– Tennyson Kwok
Editor’s note: Tennyson grew up in the 1950s era in Jefferson Park while his father worked in New Chinatown. Jefferson Park is south of the Santa Monica Freeway, between Western Avenue and Crenshaw Boulevard. After graduation from Dorsey High and UCLA, Tennyson hoped to be the first Chinese American to race in the Indianapolis 500—but he didn’t make it. Actually, no Chinese American has yet made it. Tennyson retired from a career in engineering and is a member of CHSSC. This is from an interview on 19 January 2020.
I was born in 1948 in San Francisco. My father, Henry Shan Ying Kwok (1902–1995), was born in Ping Leum Village of Zhongsan 中山 district in Guangdong. He spoke Sam Yup (Sanyi). Henry immigrated to Chicago in 1923 with a permanent visa.
We don’t know what he did in Gold Mountain, but my paternal greatgrandfather was here and returned to their village as a wealthy man in 1910. He was rich enough to build a house and set-up his sons—including my grandfather—in business. My dad said, “But my father was a lousy businessman and went bankrupt twice.” My father’s sister married a Japanese businessman, and my father went to Japan with his sister to finish high school as Grandfather had gone bankrupt. My father learned Japanese and English. He worked for an import-export company, International Trade Developer, in Kobe. They liked him so much that they sponsored him to come to their headquarters in Chicago. My father earned an economics degree from Drake University in Des Moines near 1930. In those days, he worked for room and board at a Chinese restaurant. As soon as he could, he moved to sunny California and got an MBA from USC in 1935. With his trilingual skills, he was able to work as a translator for the United States Department of Labor, Immigration and Naturalization Services. His English was excellent.
Dad met my mother in San Francisco but Dad was going to school and working in Los Angeles. Dad would drive up to San Francisco to visit my mother. I have an 8 mm film of him driving his brand new 1934 Chevrolet. I still have the letters my parents wrote each other while dating.
In 1936, Dad actually returned to China for about six months. He was looking for a job. Mom said, “When I saw him off, I didn’t expect to see him back.” But Dad didn’t find something suitable and came back to California. My parents married in 1939; he was ten years older than her.
In 1946, my father became a naturalized citizen. With that, he got his real estate license, something he couldn’t do before he was a U.S. citizen. In LA Chinatown, he sold real estate, real estate insurance, life insurance, etc. for The Hartford. As a citizen, he could also join the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (C.A.C.A.). He became its president in 1960. I joined C.A.C.A. in 2016 (laughs).
My mother, Ethel Cora Lum (1912–1991), was a second-generation American. Mom was born in 1912 in San Francisco, the second eldest of five children. Her parents were also from Guangdong’s Sam Yup district. I think my maternal grandmother was one of the first to go through Angel Island as she came in 1910.19 My grandfather had returned to China to marry her in 1903; it was an arranged marriage. My grandfather returned to China in 1910 to escort her to San Francisco. They were tailors; they had a shop in their apartment on Jackson Street in Chinatown. In 1933, my mother got a math degree from UC Berkeley and was in the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. While in college, she taught Chinese school to help support herself. My mother was one of the first Chinese American social workers in San Francisco, and she wrote articles about welfare issues for Chinese Digest, the first all-English Chinese American newspaper.20 Mom was a deaconess at the Presbyterian Church-Chinatown (PCC), which is tied to Cameron House. When Mom came down to Los Angeles, she worked at an insurance company until I came around.
My parents are my parents, but I was adopted. They went to an adoption agency and stayed on a waiting list for a while. The social worker saw my case and thought that Henry and Ethel would be a good match. My biological parents were Chinese students; Henry and Ethel were well-educated. I’ve always known I’m adopted; my mother was very straightforward about it. My parents were friends with another Chinese American couple that adopted two children after I was adopted. One of them was of mixed racial heritage.
Mom named me Tennyson, after the British poet laureate. Mom loved classical opera, art, and music. She had a Caucasian friend that she would travel with to see operas in New York City, San Francisco, and the like. Mom took French, German, and Russian classes so she could read opera librettos. She tried to teach me Chinese as best she could until I got into high school. I did not go to Chinese school nor did we attend church.
After the television miniseries “Roots” (1974) came out, Mom was inspired to write about her own heritage. She wrote “Lum Family Roots”.21 I then gave my dad and mom spiral notebooks to write their memoirs including life after “Lum Family Roots.” Mom wrote 51 pages; Dad wrote 15. He then says, “Your mom knows the rest” (laughs).
