Dr. Munson Kwok

Editor’s note: Dr. Munson Kwok is one of the earliest researchers in high-energy lasers working in the aerospace industry. He has served as president of the CHSSC and Grand National President of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. Dr. Kwok is on the Board of the Chinese American Museum. With Suellen Cheng, Dr. Kwok authored “The Golden Years of Los Angeles Chinatown: The Beginning” (1988). Dr. Kwok with Ella Yee Quan edited Linking Our Lives (1984). This was as told to William Gow on August 10, 2019 at the Los Angeles C.A.C.A. Lodge.

A Post-War Engineer

Dr. Munson Kwok and Suellen Cheng at 2022 Chinese American Museum Gala.

I was born and raised in San Francisco Chinatown. I started school at St. Mary’s Mission School. Then I moved over to Francisco Junior High and George Washington High School. And by the quirk and good fortune of fate, I found myself at Stanford University. I was actually able to accomplish three degrees there: mechanical engineering for my bachelor’s, aeronautical engineering for my master’s and aeronautics for my doctorate. Basically, I had enough interest and knowledge in high-speed reactive flows that I ended up with an applied physics minor. This was a time when a lot of new ways of measuring gasses were occurring, and so I found myself on the edge of that inventive time and was fortunate enough to work with some great people in the physics department. I was at Stanford from 1958 to 1968.

At that time, there were few enough of us Asian Americans that we were tolerated. But I think – to be very, very honest – this was the first time that I encountered any direct bias or racial prejudice. I think socially, you could sense it. There were about ten or fifteen of us Chinese Americans at Stanford, about half of us from San Francisco Chinatown.

It’s a cultural thing. If you were in San Francisco Chinatown in this post-war era, the dream of every family was to get their kid into medical school. Or some other profession like law. Nobody talked about engineering. Before World War II started, many Chinese Americans went back to China with the idea of making “free China” a stronger and better country. The tie to returning to the “motherland” was still pretty significant. Before World War II, the reputation in San Francisco Chinatown was: don’t be an engineer. It could be a dead end for you. However, after World War II, it emerged gradually that this is an area of opportunity.

I ended up being one of the few pioneers in laser diagnostics at Aerospace Corporation. At that time, Aerospace was led by a nationally prominent aerospace engineer and scientist, Dr. Eberhardt Rechtin. So here I am, the high-speed flow guy trained to be a rocket scientist. I did my entire career in developing lasers and understanding gas-laser media and how they work.

Early Days with the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California

At Aerospace, I ran into this very interesting engineer from Pennsylvania whose name was George Yee. He was a member of a Taishan family that had ten or twelve kids who ran laundries in Pennsylvania. We are both interested in the history of the Chinese in America. I hear there is a new group getting started in Chinatown. He said, “Munson, why don’t you come down with me and see what it is about?” Concurrently, both my paternal and maternal sides had inundated me with, “Son, maybe you ought to write down our family history.” So, I put two and two together and said, “OK, George.” And, reluctantly, I went down to Chinatown.

About six months before the formal founding of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, at Resthaven’s – now, Kaiser – auditorium, Paul Louie and Jerry Shue were activist leaders trying to do something for Chinatown. All of a sudden in the mid-1970s, a number of new non-profit organizations were concurrently founded in Chinatown. Shue was a vet and worked at Caltrans. He is older than me, and that group found themselves in government agencies in technical positions. An insightful leader in L.A.’s Department of Water and Power decided that these Chinese – like Peter SooHoo – were pretty damn good, and that opened the floodgates from Chinatown. And that’s another story.

I reluctantly go to this meeting. I thought I had enough of Chinatowns after my upbringing. I had settled down on the Westside of Los Angeles, close to UCLA. I was going to enjoy the symphony and opera. I was going to live within five miles of the beach because at that time in the 1970s, the air was clean.

Before they organized the Chinese group, they had a symposium. They brought down the gurus from San Francisco like Him Mark Lai and Phil Choy. And the so-called gospel was spread. My later would-be wife, Suellen, was part of that group. She was a master’s student at UCLA questing for the Ph.D. in history as a Fulbright Scholar from Taiwan.

Mr. Wilbur Woo, vice president of Cathay Bank at that time, was really plugged into the community. I think he had this additional sense of community responsibility and allowed the organizing group to meet free of charge in the basement of Cathay Bank, which was a little rumpus room at that time. I guess we had forty or fifty in attendance, and the miraculous thing about the Society is that every monthly meeting since then, it’s always been forty or fifty people – occasionally morphed over to ninety to a hundred in attendance.

At that time, we were in our 30s and 40s. This was like George and his other brother Chuck. He had a third brother, Johnny, and he finally brought in a fourth brother, Johnson, and a sister, Mary, who served to be the founding leadership of the Chinese Historical Society. Paul Louie definitely was recognized as a founder along with two Caucasians, Bill Mason and Paul De Falla.

I think we had the sense to spend the first few meetings discussing what we want to do at monthly meetings. We didn’t even think of fundraising because at that point we were so darned naïve, we were just going to get together and try to have speakers. Paul was sophisticated and created a set of bylaws and incorporated us.

Another one of the major founders was Dr. Bill Chun-Hoon. At that time, he was principal at Castelar School. Highly respected. So, teachers at Castelar school were another leg of the Chinese Historical Society. It was going to be for education to benefit the kids. You must remember from the get-go, the name of Ella Yee Quan, who eventually became vice principal of Castelar. Ella and I worked most closely.

