This mural was unveiled on SF State’s campus in 2003, and honors Asian American historical figures and the 1968 Third World Liberation Front strikers that paved the way for the first and only College of Ethnic Studies in the U.S.
Pulitzer Prize-winning alumnus Jose Antonio Vargas tapped as keynote speaker
As a young political reporter for The Washington Post during the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Jose Antonio Vargas found he had leg up on his colleagues thanks to courses he took in San Francisco State University’s College of Ethnic Studies. While some of his fellow reporters were dismissive of one of the candidates, Vargas knew not to underestimate the junior senator with a background in community organizing.
“They were questioning whether Barack Obama was electable. They didn’t know much about Black political history,” said Vargas, who graduated from San Francisco State in 2004 with bachelor’s degrees in political science and what was then called black studies (now renamed Africana studies). “Having that background was kind of a fundamental in my own reporting experience. I think ethnic studies unlocks so much of what we don’t know and what we are not taught. In this country American history for so long has been White history.”
SF State 2004 alum Jose Antonio Vargas
On April 20, Vargas will return to SF State to celebrate his ethnic studies roots as the keynote speaker for the Asian American Studies Department’s 50th Anniversary Gala. Vargas, who won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for his coverage on the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, is a Filipino immigrant and an outspoken immigrant rights activist. He hopes to honor the legacy of those who came before him while also looking toward the future.
“I think Asian Americans play a really pivotal role, and for far too long the Asian experience has been erased, marginalized and minimized,” said Vargas, who also directed the Emmy-nominated documentary “White People” about white privilege. “So how do we claim our space without erasing others? What does that look like?”
Founded in 1969, SF State’s College of Ethnic Studies was created as a result of a historic campus strike led by the Black Student Union and the Third World Liberation Front. As one of five departments within the college, Asian American Studies has evolved to become the largest program of its kind in the country. Asian American Studies Professor and Department Chair Russell Jeung says social justice and activism aren’t just part of its history: They’re at the forefront of its mission today.
“Effecting positive change in our communities is our top priority, and transforming students is part of that larger agenda,” he said.
And it’s not just SF State students that can be transformed. On March 21, the anniversary of the end of the strike in 1969, the Asian American Studies Department hosted a summit dedicated to creating an ethnic studies curriculum for high schools if California State Assembly Bill 331 passes. (The bill would make it a requirement for high school students to take an ethnic studies class in order to graduate.) Asian American Studies Assistant Professor Eric Mar said the resulting sample curriculum was provided to state officials after the summit.
“As teachers here, we have held a number of campus and community events that led up to the gala,” said Mar. “It allows us to bring the spirit of social justice activism into the classroom as educators more as we reflect on our department’s history with our students.”
Graduate student Philip Nguyen is a first-generation Vietnamese American, and says the department has helped him understand his own family’s history. He looks forward to continuing the legacy of the department as an educator after graduating.
“I definitely feel a sense of pride. People want to come to be a part of what we’re doing here,” said Nguyen, who will be attending the gala. “Being at SF State, with all of its history, I feel like we’re the ones to bear the torch moving into this next generation, to continue the work and run with it.”
The gala — Moving Mountains: 50 Years of Asian American Studies at SF State — is being co-hosted by SF State’s College of Extended Learning, Asian American & Pacific Islander Student Services, Dream Resource Center and Black Unity Center. Proceeds from the evening will fund internship stipends and career training for low-income and first-generation Asian American studies majors.
For more information, visit the gala’s official event page.
Michelle wu wanted to free the T. On a subfreezing February morning, the Boston city councilor was handing out flyers at the Park Street subway station. In a soft voice, she urged bundled commuters to sign a petition opposing the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority’s proposal for a 6.3 percent fare hike, part of her campaign to make the T free. The gold-domed state house rose behind her. Below, one of the notoriously failing trains slowed to a stop.
For weeks, Wu had been making her case, sometimes with her youngest son on her hip as she told local reporters that Boston needed to do better for climate and community. She didn’t present concrete plans for alternative funding so much as urge the MBTA and lawmakers to seriously discuss the possibilities. “Making the investment in fare-free transit would not only nourish our future, but also align with our history,” Wu wrote in an op-ed in The Boston Globe, referencing the state’s establishment of the first public school, park, and library in the country. Wu knew her audience, reframing the city’s history as a roadmap for how to move forward.
In the past, no member of Boston City Council, long a rubber stamp for the mayor, had ever led such a crusade against the MBTA. But Wu embodies the kind of political change that’s making waves in Washington, D.C., and cities across the country. Ayanna Pressley, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib defy the status quo in Congress. Once considered a long shot, the presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg has become a 2020 sensation, with his opposition to the Electoral College and fresh approach to Christianity and gay rights. This month, Lori Lightfoot was elected Chicago’s first black female and openly gay mayor.
As the Democratic Party rapidly diversifies, young, progressive women of color such as Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and Wu—Pressley’s former council colleague in Boston—have ignored calls to “wait your turn” and have run for office pushing progressive policies.
As Peter Beinart wrote in the fall following Pressley’s victory as the state’s first black woman elected to Congress, politics are no longer local, for “the part of America you’re from matters less than it once did, and the kind of America you believe in matters more.” The kind of America that new Democrats believe in is often an activist one, which is visible in traditional, hidebound Boston, where the city council overwhelmingly passed Wu’s resolution to support the Green New Deal earlier this month.
With Pressley, the first woman of color elected to the city council, having moved on to the national level, Boston City Council remains an incubator of new politics. Ten years ago, no woman of color had ever served on the council. Today it’s composed of seven white men (three of whom are departing in this year’s election) and six women of color, including its president, Andrea Campbell, who succeeded Wu last year.
