Suellen Cheng

Editor’s note: Suellen Cheng was founding curator of the Chinese American Museum, and Museum Director and Curator of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument. She is past president of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Los Angeles Lodge, and Historian for their National Board. She is a charter member of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. In 2019, she was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Chinese American Museum of Los Angeles. This is as told to William Gow on August 10, 2019 at the Chinese American Citizens Alliance Lodge in Los Angeles Chinatown, and edited by Samuel Yee.

Suellen Cheng and Lucie Cheng in 1984. Photo courtesy of Munson Kwok.

Aspirations to Become a Teacher

I was born in Taiwan in 1948. I was a history major in college. I thought I wanted to be a teacher. I always had a great time in school. I did get a teaching credential, and I was offered a teacher position in the middle school from the village that I came from. However, I also got an offer from my university for a teaching assistant position. I thought that would allow me to work with professors. The idea was that if I apprenticed with professors and then published, I could become a college lecturer. Then, I wouldn’t have to go to graduate school. I thought that if I dropped out from that plan, I could always go back to teaching at the middle school.

But things evolved. I realized, “This is not the way that I’m going to be an instructor at the college level.” I decided to enter graduate school. I took the Taiwan examinations, and I got in for American Studies at Tamkang University 淡江大学. I was lucky to work with a group of three or four professors from the United States who were Fulbright scholars. They encouraged me to apply to do graduate work in the U.S. I thought, “If I’m an American Studies student but have never set foot in America, how can I teach the subject?” I got into NYU, but the wife of my professor said that the weather was really cold in New York, so I didn’t go there. I had to apply for UCLA because it was in L.A., right? I went to UCLA as a Fulbright Scholar in American Studies in 1974. I was lucky to transition to the UCLA American History department. I had teachers like Professors Kitty Sklar, Alexander Saxton, and Gary Nash. Their influence was great.

I started looking at American history and the American West. There was hardly anything about the Chinese, except the railroads. I had heard about railroad workers, but I wanted to know about the Chinese in L.A.! There’s much more beyond railroad workers. Later, when I was working at the Chinese American Museum, school teachers would call and say, “Can you send somebody to come and talk to us about Chinese New Year?” I‘d say, “No,” and they’d say, “Okay, how about the railroads?” In the history books, I think railroads were the only thing students learned. There wasn’t any academic literature on Chinese Americans, except Professor Lucie Cheng had an article about Chinese women prostitution and the slave trade. Lucie was in the UCLA Sociology Department at that time. Pretty soon, she was director of the Asian American Studies Center. I went to see her, and she said that she needed my help. I helped her for the whole summer and one quarter doing research using Chung Sai Yat Po 中西日報, which was a Chinese language newspaper from San Francisco. She asked me to take notes on that primary source. That’s how we got to know each other.

Introduction to the CHSSC

Somebody told me about the Chinese Historical Society getting started. This was 1975. I don’t quite remember how I got there, but I went to the first meeting in the basement of Cathay Bank. Him Mark Lai was there. Bill Mason was there, too. It was very exciting to see this community of people. This was a community I wanted to know more about. I attended most of the meetings. In those early days, people wanted to share information and their personal experiences. Each member had their own background. Munson Kwok and George Yee worked at the Aerospace Corporation, and they actually encountered certain things that they felt they had to fight in terms of identity issues. We all wanted to share what we had done.

In 1976, I got my master’s degree in history. I continued in the Ph.D. program, but I didn’t really like it. There was a lot of work to collect academic sources, to research the history of Asian Americans, and to pass the oral exams. There were these historiographic theories that I had to focus on. At that time, oral history was not looked upon as a very good primary source. It was only sociologists and anthropologists that used it. The reliability of oral history was never really respected in the history field. As I knew then, the history field was much more political, institutional, and elitist.

Meanwhile, I already had my foot in community history, and I was getting a little bit edgy about how I could do more. I felt that, if I couldn’t be a professor, then I can be a vehicle to pass on that information in different ways. I dropped out of graduate school. I would console myself and say, “One day, maybe I’ll go into real estate. I will become very successful in real estate, and I’ll come back and establish a giant scholarship.” That never happened!

Linking the University and the Community

We were on the forefront. I thought I could get more women’s stories from the community and show their importance. Luckily, community studies was a part of Lucie’s mission. She contacted the Chinese Historical Society and by 1978, they struck an agreement that the Asian American Studies Center was going to use the Society’s resources. At that time, the academics did not have much contact with the community, and the community needed academic support. For the community, it was very important to establish credibility with the UCLA connections.

When Lucie started looking at the oral history project with the Chinese Historical Society, I was already there. I had finished my newspaper research project with Lucie earlier, but I was hanging out at the Society looking for ways to be involved. It was very important; we all had this desire to educate the public about Chinese American contributions. We were hungry to collect information, to preserve history, and to share. We were running into people who were 80 or 90 years old. We felt a great need to interview them soon.

