By Rick Eng 伍健迕
Editor’s note: Rick Eng is a third generation Chinese American and the Program Manager for LA vs. Hate at Special Services for Groups (SSG). Established in the 1950s to deal with youth gangs, SSG is a non-profit that now operates over 20 human service divisions including mental health, homeless services, HIV prevention, obesity prevention, environmental justice, etc. In 2018–2019, Eng was president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Los Angeles Lodge. He was Executive Director of Alhambra Educational Foundation from2010–2012. This is excerpted from a virtual interview in August of 2021.
Continuum of History
Chinese American history has experienced peaks and valleys. We certainly are in a valley now with the anti-Asian hate crimes and sentiment.
It is the 150th anniversary of the 1871 Chinatown Massacre. I didn’t even know this history until I was in my forties. 1871 was one of the worst massacres in U.S. history, and it happened in my backyard.
I was born at Chinatown’s French Hospital and raised in Monterey Park. I was an art history major, and I know a lot about Renaissance, Reformation, and other elements of European history. I wasn’t familiar with my own history until I got involved with the Chinese Historical Society and the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (C.A.C.A.). It was only last year that I did some research on California’s Alien Land Law; I got interested in the California v. Harada case in Riverside.20
I now constantly talk to young people about our Chinese American history, and I find them to be very attentive, very engaged. That’s a good thing. C.A.C.A. led the campaign to give Chinese American World War II veterans their Congressional Gold Medals. And we were involved in commemorating the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. I talk to young people about the 19th century Queue Ordinance and Pole Ordinance21 that were so discriminatory. The youth are so incredulous at this blatant government discrimination.
There is so much to learn from history. We Chinese Americans have had a difficult history. And then our 45th president set the stage to allow the intensification of this racism. He incited anti-Asian sentiments by referring to coronavirus as the “China virus”. Still, other diseases were historically blamed on Asians too: “Asiatic cholera”, “Asian flu”, “Hong Kong flu”, “Asian citrus psyllid or Huanglongbing (HLB)”. One of the arguments for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was that Chinese posed a public health menace. In the first decade of the 1900s, Chinese were incredulously blamed for the bubonic plague.
Another constant source of anti-Asian stereotypes is the Hollywood industry. We are often considered the enemy in thriller movies along with Russians and Middle Eastern people. Many people just buy into this. Asian Americans are seen as perpetual foreigners. People are not born racists, but people do emulate poor mentors. Even Chinese Americans emulate poor mentors.
Asian American–African American Solidarity
Some Asian Americans point at African Americans as the source of anti- Asian racism. But the data does not support this; it is anecdotal. Last year, after the George Floyd murder, a group of us in the local Chinese American community started talking. One of the things we discussed was the systemic racism against African Americans in our own Chinese American community. We have to recognize our own negative attitudes and actions perpetrated on African Americans and Latinos.
On 28 January 2020, 84-year-old Vichar Ratanapakdee was fatally shoved during his walk in San Francisco. Three days later, 3 others—a 91-year-old man, a 60-year-old man, and a 55-year-old woman—were violently shoved in Oakland. The Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) chapters in California had a meeting. One of the more conservative chapters said, “Are we going to talk about Blacks attacking Asians?” Representatives from three other chapters said, “If you do that, we are leaving this meeting.”
We have to be careful about our own stereotyping and the validity of our own information. We cannot just listen to the chatter on social media. Sometimes, that information is askew or incomplete. Some is just sensationalism.
In Queens, New York, there was a Stop Asian Hate group called “They Can’t Burn Us All”. It was led by two guys named China Mac and Will Lex Ham. This was in response to two teens slapping an 89-year-old Chinese woman and setting her shirt on fire in July of 2020 in Brooklyn. Using social media to gather their audience, “They Can’t Burn Us All” held two rallies in New York, and then in L.A. and San Francisco. It is very important to bring awareness to hate crimes. But there were problems because it is not clear whether this particular case was a hate crime. China Mac came out with a rap single, and tee shirts are for sale on Amazon. You don’t see this group out there anymore. China Mac had actually been jailed earlier for attempted murder. He is very charismatic and talks street.
We have to work closely with our allies in the Black and Brown communities to build more solidarity. African American leaders also want to look at anti-Asian sentiment in their community. We are all trying to develop strategies that can solve problems. C.A.C.A. has done a few activities with LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens). There is “Coalition for a Better L.A.” with multiracial leaders trying to have continuous dialogue. We need to be voices of reason. Our course is important, and one unfortunate false move can damage our genuine grassroots efforts.