Wu is an example of this transformation. She is not from Boston. A Taiwanese American, she is the council’s youngest member, at 34. In a 19-way race for councilor-at-large seats in 2013, her first political run ever, she came in second. Just a few years later, she was elected unanimously as the first woman of color to serve as council president. And now people are already talking about her as the next mayor of this traditionally Irish Catholic city, which, for all its progress, remains one of the two most populous cities in the country (the other being Indianapolis) that has yet to elect a mayor who is not a white man, despite being majority-minority for the past decade.
Wu stands out from many of her political peers because of her particular leadership style. Unlike Pressley, Wu isn’t known for being an impassioned speaker. Unlike Ocasio-Cortez, Wu would never be described as a “bomb-thrower and agitator.” For most of her life, she didn’t think of herself as a leader; her report cards once urged her to participate more. “It sort of takes people by surprise how she is able to take command of a room, a situation, or a group of people to get things done,” says Roger Lau, who worked as the political director of Elizabeth Warren’s Senate campaign during the time Wu served as its constituency director.
But Wu has emerged as one of the city’s most effective and diplomatic politicians. She has negotiated with the mayor on issues such as government transparency, short-term-housing-rental regulations, and green energy, earning a reputation for both hyper-detailed policy work and humility in the face of a prideful city. When we met for coffee after Wu’s morning of petitioning, she deflected from commenting on “old” and “new” Boston, tucking her shoulder-length black hair behind her ears, eyebrows sloped up. “Even the folks who some people would call ‘Old Boston’ today were ‘New Boston’ at one point in their family’s history, right?” Wu said.
On another cold February day, 50 years earlier, Senator Ted Kennedy addressed a crowd gathered in Government Center for the inauguration of a new city hall. “Urban life in the United States has come to a critical point of decision, caught between the narrowing walls of change and decay on one hand and, on the other, priorities created for another age,” Kennedy warned. The brutalist-style City Hall was meant to usher in a new Boston and leave behind the corruption and economic woes of the 1950s. But five years after Kennedy’s speech, in 1974, Boston was rioting over the integration of its public schools.
When Wu entered her office for the first time, in January 2014, the pink missed-call slips on her desk from disappointed constituents indicated people’s worry that “New Boston” had still not yet arrived. Wu had promised her vote for city-council president—her first as an elected official—to Bill Linehan, a five-term councilor from South Boston who was thought to represent the old guard. (At the time, Linehan’s latest media flare-up was for saying that an elected official from South Boston should host the neighborhood’s Saint Patrick’s Day breakfast rather than the state senator per tradition; many viewed this as an attempt to prevent the new senator, the first woman and person of color to represent the district, from hosting.) The Globe editorial board called Wu’s support for Linehan “a head-scratcher, at the very least” and her reasoning “honest enough but politically naïve.”
Caught between campaign and office staffs, Wu inexpertly fielded the onslaught of criticism herself. Wu, as she still does today, stood by her decision, explaining that she cast her vote because of Linehan’s administrative ability to lead the council and urging the city to avoid dichotomizing “New Boston” and “Old Boston.” “I reject the notion that Boston is a city hopelessly divided by neighborhood, income level or political outlook,” she wrote in a statement at the time. “The only way we can move the whole city forward is by working together—even if that means reaching beyond the confines of what’s easy or comfortable.”
Though she lost some supporters, Wu gained the respect of many initial disapprovers because of her loyalty to her word. As Wu told me, the incident stressed all that she had to learn about “how deeply racial disparities and divisions were right under the surface of that conversation and so many other policy conversations we have across the city.”
Like Wu, many of Boston’s political groundbreakers—Pressley, Warren, Attorney General Maura Healey, and former Governor Deval Patrick, among others—did not grow up among Boston’s historic disparities and divisions. As much as their “outsider” label complicated breaking in, it also perhaps made these candidates more willing to challenge Boston’s status quo.
Pressley, who was raised in Chicago like Wu, told me that she was so accustomed to seeing diversity in Chicago politics that she didn’t realize the unlikelihood of her candidacy in Boston; by contrast, Wu wasn’t even aware of political role models, commenting in a 2016 interview that people often told her she should become a figure skater like Michelle Kwan, one of the few Asian American women to achieve mainstream success.
Her immigrant parents remained distant from politics and taught Wu, the eldest of four, the value of hard work and to keep one’s head down. When Wu arrived in Boston in 2004 to study economics as an undergraduate at Harvard, she didn’t even think of herself as a Democrat or a Republican.
Unbeknownst to Wu, Boston politics at the time were prefiguring her own career trajectory. In 2005, the Pennsylvania-raised Sam Yoon made history not only as the first Asian American on city council, but also as the first-ever candidate to win an at-large seat on his first run, as Wu would do less than a decade later.
In 2007, Maura Feeney became the second woman to serve as city-council president (Wu, the third). And while 2009 brought Pressley to the council—a historic win as the first woman of color—that year’s mayoral race demonstrated that there was a clear limit to how far “New Boston” could go. “Running against the mayor was like running against an institution that was almost synonymous with Boston,” says Yoon of his campaign against Thomas Menino, the mayor with a 73 percent approval rating.
Menino won decisively, becoming the city’s longest-sitting mayor, an unsurprising triumph considering that an incumbent hadn’t lost reelection since 1949 (when the corrupt mayor even served part of his term from prison).
