FIRST VOTE filmmaker Yi Chen discusses Asian Americans' diverse experiences at the polls and motivations for creating her film
What is FIRST VOTE about?
FIRST VOTE follows four Chinese American voters from both sides of the aisle in two swing states from 2016 to the 2018 midterms.
Lance Chen is a conservative podcast host mobilizing first-generation Chinese immigrant voters for the Republican Party and to unseat a Democratic senator in Ohio. After casting his first vote for Trump in 2016, he founded a national political action committee “Asian American GOP Coalition” with former members of a grassroots movement known as the Chinese Americans for Trump.
Kaiser Kuo is a rock musician and progressive journalist. In 2016, he returned to the U.S. after living in Beijing for 20 years and was excited to live in a key battleground state, North Carolina, where he wanted his vote to matter. Eager to plunge in, he unexpectedly discovers the appeal of Trump to many first-generation Chinese immigrants and confronts the rise of “Chinese Americans for Trump.”
In the same district, a gun-toting anti-socialism first-time candidate Sue Googe courts Tea Party voters and supports voter ID legislation in the South. On the other hand, a University of North Carolina anti-racism professor Jennifer Ho believes the North Carolina General Assembly Republicans proposed voter ID amendment on the 2018 ballot is “making it harder for people to vote.”
The film is a vérité look at the power and diversity of the Asian American electorate, the fastest-growing group of eligible voters in the United States, and explores the intersection of immigration, identity, and voting rights.
I encourage you to check out the film’s website which has more information about the film.
What gave you the idea for making this film?
I had the idea for FIRST VOTE around the end of 2016. At the time, I had lived in the U.S. for more than a decade and was going through the naturalization process to become an American citizen. Having born and grown up in China before immigrating to the U.S., I had never voted before and didn’t know much about voting, so initially the film started as a personal journey to explore voting from the perspective of immigrant voters like myself, who didn’t grow up in a democracy, and what it’s like for them to cast their first vote.
As I was researching for the film, I came across news articles about the “Chinese Americans for Trump” movement during the 2016 presidential election year. Many of the members, like Lance Chen, were first-time voters and decided to give up their Chinese citizenship in order to become American citizens and vote for Trump. Chinese Americans on the other side of the aisle, like Kaiser Kuo, were taken by surprise and trying to understand why so many first-generation Chinese immigrants supported Trump. The 2016 election unprecedentedly divided Chinese American voters, and affected Kaiser’s family on a very personal level.
So naturally the idea kept evolving throughout the development, production and post-production process. I started filming in the summer of 2017 and spent almost two years following four voters from both sides of the aisle, two Republicans and two Democrats, until the 2018 midterms. According to the 2016 Post-Election Asian American Survey, 25% Asian Americans surveyed voted for Trump and 69% voted for Clinton, while 35% of Chinese Americans voted for Trump and 61% voted for Clinton. Asian American voters are not a monolith and I wanted to tell nuanced in-depth personal stories to shed light on the power and diversity of the Asian American electorate.
You can also check out the Beyond the Lens interview for America ReFramed, where I talked more about why I made this film: https://youtu.be/Zr6UKKw_fMM.
What was your process for choosing the four subjects that you chose in the film?
The development process to “cast” the characters took about five to six months. I was specifically looking for characters who were first-time voters, from both sides of the aisle, and living in battleground states. In terms of the narrative, I wanted to document their stories from 2017 to the 2018 midterms. Because of the film’s observational approach, I was also looking for characters who’d be comfortable in front of the camera and willing to let me follow their stories unfold for about two years.
I didn’t know any of the characters prior to making this film. Kaiser wrote an article “Why are so many first-generation Chinese immigrants supporting Donald Trump” which I came across while researching for the film. Lance hosts a conservative podcast called “The Voice of Mandarin-Spoken Republicans” which is popular on Chinese social media WeChat and some of the potential characters I interviewed turned out to be his loyal listeners. Sue was a first-time candidate and ran for Congress in North Carolina’s 4th district in 2016. Her name came up many times when I was interviewing other potential characters. I met Jennifer at a conference in Durham when she was teaching at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and gave a talk about Asian American identity in the South, which really resonated with me because it’s one of the themes that I was really interested in exploring in the film.
