This story was produced as part of the Voting Block collaborative project in New Jersey, funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.
At 77, New Jersey resident and local activist Margaret Lam doesn’t appear to be slowing down. And neither does her husband, David Yen, 89. In fact, the couple was just elected to county positions in their home state.
Their election caps decades of activism that continues to put priority on the local Chinese community over and above party loyalty.
“We support the politicians who support the Chinese community,” said Lam, a registered Republican who resides with her husband in Montville, a small town of about 22,000.
That dedication to the community is in fact how Lam and Yen first met. Lam grew up in Hong Kong, the oldest daughter of seven siblings. She immigrated to the United States in 1967 after she married her now ex-husband, a Chinese-American chemist. New Jersey has been her home since.
A call to public service
Like many newly arrived immigrants, Lam’s focus initially was on taking care of the family. She later opened an import-export business, and by the time her kids entered school she found herself becoming increasingly involved in school activities. It was around this time that she began to feel the call to public service.
“Many Chinese only focus on their own lives. They want to live privately and comfortably, and they stay away from public matters,” said Lam. “But I want to participate so I can make life better for younger generations of Chinese.”
Lam’s first experience as an organizer came in 1983, when she organized a 35-foot float that featured Chinese cultural icons for a local Fourth of July parade. Her float won a prize and Lam was invited by then-Mayor Frederick Eckhardt to join the Fourth of July committee of Montville.
In 1989, Lam was recommended to then-Gov. Tom Kean as the state was ramping up for an event and was seeking someone to connect to the Chinese community. Lam impressed everyone by launching the first New Jersey Chinese Festival, which attracted more than 10,000 participants and was eventually developed into an annual event.
Lam went on to serve on the Ethnic Advisory Council for Gov. James Florio, School Ethics Commission for the New Jersey State Board of Education under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, and many other voluntary appointments in Morris County and Montville. She also took on various leadership roles in the Chinese community in New Jersey.
‘A friend to the Chinese’
“I don’t care whether they are Democrats or Republicans, as long as the politicians are a friend to the Chinese, I work with them,” said Lam.
And when they aren’t a friend, her approach is no nonsense.
More than 30 years ago, Lam helped the Northern New Jersey Chinese Association set up weekly Chinese-language classes at the Montville Township High School. When she learned of a local board of education member who stood in the way of those efforts, Lam organized a group of parents and at the next board meeting had the member kicked off the board.
“I grew up in British-occupied Hong Kong with a lot of British around me. So I don’t think Westerners and Chinese are different people,” said Lam. “Those who are not fair to Chinese, you’ll find they are not fair to other people either.”
But Lam’s activism took a personal toll. “My former husband didn’t like me to be so active in public. He just wanted us to be quiet and safe, and to never get into trouble,” said Lam. “But I have my own dreams.”
The marriage dissolved when their two children grew up. But Lam has never been short of friends who share her dreams. Yen is one of them.
Yen came to the United States. from his hometown, Beijing, in 1947. He was 18 and studying economics at Carleton College in Minnesota. After graduation he worked a few years at the First National Bank of Minneapolis until he got a job at Chase Bank in Manhattan in 1970. He lived on Staten Island at first, then moved to New Jersey in 1975 and has since lived in Hoboken, Edison, and now, Montville.
Yen said 1970s New Jersey was already a home to more Chinese than Minnesota. Still, he was often mistaken for Korean or Japanese.
“China was poor then, and no one cared about Chinese in the U.S. And I didn’t like that,” said Yen. Which is what drew him to lend his support to the New Jersey Chinese Festival then being organized by Lam. He rolled up his sleeves and has been with her ever since.
“We have been working together for more than 20 years now,” said Yen.
The pair married eight years ago and have found themselves even busier. They spend most of their time attending meetings and gatherings in Montville, and organizing events to help promote Chinese culture or Chinese candidates in local elections.
When they have some free time, they like to discuss politics. Most of the time, they agree with each other, but not always. For example, they both give Republican gubernatorial candidate Kim Guadagno a slim chance of winning. But Yen said he may vote for her anyway because he says the Democratic candidate, banker Phil Murphy, is too close to Wall Street. Lam has yet to make a decision.
At odds over Christie
As for outgoing Gov. Chris Christie, Yen says he’s a good politician who spoke his mind and pushed through some important victories. Lam, on the other hand, says he was disconnected from the community. He never once appeared at her events, she said.
Still, Yen and Lam agree on one thing: despite their age, they need to keep working to bring more young Chinese into politics. The New Jersey Chinese Festival, now a nonprofit organization that Lam chairs, launched a scholarship program three years ago to support outstanding Chinese students. And last year, the scholarship was expanded from 10 to 12, with two specifically dedicated to students in political science.
“I am like a car that has been running fast my whole life. I am not able to slow down,” said Lam. Yen added, “Yes, we are not young any more. But we need to work for the younger generation.”