Around this time, Wu had her own watershed moment. She was working as a consultant in Boston post-graduation when her mother suffered a mental-health crisis so severe that Wu moved back to Chicago to care for her and Wu’s 10-year-old and 16-year-old sisters. As Wu said, “she went from being the mom who was always the class parent … to not even wanting to engage with family members.”
For a long time, Wu couldn’t talk about what happened without crying; the stigma of mental illness made it even more difficult. At 23, she was responsible for her mother’s health care and her sisters’ education (she became the legal guardian of the youngest). She opened a tea shop in Chicago with her boyfriend (now husband) to help support the family, hoping that her mother would run it one day. Complete with book-themed teas (“Barack’s AudaciTea”), the shop was a catalyst for Wu’s future advocacy for small businesses. After slogging through city permitting for months, Wu closed the shop less than a year after opening once she realized that her mother would not soon be well enough to take over.
Wu moved back to Boston to attend Harvard Law School, bringing her family with her. (Wu’s mother is doing better, and she still lives in a two-family home with Wu, her sisters, her husband, and their two children.) As a law student, while raising her then-teenage sisters and finding her mother health care in Boston, Wu threw herself into politics, always seeming “a little surprised by how good she was,” as her professor and mentor Elizabeth Warren told me.
As an intern for Menino, Wu worked to make the restaurant permitting process accessible and helped establish Boston’s food-truck program. When Warren ran for senator in 2012, Wu volunteered, then worked full-time, for the campaign as its constituency director, all while finishing law school, studying for the bar, and preparing to get married. She was late to graduation because she was organizing a campaign event at North Station, so she hopped on the T in her cap and gown, only to commute back after the ceremony to continue working.
When the campaign ended, Wu announced, to the surprise of many, that she was running for city council in the fall of 2013. “Even my siblings told me … they weren’t sure this was the best idea, given my personality, being on the soft-spoken and shy side,” Wu said. As “someone who really wanted to make people happy, wouldn’t this be really negative, and all this public speaking?”
But as she wore out multiple pairs of shoes and her voice while campaigning, Wu learned how to tell her story, emphasizing her firsthand experience with education, health care, and small business as a way of promising that she would and could make city bureaucracy more transparent and accessible. She often thought of, though never spoke of, something her mother had once written down: “Remind Mimi”—her nickname for Wu— “to help people and think about government.”
At first, Wu was competing against an incumbent for an at-large seat, but the dynamics changed quickly when Menino announced that he would not seek reelection. Dozens of people entered the mayoral race, including two of the sitting councilors-at-large, freeing up two spots. Wu now had a better shot at an open spot, but she still had to beat out 18 candidates. She didn’t just beat out the others—she came in second for total votes, trailing Pressley, an incumbent, by less than one percentage point.
Wu was primed to work on the “inside,” thanks to her time with Menino and Warren. But Wu comes across as milder than both of her mentors (Menino, though beloved, was known for his temper), a quality that seems to have helped her build consensus on progressive issues.
In her first term, Wu was already challenging Mayor Marty Walsh, urging the City to withdraw its 2024 Olympics bid (citing its lack of transparency) in language that appealed to Boston’s pride. “In the drive to prove our status as a world-class city, let’s stay true to our democratic legacy and what Boston has already given to the world: informed independence and true debate,” she wrote in a post for WGBH, a local public-radio station. That summer, pressured by councilors and citizens, the City withdrew its bid.
Last spring, Wu led her colleagues in pushing Walsh to tighten short-term-housing-rental regulations. Councilor Lydia Edwards, who also worked on the stricter policy, says that Wu, newborn in arms, would not back down during these negotiations, but instead offered Walsh opportunities to collaborate. Wu won—the mayor signed a firmer proposal and the governor later contributed a state policy—but not without incurring the wrath of Airbnb.
The rental giant sent thousands of emails to Bostonians calling Wu out by name for aligning “with big hotel interests against the interest of regular Bostonians,” along with an inaccurate list of her policy points. With an army of supporters, Wu quickly shot down Airbnb on Twitter for “spreading fake news.” The company soon softened its language. (It did, however, file a lawsuit against the City earlier this year, as it has previously in New York and San Francisco.)
Wu would not confirm that she has plans to run for the mayor’s office, but political pundits and strategists I spoke with said she would be a clear favorite. Granted, she is young enough that a move like this wouldn’t necessarily come in the next mayoral election, in 2021.
And while some speculate that she may follow Pressley’s federal trajectory or head into the private sector, Wu has additional reforms to city politics she’d like to pass. In addition to curbing the mayor’s power, she has voted to check her own power by opposing pay raises and the lengthening of councilors’ terms, measures that both failed. “The people of the city are changing faster than the political structures,” says David Bernstein, a longtime journalist and columnist at WGBH. But in being able “to work with the powers that be while also working with and for the outside structures,” as Bernstein says, Wu has chipped away at the city’s institutionalism.
As a new mother in her first term in office, Wu spearheaded Boston’s first paid-parental-leave policy for city employees, which Barack Obama later praised. As council president, she restructured its committees and established a monthly councilor lunch to try to promote collaboration. And this summer, she substituted the mayor’s proposal to regulate lobbying in City Hall for a stricter one. If Wu were to become mayor, the change wouldn’t just be demographically historic—she would, perhaps, help redefine the notion of absolute mayoral power.
Wu has not acted alone. Walsh has helped facilitate this stronger relationship with the council. City Hall is less insular than it was under Menino, and the mayor’s word, once a golden ticket, no longer automatically wins a city councilor a seat, as the loss of Walsh’s chosen candidate in 2017 showed. Walsh himself is in some ways an untraditional Boston mayor; a genial underdog, he is unmarried and a recovering alcoholic. Still, Walsh’s story is familiar: An Irish Catholic labor leader, he was long considered “the unofficial mayor of Savin Hill” and only recently moved just four miles out of his childhood neighborhood.
