When John C. Liu (劉醇逸) ran for New York City Council in 2001, skeptics wondered whether an immigrant from Taiwan could win the hearts and minds of non-Asian middle-class voters in Flushing, a Queens community where Liu was raised and where tensions ran high between longtime residents, many of them white, and their newly arrived Taiwanese, Korean and Chinese neighbors.
But Liu defied the odds and became New York’s first Asian-American city councilman, a victory that marked the start of Liu’s 12-year run in public office, including a four-year stint as city comptroller that ended last year when he ran for mayor and lost. Liu captured a mere 7 percent of the vote amid a campaign donations scandal in which he was never charged.
Now settling into his new post as a professor at Baruch College in Manhattan, Liu, 47, says he is proud to have paved the way for other Asian Americans who have been elected after him — but added that New York voters haven’t seen the last of him yet.
“You never know what comes up,” Liu remarked. “But yeah, I expect at some point I’ll run for office again. When that is, I don’t have any plans now.”
In an interview with the Taipei Times, Liu, just two months out of public office, reflected on both his personal and public life, discussing his childhood growing up in Taipei and Flushing, his improbable career path from actuary to the first Asian American to serve in New York’s city council and in citywide office, and a federal investigation into campaign irregularities that Liu says derailed his 2013 mayoral bid to become the city’s first Asian-American mayor.
Liu has only a vague recollection of Taipei, the city where he was born. He says he remembers a nice park, and the sausages and bean cakes his mother used to buy for him from street carts. In 1972, Liu’s father, a Bank of Taiwan employee sent to New York to earn his MBA, decided after graduating from Long Island University that he wanted his sons to grow up American. Shortly after, Liu, then 5, and his family emigrated from Taiwan. New challenges awaited the Lius, especially Liu’s mother, who in Taipei, Liu said, had three housekeepers.
“Coming here, it was completely different,” he said. “She had to get a job to support the family, and the only thing she could get was to work in a sweatshop. So there were many years of struggle here in New York.”
Liu’s family settled in Flushing, in part because of the good elementary schools, and moved into an apartment eight blocks from where he, his wife, Jenny, and son, Joey, live today. Growing up in Flushing, where few Asians lived during the 1970s, Liu and his family held onto Confucian and Buddhist traditions instilled in them in Taiwan, he said. But there was also a big focus on becoming American — and not speaking Chinese.
“We should have tried harder to retain the language,” Liu said, noting that he and his two brothers were named after members of the Kennedy clan. “I mean, my Chinese is not something I’m proud of.”
At 14, Liu had a chance to travel back to Taiwan, the first time he visited since immigrating to America. During that summer, he said, he learned about his family, which he says has an ancestral shrine in Greater Taichung, and his roots in Taiwan that Liu says stretch back several hundred years. “It was a good reinforcement of identity,” Liu said.