By Ricky 廖啓輝 and Grace Leo 廖陳淑芬
Editor’s note: Shuk Fun Grace Leo is president of the Ventura County Chinese American Association (VCCAA), secretary of the Ventura County Chinese American Historical Society, and a corporate controller in the automotive industry. She is on the Board of Managers for the Camarillo Family YMCA and has served on the Board of Directors of the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce and Rotary Club of Oxnard, where she received the prestigious Paul Harris Award. Ricky Leo was an electrical engineer in the commercial aviation industry. Both are with the Chinese American Citizens Alliance SoCal Gold Medal Committee and serve on the Board of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. Both grew up in Rock Springs, Wyoming. This is from a Zoom interview with husband and wife on 14 August 2021.
About Ventura County
Grace: We came to Ventura in 1985 because we liked the open spaces and the small town feel. We have one daughter, Jennifer. During the earlier years, we were busy with our careers. We knew about the Ventura County Chinese American Association (VCCAA), but we didn’t really get involved. Then our daughter went to Chinese language school and got into Chinese classical dance. Now I am the president of the VCCAA.
Ricky: Ventura County, just northwest of Los Angeles County, has 10 cities: Camarillo, Fillmore, Moorpark, Ojai, Oxnard, Port Hueneme, Santa Paula, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks, and San Buenaventura. The population is about 45% White, 40% Latinx, and 7 to 8% Asian Pacific Islander.
Chinese came to this area in the mid-1800s, first as railroad workers and then as merchants, fishers, and laborers in Ventura and Oxnard. As early as the 1860s, Chinese lived on China Alley—near the San Buenaventura Mission.
The VCCAA was established in 1970. VCCAA’s motto is “We build cultural bridges!” and the goal is to encourage networking between Chinese Americans, provide a Chinese language school, and promote awareness of Chinese culture through civic activities. In 2000, the Ventura County Chinese American Historical Society (VCCAHS) was founded. And in 2004, they helped establish the China Alley mural on Figueroa Street in Ventura.
Grace: In 2012, the Museum of Ventura County had a special exhibit “Hidden Voices: The Chinese of Ventura County” which I found fascinating, so I started attending VCCAHS meetings. Next thing I knew, I was responsible for putting up an exhibit for the former mayor of Oxnard, William Soo Hoo.27 This was at the Camarillo Public Library in 2016. Bill Soo Hoo (1924–1990) was mayor from 1966 to 1970, and his parents established Mama Soo Hoo’s Orient, a restaurant on Oxnard Boulevard near China Alley. But I didn’t know anything about Mayor Soo Hoo. The deadline was coming closer, and I still had zero information. I called Bill’s wife, Angela (1933–2018). She was so gracious. “Can I come to your house at 5 this afternoon?” We stayed until 2 the following morning. She had this guest house with all these boxes. We saw Bill’s books, his papers, his gun collection, his military stuff… She took us to dinner, and we became good friends. Angela was a UC Berkeley graduate with a Stanford PhD, a pilot, and had started her own customs broker business.
I was also put in charge of arranging a Chinese style dinner banquet in honor of the 50th anniversary of Mayor Soo Hoo’s election to office. I contacted State Treasurer John Chiang, State Board of Equalization Fiona Ma, as well as other county and local officials who all showed their support. We had performances by our Classical Chinese Dance Troupe and the Camarillo Kung Fu and Lion Dance group.
VCCAA had a partnership with the Camarillo Public Library to celebrate Chinese new years. I arranged to have films, speakers, and other events. We successfully did this for the Year of the Rooster (2017), Year of the Dog (2018), Year of the Pig (2019), and Year of the Rat (2020). In 2019, our theme was the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Our guest speaker was Eugene Moy. Before we were quarantined in 2020, our theme was the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to Chinese American WWII veterans. We displayed these veterans’ pictures and their biographies, and they received certificates of appreciation from all of the local mayors and other county officials. We also invited Rick Eng who presented certificates on behalf of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance.
About the Congressional Gold Medal Project
Grace: Chinese American Citizens Alliance (C.A.C.A.) spearheaded the effort to register all the Chinese Americans who had served in World War II. We were asked to join the C.A.C.A. SoCal Gold Medal Committee. We got assigned to deliver awards to twelve veterans and helped with two others.
Ricky: There were 39 living veterans in Southern California. With the COVID quarantine, instead of waiting to go to Washington D.C. for a presentation ceremony, we hand-delivered the medals to the veterans at their homes. Two of our veterans passed during this time, and all were getting older.
