UPDATED:  January 27, 2009 10:56 PM
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Asian Americans Share Center Stage

By: Jennie L. Ilustre

WASHINGTON--Asian Americans, recognizing their time has come at a turning-point period in the nation's history, celebrated in style during the week when President Barack Obama became the first African American to become president of the United States.

Charmaine Manansala, who directed a national effort to get Asian Americans to vote for Obama as part of his campaign, said, "Absolutely, Asian Americans are now in a stronger position to make a difference," citing the two Asian American cabinet appointees in policy-making positions.

She added: "And at the White House itself, we have Chris Lu as Cabinet secretary, who is the White House liaison to the Cabinet and government agencies, and Tina Tchen, Director of White House Public Liaison, among others." Lu was Obama’s chief of staff in the Senate. He was also a senior adviser during the campaign.

A source said Ms. Manansala herself would land "the No. 2 job at the Department of Labor." But when asked what her appointment would be in the Obama administration, she demurred. "It will be announced when it's time to announce it," she discreetly told Asian Fortune at the Pearl Pre-Inaugural Gala, which drew 1,500 people.

For the first time, Asian Americans held pre-inaugural and inaugural galas, and drew cabinet members appointed by Obama and other VIPs. After all their hard work during the campaign, they showed they know how to party, too, dancing the night away.

The Hawaiian State Inaugural Ball was a rousing success, and merited a special mention in the mainstream media. President Obama grew up in Hawaii, and pride in their native son and two powerful homegrown senators, brought jubilant Asian American leaders and members to this capital, joined by a thousand guests. (Ruby Moy's article on the Hawaiian State Inaugural Ball is elsewhere in this Inaugural Special Section.)


Obama's personal representative

The Asian American events also boasted the presence of Maya Soetero-Ng, the president's half-sister, who is Indonesian American. Maya came with husband Konrad.

"My brother could not be here...lucky me, I'm here to be with you," she told guests at the Mandarin Hotel here, site of the Jan. 19 Pearl Pre-Inaugural Gala organized by community leaders Francey Lim Youngberg and Gloria T. Caoile.

"Thank you for what you have done, thank you for your unprecedented numbers, thank you for your deep commitment and tirelessness," she said.

She said she was a bit concerned about her half-brother, who faces tough times ahead. The presidency is known as the loneliest job in the world, when one can feel so alone, even in the midst of family and friends. She urged those present to "promise to help him, to keep him strong and to help him in his endeavors." Cheers greeted her when she concluded, "I think we're going to have a wonderful eight years!"

Energy Secretary-designate Steven Chu and Veterans Affairs Secretary-designate Eric Shinseki, who both came with their wife, made the rounds of the pre-inaugural and inaugural balls. At the galas, they graciously posed for souvenir photos, paused to chat and accepted the congratulations from everyone. The two prominent and respected appointees sailed through their confirmation process on Jan. 20.

Former U.S. Army Chief of Staff Shinseki, promised to help the Filipino World War II veterans with their pension legislation, saying, "The Philippines has a history of serving this great nation." He also mentioned the service of recently retired Maj. Gen. Antonio M. Taguba and Lt. Gen. Edwin Soriano.

Dr. Chu, an advocate for scientific solutions to global warming and the need for carbon-neutral renewable sources of energy, said these are "the greatest challenge facing science." He has rallied the world's top scientists to address these problems.

Also at the Pearl Pre-inaugural Gala, Senator Daniel K. Inouye (D, HI) and his wife Irene beamed as guests chatted with them and flashed their digital cameras. They had a smile for everybody they met.

Earlier in the day, as part of the Pearl Gala program, Asian American and Pacific Islander AAPI leaders and celebrities discussed their role in this year’s historic elections at the Mandarin Hotel. In the morning briefings, participants talked about the community’s voter participation and increasing political strength.

At the Pre-Inaugural Reception at the Philippine embassy, Ambassador Willy C. Gaa continued the tradition of hosting the event. Guests came across the nation. They were thrilled to meet new Congressman Steve Austria (R, OH) and teen singing sensation Charice Pempengco.

Ambassador Gaa also started another tradition. Star power added luster to the successful evening event with Charice, who had appeared on "Oprah" and sang with Celine Dion at a New York concert. Charice performed "One Moment in Time" and "God Bless America."

Charice, 14, also performed "God Bless America" at the Pearl Galan and at the Jan. 18 "We Are One" pre-inaugural concert at the Lincoln Memorial, joining big names such as Beyonce, Bruce Springsteen, Usher and Stevie Wonder, to name a few.



On Jan. 20, watching on TV and braving the chill at the Capitol, Asian Americans joined 1.5 million who witnessed the historic and peaceful transfer of power.

Although the country continues to be a divided nation, inauguration day appeared to be a day of national unity, as majority gathered as Americans. Former U.S. Transportation and Commerce Secretary Norman Y. Mineta with wife Deny were seen bowing their heads during the prayer, joining the millions united in praying for America.

Later, they joined the crowds in heading for the exit. Mineta pronounced Obama's speech as "Fantastic!"

A mother, who came from New Mexico, brought along her two children, ages 10 and 11, at the Capitol. Like most immigrants, she said she felt like Obama was talking to her. She joined others in applauding Obama on hearing these words: "For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life. For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth."

Others in the crowd pined to regain America's greatness. They grew silent as they watched the Jumbotron, huge screens that carried the images live, and heard Obama say: "In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom."

Republican and top community leader Maurese O. Owens watched the ceremony at home. She said in an email: “There’s a tinge of excitement for me, too, for a new president and a new direction for the country. Although I voted for (Senator John) McCain because I thought he would make a good president, the country has spoken and therefore, I will support the majority’s decision. He is my president now, too.”

Rawlein Soberano, a Republican who voted for Obama, now the titular head of the Democratic Party, watched the historic event on TV. He said in an email interview: “Obama is not our first black president. He is our first bi-racial, bi-cultural president. He is more than the personification of the African-American achievement. He is a bridge between races, a living symbol of tolerance, a signal that strict racial categories must go." 

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