Opening Remarks by Ted Capener
(voice over historical photos of the Transcontinental Railroad)
They first came to Utah in the late 1860s to earn wealth for their families back home. These resilient, hard working Chinese laborers became the driving force in the building of the Central Pacific leg of the Transcontinental Railroad, today Utah Chinese celebrate a rich and long lasting heritage in our state. This week KUED broadcasts the premiere of the PBS series “Becoming American” Tonight we take a look at Utah’s Chinese Community.
Introduction: Good evening. I’m Ted Capener. Thanks for joining us. Our special guests are: Lou Tong, who grew up in Salt Lake City and now lives in Cedar City. He served as director of Asian Affairs for the State of Utah in the1980s. Huiying Wei was born and raised in Beijing. She was educated in China and in the U.S. and is now an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Weber State University. Judge Michael Kwan was born and raised in Los Angeles and has lived in Utah for the last 20 years. Judge Kwan is a justice court judge in Taylorsville. He is the current president of the Utah Organization of Chinese Americans.
Capener: Thank you all for joining us. We appreciate your being here. You’re going to tell us all about Chinese community in Utah, the history, what’s happening now and what’s going to happen in the future. Before we begin our questioning, we want to a look at the PBS series, “Becoming American” which airs on KUED this Tuesday through Thursday evening at 8 p.m. Let’s take a brief look. It’s going to be a superb series and runs most of this coming week. Judge, let me turn to you first since you are now the head of the Organization of Chinese Americans. How many Chinese people, Chinese Americans live in our state now?
Kwan: There are approximately 11,000 throughout Utah and throughout the Wasatch Front primarily.
Capener: How many of those would be native, how many would be born here?
Kwan: Well, I could tell you that we have a very large segment of the population that have come here for school over the last few years. There are those who have been here for hundreds of years, whose families have been here since the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. So it really varies.
Capener: The Central Pacific leg of the Transcontinental Railroad coming from California. Now, you came here Professor from China, you were born in Beijing, educated in China and in the United States, how long have you been here?
Wei: 18 years.
Capener: And why did you come here?
Wei: Well, I came here to pursue my higher degrees. And I was a professor of English language and at that time it was a big trend that a lot of Chinese students came to the United States to pursue higher degrees.
Capener: Yes, it still is.
Wei: That’s right, but actually the numbers have slowed down a little bit compared with the 1980s. In the 1980s there was a big rush for Chinese students to come to the United States.
Capener: Why more then than now?
Wei: China had just opened up and they badly needed the technology and the advance science. So that’s why they really need to bridge the gap between
the advanced technology and the backward Chinese technology so that’s why a lot of young scholars were encouraged and actually the government sponsored so many scholars to the United States and in the mid-80s, they started to encourage students to come here on their own financial resources, so I actually came with F1 visa, which is on my own. I wasn’t really a scholar sent by Chinese government. So I came here with my own financial resources.
Capener: Are there Chinese students at Weber State now?
Wei: Yes, some, not many.
Capener: But there are quite a few at the University of Utah and at Utah State.
Capener: To study engineering, and physics and the sciences,
Wei: Computers, yes.
Capener: Mr. Tong, you were in fact raised in Salt Lake City, born in Denver, but came here at six-months old and lived here all your life. What was it like being Chinese and being raised in Salt Lake City?
Tong: Well, sometimes it was difficult and the part of town I lived in or grew up in, first we lived on Fifth South, which as you know was right down in town and later we moved up to Third East so it wasn’t so bad because there were a few other ethnic people going to the same grade school that I went to. That would be the old Sumner school on about Sixth South and Third East. There were some hard times and there were some good times, but growing up as kind of as a stranger and a loner. But we managed to do it.
Capener: Actually, your father was from China.
Tong: He is from China.
Capener: And why did he come here?
Tong: He came here as you said in your opening remarks, to get some wealth and have a life. You know during those late 1980s in China was in turmoil and internal struggles so they were staving and hard times in China so they were reaching out and leaving the country even though it was against the law in China to leave.
Capener: Judge Kwan, what is the purpose of your organization, The Utah Organization of Chinese Americans?
Kwan: We’re primarily a civil rights group. We seek equality and equal treatment of Chinese Americans here in the United States. We focus primarily on domestic issues.
Capener: You have a big membership?
Kwan: We have a growing membership. I like to say we have a little less than 100 in our organization right now. We are constantly looking for new members and seeking membership.
Capener: Professor you came from the mainland. Many of those here came from Taiwan, now, are there differences of opinions and beliefs and certainly different backgrounds between those people.
Wei: Yes, yes, actually even in universities we always have mainland Chinese student association and the Taiwanese student association and we celebrate Chinese New Year and all those occasions separately. It’s exactly because the political opinions are a little bit cultural differences is really not because for the language but it’s really how we were brought up and how we were socialized especially the issue between Taiwan and the mainland China so the sometimes that does make a division between the mainland Chinese
students and the Taiwanese students.