Grace: We drove all over Southern California, from San Diego to Palm Springs to Los Angeles, then to Foothill Ranch, and back to Santa Paula and Ventura Beach. It was a real honor as we got close to these families. They all were in different circumstances, different health conditions, and different living arrangements. But when we got there, each one was such a character. We laughed and cried with each one of them. I learned so much from them; they are all forever etched into my heart.
On our first visit, the veteran was all in tears. Willie Pong of Carlsbad in San Diego County kept saying, “I wish my wife could be here.” He gave us a gift; he made these necklaces with crosses and a heart charm made from banana peels laminated with nail polish. He is supposed to be on a special diet. But as we were leaving, he said, “I’m really missing dim sum, do you want to go?” We couldn’t go as we were in a pandemic. But we were able to share some dim sum snacks we had in the car for our road trip.
We got a calligrapher friend to write 精忠報國 (served country with exemplary loyalty) which we framed in gold to give to our honorees.
Ricky: In May of 2021, when there was a loosening of COVID restrictions, we were able to bring a ceremony to our last three veterans at their homes. The first of these was for a veteran, Albert Gin Chong, in Monterey Park. Grace arranged to have a color guard, along with the Monterey Park City Council, singers and a visit by the fire department. We were featured in news stories by the local television stations.
For our next veteran, William Chan, in Silver Lake, Grace arranged to have City Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell attend as well as a color guard from Yorba Linda High School. The fire department parked two fire trucks in front of his home, and the whole neighborhood came in support. Mayor Garcetti was invited and did write him a very special letter. Grace’s friend, Elaine Litster, who serves on the Simi Valley City Council, also spoke and played her harp. William’s niece in San Francisco, arranged a surprise Zoom meeting so that all of his relatives in all parts of the world could watch the ceremony.
Our last ceremony was for our own local veteran, Arnold Jue, 94, in front of his home in Santa Paula. Jue is the last surviving Chinese American World War II veteran in Ventura County. We invited Congresswoman Julia Brownley and other city and county dignitaries to attend. The ceremony started with a color guard from the President Ronald Reagan Detachment #597-Marine Corps League followed by a performance of the national anthem. Arnold has a large family, and they were all there to honor him. Grace put together this program in about a week. It helped that she already knew many of the local government leaders as she has been with the Simi Valley Chamber of Commerce’s Legislative Advocacy and Economic Development committees.
My father, Shew Keith “Sonny” Leo (1925–2006) was also a World War II veteran. But I barely knew anything as he never talked about his service. We met Dr. Russell Low of San Diego at the 2019 Transcontinental Railroad 150th Ceremony in Utah. We asked him to speak at our Chinese New Year Celebration and talk about Chinese American WWII veterans. He wanted the stories of our local veterans, and one of them was my father. I also sent him a copy of my father’s discharge paper. When Dr. Low read that he had earned a Silver Star, he said that I had to find out the story behind the award. I didn’t even know what a Silver Star was. Low told me to search in the National Archives. In order to request his records, I needed my father’s social security number. I thought to look through my dad’s old wallet. In the wallet were two laminated cards in a plastic bag: his discharge paper and the certificate for his Silver Star. It turned out that my father was in the Battle of the Bulge and he carried one of his injured comrades to safety, over 500 yards of exposed terrain under intense machine-gun and mortar fire. My father was such a humble man. He did a heroic deed, but kept it a secret in his wallet until we discovered it over seventy years later.
Grace: The Silver Star is a very prestigious honor. Ricky and Dr. Russell Low, whose father also received a Silver Star in WWII, co-authored an article for the Association of the United States Army (AUSA).28 It was re-published in the book by Major General William Chen about the Gold Medal recipients.29
Ricky: This is excerpted from what I wrote in that article about my father:
Lui Gain Thyn, also known as Sonny Leo, was born in Taishan in Guangdong Province, China, on Nov. 4, 1925. His parents were Fong Leo and Nagan Tan Lew. Leo’s father and grandfather had traveled to America; the latter worked on the railroads. Leo left China and arrived in San Francisco on July 18, 1938, and later moved to Rock Springs, Wyoming.
Sonny Leo and the entire Leo family were intimately connected to the town of Rock Springs and the anti-Chinese atrocities buried in its past. On Sept. 2, 1885, 28 Chinese miners were murdered by White miners there. Twenty-eight Chinese homes were burned to the ground, resulting in $150,000 worth of property damage, the equivalent of about $4 million today. Most of the Chinese miners at Rock Springs were from the Leo family. Thirteen of the 28 murdered Chinese were Leos, and ultimately, 158 miners from the Leo family claimed losses from the Rock Springs Massacre.
