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A Son Recalls How His Parents Survived Anti-Chinese Discrimination

In this interview, Thomas Chinn (1909-1997), an American-born son of Chinese immigrants, recalls the choices his parents made in the face of anti-Chinese discrimination and violence. Chinn was founder, publisher, and editor of the Chinese Digest, the first English-language weekly newspaper for Chinese Americans in the United States, and later the Chinese News. He was also the primary founder of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

[My father] left San Francisco because he found the opportunity for more permanent employment as a cook. He had a trade, so he left San Francisco and moved his family. . . .

So when he brought his family [to Oregon] he decided he would put some of his money--he had some from his years of working--into building a small house where he could put his family. Then, as the years rolled by, he bought another piece of property, and a third. But even before that he was already buying lots in Oregon, for this reason: he foresaw the possibility that immigration was going to be curtailed, because there had to be a limit; so if the exclusion law came into effect he could say, “I am a property owner here. I’ve been here before, before the Exclusion Act came, and here's my proof; here’s my deed. I have people, Caucasians, in the town where I live who can vouch for me.” So with such proof he was able to go back and forth to China freely without worrying so much about being held up. That was one advantage he had over the average Chinese who did not have the foresight or the earning power that he had to follow his idea of buying security.

. . . [My father belonged to the] Chinese Equal Rights League of America. He joined on March 24, 1897. . . . this organization went wherever the Chinese were, to try and get them to support this drive to accord equal rights to those Chinese who wanted to become citizens and to live in America. So they had to fight for their rights as early as before the turn of the century. . . .

For several years prior to moving to San Francisco, my father and mother were trying to get us to learn as much about our own culture as possible. Because while we were far away from San Francisco and other turbulent areas where the Chinese were discriminated against, they felt a certain uneasiness about what if the country decided they didn't want any Orientals here and deported all of us, regardless?  . . .

[On physical attacks against Chinese immigrants:]
. . . Wherever the Chinese had a small, growing community, periodically [non Chinese would] come in, and although it could never be proven, sometimes they’d set fire to the Chinatown and burn it up. Then the Chinese would move to another area and start again. When you tried to fight back, like trying to punch or beat up somebody who was attacking you, then the whole gang would come up and invade Chinatown, if the Chinatown was small, and they would wreck the place, or at least try to. The Chinese knew they couldn’t fight back against the numbers they had. . . .
 
My family hired some Chinese men to teach us how to write and speak Chinese, and how to read. But after spending all day in an American school, and then trying to revert back to a strange language that as children we never knew except for a few words from our parents, it was very hard. . . . That was one of the deciding factors for my parents—“Our children are getting too Americanized; they have no Chinese friends, they have no Chinese background. We think maybe we'd better move them back to San Francisco where they can live in Chinatown and learn more about their Chinese culture.”

That was the final decision that my parents made, that they'd better move back [to San Francisco] in spite of the fact that my father’s earnings would be greater in Oregon. He thought he could get work in some restaurant or with some private family as a cook. But by that time, 1919, there was very little call for private family cooks, and certainly there were no Chinese restaurants to any great extent in those days. We did live for a little while on the rents that my parents got from the property they had rented out to others. . . .

Source | Ruth Teiser/Thomas W. Chinn, "A Historian's Reflections on Chinese-American Life in San Francisco, 1919-1991: Oral History transcript/Thomas Chinn", The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1993, from Calisphere, http://content.cdlib.org/xtf/view?docId=hb5779n97v&query=&brand=calisphere.
Interviewer | Ruth Teiser
Interviewee | Thomas W. Chinn
Rights | Used by permission of The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “A Son Recalls How His Parents Survived Anti-Chinese Discrimination,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed July 21, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/988.

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