Particularly with an approval rating as high as Walsh’s, an incumbency is tough to crack, even if Wu thrice winning a citywide seat suggests that she could be a stronger candidate than her precursors. Moreover, the council’s ability to work with the mayor and its increasing diversity could either give Wu traction or suggest that change has already happened. As the Globe’s Spotlight team wrote in its 2017 series on racism in Boston, “We have deluded ourselves into believing we’ve made more progress than we have.” The mayor’s seat in particular highlights this stagnancy: There have been just four mayors in the past 50 years. “Opportunities to seize power occur here once in a generation,” the Globe wrote.
The stakes of trying to seize this power have been high. “When I ran, people constantly pointed out how people like me don’t run for Boston city politics—whatever that means—but by the time Michelle came around, I’m not sure if that was the buzz around her,” says Yoon, who ran for mayor in 2009 and lost. (Yoon now works in D.C. as the executive director for the Council of Korean Americans.) His advice if Wu were to run for mayor? “Have a Plan B,” he said with a sharp laugh.
Later that February day, at a public meeting on the fare hikes, Wu stood at a podium and faced a long table with two men from the MBTA. Nearly 200 people, many waiting to speak, sat behind her. “Imagine the opportunities and the access that would open up for generations in our city,” she said with a practiced cadence. “This is the approach we should be pushing toward, not a regressive fare hike on the backs of working families.”
Though Wu’s comments received enthusiastic applause, less than two weeks later, the MBTA announced the implementation of the fare hikes. A sliver of compromise emerged—the buses, the MBTA’s mode of transportation that tends to support the city’s lowest-income neighborhoods, would remain the same price and overall fares would not rise again for another three years, longer than in the past. When we spoke by phone a few weeks later, Wu seemed undeterred. She was already moving forward with efforts to make the Bus 28 route free.
Ronald Wong, 49, learned his way around the political landscape as a senior staffer for California governor Gray Davis and an appointee in the Clinton administration. Today, his Pasadena, California-based marketing firm,Imprenta Communications Group, is leveraging that experience to help businesses, utilities, politicians, and nonprofits reach America’s consumers of color.
–As told to Saki Knafo
Our company has been around since 2001, but our mission has always stayed the same: empowering communities of color by giving them a voice and communicating to them in a way that respects their diversity and culture. We reach out to them in their own language. A lot of companies don’t do that. I was working for a political campaign in San Francisco, and the other consultants were saying the Chinese community was split on an initiative. I asked them, “Did you poll the Chinese in Chinese?” They said no.
The bulk of our work is what is called social marketing–marketing a social good like decreased smoking or the Affordable Care Act. That’s where community groups as well as local elected officials come into play. When we reach out to a community, we need to know who the pastors and priests are, and what the infrastructure is. Recent immigrants have a challenge in knowing what the country offers. Marketing to them is an extension of my political work. It’s just a different way to help empower these groups.
In 2014, the U.S. Labor Department formally inducted the Chinese workers who helped build the transcontinental railroad into its Hall of Honor, giving them a place in American labor history alongside union leaders such as Eugene V. Debs and A. Philip Randolph and champions of worker dignity such as Mother Jones and Cesar Chavez.
What was remarkable about that moment was that it took the nation 145 years to recognize Chinese immigrants’ role in building the nation.
From 1865 to 1869, as many as 20,000 Chinese laborers worked on the Central Pacific Railroad, which ran from Sacramento to Promontory Summit, Utah, where it was united with the Union Pacific Railroad in the golden spike ceremony marking the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. Those workers accounted for as much as 90% of the Central Pacific workforce.
The Central Pacific could not have been built without them — and without the Central Pacific, the history of the American West and California in particular might have been very different. That’s a fact to be considered as the 150th anniversary of the golden spike ceremony looms just a month away, and as immigration again roils American politics.
Chinese workers were acknowledged as ubiquitous and indispensable, but they were accorded no voice…. We cannot hear what they said, thought, or felt. GORDON H. CHANG, STANFORD UNIVERSITY
For the experience of the immigrant Chinese workers in America bears lessons for us today: Their importance in building the nation, the West and California is incontestable, yet has been obscured by racism and xenophobia that made it easy for subsequent generations to forget their role. They were low-paid laborers, denied a path to citizenship, victimized by violent reaction, yet without them America would be a different and a poorer place.
As Stanford historian Gordon H. Chang writes in his forthcoming book “Ghosts of Gold Mountain,” these workers have been rendered “all but invisible…. In fact, in some instances Chinese are written out of the story altogether.”
Chang began a concerted effort to redress the balance in 2012, when he and his Stanford colleague Shelley Fisher Fishkin organized the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford and put out a call for documents, including family papers, here and in China.
The prospects were not auspicious. “Through the years, with other colleagues, I tried to locate documentary material, but never with success,” Chang, a fourth-generation Californian, told me. “So I knew the chances of unearthing something that no one had found before were slim.” But there were “tantalizing leads,” he says — a mention by another historian of a taped interview with a railroad worker in the 1930s, for instance. “But we looked for the tape and couldn’t find it.”
In 2012, he and his colleagues began a systematic search of repositories around the country, identified descendants of railroad workers whose families might have documentary material, and reached out to colleagues in China, especially in Guangdong (Canton), the region northwest of Hong Kong from which the railroad workers came.