Growing Up in Jefferson Park
When they first got married, my parents lived on Exposition Boulevard near the USC campus. This was outside the “Chinese district,” and Dad had to pull some strings to get this apartment. I still have some of their furniture. Then they purchased a duplex at 2878 Edgehill Drive in Los Angeles Zone 18, just north of the Crenshaw area. I’m not sure why we lived there. My dad’s office had been on College Street in Chinatown since 1946; Edgehill was fifteen miles away from Chinatown. We moved into the 2-bedroom unit near 1948.
I was raised half-Chinese and half-American. Jefferson Park was an ethnically mixed community with a few other Chinese American families. There were many more Japanese Americans. When I walked home from Sixth Avenue Elementary on Jefferson Blvd to Edgehill Drive, I remember some Chinese American and Japanese American neighborhood stores along the seven blocks. I had stopped at all of them (laughs). There are still some Japanese candies that I wish I could get. Paul’s Kitchen had a second site right on the corner of Jefferson and Edgehill. I would go down there and get take out: chow mein, siu ap (roasted duck). It was good. My mom also had friends with a restaurant on Santa Barbara and Vermont. I would be sent there, too.
My mother would cook both Chinese and American food. We had roast leg of lamb, pork chops, mashed potatoes… My dad had gone to college in the Midwest so he was an Americanized immigrant. We spoke mostly English and some Sam Yup at home. My dad was one of the first to buy a television set near 1954, and I remember watching all the shows including Amos ‘n’ Andy and Little Rascals. I remember wishing I could grow up like the kids in Little Rascals and go fishing and playing in the dirt fields. That was not suburban Los Angeles—especially for Chinese Americans. My parents took me to places like Disneyland and the Corriganville movie studios in Simi Valley; they wanted to expose me to different things.
My father had no relatives in the US, and I was an only child. My mom’s family was in the Bay area. So we never had big family gatherings, but my father had a lot of friends. My father was involved in C.A.C.A. and a national Chinese American fraternity called Alpha Lambda.22 Alpha Lambda members were all college graduates of Chinese descent; they were all professionals. We would attend their kids’ piano recitals. I remember going to Silver Lake a lot… I don’t know why we didn’t live there. I have my father’s films of picnics at Elysian Park and Griffith Park; there would be about 100 people. I remember attorney Y.C. Hong, architect Eugene Choy, Dr. Thomas A. Wong, banker George Ching, banker Wilbur Woo, and Raymond Chang. Raymond’s father was a general for Chiang Kai-shek; his mother lived at Bing Crosby’s former mansion in North Hollywood. On Father’s Day, Raymond would invite the Alpha Lambda families to come by and go swimming and share a potluck lunch. It even had his and hers changing rooms. Alpha Lambda had national conventions. Nowadays, I have get-together dinners with the kids of these Alpha Lambda members.
One of my mom’s best friends was the talent scout, Bessie Loo. One of my father’s fraternity friends was Donald Hsieh, an aerospace engineer. Donald son’s, Warren, was in Flower Drum Song, South Pacific, and The King and I. I didn’t even get cast as an extra! My dad is listed in the credits as a technical consultant for the movie, God is My Co-Pilot (1945) about the Flying Tigers during World War II. Dad taught the Chinese American actors how to sound Japanese.
My parents would play mahjong with the Alpha Lambda group. They even played mid-week. Sometimes, my parents would just play with another couple, and sometimes there were several tables. My favorite time was when they broke-up and had siu yeh 消夜. They would have jook 粥 and drink coffee. That’s when I started drinking coffee (laughs).
My mother actually preferred canasta with a mixed group of women. She was also in our PTA. At my 25th high school reunion, my 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Philips, came. She still remembered my mom and me! She remembered my mom crocheting potholders for her.
I went to Sixth Avenue Elementary School, Mt. Vernon Junior High (now renamed Johnnie Cochran Middle School), and graduated from Dorsey High School in January of 1966. Sixth Avenue was very integrated. My junior high seemed to be about 80% African American. Dorsey was about half Black, and the rest were Asians and Whites. I didn’t really know Mexicans at that time. In my day, most of the other Chinese Americans graduated from Marshall High School and Belmont High School. From day one, I was in an integrated environment.
Our neighbors across the street were African American. Tony Pierce was my pal, and his father worked at a grocery store. When I was about twelve, my first overnight trip was with them. We went down to Mexico to go fishing. We even carpooled to junior high; Mom would drive alternatively. I was a terrible athlete so I never got invited to after school sports; that made me a bit of an outsider (laughs). My grades weren’t that great either. I did join the Key Club in high school. I remember there were Chinese, Japanese, Black, and White members.