I was then hired part-time by the Asian American Studies Center. That’s where I felt that I could serve both agencies: UCLA and the Society. I could volunteer, organize efforts for doing the interviews, and coordinate transcription. Lucie and Dr. June Mei were co-directors of the project. But both of them were professors and didn’t have much time. June Mei was actually with the History Department and teaching Chinese history. She was born in New York, and she was educated at a Hong Kong high school. She was fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English, so she was ideal. She and Lucie teamed up, and I was assistant to them. Later, June became a very well-known interpreter for the State Department. She was the best interpreter for all these high officials. Then I, by default, start taking over the oral history project.

Road Blocks

The first step was to compile a list of potential interviewees. The Society started sharing a form and came back with five names, including developer Peter SooHoo, attorney Y. C. Hong, and Judge Delbert Wong. They were the leaders. We said, “We’re not going to only interview five people. We want to talk to anybody. We want the restaurant workers and sewing factory workers.” I wanted to include more women. That first list of five didn’t include any women. It was our conscious decision that we wanted to have a balance of men and women in terms of interviewees.

We set it up so that the interviewees had to be at least fifty years old, and most of them were born in the United States. Their language/ethnicity was important. When you understand their language or dialect, you can throw in a couple of phrases here and there, they start getting more comfortable or remind them of something. We had volunteer interviewers, but very, very few. We tried to recruit, but being an interviewer is not easy. Not everybody could do it. It was difficult for me to do the ones that needed to speak Cantonese. I did try, but luckily, the people whom I interviewed were fluent in English. I started learning a lot about them and about the community.

We did have another interviewer, Jean Wong, who is now a professor in New Jersey. She spoke Cantonese and English, and she was a linguist at that time. She did a lot of interviews at the beginning. We had Beverly Chan, who speaks Mandarin but not Cantonese, and Bernice Sam, who worked for Chinatown at a nutrition program. The Chinese nutrition program actually serviced many of the seniors there. She was with the Historical Society, and she saw these women at the nutrition program, and they gave her permission for interviews. We got a good number of people from there. It was valuable because these were women representing a certain era.

Making a Publication

Lucie had the idea of a publication. Lucie probably had other ideas but until 1982, the project was not going very smoothly because of a lack of resources. UCLA still didn’t have enough funding. Lucie thought we should use the Historical Society’s volunteers. I’m really grateful that the Historical Society was able to participate. The Society was a group of people that was really interested in preserving their own history. We did walking tours; I participated in them. I could share information with the public. In our publication, I could help with writing, and I could help to publicize the group.

Every Saturday, we had these old tape recorders, and the Society members used every minute to transcribe. A good number of the summaries were done, but not all 165 interviews. Then we hired somebody after Lucie and I wrote an NEH grant. We got over $100,000. That was a big success. So we said, “Let’s put a book together with the Historical Society as the publisher.” Linking Our Lives was not intended to be academic. We didn’t use citations. It was really just sharing the stories with a little bit of a thematic arrangement. It was, again, volunteer work and a group effort.

We went through a lot of discussion about what we want as the title. I was involved with getting that title, and Russell Leong was also part of that as well. We thought it was a great title, Linking Our Lives. We knew the challenges of working together, but I think the Historical Society did a beautiful job working with the Center.

Moments of Reflection

I’m more of an outsider in a way, because I came from Taiwan. I wasn’t Chinese American. I was interested in learning about American history, American women, and then, subsequently Chinese Americans. The process actually helped me to reflect on myself. There was a transitional period: first, my interest was “your” history; I’m going to help “you” preserve that. Then, I started saying, “Hey, I’m part of this Society. Why am I doing this? Where do I fit in?” Back when I studied American history, there was no place there for women, so that was my mission. I wanted to get women into the history books. If we don’t tell our story, who else is going to do it? And it wasn’t just women, because I was also involved with Chinese Americans. I wanted Chinese American stories to be a part of recorded history. That is only one of many, many steps that we have to continuously link. Part of the reason why I’m now involved with the Chinese American Museum so deeply is because it is a place we can share. We are here, and we are important. We are like you; we are part of American history.

In that sense, it’s disappointing that this is one of the very few books focusing on Chinese American women – after forty years. Linking Our Lives is one project that I wish that more institutions, especially universities, could do with the community. A lot of the time, the academic world tells us how you collect information, and they see this as the only “legitimate” way to do research. But if that was the way, we would never have community histories. We were able to compile stories, surveys, go down the streets and take out questionnaires, and the Society is still doing that. It’s a community organization. We are collecting our own history. If you only depend on academics and scholars, the energy probably will not be the same. The Society is continuously trying to find a way to fulfill our mission. If we don’t do that, academics and scholars who write history may once again miss the chapters about us.