Indeed, the dearth of material was bewildering. Many of the workers were literate; tens of thousands of letters were known to have crossed the Pacific in the mid- to late 19th century, according to records of the Pacific Mail Steamship Co. “Yet, remarkably, not a single message from or to a Railroad Chinese in this vigorous traffic has been located,” Chang writes. He blames “arson, pillaging, and the willful destruction of Chinese belongings by hostile 19th century mobs in America,” as well as political upheavals in China and events such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Bit by bit, however, a picture emerged. There were Chinese-language material in the U.S. and China that had not been consulted before, archeological artifacts from the railroad route that revealed much about the Chinese workers’ daily lives, poetry and folk songs that told more about the workers’ hopes, fears and feelings, and family lore handed down through the generations as oral legacies.
Then there was the context of their employment, skated over by historians with little interest in the Chinese immigrant experience. In public, Chinese immigrants were denigrated as interlopers by political leaders.
Among the latter were Leland Stanford, California’s first Republican governor and the president of the Central Pacific. In his inaugural address as governor in 1862, Stanford disdained “the settlement among us of an inferior race … a degraded and distinct people” exercising “a deleterious influence upon the superior race.” Yet Stanford employed numerous Chinese workers at his home, some of whom were treated as almost family, and even had his wife, who was suffering a serious infection, treated by a Chinese healer, who brought her back to health after Western medicine had failed.
When railroad construction began, Charles Crocker had to fight a battle with Stanford and his other partners to hire Chinese laborers, even though white European laborers were so scarce that the progress of the railroad was in question.
As Chang relates, James Strobridge, the fearsome, eye-patched field superintendent, declared, “I will not boss Chinese.” He was overruled by Crocker with the words, “Did they not build the Chinese wall, the biggest piece of masonry in the world?”
Strobridge found his workers at first in Auburn, a community in the Sierra foothills with a large Chinese population dating from the gold rush. There he met a Chinese labor contractor identified as Hung Wah — almost certainly not his real name, for it translates as “working together harmoniously” and might refer to his position as a labor agent, Chang writes. Chang mined payroll and census records to assemble a glimpse of Hung Wah’s life — emigration to the U.S. in 1850 at perhaps 19, occupied initially as a miner but with an entrepreneurial streak that made him a valued intermediary between the Chinese workers and the railroad bosses.
The Chinese workers showed their worth quickly. They took on the lowliest and most dangerous tasks, were paid 30% less than their white co-workers — the whites received higher pay and board, the Chinese lower pay and no board — and were banned from managerial roles on the project. They were effective and disciplined workers, not given to drinking or carousing, and complaisant — until June 24, 1867, when the entire Chinese workforce stopped work, demanding pay parity with white workers.
The standoff lasted eight days, broken by a cutoff of goods and food by the company (or possibly the Chinese labor contractors), and the company’s hard-nosed refusal to negotiate. Eventually, Chang reports, the company quietly raised the Chinese workers’ pay, though not to parity.
Chang’s work fills in many of the blanks left by standard histories of the transcontinental railroad by Stephen Ambrose and David Haward Bain. Both mention the role of the Chinese laborers — how could they not? — but fail to give them an individual voice.
Bain’s accounts of the golden spike celebration at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869, for example, mentions that Strobridge introduced his Chinese foreman to the celebrants, without identifying Hung Wah by name.
Chang names three of the other workers likely to have been introduced that day, but observes that news accounts of the ceremony don’t mention whether the Chinese workers even spoke. This was and remains typical of their treatment in history. “Chinese workers were acknowledged as ubiquitous and indispensable,” Chang writes, “but they were accorded no voice…. We cannot hear what they said, thought or felt. They were ‘silent spikes’ or ‘nameless builders.’ ”
The most dispiriting part of the story of the Chinese railroad workers is their treatment after the railroad’s completion, when they were subjected to racial discrimination and violence.
“The 1870s and 1880s were a time of political reaction throughout the country,” Chang says. “The turning away from Reconstruction meant the resurrection of Confederate racial attitudes.” The Chinese, he adds, were “radically different racially, culturally, and in terms of the work style from Europeans.”
A depression that started in 1873 added economic conflict to the mix. The racist pandering in which Stanford engaged in 1862 found a ready audience. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese immigrants from entering the United States, Chinese resident aliens from citizenship and Chinese workers from working on government projects; in 1931 the companies building Hoover Dam were forbidden by their government contracts to employ “Mongolian [i.e., Chinese] labor.” That raised few objections from labor organizations of the time, which were anxious to preserve job opportunities for their own, typically Caucasian, members.
The Chinese Exclusion Act wasn’t repealed until 1943, when Congress recognized that such official discrimination gave the Japanese enemy a wedge to drive between the U.S. and its nationalist Chinese allies. Even then, visas were limited to 105 a year.
Chang writes that the railroad descendants’ family accounts echo with “a varying mixture of pride, anguish, celebration, and resentment.” Many see their ancestors’ labor on the railroad as “the purchase of, and the irrefutable claim to, American place and identity.”
But that’s weighed against “the ignorance and prejudice that demeaned the Railroad Chinese,” who “despite their sacrifice … were tossed aside after the railroad work was done, their stories marginalized or omitted from the histories that followed.”
In 1969, at a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the golden spike, then-Transportation Secretary John Volpe infuriated Chinese Americans in the audience by declaring, “Who else but Americans could drill ten tunnels in mountains 30 feet deep in snow? … Who else but Americans could have laid ten miles of track in 12 hours?”
Some 45 years after that, the Labor Department recognized the contributions of the railroad workers, and one year later, when President Obama welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping to the White House, he observed that “Chinese immigrants helped build our railroads and our great cities.”
