– Robert Chow (1924–2011)
Robert (Bob) Chow was born in Los Angeles as Sue Ben Jew, and is a brother of Colonel Bennie Jew. He worked many years in Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Powers as a mechanical engineer. He enjoyed deep sea fishing, gardening, and repairing appliances. This is transcribed from a Marji Lee interview on 11 January 1997.
I was born in Los Angeles. My dad was in the produce business during the Depression. In 1932, he moved the family of eight back to Hoiping (Kaiping) with what savings he still had. I was seven years old. In 1939, my brother, Bennie Jew, and I came back from China. We went back to school in Seattle where my uncle lived. My teacher asked me what my name was. I had forgotten much of my English, so I just blurted out “Robert Chow.” And that’s what my name became. Chow, Jew, Chew, Jue are really all the same name in different dialects, and the spelling really depends on the immigration officer.
I enlisted when I was 17 and in the eleventh grade. I was chased out of China by the Japanese War. After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were now after the United States. I had it. I enlisted. We went to basic training in Florida. As there was not enough housing, we were put up in luxurious hotels. My roommate spoke very little English. One time I saw him with the shaving cream, but he had nothing to shave. He thought it was toothpaste. He said, “No wonder it tasted funny.” He was discharged soon after as he just didn’t have enough English.
I then chose armory school in Denver. They were recruiting tail gunners for B-17s; I said no. I went to the Army Air Force training camp in Kearns, Utah. A second lieutenant there was going to show us how to assemble and disassemble a .50 caliber machine gun—that’s what they used on the airplanes. But we had just graduated from armory school. The second lieutenant painfully took apart the gun, and then one of the volunteers from my group just zip-zip-zip and put it back. I enjoyed meeting a lot of people in the service. I didn’t feel prejudice except there was one thing that bothered me. Why weren’t there any Blacks? It turned out that Blacks were segregated at the Kearns base. One day, there was an inspection parade, and a whole battalion of Blacks showed up. They were on the other side of the camp. What a surprise. We were all in for the same purpose, but we were separated.
My mother had always taught us about cooking. So at every camp I went to, I would get acquainted with the mess sergeant, and I would go in and help, even if it wasn’t my duty. They said, “Hey this guy can cook.” So I never had to do regular KP duty or clean greasy pans. When it was my turn to do KP, they always pulled me into the kitchen. That also allowed me to eat whatever I wanted from the kitchen. When my brothers and I came back from China on the steamship, I helped the Chinese cooks peel potatoes and all that. Although we were travelling third class, I was eating first class food. After eight months, they discharged me as I had some medical problems. I had a tumor over my eye. Prior to the service, it was a minimal thing, but it got aggravated.
After I was discharged from the service, they let me go back to Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles. I knew I only had two years on the G.I. Bill. I graduated high school in 1944 and then went to Los Angeles City College (LACC). I was working forty hours per week as a draftsman. My mother valued education, and she supported me. I went to UCLA for another year, and then completed Berkeley in 1949 in mechanical engineering. It took a lot of determination, but it was worth it. I used the G.I. Bill for UCLA and Berkeley. The Veterans Administration hospital in San Francisco helped me with my health problems.
I met my wife, June, at LACC; she was born in the Philippines. I married in 1954. In 1950, my first job was as an engineer with an air conditioning and heating firm. But at that time, L.A.’s smog wasn’t that bad, and air conditioning wasn’t popular. We were before our time. I worked for the state highways for a while, and then I went to the Department of Water and Power (DWP) and stayed for over 37 years. There weren’t that many Chinese working at DWP; there were more Japanese Americans.