– by Susie Ling, Editor
The 1950s were a transitional and seminal period for Los Angeles’ Chinese Americans. World War II—the focus of our last GSJ issue— allowed young men and women new opportunities while witnessing the racial profiling and imprisonment of Japanese Americans. In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was legally repealed; Chinese could finally apply for naturalized citizenship. The 1944 GI Bill, the 1945 War Brides Act, and the 1948 and 1953 Chinese Refugee Acts enabled the Chinese American population to grow. A few paper sons were still immigrating. The 1956-65 Chinese Confession Program gave room for paper sons and daughters to move away from the shadows at the expense of confessing to violations of immigration law. The Chinese American population was expanding modestly, but now with nuclear families. Most Chinese Americans continued to work hard in ethnic occupational niches. But there were also some Chinese Americans breaking into other professions—as mail carriers, as cashiers, as real estate agents, as race car drivers, and the like. Chinese American seamstresses, teachers, and social workers helped with family finances. In Los Angeles, Chinese Americans were aggregated in New Chinatown, City Market, and the East Adams districts, but there were more and more moving into suburban homes such as Silver Lake, the Crenshaw District, and Jefferson Park.
The 1949 Chinese Communist Revolution was a backdrop for Chinese Americans. Some mainlanders had migrated to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other parts of Southeast Asia. In the U.S., the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association claimed allegiance to the Guomindang, the ruling party of Taiwan. I can still hear my father in the 1960s warning me to never divulge that my nai nai and yeh yeh were behind the “bamboo curtain.” McCarthyism and the Cold War caused family members in the West to be isolated for decades from families in China.
Los Angeles’ New Chinatown was a bustling beehive in the 1950–60s. At night, Hollywood and Los Angeles’ “in crowd” thought Grand Star Restaurant and Man Jen Low/General Lee’s in Central Plaza to be happening. Chinese gift shops were a rage. Christina Sterling’s China City and the Charlie Chan-type movies had helped set this trend. Chinatown’s Yee Sing Chong market, the herb stores, the Chinese language schools, and the churches anchored Chinese Americans. Families from Santa Barbara and Riverside would drive in for roast duck and a box of Quon Yick dry noodles. Along with Chinese Americans, Chicanx/Latinx, African Americans and other ethnic groups that were and are Los Angeles, were a part of Castelar, Nightingale, and Belmont schools. Even in the 1960s, Belmont High had large groups of Chinese, Latinx, Japanese, African Americans, with a sprinkling of Caucasians and Filipinos.1
The conformity agenda of the 1950s would finally transition to the social justice movements of the 1960s–70s. The temporary strangulation of McCarthyism forced Americans in the 1950s to challenge racial segregation with Brown v. Board of Education, and in the 1960s to challenge American involvement in the Vietnam War. Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society programs and Nixon’s affirmative action program—and the changing values—opened more possibilities. In 1968, students at Belmont High would join in the East LA Blowout for better education. The Asian American movement exploded in the 1960–70s especially with the establishment of the Asian American Tutorial Project at Castelar (1969), Asian American studies (1969), Chinatown Teenpost (1970), and the Chinatown Service Center (1971). 1974 Lau V. Nichols called for bilingual and bicultural education. The 1965 Immigration Act and the 1975 fall of Saigon led to greater diversification of the Chinese American identity.
In this issue, we visit with some 1950s’ baby-boomers. Cerena, Diana, Richard and Lily grew up in different corners of New Chinatown. Diana and Cerena have been best friends since St. Bridget’s and Castelar School. Richard and Lily eventually married. Tennyson lived outside Chinatown but also in an integrated LA neighborhood; he tried to break the “speed ceiling”. Chur Fon immigrated to Arizona in 1951 from Kaiping 开平; he was one of the last paper sons. What stories.
1 Established in 1923 in the Westlake region, unofficial estimates of Belmont High in the 1960s is about 40% Latinx, 20% Japanese, 15–20% African American, 15–20% Chinese. In 1986, Elaine Woo (LA Times, 28 Sept 1986) reported that Belmont’s 4300 students were from 52 nations and spoke 34 languages. In the 1990s, Belmont High was the largest school in the United States with about 6000 students. In 2020, Belmont Senior High had 973 students of which 88% are of Latinx background (including 25% from Central American backgrounds) and 7% Asian Americans (2/3 Filipino), 3% White, and 2% African American with a graduation rate of 61%.