Now, Chang says, “We may be at a turning point of Chinese Americans confronting the past and demanding a change.” The 150th anniversary of the golden spike ceremony beckons a month from now, marking an ideal opportunity to bring the workers who made it happen out of history’s shadows.
Two groups said they planned to host the event focused on Asian American and Pacific Islander issues Sept. 8.
Asian American political groups plan to host a forum in Orange County, California, for Democratic presidential candidates this September, the groups announced Thursday.
AAPI Victory Fund, a super PAC, and Asian Americans Rising, a PAC, said they plan to host the forum Sept. 8. Participants have not yet been announced, but the Orange County Register reported that an organizer said several “top-tier” candidates have pledged to appear.
The forum would highlight Asian American and Pacific Islander issues, a statement said.
“The diversity and breadth of the 2020 Presidential democratic field and our community’s desire to engage has surpassed our expectations,” Shekar Narasimhan, chair and founder of AAPI Victory Fund, said in a statement. “We felt it was important to hold this groundbreaking forum with Democratic candidates, to test if they believe the AAPI vote is worth investing in, and also to ensure that our community has the information needed to participate in the primaries and the general election.”
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently chatted with constituents ahead of the country’s upcoming election in May. Morrison, who’s seeking reelection, greeted a Korean voter with “Ni Hao,” or “hello” in Mandarin.
The constituent was quick to correct him, telling Morrison, “No, no, I’m Korean.”
The moment was pretty *cringe*.
Needless to say, Asians on the internet weren’t exactly pleased with Morrison’s mixup. And some pointed out that Morrison should’ve greeted the woman as he did every other Australian.
Morrison has since attempted to make light of the flub, telling the crowd at Chinese Australian Liberal candidate Gladys Liu, that he’s “no Asian languages expert, so I’m gonna say g’day to everybody.”
For the record, “hello” in Korean is “annyeong haseyo.”
The sun sets on a guard tower at the Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho, where a vast majority of people of Japanese descent were incarcerated during World War II. Many of those imprisoned were from Seattle. (Photo by Glenn Nelson)
In the late 1950s, Mike Ishii’s parents were one of the first nonwhite families to move into a previously all-white neighborhood near Sea-Tac Airport. They were as welcome as norovirus. Their neighbors plotted to drive them out. They found “Kill the Japs” spray-painted on the street in front of their house, and their windows were shot out with BB guns.
On Saturday, Ishii will be in Dilley, about 100 miles south of San Antonio, tojoin other Japanese Americans in a protest at the South Texas Family Residential Center, where mostly Central American women and children seeking political asylum are being detained. Ishii, who now lives in New York City, recently has worked against the separation of migrant families, as well as against the Trump-proposed Muslim ban. His efforts have been fueled by the history of his own family, which was forcibly removed at the outbreak of World War II to the Japanese concentration camp at Minidoka, in a desolate corner of south-central Idaho.
Given his picked-upon past and activist present, Ishii would not claim social, political or economic alignment with this country’s white mainstream. Then again, he is not surprised that other races see him and other Asian Americans that way.
“Asians are not from white cultures and we have experienced horrific racism by any standards, especially when viewed globally,” Ishii wrote in an email. “But we are often viewed as privileged servants and allies to white society.” This dynamic is used to create disunity among minority groups as a way of maintaining the status quo of white-dominated society, Ishii added.ADVERTISEMENT
Maybe because, like Ishii, I am a Japanese American who grew up in Seattle, I’m taken aback by the debate over whether the “Japs,” “chinks,” “flips” and “gooks”of this country’s ugly racial history — a “Yellow Peril” now also flavored by South Asians — should be considered people of color, lumped in with Blacks, Latinx and Native Americans. I was flabbergasted while watching the national Showtime talk show, Desus and Mero, turn into a discussion of an inevitable race war in the U.S. While interviewing the rapper Vince Staples, co-host Desus Nice, who is Jamaican American, dropped this: “ … push come to shove, people pick their allegiances very quickly. And the Asians already was, ‘Yo, we banging with the white people.’ ”
This declaration was made, and agreed upon, as casually and assumedly on point as if they were proffering that bananas were yellow on the outside but white on the inside. It filled me with the kind of dread that churned my stomach when I viewed Crazy Rich Asians, a film for which I had high hopes but to which I could not much relate. I worried that everyone would see us that way; Asian Americans have the highest median income of any racial group in the U.S., including whites, but also has the largest income disparity, with the top 10 percent making 10.7 times the income of the bottom 10 percent of Asian Americans.
The whitening of Asian America is not racial or cultural, of course, but economically based. Asian Americans, for example, recently have been lumped with whites in high-profile, reverse-discrimination suits against Harvard Universityand Google. Still, the mantle of “model minority” has felt more like an albatross to many of us. Although triggered to a point by culture, assimilation has been as much a defense mechanism for Japanese Americans in response to the World War II concentration camps and for other Asian groups reacting to immigration bans and other mistreatment. My own perspective is colored by an entire lifetime in Seattle spent south of the Chinatown-International District, where the people and experiences have been decidedly multiracial.
“It’s time for Asians to also understand and own up to the role that we have often been offered and bribed to play in exchange for access in white society,” Ishii said. “When we don’t align our interests with all other people of color being targeted by racism and instead accept privilege and opportunities not available to other communities of color — this is a form of internalized racism and opportunism. This dynamic often overshadows our experiences of racism in the eyes of the Black and Brown communities.”