I decided to focus on Lance and Sue as two of the Republican characters and Kaiser and Jennifer as two of the Democrat characters not only because they were exactly the kind of politically engaged voters that I was looking for, but also their stories added different aspects to the film. Lance was a first-time voter in 2016. Sue was a first-time political candidate in 2016. Kaiser deliberately moved back to a battleground state in 2016 during a presidential election year. Jennier offers a lens to explore the question of identity.
You can also read more about the process for choosing the four characters in this interview I did with the Los Angeles Review of Books China Channel.
One of your subjects Kaiser talks early in the film about the depiction of Asian Americans in politics. Do you believe there is a proper depiction that you, or others, would like to see?
With this film, I wanted to explore the power and diversity of the Asian American electorate, specifically through the stories of the four characters. The Asian American electorate is tremendously diverse and there are so many stories that have yet to be told. I would like to see greater Asian American representation in film that will defy stereotypes and demand that society look at Asian Americans - not past or through them.
Federal policy barred immigrants of Asian descent from becoming U.S. citizens until 1952, but Asian Americans are now the fastest-growing segment of eligible voters out of the major racial and ethnic groups in the United States - more than 11 million eligible voters in 2020 and one-third living in the 10 most competitive states. Asian Americans went from being marginalized to the margin of victory. Georgia had near-doubling of turnout among Asian American voters. In a traditionally red state that went for Biden, the vote was decided by a margin that was less than the increase in Asian American voters.
However, historically, while the attitudes of white, Hispanic and Black voters are readily reported, those of Asian Americans are not. Asian American voters also reported receiving contact at lower levels than White, Black and Hispanic voters. Language barriers and lack of quality engagement from political parties have produced a large, persistent racial disparity in voter turnout. In 2016, Asian American voter turnout rate increased to 49.3% but lagged 16% behind that of whites (65.3%) and 10% of blacks (59.6%) while the Latino voter turnout rate held steady at 47.6%.
The 2020 presidential election has drawn renewed attention to how demographic shifts across the United States have changed the composition of the electorate. In every battleground state, the Asian American community increased its turnout more than any other group. Data from Catalist revealed a 310% increase in Asian American early voters in 2020 compared to 2016. I would like to see greater media representation of Asian Americans in politics that will lead to more voter engagement, registration and turnout.
What is the reaction you would like to see from this film?
To be honest, I had no idea how the audience was going to react to the film and I didn’t really have any specific expectations. As a filmmaker, I was more interested in allowing the characters to speak for themselves, rather than presenting a simplified or certain view to the audience because oftentimes reality is a lot more complicated.
Looking back, it’s been incredibly rewarding for me to know that the film has resonated with many people in many unexpected ways. Some audience, including first-time voters, said the film energized them to stay hopeful and civically engaged leading up to the 2020 presidential election. Others said the film inspired them to ask questions of those with different beliefs. Another unexpected reaction was from youth voters who watched the film with their parents and had conversations about their different political views for the first time since the 2016 presidential election when they had avoided political conversations completely.
I would say all of these are the reactions I would have liked to see from this film - empowering voters, inspiring civic engagement, shedding light on the diverse Asian American electorate, finding common ground, and hopefully more. If you’ve seen the film, please do share your reactions via this short audience survey. I would love to hear from you!
Who would you most like to see watch this film?
The film’s non-partisan impact campaign is guided by a vision of America where every Asian American voter has an equal opportunity to vote in every election. Working with national and local outreach partners including APIAVote, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, North Carolina Asian Americans Together, Asian Services in Action Ohio, and Asian Pacific American Advocates (OCA), we focused on engaging Asian American voters living in battleground states leading up to the 2020 presidential election.
Furthermore, with more than 40 virtual screenings at film festivals, virtual cinema, and community organizations in 2020, the film was able to reach a much wider demographic. “First Vote” also broadcast on the WORLD Channel in the “Your Vote 2020” program to explore racial diversity of voters ahead of the 2020 election, which was the perfect platform for the film to reach diverse audiences in battleground states. The WORLD Channel’s 171 PBS member stations represent 70% of the U.S. TV household.
What are some central messages you hope viewers walk away with?
I hope viewers will walk away feeling empowered because our democracy works best when we all participate. I also hope viewers will take a look at the film’s resource page with short videos and educational resources on voting, the Asian American electorate, and anti-racism.
Last but not least, if you are considering screening the film for middle school, college classroom or community viewing, take a look at this review by Educational Media Reviews Online.