In fact, C.A.C.A. and OCA are not the driving force in this conversation. I’m working with a lot of organizations including Westside Activists, Hate is a Virus, AAPI vs. Hate South Bay, Change West Covina, Manhattan Beach Families Against AAPI Hate, Compassion in SGV. Some of them may peter out or merge together; some have grown in different ways. Individuals in these groups are learning organizing skills and to speak up.
In August of 2020, Hong Lee, an immigrant Vietnamese American woman, was ordering tacos when things got ugly from a passer-by. She felt very threatened and traumatized. But she posted her video on social media, and the outpouring of sympathy and support inspired her. She decided to speak out so her children can be proud of her. She has been an effective ambassador for LA vs. Hate, established in 2019 with the support of the L.A. County Board of Supervisors. Hong organized a group called “Seniors Fight Back”, empowering AAPI to fight racism. They offer bystander intervention training. I even took a couple of classes. It helps us have a mindset of being aware of our environment and not to be caught as victims.
Civil Rights Organizations: C.A.C.A. and OCA
I’ve been in the leadership of C.A.C.A. and OCA for about fifteen years. Chinese American Citizens Alliance was established in 1895. We are a 501c8, a fraternal benefits agency that offered insurance to people of color n our early days. We incorporated officially in 1946. During our 2021 56th Annual Convention with our 20 chapters, one of the local C.A.C.A. leaders reported that their leadership had a social activity with their local Proud Boys chapter. I was incredulous. This is very problematic. We are a civil rights organization but our membership has different definitions of “civil rights”; we are a big tent. There are chapters and members that are building arguments against critical race theory and against affirmative action in education. In OCA, we have the same problem. There were members and chapters from other parts of the nation who supported the Trump presidency. We have had some mean yelling matches internally. But then everybody goes out to dinner together (laughs).
I still am in C.A.C.A. You can see members from three generations in C.A.C.A. discussing issues and solving problems as equals. There are some strong friendships and mentorships. There is a whole spectrum of people who have been involved. There are some important behind-the-scenes leaders who sustain us year after year.
I actually started my involvement during the debate around the 2008 California Proposition 8 to ban same-sex marriage. I was on an AAPI panel that supported LGBTQ+ rights. I think it hypocritical that Chinese Americans who support civil rights would deny rights to a portion of our community. I remember one of our past C.A.C.A. leaders just yelling at me saying, “Marriage is only between a man and a woman.” And that’s how I got into C.A.C.A. Prior to that, I was in the tech world and publications of interior designs.
My grandfather was in C.A.C.A.; he signed up in November of 1942 but he enlisted in the Navy a month after. He used to take me to visit naval sites in Long Beach before he passed away in 1972. When I was a kid, I was forced to go to Eng Family Benevolent Association events on Cottage Home Street in Chinatown. It was horrible (laughs). We kids had nothing to do and waited for our parents as they played mahjong and chatted. I told my dad, Tommy Eng, “The minute I learn to drive, I’m never going back to Chinatown.” Dad died in 2010, but I’m sure he is laughing his head off at me. I now try very hard to get young people involved in Chinatown. C.A.C.A. just reinstated A.S.I.A., Asian Students in Action, a program designed to involve youth. We had done this conference years ago, and I think it a great concept. With the virtual format, we are even able to keep logistical costs down and involve more people. C.A.C.A. has scholarships and essay contests for students. We want to invest in the youth and thus, in our organization’s future. Younger people are better prepared than our generation. They are much more sophisticated and service-oriented.
There will be a C.A.C.A. in fifty years. You know that C.A.C.A. was established as Native Sons of the Golden West because Native Sons of the Golden State, a fraternal organization established in 1875, rejected Chinese American members. A few years ago, Davace Chin, the national president of C.A.C.A.; Cathy Lee of the Seattle chapter; and I actually went to visit the Golden State national office in San Francisco. They were kind of nervous about our visit. But while they have this history of Asian exclusion, we are both willing to work towards the future. We want to change the conversation and look ahead. Hate is like a malignant tumor.
20 After California’s 1913 Alien Land Law, Jukichi Harada purchased a home in Riverside under his American-born children’s names. Still, the neighbors and the state of California tried to seize the residence in 1915. The Harada family was able to retain the property. In 1990, the location was declared a National Historic Landmark.
21 In 1873, San Francisco forced prisoners wearing pigtails—as Chinese did because of the Qing mandate—to get haircuts one inch from the scalp, thus shaming the Chinese Americans and making it difficult for them to return to China. The 1870 Pole Ordinance (Sidewalk Ordinance) was also legislative harassment as it prevented people using baskets between poles to carry laundry or vegetables, a custom preferred by Chinese. These were during the 1870s California depression when the Gold Rush had ebbed.