Having lived on the East Coast for decades, Ishii has been exposed to the pervasive perspective of race in this country — as Black vs. white — that often is missing in Seattle. Erin Shigaki, whose family was also incarcerated at Minidoka, is a socially active artist here whose causes include #BlackLivesMatter. She says she identifies as a person of color, but when she was working for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., during the 1990s, a Black co-worker made a comment about white people, then added, “No offense, though, Erin.”
“I was stunned, floored,” said Shigaki, who helped design posters for this weekend’sDilley protest. “Didn’t say a word. But stewed about it, and obviously still remember the feeling — outrage, embarrassment, and also confusion.”
Stanley Shikuma serves on the board of the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and helped organize a multicity Tsuru (crane) for Solidarity origami folding event to support the Dilley protest. Seattle participants alone sent more than 10,000 cranes to protest organizers. Shikuma is a third-generation Japanese American whose family was incarcerated during the war. But he also grew up in Watsonville, California, and says Seattleites often overlook the role of demographics in shaping the multiracial alliances and viewpoints here.
“Seattle has a history of being a very white town with a strong streak of racism,” Shikuma wrote in an email. “Having small [communities of color], it made sense to band together. This is different than some places where one group (Blacks in Chicago, Latinos in Los Angeles) had enough numbers that they could push issues on their own.”
This weekend, Mike Ishii and many other Japanese Americans will begin their Texas visit in Crystal City, where some 4,000 were held during the war at the Enemy Alien Detention Center. Because of the camp experience, Japanese Americans across the country are assuming some primacy in the outrage over bans, mass detention and separation of migrant Black and Brown families. The slogans of this ongoing protest are echoes from our past: #NeverAgainIsNow and #StopRepeatingHistory.
I might add one more, because Desus Nice just might be correct about having to choose sides, albeit, I would assert, in a different, race-based war — the one against inequity, historic oppression and pitting us against each other: #WeAintBangingWithWhiteSupremacy.
The Committee of 100 (“C100”), a non-partisan, premier U.S. organization of Chinese-American leaders in business, government, academia and the arts, today announced its 30th-anniversary Annual Conference will be held on April 5-7, 2019, at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of normalized relations between the United States and China. Founded by I.M. Pei, the renowned architect, and Yo-Yo Ma, master cellist, among others, C100 began under the encouragement of Dr. Henry Kissinger, the 56th U.S. Secretary of State, to address issues of international concern between the U.S. and China, and promote the full participation of all Chinese Americans in American society.
This year’s conference theme, “The U.S. and China: New Visions,” will focus on the current geostrategic dynamics, how to bridge the strengths of both China and America, the economic importance of collaboration, and the positive future that cooperation can bring to both countries.
“C100 is in a unique and even ideal position to enhance the relationship between the United States and China,” says H. Roger Wang, Chairman of C100. “We have long focused on the many connections between the two countries, whether in business, education or culture. Instead of regarding each other with mistrust, we take the best of each other in order to grow a shared community. Through constructive dialogues, exchanges and initiatives, C100 has become an influential bridge-builder between the world’s two largest economies, and is helping to cultivate the next generation of leaders committed to continuing positive U.S.-China relations.”
At this year’s conference, C100 will recognize four honorees who embody the organization’s values and who have contributed to the legacy of strengthening U.S.-China relations and friendship, as well as Chinese-American inclusion and patriotism:
I.M. Pei, globally renowned Chinese-American architect and C100 co-founder, will be awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Award for Global Architectural Design”
Morris Chang, founder of Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company and known as the father of the semiconductor industry, will be awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Award for Global Technology Innovation”
Maurice R. Greenberg, Chairman and CEO of C.V. Starr, a global insurance industry icon, top adviser to important American and Chinese leaders, and a noted philanthropist, will be awarded the “Lifetime Achievement Award for Advancing U.S.-China Relations”
Peter Wang will receive a posthumous award for embodying the best of American ideals and heroism, as a 15-year-old Chinese-American freshman who gave his life while saving his classmates in the Parkland shooting last year. Wang was a member of the U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and aspired to attend West Point.
Various activities open to the press will be held on April 5, including a press conference with C100 Chairman H. Roger Wang; a press conference with C100 honoree Maurice R. Greenberg; an exclusive C100 CEO & Leaders Forum debate on China’s role as a leading global economy, with participation from SupChina, the Rhodium Group, Albright Stonebridge Group, and the University of Chicago; and C100’s signature Awards Gala Dinner for the evening at the Plaza Hotel in New York City. A full-day conference will take place on Saturday, April 6. The weekend will conclude with a C100 Town Hall on Sunday, April 7.
The full-day conference panel discussions on “The U.S. and China: New Visions” include:
Reflections and Outlook from Former U.S. Ambassadors
The Rise of China BioPharma: Opportunity, Threat or Both?
Fintech or Techfin? What’s Next for Global Financial Services
The Human Connection: China and America in Culture and Entertainment
New Engines for U.S.-China Economic Prosperity
Global leaders across business, government, academia and the arts providing new visions at the Conference include:
Ambassador Craig Allen, President, U.S.-China Business Council
Chong-En Bai, Dean, School of Economics and Management, Tsinghua University
Former U.S. Ambassador to China Max S. Baucus, Co-Founder, Baucus Group LLC
Yu Gong, CEO, iQIYI
Fei-Fei Li, Co-Director, Human-Centered AI Institute, Stanford University; Former Chief Scientist of AI/ML, Google Cloud
Yo-Yo Ma, Cellist
William McDermott, CEO, SAP
Tom McInerney, President & CEO, Genworth Financial
Former U.S. Ambassador to China Stapleton Roy, Founding Director Emeritus, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States
David M. Rubenstein, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Chairman, The Carlyle Group
The Honorable Kevin Rudd, President, Asia Society Policy Institute; 26th Prime Minister of Australia
Lawrence H. Summers, Charles W. Eliot University Professor and President Emeritus of Harvard University; Former U.S. Secretary of the Treasury
C100 builds understanding around shared interests between American and Chinese peoples, develops economic, educational and cultural platforms for collaboration, and leads on issues of critical importance to Chinese Americans while providing a global, nuanced point of view on U.S.-China relations. C100 is the only U.S. leadership organization focused on the U.S. and Greater China business connectivity as well as Chinese-American civic engagement.
