SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Rush Limbaugh's imitation of the Chinese language during a recent speech made by Chinese President Hu Jintao has stirred a backlash among Asian-American lawmakers in California and nationally.
California state Sen. Leland Yee, a Democrat from San Francisco, is leading a fight in demanding an apology from the radio talk show host for what he and others view as racist and derogatory remarks against the Chinese people.
In recent days, the state lawmaker has rallied civil rights groups in a boycott of companies like Pro Flowers, Sleep Train and Domino's Pizza that advertise on Limbaugh's national talk radio show.
"The comments that he made – the mimicking of the Chinese language – harkens back to when I was a little boy growing up in San Francisco and those were hard days, rather insensitive days," Yee said in an interview Thursday. "You think you've arrived and all of a sudden get shot back to the reality that you're a second-class citizen."
During a Jan. 19 radio program, Limbaugh said there was no translation of the Chinese president's speech during a visit to the White House.
"He was speaking and they weren't translating," Limbaugh said. "They normally translate every couple of words. Hu Jintao was just going ching chong, ching chong cha."
He then launched into a 20-second-long imitation of the Chinese leader's dialect.
The next day, Limbaugh said he "did a remarkable job" of imitating China's president for someone who doesn't know a language spoken by more than 1 billion people.
"Back in the old days, Sid Caesar, for those of you old enough to remember, was called a comic genius for impersonating foreign languages that he couldn't speak," Limbaugh said. "But today the left says that was racism; it was bigotry; it was insulting. And it wasn't. It was a service."
A telephone and e-mail to Limbaugh's station operator Clear Channel Communications Inc. was not returned Thursday. Clear Channel's Premiere Radio Networks Inc. is home to Limbaugh, Jim Rome, Ryan Seacrest, Glenn Beck, Bob Costas and Sean Hannity.
An e-mail to Limbaugh's show requesting comment was also not returned.
Yee has been joined by Asian-American state and federal lawmakers who say Limbaugh's comments are inciting hate and intolerance amid a polarized atmosphere. A number of civil rights groups, including Chinese for Affirmative Action, Japanese American Citizens League and the California National Organization for Women, have joined Yee in calling on sponsors to pull advertisements from Limbaugh's program.
An online petition has been created on Yee's website.
"I want an apology at the very least," said New York Assemblywoman Grace Meng, a Queens Democrat. "Making fun of any country's leader is just very disrespectful for someone who says he is a proud American."
She added: "He was, in his own way, trying to attack the leader of another country, and that's his prerogative as well, but at the same time he offended 13 percent of New York City's population."
There are about 14 million, or 4.5 percent, Asian-Americans in the United States, more if counting those of mixed races.
In California, Asians make up more than 12 percent of the state's 38 million population.
While Asian-American lawmakers demand an apology from Limbaugh, some are increasingly concerned for Yee's personal safety. Public officials have been put on alert after the deadly rampage in Tucson where U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot while meeting with constituents.
Shortly after condemning Limbaugh's remarks, Yee said he received racist death threats to his San Francisco and Sacramento offices. The lawmaker also received a profanity-filled telephone message Thursday.
The caller, who did not identify himself, called Yee a "cry baby" and urged him to resign from office.
Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Tony Beard Jr. confirmed the Legislature has launched an investigation and is cooperating with other security agencies.
He said Yee had received similar faxes in April after he called on a state university to disclose how much it was paying Sarah Palin for a fundraiser.
"We need to stand up for civility and be respectful of one another. Otherwise the consequences are dreadful as we can already see in the death threats against Senator Yee," said Rep. Judy Chu, a Democrat who represents a large Asian district outside Los Angeles.
Yee, who has a chance to become San Francisco's first elected Asian mayor, said he has no plans to change his behavior because doing so would amount to "stepping down." He said his staff has received additional security training.
"It's just been a disappointing experience," Yee said. "I'm not angry about it, more disappointed that in the year 2011, we still have individuals who are racist."
Threats to minority lawmakers are not new. California state Assemblyman Paul Fong said he was the target of racist comments in 2009, when he introduced a resolution officially expressing California's regret for the way it treated Chinese living in the state.
Associated Press writers Don Thompson in Sacramento and Michael Gormley in Albany contributed to this report.