I probably felt racial discrimination only a handful of times. There was this one African American that picked on me, but I don’t know if it was because I was Chinese or because I was a lousy athlete. Of course, my name stood out. I was called “tennis shoes” and stuff like that. When I was working as a gas station attendant for this Japanese American owner, this African American got mad at me and yelled “Go back to where you came from.” When I was in grammar school, the office would call me when they got a new Chinese kid. They wanted me to translate. But most of the kids were Sze Yup; I did my best.
My parents read the Herald Examiner; I remember that my parents’ friend, Edwin Louie, was a sports writer for them. My parents voted, but we weren’t very political. My father was a Republican, and my mother was a Democrat. I did not know about McCarthyism at the time. In high school, we had African American teachers and even Japanese American teachers. We were aware of Martin Luther King’s struggle. During the 1965 Watts Riots,I was within the curfew area. I was concerned about my friends who lived more south. I didn’t have political feelings; I just wished the riots didn’t happen. I was just concerned about everybody’s well-being.
When I was at UCLA, there were a lot of protests. I was an engineering student, and we were isolated on South campus. I had a Vietnam War draft student deferment. By the time I graduated, they were using the lottery. I had a low lottery number, but I had gotten food poisoning while at UCLA which caused an ulcer. I also had skin issues and had lost 30% of my hearing in the right ear. With all those issues, I got 4F. At that time, I trusted our government. I felt that protesting was bad, and we should support our country. But I didn’t want to go into the military; I wanted to save money and race cars.
I just got into UCLA. After the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education, they took the top 10% at the UC’s, and I remember being in the 11th percentile. In those days, the engineering class was small. From day one, we were huddled together in engineering classes. There weren’t too many students from Dorsey High at UCLA. When I saw them, we would wave at each other. I got my mother to invite about twenty folks to our house. The group stayed together all through our college years, and then we went our separate ways. Since 1990, we’ve been gathering again every Christmas. I graduated from UCLA in 1970.
After graduation, I immediately started working in an aerospace engineering position. I decided to move out of Edgehill Drive to be closer to my work. Around 1972, I rented a three-bedroom house in Long Beach. My parents decided to move too. They moved to Chinatown to be closer to Dad’s office.
My goal was to be the first Chinese American to race in the Indianapolis 500, but I didn’t make it. There still hasn’t been a Chinese to race in Indianapolis. There was a Filipino by the name of Jovy Marcelo who almost made it, but he was killed in practice in 1992.
One of my father’s early cars was a 1953 Ford with a flathead V8. My dad didn’t know anything about cars; he didn’t even know he had a V8. His tenant told him. My dad was never tinkering in the garage. I did inherit some of his tools, but they were crappy! I did have a neighbor who was very mechanical, and I would hang out in the garage with him and learned a lot.
From early on, I liked to steer things. My first interest was trains. Dad would take me to Exposition Park on Sundays to look down on the trains and train tracks. I was always busy figuring how to take things apart and finding out how things worked. As I grew older, I built gas powered model airplanes and flew them. I was always building kits. I got my pilot license when I was 30.
I taught myself how to drive. When I was just beginning, we went to Yosemite, and my father let me drive down the Old Tioga Pass, a winding single lane road. My dad knew I was good enough.
At sixteen, I wanted to buy a motorcycle, and my mother said, “No.” I remember I was driving along the Harbor Freeway feeling sorry for myself. As I neared the 91 Highway, I saw a go kart track. The go karts were going as fast as I was going on the freeway. I got excited. I bought my first go kart. Mom didn’t realize go karts could go as fast as 65 mph. You had to buy and use tools with the go kart, I could do that. I came to realize I could drive go karts faster than almost anyone else. I was good at this one thing: racing. Like any sport, driving just comes natural to some people. It is a combination of timing, coordination, and judgment. Going fast never scared me. I had always wanted to drive, but I didn’t know how good I actually was.
By 18, I decided I wanted to race cars. When I was at UCLA, one of my friends, Henry Shu, and I were both car enthusiasts. Instead of taking notes in class, we were sketching cars, wheels, and stuff like that. I was the only Chinese American in racing that I knew of. There was a Japanese American driver, Wesley Marumo, but I went a little further than him. He was an electrical engineer. In those days, most drivers worked on their own cars to save money. There were Japanese American car clubs in the 1950s and 1960s,23 but I didn’t know any Chinese American clubs. Maybe it was because I was detached from the Chinese American community.
