Trump's Chinese-American fans

Ling Zeng, a Chinese Americans for Trump supporter, takes the stage with Donald Trump during a campaign stop at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., on May 25, 2016. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

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Ling Zeng, a Chinese Americans for Trump supporter, takes the stage with Donald Trump during a campaign stop at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, Calif., on May 25, 2016. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

LOS ANGELES -- Ling Zeng got celebrity treatment at last week's Donald Trump rally in Anaheim.

One after another, dozens of Trump supporters approached to snap pictures of Zeng and her friends, who wore matching T-shirts that read: "Chinese-Americans love Trump."

After a campaign staffer invited the group to stand behind Trump's podium, the candidate took note. "Look at this, Chinese-Americans!" Trump bellowed as he shook Zeng's hand.

T-shirts notwithstanding, most Chinese-Americans don't love Trump. Polls show that they, like Asian-Americans more broadly, overwhelmingly disapprove of the brash businessman and presumptive Republican nominee, who has targeted illegal immigration, proposed a ban on Muslims, and criticized China for stealing jobs from the U.S.

Still, there is a small but vocal group of Chinese-Americans who support the candidate, brushing aside criticism that his rhetoric is racist. And while their numbers are slight, they represent significant trends in parts of the Chinese immigrant population.

Like Zeng, an immigrant from China who lives in San Diego, many of Trump's Chinese-American supporters are relatively recent arrivals with strong nationalistic leanings, a certain reverence for wealth and a firm belief that U.S. immigration laws should be followed.

Many have been politicized by battles over affirmative action on college campuses, where some Chinese-Americans fear their numbers are being held down by efforts to advance other groups. That issue, along with a recent controversy over the fatal shooting of an unarmed man by a Chinese-American police officer in New York, has opened fissures in the Chinese-American community between older, more progressive generations and newer, more conservative arrivals.

"You do have an undercurrent of conservatives in the Chinese-American community, specifically among first-generation Chinese," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside. His research shows that foreign-born Chinese-Americans are more likely to embrace conservative views on issues such as affirmative action and race in general.

"There's a heightened sense of ethnic nationalism, and Trump's rhetoric resonates with them," he said.

"I like that he tells it like it is," Zeng said. "And he worked hard, and gave his kids a good education. That is the Chinese way."

"The Chinese like a strong leader," said Zhaoyin Feng, a reporter with Hong Kong-based Initium Media who has covered Chinese-American support for Trump. The candidate's tendency to offend isn't a problem for many Chinese-Americans, Feng added. "Political correctness isn't a thing in China," she said.

Support for Trump from Chinese immigrants may seem contradictory, given that China has been a frequent target in his speeches. He often attacks the country, and Mexico, for taking jobs from U.S workers.

"We can't allow China to rape our country. ... It's the greatest theft in the history of the world," Trump said in May.

But some Chinese-born Trump supporters say his focus on China evokes pride in their native country's economic prowess.

"We are very proud of China," said Jay Ding, who first learned about Trump when she read his book "The Art of the Deal" while working as a real estate agent in China. Now that she lives in the U.S., she agrees some manufacturing jobs should be brought back from overseas.

"Now that we're American, we're concerned about America," she said. "We hope both countries win."

Ding and others say they are also drawn to Trump because of his promise to deter illegal immigration. While an estimated 300,000 immigrants from China are living illegally in the U.S., many who arrived here by legal means take pride in the distinction.

"I think he is the one brave enough to differentiate between illegal and legal immigrants," said Jennifer Hu, an investor who emigrated from China. "I support his policy on protecting American interests first."

Those sentiments about Trump remain a minority view among Chinese-Americans, polls suggest.

A survey released last week shows Chinese-American voters are flocking to the Democratic Party.

The survey, conducted by several groups including Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, indicates that the percentage of Asian-Americans who identify as Democrats has increased over the last four years from 35 percent to 47 percent.

It also found that 61 percent of Asian-Americans surveyed had an unfavorable view of Trump, while just 26 percent had unfavorable views of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

The number of Asian-American voters has nearly doubled in the last decade, from 2 million in 2000 to 3.9 million in 2012, according to the Center for American Progress. President Barack Obama won Asian-Americans over Mitt Romney in 2012 by roughly 3 to 1, polls found.

Daniel Deng, an attorney in the San Gabriel Valley who supports Clinton, says some newcomers who like Trump's resume and brash style don't realize that the Chinese were once the target of the same kind of exclusionary rhetoric that Trump has embraced.

He and others see parallels between Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. and the Chinese Exclusion Act, an 1882 law that banned virtually all Chinese immigrants.

"They don't know what Chinese-Americans have gone through," Deng said of newer arrivals.

Shirley Xiayi Zhang, who works for the Chinatown Business Improvement District, says she is also unnerved by Trump's characterization of immigrants from Mexico as criminals.

"It's hard for me to imagine any of us immigrants supporting him," she said. "But I guess that's why we're in America, so we can support whoever we want."