Capener: Mr. Tong you served as the director, as we indicted, of the state office of Asian Affairs. What were the main problems that you saw? Were there great divisions between Asian people from different parts of China and other parts of Asia.
Tong: There was and there is still is, because China is growing in providence and one providence is like a country unto itself, similar to Taiwan being a country by itself although China still claims that Taiwan is China.
Capener: does that present any problems Judge, for people here?
Kwan: It does and that is one of the reasons why we formed Utah Organization of Chinese Americans. There were several Chinese organizations in existence, and still are, that are based some on geography, some on family, some on social groups, but, the Utah Organization of Chinese Americans serves as an umbrella organization that can speak for all Chinese Americans here in the state. And the way we can do that is not to focus on the some of the foreign policy issues that divide us but to focus primarily on the issues that confront us here every day right here in Utah.
Capener: What are some of those main issues?
Kwan: Well, probably the first and foremost, is overcoming the foreigner stereotype. No matter how long you’ve been in the United States you’re always
seen as a foreigner. My sister who is a graduate student here, a doctorial student at the University of Utah and works as an advisor here on campus often talks about people coming up to her and asking where she’s from and when she says Los Angeles, they say no, really, where are you originally from and that’s where we’re originally from.
Capener: She’ll say Sugarhouse or Holladay, but as far as being foreigners there are people in Utah from all countries, one day we are told that that Caucasians are going to be the minority and it’s almost the case now in California.
Kwan: It seems inevitable that that is going to happen certainly. It looks like the Hispanic population which has grown tremendously in this state is going to be the first to create a very large create a very large minority population that will be politically active and politically influential. We’d like to see the same thing happen with the Chinese and Asian Pacific communities as well.
Capener: Do you see a big growth in the Asian population in the coming years?
Tong: I do. I think there will be some growth. The population growth will be coming internally of the United States, because they are moving from the bigger cities into the smaller towns because it is safer and more friendly. And opportunities there also.
Capener: And that’s us.
Tong: And that’s us. The growth will be very, very small but it will be growth. As Judge Kwan just said, the Hispanic population is growing by leaps and bounds and that is why, they are moving out of the larger cities and into smaller areas.
Capener: Of course, Chinese came here first to help build the railroad and many stayed and at that time many were here alone without families. Many left their families at home. I guess you have people in your organization who don’t have to look that far back to remember that have a connection with that.
Kwan: Certainly, my grandmother’s grandfather worked on the railroad. We know he was in California we know he was in Nevada and we are looking to see if he was here in Utah. My father is from China, so that makes me a first-generation American-born Chinese.
Capener: Oh really? Let’s show some photographs now. We have a photograph of a Chinese gentleman in the1860s who was in the United States and then Utah. We don’t know if he worked on the railroad, but we are told that he did. We have some railroad shots too, of the building of the railroad, that I’m sure will part of the Bill Moyers series next week on PBS. And one of the big, social gathering spots, Mr. Tong, you remember this, I remember it, is Plum Alley in Salt Lake City, now remind us of where that was.
Tong: It was between Main Street and State Street and First South and almost Second south. Plum Alley was a short block so it didn’t quite reach up to First
Capener: A lot of social gatherings there.
Tong: A lot of social gatherings there. It was probably the largest Chinatown in Utah. Of course it was and for many years.
Capener: Here is a photograph of a parade with Chinese participation. I am told in that regard that the parade that celebrated the driving of the Golden Spike that the Chinese were not even allowed, Judge, do you know this story?
Kwan: That’s true. They were excluded from the famous photograph. They were asked to leave even though they were there at the time. They had done a lion’s share of the work getting over the Sierra Mountains. And they were actually not invited. They were there before the photograph and there immediately afterwards to clean up after the ceremony.
Capener: That’s incredible. Does any of that still exist here? Any of that horrible racism?
Kwan: Well, we hope that it decreasing. Unfortunately, even in past weeks, a young child in West Valley was the victim of a hate crime and unfortunately that has not yet been investigated fully and unfortunately the legislature has chosen not to pass a hate crime statue.
Capener: And they should have, in your opinion.
Kwan: Well, I can’t say that as a judge.
Capener: Well yes, I think you did that just a minute ago.
Kwan: I simply pointed out the fact that we don’t have enforceable hate crimes which could have possibly helped this child.
Capener: Professor, you as a sociology professor are interested in interactions in groups and such. And it’s commonly felt that Chinese people in America are known as the model minority. Is that still the case and why?
Wei: Model minority was first given to the Japanese-Americans after the Second World War because of their hard work, diligent attitude, silence, never
complaining, and never saying anything about their Second World War treatment. And especially in the 1970s when Japan became another economic power and so many Japanese goods bombarded the American market.
