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How America's first female Chinese-American mayor fought for her community

Lily Lee Chen became the first female Chinese mayor in the United States when she was elected mayor of Monterey Park in 1984. Masani
Lily Lee Chen became the first female Chinese mayor in the United States when she was elected mayor of Monterey Park in 1984. Masani "Mas" Fukai served on the Gardena city council and passed away on April 7, 2006. Arthur Song served on the Los Angeles city council.
LA Public library/Herald-Examiner Collection

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Lily Lee Chen represents an important piece of Los Angeles County history. In the 1980s, Lee Chen became mayor of Monterey Park — the first female Chinese-American mayor in the nation.  

Born in Tianjing, China, Lee Chen came to the U.S. for graduate school after attending college in Taiwan. Deeply involved in the local Parent-Teacher Association here, Lee Chen was initially motivated to run for City Council because a gambling parlor wanted to move into the city of Monterey Park. 

I feel so strongly against that idea. I didn't want our neighborhood to be exposed to underground activities, to get traffic problems. I was fighting very hard.

In 1981, Lee Chen ran for City Council for the first time. She lost by 28 votes. Without demanding a recount, Lee Chen devoted her time to improve her community. She published a bilingual voter registration handbook and worked with other ethnic groups in her area.

In spite of my abilities, at that time, there was a sentiment on the part of old-timers afraid of the new immigrant population. They had some real concerns. I cannot say enough about the turbulence and the fear of old-timers resisting the newcomers. 

In 1982, Lee Chen ran again for City Council, and this time received the most votes in the history of Monterey Park. In that city, the leading vote-getter became mayor, and Lee Chen's victory garnered national attention. 

That became news! I cannot believe the tremendous amount of attention I was getting. I realized then it was my ability to use my name recognition to do something for the public good. 

She helped Monterey Park get U.S.A. Today's designation as an All-American City. And she hosted a celebration of the Chinese women's national basketball team during the Olympic games. 

I want to promote the wellbeing of Asian American, the well-being of the needy and the helpless. How can I help them enjoy a better life, all for the betterment of our community. That's my goal, and I'm glad I had the opportunity to do that.