C100 is a non-profit U.S. leadership organization of prominent and extraordinary Chinese Americans in business, government, academia, and the arts. Founded by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei and internationally acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, among others, it is an institution of U.S. citizens of Chinese heritage. For 30 years, C100 has served as a preeminent organization committed to the dual missions of promoting the full participation of Chinese Americans in all aspects of American life and constructive relations between the United States and Greater China.
The Committee of 100 welcomes media who are employed by accredited news organizations to apply for complimentary media credentials to cover the three-day events. Media registration requests will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. To register, media must submit requests to attend the press conferences, CEO & Leaders Forum Debate, and/or the Annual Conference via the media registration form here. On-site media registration will not be available.
Asians are transforming the fashion industry. (Illustration by Kell Kitsch, Deakin University)
It’s about time that we see more Asian representation in fashion. With big names like the Hadid sisters and the Kardashians dominating the scene in recent years, it’s been hard to see through the madness and into the diversity that lies in the industry.
From models to designers to social media influencers, Asian-Americans have been transforming the fashion community by bringing their own unique style to the table. Here are nine famous Asian Americans in the fashion world that you need to know about:
Known for her colorful, bohemian prints, Anna Sui is one of the most beloved designersof New York. A child of Chinese immigrants living in Detroit, she attended the Parsons School of Design in the 1970s. Sui launched her first collection in 1981, and her products can be found in 300 stores in more than 30 countries.
Her inspiration comes from a multitude of unique sources: rock ‘n’ roll music, flea markets, art museums, and it’s all with a modern twist. Sui mixes both vintage and modern prints in her clothing to create a kaleidoscope of historical and contemporary influences.
His newest streetwear collections, such as his collaboration with Adidas, have been a staple in every street-fashion fanatic’s wardrobe. Wang garnered even more success when he became a creative director of luxury brand Balenciaga in 2012. Upon entering menswear, GQ named him the best menswear designer, and his modern sportswear collections continue to inspire both men and women.
There isn’t really anything that Tomoaki Nagano, also known as NIGO, can’t do. A music producer, DJ and a fashion designer, NIGO is currently taking over the American streetwear market.
In addition to being one of the creative directors of Uniqlo, he founded his own clothing line called The Bathing Ape, or BAPE, in the early ‘90s. The urban clothing line has been highly praised among rappers and teens in both Japan (his homeland) and the U.S. Even though Nagano stepped down from BAPE in 2013, his influence hasn’t ceased.
This Korean-American social media star began her career on the YouTube channel “Clothes Encounters.” With YouTube as her first main medium, Jenn inspired her subscribers with lookbooks, vlogs and styling tips. From there, she started Eggie, her own fashion line.
Eggie’s debut collection, out in 2017, had a diverse blend of both sporty and feminine styles. Jenn continues to come up with affordable and versatile pieces that reflect her unique personal style, which is both effortless and put-together.
Passionate about interior design, Aimee Song started her blogging career in 2008, but eventually applied those skills into the world of fashion. The fashion blog was originally a side project to accompany her schooling, but she found that it could be much more than that.
Cassie Masangkay and Ricci Pamintuan make up the dynamic duo of college students, whose signature style and effortless chemistry make them a YouTube sensation. Their channel is unlike any other fashion accounts because of its quality and uniqueness.
The innovative editing in every video reflects both Cassie and Ricci’s styles, which are modern, eclectic and badass all at the same time. They are also strong advocates of thrift shopping, proving that it doesn’t take a lot of money to get a killer outfit.
Liu Wen boasts an astonishing resume as China’s first bona fide supermodel, the first East-Asian model ever to walk the Victoria’s Secret runway and the first Asian spokeswoman to land an international cosmetics contract.
Wen went international in 2007, the year when she was signed to a Parisian model agency; she was walking on catwalks for Tom Ford, Hugo Boss and other big brands the year after. Wen continues to be a prominent figure in high fashion and a pioneer for Asians in the industry.YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:7 Celebrities Who Wore It Best At The Met Gala 2018
After studying both acting and fashion design in college, this Shanghai-born supermodel made her mark in the world of fashion. Xi started her acting career in 2016 after being launched into stardom by her achievements in modeling.
Her infamous fall at the 2017 Victoria’s Secret fashion show was a huge setback for her, but it did not stop Xi from achieving her dreams. She later went on to walk for high-fashion brands like Balmain and Roberto Cavalli, and currently has quite the following on social media.
This Mexican-Filipino beauty originally rose to fame as a contestant on “America’s Next Top Model.” Despite her lack of success on the show, she is still making it big in modeling and working with popular brands like Nike and Forever21.
Through her open and honest connection with the followers, Biticon allows herself to be the clueless 20-year-old that she is, while showing off her fit figure and trendy street style. Biticon’s Instagram page showcases her unique aesthetic, quirky personality and daring clothing choices, setting her apart from other run-of-the-mill Instagram models.