And the homeland’s success also boosted the image of Japanese-Americans. So therefore they were given the title model minority but since 1965 when the federal government changed the immigration law you see the
influx of immigrants from all over Asia. And the first group of Taiwanese students came to the United States, pursued higher degrees, stayed here and became very successful economically in their fields, especially in professional fields, engineers, technology and computers. So, therefore their income tops the entire United States, even higher than that of white Americans. They are called non-Hispanic whites. Asian Americans also have the longest education years for the young people over 25 years old and Asians have double the rate of college graduates among the American average and Asians has twice as many college graduates than American average. So because of the economic success and the educational attainment and achievement in school, the whole Asian population has been given the title of model minority.
Capener: To what do you attribute this mortification to excel? This willingness to go to school…
Wei: There are different explanations. One is the cultural theory. In Asia education is regarded as the highest achievement. And Confucian influence,
especially in Eastern Asian countries, education is the highest occupation, Money cannot match the knowledge you could have. So, if you read 10,000 volumes of books that would be regarded as the highest. Another explanation is that Asian Americans are considered as a voluntary minority, which means they came here on their own. They were not enslaved, they were not bought, they were not forced to come and they were not conquered. And they were not occupied. So they came here to pursue a better life, because life at home was not very good. They are motivated people. Not everybody has the courage to come to a new land without knowing the language for most of them. Those people have that motivation.
Capener: Mr. Tong, is there a difficulty in integration of new immigrants.
Tong: Yes. There was a difficulty for people coming from central Asia, the Vietnamese come in large numbers to Utah, it was one of the larger receiving
states it was difficult for them because of the feeling in the country, Utah and Salt Lake City, of anti-Asian people. And so it was difficult . Those that have stayed are glad they did, but 90 percent of those immigrants, refugees that first came in, have left for Utah for California, friendlier atmosphere and more people of their own.
Capener: Is the anti-Asian attitude disappearing?
Tong: I think it is disappearing. Those feelings were because of war, jealousies and prejudice.
Capener: Are there problems among the generations? There are older gentlemen here, and yet you have young Chinese and older Chinese and their grandparents, is there a generation gap there?
Kwan: There is, to a very large extent as the younger generation, particularly as those who are born in the United States, try to assimilate into American culture, they tend to lose part of their Asian identity particularly their Chinese culture and history. And that is very distressful to the older generations who feel that is an important of their life and important part of who they are. I think that as the younger generation grows up, as I have, now 40, you understand and appreciate the loss. I certainly do. I wish I could speak the language simply as well as some of us here, simply because there is a whole new generation of immigrants….
Capener: Do your parents speak Chinese in the home?
Kwan: They do. They both do
Capener: Then why don’t you?
Kwan: It’s embarrassing because I speak with an American accent.
Capener: They don’t want to hear you speak Chinese?
Kwan: I think they would like me to speak Chinese.
Capener: How important it possible to maintain a heritage and assimilate at the same time? Is it possible?
Tong: I think it is possible and I know it is important. Some of the Chinese organizations in Salt Lake have developed the schools to bring in the younger generation to teach them the heritage and the teach them the language with some resistance from the kids that go, because they want to be part of the
community and the community is out playing ball or whatever, not going to school to learn a second language. When the refugees were coming here, it was English was the second language and now Chinese would be the
second language for those that are born here. It’s a common thing, they are called ABC’s. That is American-Born-Chinese. The older people want their heritage and history to be passed on and an understanding of what they are.
Capener: And you think that is a good idea.
Tong: I think that is a good idea. One thing is that Michael, and professor and Lou Tong will always be Chinese not matter born here or lived here. He will
always be Chinese
Capener: Professor, Let me ask you the same question.
Wei: It is true, no matter how long you’ve lived here and even if you were born here, people ask, “where are you from and when are you going back? “ or
they will say “Where are you from and what brought you here?” You face that.
Sometimes you have this marginality kind of identity. Question: Am I ever going to be accepted by this culture? So in order to have that psychological fulfillment, you do want to look at your roots, and say I am Chinese even though I don’t notice it, other people remind me all the time. So therefore, know your roots, know where you are, you have an anchor.
Capener: And do you feel you are accepted?
Wei: No. I want to be accepted but I am reminded repeatedly with peoples questions. Such as where are you from, your English is very good, what
brought you here? When I first came to Utah they asked me “where are you from?” and I said, from New York and they looked puzzled. “No, where are you really from?” I asked, “Are you asking me where I am from originally? And they said “both.”
Capener: Judge, we have 20 seconds, answer my questions.
Kwan: Well, I think the Moyers piece is very important. I hope people watch it because becoming American is really something we really struggle with, the Chinese community. If you think about what is an American, it’s not what you look like, it’s what you believe in. If you believe in freedom, if you believe in liberty you can be an American regardless of where you happen to have been born or where your parents happened to have been born. So I think that’s
important to remember.
Capener: Great last word Judge. Thank you all for having been here. For more information about our discussion, the PBS series or the culture and history
of the Chinese community here in Utah, you can visit our new web site, www.kued.org/chineseamerican and if you would like to comment about our discussion send us an e-mail at civic@ kued.org or call our viewer hotline, 581-KUED.