Rush Limbaugh's imitation of the Chinese language during a recent speech made by Chinese President Hu Jintao may have been phonetic gibberish, but Asian-American lawmakers in California and nationally think they know exactly what Limbaugh was saying: He was mocking all Asian people. And now they're demanding an apology.
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."
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. But her issue seems to be more with the mocking of the communist leader, not the language. "Making fun of any country's leader is just very disrespectful for someone who says he is a proud American," she said.
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."
Yee says he has received death threats since speaking out against Limbaugh, including 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."
"It's just been a disappointing experience," Yee said, and then went as far as to lament that "we still have individuals who are racist."
Limbaugh did not respond to the AP's request for comment, but it would not be surprising if he used his number-one rated radio program to comment.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.