Over a half-century later, Sonny Leo attended Rock Springs Junior High School, completing the seventh grade. He started working at the New Grand Cafe, helping cook Chinese and American dishes during the day and attending a private school for two hours each night for two years. On Feb. 24, 1944, Leo was drafted into the Army and entered military service at Fort Douglas, Utah. He was assigned to the 20th Armored Infantry Battalion and was involved in battles and campaigns in the Ardennes, the Rhineland and Central Europe.
My mother, Tuey Gene Leo, was a war bride and then a stay-at-home mom. She supported my two sisters and I as we grew up. We found out later that my mother’s father was also a World War II veteran in the later stages of his life. He came to the U.S. when he was nine years old and lived in San Francisco. He returned to China, got married, and had two children. One was my mother. He returned to the United States but could not bring his family with him. He lost touch with this family in China and remarried. He had fraternal twins with his second wife. When he was able to find his family in China and bring them to America, his second wife left him. My mother raised the girl twin in Wyoming and the boy twin was raised by my grandmother and grandfather in San Francisco. It is all very sad. When her children grew up and went to college, Mom took ESL classes and learned how to write us letters in English. She got to know all of her neighbors and became good friends with them. She was very kind-hearted.
About Rock Springs, Wyoming
Ricky: I was born in Rock Springs, Wyoming.30 I went to Rock Springs High School and then University of Wyoming. I had a professor who insisted I go to graduate school, so I accepted the invitation from Cal Tech in Pasadena.
Grace: We still have roots in Rock Springs. Growing up, we didn’t know about the Rock Springs Massacre. When we were in Utah for the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad ceremony, we met Dudley Gardner who was a professor of history and political science at Western Wyoming College in Rock Springs. Since we were going back to Wyoming to check on Ricky’s parents’ home, he invited us to join him there because he had a group of reporters from China who wanted to learn about the Chinese who used to live and work there back in the 1800s. It gave us an opportunity to learn about our own Rock Springs history. A lot of the early Chinese railroad workers switched to mining and stayed on in Rock Springs. The White miners had gone on strike, and the Chinese were brought in as strike-breakers.
Ricky: We are Leo, or in Mandarin, Liao 廖. My birth certificate actually had the spelling of “Lui” but when my father got his citizenship papers, he changed our name to “Leo”. The Chinese in Rock Springs all had the spelling of “Leo”, probably from the Taishan dialect.
The Leo family opened the Grand Cafe at 504 South Main. A banquet was held there by the Union Pacific Coal Company to honor the Chinese railroad workers who retired from working in the local coal mines and were returning home to China. Later the Grand Cafe moved to a new building at 117 K Street and renamed the New Grand Cf.. That place was open 24-7. It was a modern Chinese American restaurant that served all kinds of food from chop suey and chow mein to pot roast, prime rib, cabbage rolls, chicken fried steak, and hamburgers. They had a special “Chinese” dish known as chili meat. It was a unique dish created to suit the tastes of the Latinos in the area. It remains a favorite of many locals and has become quite famous. The restaurant, owned by my father and Grace’s Uncle Richard Lui, closed in the 1990s when they both decided to retire.
Grace: My father-in-law was a really good chef. There was a weekly special that included a full dinner: soup, salad, roll, main dish, drink, and dessert.
Ricky: My father was very popular and had an outgoing personality. He knew all the people in town. He was famous for his lunch and dinner specials. A few years ago, I went to my high school reunion and one of my old classmates was still asking for my father’s recipe for the au jus that was served with his prime rib. I really admire my father. I wish I had asked him about his history when he was still alive. He was a wonderful person. He worked long, long hours, and he wanted something better for his children. He wanted us to go to college. We all worked in the restaurant washing dishes, waiting on tables and cooking. We appreciate that it is hard work.
Grace: I was born in Hong Kong. I still have family in Hong Kong. I immigrated to Rock Springs when I was 13 years old. I came with my mother and my brother as my father didn’t want to come. My mother returned to Hong Kong after a couple of years. Her brother-in-law and Ricky’s father owned the New Grand Caf. in Rock Springs. My mother’s sister had married this uncle. He was a paper son who came as a teenager to help his adopted grandfather. I don’t really know that history either. My uncle and Ricky’s family are all from Taishan. My uncle’s adopted grandfather served in World War I and earned a Purple Heart. He was also involved in the Grand Cafe. Grand Caf. was a partnership of many Taishanese.
Ricky: We didn’t know anything about the Chinese Massacre in 1885. It was not a topic at school. Perhaps they were ashamed of the history. Now there’s been more attention. There was an exhibit at the Rock Springs Museum and a mural in the Rock Spring Library. Dr. Dudley Gardner showed us where the old Chinatown used to be, and is currently involved in an archaeological dig aimed at making the Chinatown a National Historic Landmark.31
Grace: During the pandemic, anti-Asian incidents escalated. We started getting a lot of phone calls from the public, the press, and local officials as I am the president of Ventura County Chinese American Association. Lots of people know me because I already had a track record working in the community. I belong to a lot of organizations.
