When I left home for San Francisco around 1970, it was an exciting new beginning for me. I had graduated high school in 1968 and spent two years at Merritt College on what was then-called Grove Street in Oakland, and later named Martin Luther King Boulevard. Many Black Panthers attended Merritt. We Merritt students formed "Orientals for Self Awareness" and interviewed and hired Black Panther Richard Aoki to teach Asian American Studies. He taught for over 30 years until his retirement.
Until 1968 all I felt was bitterness and bleakness about the future and being Asian, growing up poor in East Oakland. That changed when I started going to college and became involved in an Asian American group. No longer ashamed, I was now proud of our past and proud of the struggles of my parents. I began going to anti-war demonstrations and riding the bus to hear Asian American speakers at Cal. I was introduced to a new Asian American culture; seeing the living art created by Frank Chin performed by Curtis Choy, Michael Paul Chan et al; this was part of my new life. I no longer felt the dorky, four-eyed, meek Chinese-Nothing, but could stand tall.
I decided to leave home to attend San Francisco State College. Although I was accepted as a transfer student to UC Berkeley, I declined. The Cal students looked to me to be more from the suburbs—plus, since the bus from my parents' house would take me right to the UC campus, there’d be no excuse to move away from home. And when I saw Frank Chin's group of actors, writers and artists from SF State, I knew that was for me.
San Francisco State had just ended their Third World Strike. Unlike Cal Berkeley, the SF State Third World strike vision was grounded in a working class environment. Most of my friends there were children of garment workers, waiters, and laborers. Immediately I started taking classes in Asian American Studies, which was just forming and led by George Woo, James Hirabayashi, Jeff Chan, Sam Tagatac. For their amusement, my people made me Chair of Chinese American Studies for a semester. I helped teach a class on Asian American women, led by Pat Sumi, with Lora Foo & Jennie Yee. I'm meek and couldn't speak in public, but helped where I could. I also helped with the Chinese American Resources Project, led by Frank Chin and Jeff Chan interviewing Asian American notables, like journalist Charles Leong. Most of my friends had goals in arts and culture. A roommate became a founder of Kearny St Workshop. Another made the film “The Fall of the I Hotel”, another friend was the director of the Asian American Theatre.
But I felt there had to be a fundamental change to what we hated in society. We needed to change why we've been wronged and exploited. That led me to the International Hotel fight against eviction. The people I met there made a deep impression in my life.
I remember Mrs Lau as a most encouraging and determined woman during the fight for the I Hotel and other Chinatown struggles--Jung Sai garment workers, Lee Mah electronics workers, San Fran Hotel tenants. I believe she was once a garment worker. She lived in the Ping Yuen projects in Chinatown with her teenage daughters. Mrs Lau was middle aged, with greying short hair. She liked to wear sleeveless shirts, as she was a little overweight and always hot. One time we visited her at home and she was standing, knees bent, arms out as if she was trying to keep from drowning, saying that she had to go back to look for him. Apparently she loved a man she couldn't marry in China and always thought about him. She didn't like the man she had married, who either died or left her, it wasn't clear. Her daughters were resigned to her breakdowns. But she was a strong woman who was bold to step forward and speak out against injustices at protest events. I admired her and always wonder what became of her.
When I first became involved with the I Hotel, I met Howard and his sidekick, Yee Tung. Both were tenants. Howard was a Chinese man in his forties. He was blind because of diabetes and maintained himself with intelligence and grace, a quiet dignity. Yee Tung was smaller, older and feisty. After Howard's death, Yee Tung's personality became louder and even more like a prankster. Howard's funeral was the first time I saw how poor people are buried--in a wooden crate, not a coffin. Money can't buy the quality of a person. Howard died from diabetes, nails hammered into the crate, buried in a pauper's grave. He was a wise man and believed it was right to protest.
Dignity and respect is the first thing I think of when I recall the elders I met in Chinatown. I didn't know much about their politics or past struggles, but I understood poverty. My parents, brother, two sisters and I lived in one room and my uncle and his family slept in the other for most of my childhood. My parents hardly made a minimum wage. My father made less than the minimum wage and had no days off--working 7 days a week, every day of the year. I remember Fong Bak worked hard to ensure dignity and a respectful atmosphere toward the elderly at the Asian Community Center. He insisted ACC be kept clean and orderly and brought in flowers from his yard for decoration.
Fong Mu was the only San Fran Hotel woman tenant to join with the male tenants in their fight against eviction from the San Fran Hotel. She was elderly, quiet yet courageous. I learned from knowing her that the masses of women who live in single hotel rooms made their clothes by hand. She hand-stitched her polyester outfits. Perfectly fitted. Amazing. This added to my admiration of her and my mother. How smart they are compared to me.