When I started, I didn’t know a single soul in the racing world. I bought a Formula Ford car on my own. It was powered by Ford Cortina. I had a coworker who was willing to help me push the car around. To race, you had to bring your own car and go to a driving school to get evaluated for a racing license. When I was there, I had a problem, but I was alone and couldn’t push the car by myself. I must have looked like the most forlorn person. Three guys came by to help; there were two Cuban brothers and their Caucasian friend. From this chance meeting, we became lifelong friends. If I needed to lift an engine, that’s who I would’ve called. My racing team had two Cubans, a Black, two Chinese, and a White guy. We had one of the most integrated racing teams.
I eventually had a second Formula Ford car, also powered by Ford Cortina, and a Formula B open-wheel single seat car. I won races. As an engineer, you know the capabilities of your equipment. I raced between 1973 and 1979. The highlight of my racing career was driving an Eagle Formula Ford in Riverside for Dan Gurney’s All American Racers. He had 66 drivers between 1965 and 2000, I was the only Chinese American.24 Dan Gurney was one of my childhood idols, and one of America’s best race drivers. My parents came to only one of my races. Like most parents, they were worried about the cost and my safety. The cost of racing cars was formidable.
I was a better-than-average driver, but I wasn’t an elite driver, and I couldn’t find sponsors. I wasn’t that good at promoting myself. I retired from racing a few months after being in the 1979 Long Beach Grand Prix, Formula Atlantic Class. I couldn’t secure any funding to go on. It would have been nice to have done a few races with sponsorship.
I decided to concentrate more on being an engineer. When I was still at UCLA, I had a job interview with Ford Motor Company. The Ford guy said, “To do automotive design, you really have to go to Dearborn. The last Asian guy I hired to go to Dearborn hated it there.” So that didn’t work out. I worked mostly in aerospace engineering as it was the closest I could get to cars.
I worked for Disney Imagineering in their ride safety program, and at Swift Engineering designing race cars. I can design just about anything mechanical. I have worked on over 100 mechanical designs, ranging from submarines, Rose Parade floats, amusement rides, racing cars, to Space Shuttle systems. Not only am I mechanical design engineer, I am also a very good mechanic and fabricator.
I married a Filipina who was born in Manila; she is a chemical engineer. We have three children, and none of them speak Chinese nor Filipino. All of them are with White partners. As they were growing up, we didn’t even celebrate Chinese New Year. We lived in the suburbs—first Duarte in 1980, then Glendora in 1986. Today, I help babysit the grandkids (laughs). I did do some off-road driving and have owned a shifter go kart in the last fifteen years. It can go up to 110 mph.
I see myself as Chinese American. My parents were raised as Chinese. As adults, they rode with the times and merged with the American mainstream way of life. C.A.C.A. celebrated Chinese New Year as well as January 1st. That’s the way I was brought up in the 1950s—Chinese and American.
19 Angel Island Immigration Detention Center was open from January 1910 through 1940.
20 Chinese Digest, 1935–40, the first all-English paper about Chinese Americans, was the collaboration of William Jer Hoy, Thomas W. Chinn, and Chingwah Lee. For a thorough history, see H. Mark Lai’s “Chinese American Press” in Sally Miller’s (editor) The Ethnic Press in the United States: A Historical Analysis and Handbook (1987).
21 Although unpublished, Ethel Lum Kwok’s “Lum Family Roots” is acknowledged as a foundation for Robert Bowen and Brenda Young Bowen’s book, San Francisco’s Chinatown (2008). Brenda is Ethel’s niece.
22 Chinese student associations were established on many campuses. The Chinese Student Alliance was established as early as 1902 in the Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco area. Probably the oldest Chinese American fraternity in the United States was the FF (Flip Flap) Fraternity, founded in 1910. It did not use Greek letters, and their Chinese name was 蘭集or “gathering of orchids” (http://chinacomestomit.org/studentlife). Chinese Christian fraternities included David and Jonathan (D&J, founded in 1907) and Cross and Sword (Cands, founded in 1917). In 1916, Rho Psi—another Chinese American fraternity—was established at Cornell (Xiaojian Zhao and Edward Park’s Asian Americans: An Encyclopedia, 2013, p 100). Other early Chinese American fraternities include Alpha Lambda and Phi Lambda.
23 CHSSC 2019 Golden Spike winner, Professor Oliver Wang, wrote “Nikkei Car Clubs” (2018). See http://www.discovernikkei.org/en/journal/2018/3/12/nikkei-car-clubs/.
24 Tenny Kwok was featured in an article entitled “Racer/Engineer” in Jade Magazine in 1979, and in Rich Robert’s “Kwok Hopes He’s Got Winning Formula,” Los Angeles Times, 6 April 1979.