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Sunday, August 15, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Chinese Say Progress In U.S. Still Tainted By Cultural Stereotypes

AP

SAN FRANCISCO - Fred Lau always wanted to be a San Francisco cop, so much so that he literally hung upside-down in hopes of getting the job.

In 1970, there was a height requirement to join the police force, and the 5-foot-7 Lau was an inch short. He tried hanging upside down from a bar to stretch his body. It didn't work.

What did work was pressure from civil-rights activists. The city dropped the height requirement in 1971 and Lau became the department's fifth Asian-American officer.

Today, Lau is chief of police. His rise through the ranks is in many ways a reflection of a century of change for Chinese Americans.

These days, Chinese Americans have among the highest median household incomes and education levels of any ethnic group in the United States.

But the anti-Chinese sentiment in America that traces back to the frontier days remains a constant friction, according to many Chinese Americans.

"People always make fun of my accent," said Kenny Su, 49, a Hong Kong native who has lived in America for 10 years. "They don't have a good image of Chinese people."

Recent high-profile scandals haven't helped. Some Chinese Americans fear allegations of Chinese espionage at nuclear-weapons labs and illegal contributions by China in U.S. political campaigns is eroding their progress.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., referred to "a crafty people" when talking about the spy scandal. Some editorial cartoons about the issue have featured images of bucktoothed Asians with thick glasses.

"It only shows that to a certain extent, some of this stuff is just below the surface," said Victor Hsi, a vice president of the Organization of Chinese Americans, a Washington, D.C.-based civil-rights group.

Nationally, Asian Americans now number 10.1 million, about 3.8 percent of the U.S. population. But their influence and presence is growing.

More than 40 percent of the students at the University of California are Asian Americans. Over in Silicon Valley, a quarter of the high-tech businesses are run by Asian entrepreneurs. With those numbers, the image of the so-called "model minority" seems true - to a degree.

"It's very rare if you apply for a job with a Chinese surname that someone would toss your application in the garbage can like they did 30 years ago," says Diane Chin, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action. "But there are many glass ceilings out there that are still largely ignored."

One impediment, say Chinese Americans, is the perception that they are skilled in technical fields but don't have what it takes to reach top management.

Chief of Police Lau broke through another glass ceiling.

Abolishing the San Francisco department's height restriction gave Lau a chance to fulfill a dream and be a pioneer. He is the only Chinese American to lead a big-city police department.

"The fact that it's a very strong position, it's a very visible position and a very non-Asian position is very important," Lau said. "It's very contrary to the stereotype."

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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