Gov. Paul LePage pretended to sneeze while saying a Chinese investor’s name during a business breakfast in Lewiston on Thursday morning, an apparent attempt to make a joke that some in the Chinese-American community found offensive.

“It was annoyingly insensitive,” said Cindy Han, a board member of the Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine. “He just doesn’t get it.”

LePage, whose speech was recorded at the Lewiston-Auburn Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce breakfast by the Sun Journal, was discussing various economic initiatives when he mentioned Chinese investment in the state’s paper mills.

“I call him Mr. Chiu,” LePage said, pretending to sneeze and laughing. The crowd laughed along with the governor.

LePage referred to the businessman in connection with Chinese investments in tissue making machines at Maine paper mills.

“He’s a great, great guy,” LePage said. “He owns a whole lot of hotels in China.”


The governor’s office confirmed on Friday that LePage was speaking about Chiu Feng Chuan, chairman of the IGIC Group. Chiu has invested millions in the Woodland Pulp tissue machines, according to the governor’s office.

In 2014, Woodland Pulp announced that it was investing $120 million to install two tissue machines at the Baileyville plant, creating about 80 jobs. The tissue machines are a strategy to diversify the products made by the struggling paper industry, said Charles Rudelitch, executive director of Sunrise County Economic Council in Washington County, and it’s anticipated there will continue to be strong demand for domestic tissue paper.

Rudelitch wouldn’t comment on the governor’s remarks, but said the investment by the Chinese is crucial.

“It has avoided a catastrophe and provided a long-term solution for the mill. It has made all the difference,” he said. A Woodland Pulp official couldn’t be reached for comment on Thursday afternoon.

At the breakfast, LePage called tissue a “growing market” that showed promise for Maine.

Han, who emphasized that she was not speaking on behalf of the organization, said the governor seems “tone deaf” on racial issues, but that the Chinese remark is not as offensive as his other controversial statements.


“I understand he was trying to be funny,” Han said. “It doesn’t reflect well on Maine’s reputation on racial sensitivity issues.”

LePage made national news in January for making comments about out-of-state drug dealers coming to Maine and impregnating “a young white girl” before they leave. At the time, LePage denied he was referring to blacks, but when he referenced the controversy this week he said they were “black dealers.”

Han, a second-generation Chinese-American, said there are about 4,000 people of Chinese-American descent in Maine. The Chinese long have been interested in sending their children to prestigious New England schools, such as Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but have more recently been noticing Maine as a place to settle, Han said.

Han said the governor’s comments don’t help the state’s reputation in light of anti-Chinese sentiment during the Lewiston mayor’s race, when Chinese-American Ben Chin lost to incumbent Mayor Robert Macdonald. A Lewiston landlord sparked controversy by installing a sign on a building that said, “Don’t vote for Ho Chi Chin,” a play on words referring to former Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh.

Han said Chinese names are typically one-syllable, rhyme with English words or sound like noises, so that’s why some people make such jokes.

Kwok Yeung, president of the Chinese & American Friendship Association of Maine, said the governor’s comments lack racial sensitivity.

“It’s not nice to make fun of someone’s name,” Yeung said.


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