Taiwanese NJ Mayor: Lin Symbolic of Asian Americans’ Struggle

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Two long years ago Jeremy Lin had a nightmare of a game at Princeton towards the end of his collegiate career. The Tigers’ defense shut down Harvard’s leading scorer, who before that night had enjoyed plenty of success in Ivy League play. Lin was anything but a star on the court the night of March 6, 2010, as Princeton held him to 1 for 8 shooting and rejected his shot attempts in the final minute to stop Harvard, 54-51.

Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh of West Windsor, New Jersey

One observer who was there that night said “he had talent, but he was not particularly strong or big or athletic, like most basketball players.” That wasn’t the image they had of Lin going into the game, though.

As a junior a year earlier, on January 31, 2009, Lin racked up 27 points to beat Princeton. It was around then that he caught the attention of media back in Taiwan taking note of a budding basketball star thriving just outside of Boston at America’s leading academic institution. Linsanity had actually started across the world but had not come close to trickling down I-95, probably not even as far from Cambridge as Providence, Rhode Island.

Few at that Princeton game had heard of Lin. The novelty of an Asian American basketball player was a given, but leave it to a local politician and a pioneer in his own right to recognize Lin as a
budding star.

The fan who came out to see Lin while supporting Princeton, the university his son attended, was Shing-Fu Hsueh, the mayor of West Windsor, New Jersey – a lavish, eclectic suburb midway between New York City and Philadelphia. Hsueh is the first and only Taiwanese-American to be mayor of an American town. He took over as West Windsor’s leader in 2001 — just ahead of 9/11, which claimed the lives of six residents of the township.

Under Hsueh’s leadership for ten years West Windsor has thrived, achieving a Triple-A municipal bond rating as well as being recognized as one of four silver-level environmentally sustainable communities in New Jersey. West Windsor was named as the first ever “Greentown USA” in New Jersey in 2002.

The township, with a population of 27,000 and one of the highest concentrations of Asian Americans in the U.S., also has a stellar school district with average SAT math scores above 600 — a key
selling point for prospective home buyers, especially Indian and Chinese Americans. On September 19 of last year West Windsor’s town council approved plans for a transit-village development at the Princeton Junction train station, setting the township up to experience economic and population growth in years to come.

Hsueh’s political reign in West Windsor stands as a mark of success for all Asian Americans. Yet he was no slouch in education either. Hsueh taugh hydrology at New Jersey’s Rutgers University for 24 years after earning his Ph. D in chemical and environmental engineering in 1974. But Hsueh’s story, generations before Jeremy Lin, picked up a basketball, started back in Taiwan.

Hsueh left his homeland in 1967 after earning his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering from National Taiwan University. In late January he traveled to Taiwan to celebrate his 50th high school class reunion with family and old friends. When Hsueh returned on February 10, a new star with Taiwanese roots had just come under the spotlight in the New York/New Jersey area. When Hsueh wasn’t consumed by the demands of running a township where council meetings can resemble three-ring circuses, he spent February nights observing Jeremy Lin’s progress on the court for the New York Knicks. In Lin, Hsueh sees someone who is symbolic of the Asian American experience.

Hsueh says that the old guard in West Windsor – namely the Republican contingent which is led by former township mayors and council members – wants to keep status quo and prevent the township from evolving and developing at the rate that it could. Although West Windsor runs nonpartisan elections, Hsueh says that politically-charged motives are behind every question that comes up against his administrative decisions. While the Republicans are gearing up for 2013, when a member of the current council will likely take a jab at Hsueh by running for mayor, he says the older residents from both parties may be against him.

“There are surprised that I have been able to keep this position for three terms. My running mate from 2001 ran against me in 2005 because certain people realized they could not pull my strings. They were under an assumption because of my background – they felt that if I was elected as mayor that they could control me. But no, I have my own vision, philosophy and agenda,” Hsueh said.

Hsueh says this experience is evidence of how some people view Asians in leadership positions across America.

“They feel that the reason you get elected is because they’re helping you, but they don’t understand our capabilities. Just like Jeremy Lin, who sat on the bench until they gave him a chance to show what he can do,” Hsueh says.

The mayor referenced comments made by Los Angeles Lakers’ star Kobe Bryant after Lin scored 38 points against him in a game in New York.

“Kobe Bryant said that any coach who didn’t put Lin in as a starter should be fired, because after playing against Lin he questioned why he had not been ignored on the past two teams,” Hsueh said.

Hsueh studied up on the basketball star ever since Lin’s rise at Harvard.

“He was their captain his senior season, and I did notice that he was the leader of the whole team,” Hsueh said.

Hsueh acknowledged the recent debate over whether it was fair for China “to claim Lin” when he had actually clarified to the press that his family is Taiwanese. Hsueh has paid full attention, saying that he read that Lin’s maternal grandmother is in fact from China.

“But then his grandmother in Taiwan said that Jeremy’s background and his parents are Taiwanese. Actually he is an American, and to me it’s not that important” Hsueh said with a laugh.

“What he has gone through shows what the Asians will have to go through in this country. He just happened to have the luck to be able to break through the bench and succeed on the court. Now all of a sudden people recognize that, but like Kobe Bryant said, that kind of talent doesn’t happen over night,” the mayor says.

According to Hsueh coaches were prone to ignoring Lin because of his Asian appearance.

“They must have thought he could not jump or he was not fast. In his ESPN interview Lin actually addressed that. They asked him how a lot of people say he is faster than he really looks. Lin said to them ‘what does that mean, because I’m Asian I’m not fast!” Mayor Hsueh said.

Where as basketball is played five-on-five, New Jersey politics can be every man for himself. Yet like Lin, Hsueh has defied the odds and showed what can happen when the quiet, mild-mannered Asian gets a chance to lead.

While the world’s experience with Linsanity last month was due in large part to Lin’s ethnic background, the negative stereotypes that impeded his progress in the NBA before this season are present in many arenas that Asian Americans encounter in their professions. The mayor doesn’t have to look far for his share of it.

“You can notice that same political side of it by coming to council meetings,” the mayor says, with a smile.

One West Windsor resident who ran for mayor a few years ago (and was handily defeated) mocks Mayor Hsueh often at those biweekly township meetings, referring to his era in office over the past decade as “the Shing Dynasty.”

Loved or loathed, Lin and Hsueh each worked their way to being rulers in their own rights.

Rikki N. Massand is a print and online journalist who reports on business, government, education and the achievements of minorities for US1 newspaper and its sister publication, The West Windsor-Plainsboro News, in suburban Princeton, New Jersey. Massand’s work has appeared in local, national and international publications including amNew York, Newsday.com, Asianweek, Hyphen magazine, Little India magazine, SportsNews Australia, The Long Island Press, The Bergen Record and
most notably China Daily, where he worked as the company’s United States Correspondent and marketing representative from 2007 to 2009.

Massand holds a master’s degree in Journalism from Quinnipiac University and a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University. He is currently pursuing further graduate studies at Columbia University in New York City.

About the Author

Rikki N. Massand is a print and online journalist who reports on business, government, education and the achievements of minorities for US1 newspaper and its sister publication, The West Windsor-Plainsboro News, in suburban Princeton, New Jersey. Massand's work has appeared in local, national and international publications including amNew York, Newsday.com, Asianweek, Hyphen magazine, Little India magazine, SportsNews Australia, The Long Island Press, The Bergen Record and most notably China Daily, where he worked as the company's United States Correspondent and marketing representative from 2007 to 2009. Massand holds a master's degree in Journalism from Quinnipiac University and a bachelor's degree from St. John's University. He is currently pursuing further graduate studies at Columbia University in New York City.