I never felt any discrimination in Ventura County; people had welcomed me. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, my junior high school life was very rough. I was an immigrant and didn’t know anything about sports. People were cussing at me. I would cry in the locker room and was comforted by my best friend, Liisa. Liisa Anselmi-Dalton became a state senator in Wyoming from 2017 to 2021. By high school, I was more accepted as I earned good grades. I also went to the University of Wyoming where I served as the first Asian American student senator representing the College of Education. When I received my U.S. citizenship, the courthouse was full of students and faculty members who came to support me.
When we came to Ventura County, I didn’t feel any discrimination. But my daughter did. In middle school, she said, “Mom, it is hard to fit in.” One time she got a bad grade on an exam, and her classmate said, “But you are the dumbest Asian I know.” I want my daughter to be happy. And I want her safe.
People still have stereotypes of Asian Americans. For example, people blamed the coronavirus on Asians! Our good friend, Dr. George Yu, is president of the Ventura County Chinese American Historical Society and a pulmonary specialist. Inspired by his frontline work during the epidemic, we donated 1000 masks to a local hospital. And we are still being blamed for the epidemic?
Ricky: After the March shootings at the Atlanta-area spas, we were asked to put on a local rally as part of the national “Solidarity Against AAPI Hate” event organized by our friends Wilson and Esther Lee of the Chinese American Heritage Foundation based in Boston. Grace arranged to have ten speakers for a multiethnic gathering of people who cared about what was happening to Asian Americans. Over a hundred people came together at Constitution Park in Camarillo on 31 May 2021.
Grace: It was not a rally; it was not a protest. But it is about not being silent. We have to be aware and supportive of each other. We had Kim Stephenson, Ventura County Women’s Forum Collaborative; Dr. Jeffery Davies, St. John’s Regional Medical Center; and Carmen Ramirez, Ventura County District 5 Supervisor. Judge Kee Choo Ling gave a history of anti-Asian legislation. Dr. George Yu talked about people blaming coronavirus on the Chinese. A high school student, Anouk Hirano, talked about her experiences. Bette Lee taught everyone how to deal with stress by showing us some simple stretching exercises and telling us to love ourselves. Her husband, Dr. Shiuman Lee, spoke about his relationship with Vincent Chin’s family in Michigan. His wedding was scheduled a week before Vincent Chin’s so the whole thing was very personal to him. What happened to Vincent Chin could have happened to him. And there was never justice for Chin. Ronald Ebens never paid a price. None of the murderers from Rock Springs were ever brought to justice. It just isn’t quite right. We have to be more outspoken. We are not done. We can’t walk away or close the door against anti-Asian hate. We have to help all our children, all our elders, and all the families.
All the time growing up in Rock Springs, we knew nothing about the 1885 Chinese Massacre. It is so sad. If it weren’t for the Chinese, there would never have been a railroad across the United States. And what else? The Chinese were tricked. Nobody cared about the Chinese people then— or even now. The anti-Asian hate has never gone away. It is just different times, different seasons. It went from the 19th century to the 20th century to the 21st century. People are so willing to sacrifice immigrants—Chinese, or anybody else. Immigrants have put so much effort into building this country, as railroad workers, farmers, construction workers, military, restaurant workers… If you discriminate against immigrants, who’s going to do all this work? Whatever your skin tone, these immigrant lives matter. We all need to learn this history.
27 Linda Bentz of CHSSC authored a biography of Bill Soo Hoo on the Ventura Museum site: https://venturamuseum.org/journal-flashback/bill-soo-hoo-mayor-of-oxnard/
28 Russell Low and Ricky Leo, “Brothers in Arms: Chinese American Soldiers Fought Heroically in WWII,” in Association of United States Army website, posted 21 April 2020. https://www.ausa.org/articles/brothers-arms-chinese-american-soldiers-foughtheroically-wwii.
29 Major General William Chen, editor, Unsung Heroes, Recognizing and Honoring Chinese American World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Medal Recipients. Chinese American Citizens Alliance, Boston Lodge, 2020.
30 In 2019, Rock Springs, Wyoming had a population near 23,300 of which 83% was non-Hispanic White, 10% Latinx, 2% African American, and about 0.8% Indigenous. According to the 2019 census estimate, there were 139 Asians in Rock Springs.
31 See https://www.sweetwaternow.com/digging-up-history-in-chinatown/.