was urged by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer to run again in the regular 2016 election. After winning a crowded primary contest where she defeated Cancel, Niou took the general election with 67% of the vote.
What constituents, colleagues, and friends seem to admire most about Niou personally is her kindness and enthusiasm. When we met for breakfast, she was immediately warm and friendly, with an expressive face and loud laugh. She rarely broke eye contact and spoke with an openness that’s rare in a politician. Early in our conversation, Niou told me she’s on the autism spectrum.
“Really?” I ask. I’m aware of the concept of neurodiversity and know that the autism spectrum is wide, varied, and certainly doesn’t only present as a lack of empathy. But I was surprised by Niou’s candor.
“Obviously!” she said. “I see everything in my life as cause and effect. When I was a kid, I would wonder, ‘Why does that kid have so many friends? Why is it that when they talk like this, they get that result? It was like going down a million roads. That's how my brain works, and it works like that on policy, too.”
State Senator Biaggi, Niou’s colleague and housemate, was effusive about Niou, telling me, “I think that her emotional intelligence coupled with her very smart way of understanding issues and the really pointed way she asks a question is an effective and powerful tactic. Because, in the end, what we’re really trying to do is represent our constituents.
“There’s just no wall with her. I think that a lot of people we work with have walls or a public facade. But she understands that showing up how you are is the essence of what it means to be a public servant. And that’s the only thing that is going to transform the system.”
When we finished eating, we took a cab to the Manny Cantor Center where Niou was hosting a town hall on the issues that matter most to her constituency: actually affordable and supportive housing, senior services and healthcare, education, financial options for the unbanked, environmental protections, and civil rights, immigration, and social justice. Her district is composed of nearly 40% people of Asian descent, and many of them are elderly and require home care and nursing homes — that care has become particularly difficult during this pandemic.
As we walked through the door, Niou was flooded with people. Some just wanted to say hello and hug her. Some wanted to discuss their issues with the New York City Housing Authority — one woman, in tears, said she’d been without heat for months. The Assemblywoman stopped for all of them, effortlessly switching between fluent Mandarin and English, as she listened and responded. When Niou finally took the mic, she expressed her gratitude for her community. “I just want to thank everyone for being here and let everyone know they’ll have a chance to be heard. There’s breakfast in the back — and, personally, I love that it’s a mix of bagels and dim sum!”
Niou was in her element, among the people she’d been elected to serve. The happiness on her face was so honest, so undisguised, that she managed to turn a series of PowerPoint presentations into a hopeful celebration of what politics can actually accomplish.
Compared to the lively scene in January, our Zoom conversation this spring is deeply sober. Albany has halted the session because of the pandemic and Niou is quarantined in her Financial District home with her partner and their dog. Governor Cuomo — enjoying a moment of unprecedented popularity — is using his executive power to push through an austerity budget that will cut $400 million in hospital spending, deny true rent relief, reallocates NYCHA funding intended for crucial repairs, and rolls back bail reform at a time when thousands of inmates are in jail on minor infractions are being diagnosed with Covid-19.
I ask Niou about the budget, which she and many of her progressive allies in the legislature oppose. She pauses to collect her thoughts. “Right now it's really important that we have leaders in place that can handle a crisis, because we don’t have that at the federal level,” she says. “But I also think that we really need to make sure that we’re not playing into a political equation when we're talking about survival. But we know this governor. And Cuomo’s gonna Cuomo.”
Niou believes that this willingness to embrace racism, to use it in place of intellectual thought or even scientific study — we now know, for instance, that most cases of Covid-19 in New York came from Europe and not China — is a tool that politicians will use when it suits them. Cuomo has emphatically denounced xenophobia and there is no reason to disbelieve his sincerity, but many of his policies, and certainly the cuts in his budget, will further disenfranchise her most vulnerable constituents, many of them Chinese.
In the meantime, Niou and her staff personally make calls to her tens of thousands of constituents, checking in and arranging for meal delivery. Niou has appealed to her family in Taiwan to send her masks that she then gives out to residents. “Our community is just trying to survive. This is about survival,” she says.
I hear a wobble in her voice; she looks down at her kitchen table. “That's why it's so hurtful when people say racist things and do racist things. My good friend, a nurse on the frontlines of this, was called a chink. People are being told, ‘You're the reason this happened.’ One of my constituents, a delivery person, brought food to somebody and the man who ordered it opened the door and spit in his face.”
She puts it simply, “I don’t understand why you would make bad policy when you could make good policy.”
There are tears now. She wipes them away. Niou is up for reelection this year, but she’s put off any formal fundraising for the time being. It’s secondary, she tells me, to being out in her community, making sure people are getting by. Because of the analytical way in which Niou sees things, because of the human impact she can immediately sense, she can clearly see the outcome of certain short-sighted policy positions. It seems hard for Niou to live in a moment when people seem more ready than ever before to embrace progressive ideas (after all, prison reform, universal healthcare, and sex work and marijuana decriminalization were positions held by credible contenders for the Democratic nomination for president this year) yet also be hamstrung by a budget she thinks will be harmful, and political machinations she can’t control.
“Cuomo should be commended for the work he’s doing with his press briefings. But I do also think that people should know him for who he is and the policies that he's proposed and the budgets that he has put out,” she says. “We need to help people, and we shouldn't be perpetuating systems that are hurting people. We are literally leaving behind the people who are the most vulnerable, the most at risk. And yet these same people are the ones who are putting their lives on the line for us right now.”
Niou believes that the pandemic has exposed how many parts of our political system are inherently unfair.
“We can see so clearly all the things that we've done wrong with our public healthcare system, with the way that we've been cutting the safety net now for a long, long time. We’re trying to make a profit off of our prison industrial system — we’re feeding it,” she says. “And in this moment, when we can see everything so clearly, we should change that. We should be investing in infrastructure. We should be making sure that our healthcare system is strong.”
“I don’t understand why you would make bad policy when you could make good policy.”
Niou and I are both emotional. It’s not just what we’re talking about — it’s everything. We’re confined to our houses, we can’t touch the people we love, we can see the way the virus is disproportionately affecting people of color, poor people, homeless people, the undocumented, and the elderly. Things feel helpless. For a person as driven as Niou, it may be the first time she’s truly doubted her ability to change things within the system.
It’s a little awkward, both of us on computer screens, in tears, so I break the spell and ask Niou if she wants to meet my daughter. She brightens instantly. I pause Sesame Street, just as they are about to reveal the number of the day, and bring Ruth over to my desk. She sees Niou’s face, and mine, and her own, and claps in delight.
“Oh my god!” Niou says. “She has your smile! She has such a good smile!” I joke that she’s in suspense, waiting for the number of the day, so I’ll only keep her on for a minute. We say our goodbyes. I close my computer and sit with my daughter as 14 Martians pop out of 14 Martian space craters.
Later, I text Niou to thank her for her time. By the way, I write, the number of the day was 14. She texts back instantly: 14!!!?? That’s such a good number! I don’t doubt her enthusiasm for a moment.
A week later, Niou is back in the system she’s fighting to change. She’s introduced a bill to completely cancel rent for 90 days for anyone affected by Covid-19. The bill also provides mortgage relief to the landlords of those tenants, pushing the cost onto big banks. On Twitter (where Niou is very, very active), between emoji-laden tweets about gratitude, and images of salt and pepper prawns, she begins to lay out, piece by piece, how she plans to fight back against the budget and how she plans, little by little, to make her community whole again — and even better than before.
In #NotYourTokenAsian, we take on the pop products, stereotypes, and culture wars that surround Asian-American identity. Follow along as we celebrate our multiplicity during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.