There was this whole group of people saying, “We need to know more about us.” Bill Mason was among the first speakers. He seemed to be Mr. Encyclopedia, the only person who seemed to have the history of Los Angeles Chinatown all in his head. Publicly, Bill produced only one article that was ever published. Suellen and I wrote a historical article based strongly off of Bill’s article. It became, to my embarrassment, one of the few always cited. My embarrassment has been that no one has carried that forward in a more scholarly and careful manner, and especially into World War II, and into the time of the founding of the Historical Society. I didn’t want to be the citation. I want to cite. You might call Bill Mason the outsider, but he knew more about Chinatown than we did.

Johnny Yee was a merchant seaman; he was gone six months a year. Somewhere, he got a bug that he wanted to know about the Chinese. Not just in Los Angeles. Not just in Southern California. All of California and all of the American West. He was on fire. He set us up to go on field trips and tours. Do you realize I took two trips to Hawaii as field trips with the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California? The story of the Chinese in the United States doesn’t start in the mainland. It starts in something like 1802 in the Hawaiian Islands.

These were all the pillars and founders. The guys that kind of organized and can run things were the engineers, George, me, Chuck, Paul. And the guys that got this bug of knowing Western history were guys like Eugene Moy.  Eugene joined early too. Yeah, it was a mixture of all kinds wanting to know their own history.

At that point, the UCLA Asian American movement had developed. Ron Hirano was one at the Asian American Studies Center. Their undergraduate students are coming down to Chinatown to Castelar and tutored the students on Saturdays with the Asian American Tutorial Project. There is a knowledge and a synergy and a relationship that was kind of built here in Los Angeles Chinatown. Another part of the synergy is the story of Stewart Kwoh who at the same time was part of that movement, and they tried to do some activist community service that involved Chinatown as well.

But along comes the death of Vincent Chin in 1982. And the story of Vincent Chin links in Irvin Lai, Grandview Gardens, and Stewart Kwoh at the first meetings in Los Angeles involving Vincent Chin’s mom. The spin-off will be the creation of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in 1983 – now, the Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

There were about sixty historical societies in Southern California at that time, and most of them had older people. But we were in our 30s and 40s. Some of us were married family folks with young kids. We were motivated to teach the kids their heritage. We wanted to do activities that might embrace the family. Tours and picnics were good. That led to the early participation in the Lotus Festival in Echo Park.

Stan Lau was another leader. The things he would try, starting oral history projects, surveying all the historical newspapers on microfiche. It exhausted everyone who tried to follow him as it is so labor intensive and required a certain amount of expertise that was difficult for the volunteers. Some of our Society members were also fearful of activism, but remember we Chinese Americans have been stigmatized by exclusion and years of limitations. Stan Lau has no fear, so yeah, sure let’s do oral histories.

Linking Our Lives

At the time the Society was formed, there was this linkage with the Castelar folks and UCLA. UCLA had more activist and progressive academics. The main person who reaches out to us is Professor Lucie Cheng in Sociology. So Lucie says, “Let’s start this joint venture. Let’s have a joint meeting to discuss it.” She sends a message to the Society, and the Society scratches its head. If I am not mistaken, Bill Chun-Hoon and Ella Quan are too busy. They said, “Ah, Munson, you have academic degrees, and you are familiar with these things. You go.”

It’s a win, win. Faculty needed to interact more with the community. And as far as the Society is concerned, we said, “This is a good idea. Our community really should affiliate more with the university. It is really a good opportunity to get speakers.”

Ella and I were actually the co-editors of the Society’s first book, Linking Our Lives. People have honored the authors, but I have to say that we had to do a lot of work to get this into a viable book. We had to make sure the prose was right, the links were right, and we put the foreword in. We had to get the mechanics set up for the Society: the ISBN number, registering with the Library of Congress and all of that, which is still being used by the Society today. That was being done by me. I chose the red color for the cover.

For Ella and me, we were doing that book because each of the individuals interviewed had a perspective, and it was a showcase of Chinese American women. More women were heading towards being professionals. At that time at UCLA, there was a sector of the history department which together with Professor Cheng was pushing for the idea that we must do much more work to appreciate American women. One of the foremost proponents of that is Professor Kitty Sklar. UCLA had a progressive wing in the history department and some remaining very very conservative traditionalists. There was a transition that was going on.

It was natural for women like Lucie Cheng to think that our first book would emphasize women. Professor Cheng was very authoritative in her guidance and very correct. She targeted the number of interviews, and a certain percentage of these were to be women. We were trying to transcribe the interviews, and it was an extremely tedious process for volunteers, so she said to summarize – which is why you have those eight or twelve bound books today of summaries. Thank goodness we even have that. Otherwise, we would have nothing except the raw tapes. Then she says we need to have even more of a product out of these interviews so let’s write a book. And then she guides us. She led the Society to becoming book publishers.

I was totally indoctrinated into the idea because by that time, I was associated with Suellen and her project. The reason why we got together personally is one day I said to her, “You have to go to San Francisco and talk to my mother.” Remember, I have this family history of enormous heritage, and certainly one of the most knowledgeable people was my mother, who was among the pioneering women to leave the boundaries of the ghetto and work downtown in the Caucasian world before World War II. She was among the first to form an elite women’s service club called the Square and Circle Club.

Chinese American Movement and Political Activism

By definition, the Chinese American Museum was born as an activist project. It’s a political statement from our community that we are equal to anybody in this city, and we want to be an equal partner with you in the city. This was a tremendous experiment. With the Museum, we have had to work very hard to create a dialogue, and this political aspect is very rare.

In my experience, you learn about your history, it ties into your identity and then it feeds your activism. I’ve also been active with the Chinese American Citizens Alliance. We’ve grown from there. We have work ahead of us. It is very important that the relationship between community and academia, between older generation and younger generation are maintained. Community relevance is important in academia.