In a community accustomed to silence, speaking up is more than an effort, it’s an achievement. And an achievement it was on May 22, when the Asian American community of Malden came together for the first meeting of its kind to meet their prospective political representatives and voice their opinions and concerns about life in their adopted home.
The forum, which was held in the auditorium of the Old Emerson School, was organized by Mei Hung of Chinese Culture Connection and Mai Du of Wah Lum Kongfu and Tai Chi Academy and was intended to bring the Asian American community together to discuss the successes and obstacles of life in Malden. The run up to the meeting included special outreach by volunteers at subway stations, translated flyers, and in-school announcements. Cantonese and Mandarin translators were on hand to do simultaneous translation, a first for Malden community meetings. The crowd of 75 was a mix of ethnicities, ages, and languages–a good reflection of Malden’s diverse population.
Janelle Chan, executive director of Chinatown’s Asian Community Development Corporation, began the meeting with a few comments of welcome. “It used to be that the Asian American community in Boston was only in Chinatown. Now, that’s changed,” she said. She described Malden as important to the economic development of the entire region and promised that her organization would pitch in to that end, saying, “We serve Asian Americans and the neighborhoods where they live. We’re here to help build a vibrant community.”
Du then took the microphone to explain the event’s format: first, individuals running for election were to briefly introduce themselves; then members of the community would have time to discuss the issues they saw as most urgent. Du stressed that each would-be politician should take only three minutes for his or her speech and that this was an event only for introductions and “not a venue for questions or debating. “
The speech portion of the afternoon proceeded from mayoral down to school committee candidates. Although each speech differed, several themes ran throughout: the idea of Malden as a diverse, inclusive city; the importance of translation in government; recent problems with economic growth; and the need for school system and public services improvement. Although several candidates referred to their own immigrant backgrounds and memories of how difficult it was to make a life in a new place, there were no Asian faces among those running for office.
Following the political speeches, Du opened the floor to comments, questions, and concerns. Angela Han, a college student at Northeastern who grew up in Malden, was the first to speak. “My house has been robbed twice. They’re victimizing Asian Americans. Nobody’s informed. What can we do?” she asked. Her concern was echoed by several other audience members worried about general safety and about the rash of burglaries that has plagued Malden recently. In response, mayoral candidate Gary Christenson urged residents to follow a ‘see something/say something’ approach. “Write down license plate numbers, notice strangers in your neighborhoods. We don’t have enough funds for policing, but we can find other ways to combat crime,” he said.
Continuing with the theme of safety, Sean Gilligan of National Grid rose to tell residents how to report a burnt out streetlight or to request a new one installed in a poorly-lit area. “All you need to do is call National Grid with the address, and we’ll come out,” he said. “Public safety is a big concern for us.”
Residents also spoke up, in a mix of Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, about their concerns about Malden playgrounds, pedestrian and bike safety, leash laws, and services for the elderly. One short discussion revealed that many Malden residents are frustrated with the lack of trash receptacles, poor sanitation services, and meager recycling program. In another aside, an elderly woman requested that the donation she receives from the food pantry include more items that fit her Chinese-style diet.
A few minutes into the open discussion, siblings Eugene and Viviane Szeto rose to give a brief presentation on further community concerns, based on discussion with their classmates and with other Malden residents who could not attend the forum. Among the concerns they listed were traffic trouble near the subway station, cigarette smoking near schools, a general language barrier between the community and the government, issues with violent crime, and lack of public restrooms in the downtown area. They also echoed the community’s concerns about sanitation and the recent robberies, quoting one woman who said eight out of ten of her friends had been robbed.
“We wanted to reach out and tell people about the event because we heard about it from our kung fu teacher [Du],” Viviane said after the forum had finished. “So we decided to speak up for those who couldn’t make it. It’s important because it’s time for the Asian American community to come together.”
The forum ended with light refreshments, and the mood was upbeat. City Councilor at Large candidate David D’Arcangelo was impressed with how things went, despite the event’s new nature. “It really is to the credit of the Asian Community in Malden… no doubt that in the next election cycle there will be Asian faces, maybe even a mayor,” he said.
Another candidate for the same office, Gladys Rivera-Rogers, agreed. “This is an example of excellent communication between cultures,” she said. “I know a lot of people here are shy, so we need to respect their culture and be patient when it comes to trying to communicate. Their concerns are citywide—traffic, lighting, safety—and something like the food pantry request is so easy to solve and so valuable.”
Residents seemed equally satisfied with the meeting. One man, who declined to be named for this article, remarked, “It’s great that we are coming together to give ourselves a voice. People here don’t speak up, so we don’t know what’s happening. This is a way to stay informed.”
His friend, Amy Tran, who came to Malden from Vietnam in 1990, agreed. “I’m actually one of the residents that would be really shy, normally,” she said. “I was so glad to hear elderly voices not being shy about speaking up…In other cities, they have all kinds of community organizations and we could develop those here too. This [meeting] makes me feel like I need to be more active in my community.”