Editor’s note: Emma Woo Louie – and her husband Paul – were instrumental to CHSSC in its inception. Emma edited Gum Saan Journal and then authored Chinese American Names: Tradition and Transition (2008). She now lives in Palo Alto. This was from an interview with William Gow on August 27, 2019.
I was born in Seattle; I was put up for adoption. Since I was six, I lived in Pasco, Washington; in Portland, Oregon; and finally, San Francisco Chinatown. I was very interested in history growing up because my single mom placed me in a girls’ home, the Episcopal Methodist Church which is now the Gum Moon Women’s Residence. From the 1850s to 1940s, there were several churches that were built in the Chinese community by mainstream Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic church. At that time, because of exclusion, the Chinese community was quite small.
I went to Commerce High. In those days, you knew people had paper surnames, and the kids would sign their real Chinese names in the yearbooks which didn’t match their English names. Plus, there were children who would end up with the given name of their father – instead of the surname. I was really fascinated with that.
My husband, Paul Louie, was born and raised in Seattle. In 1940, there were about forty Chinese families in Seattle. He came down to San Francisco to work at the Chinese YMCA. When we were married, we lived in San Francisco for a short time. He was a minister of Christian education. In the 1950s, he would be called to big churches as they were beginning to call non-Caucasian ministers to be on the staff. We moved about because every time the main minister leaves and a new one comes in, he would volunteer to leave. We lived in Oakland, Berkeley, Davis, and then we finally moved to L.A. in 1961, he was with a Caucasian church in La Cañada.
We were acquainted with Phil Choy, the historian in San Francisco. In fact, his first date with his wife-to-be was babysitting our two boys. And we talked about Chinese American history. Thomas Chinn was writing, and we had a couple of other friends who founded the Chinese Historical Society of America in 1963. At that time, a lot of the Chinese Americans thought of themselves as being Chinese, not Chinese Americans. People were very proud of being Chinese during World War II when China was an ally. Although you lived under the exclusion laws, it wasn’t well known. You just know that you have to be careful because you would be deported if you came in under a paper name or something like that. People were very secretive.
Louie, Mason, and De Falla
In 1972, Paul began work with the Los Angeles Commission on Human Relations and that was started because Black people who were moving west had a difficult time buying a house. We were also turned down a couple of times when we tried to find a house in La Cañada. The real estate company said the neighbors would boycott them if they helped us. My husband reported this to the church elders because he wanted to live in the community where he was serving. One of the elders of the church was building houses in the area, and he sold one to us without a realtor. There was only one other Chinese family that lived in La Cañada. They were very rich as they were owners of this restaurant in Chinatown. I was working as a nurse at a Pasadena hospital.
At first, Paul wasn’t interested in Chinese American history. But he met Bill Mason who was in charge of one of the departments at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum. Bill was also a member of the Historical Society of Southern California – as was our next-door neighbor, Bob Cowan. Bill had written an article about the Chinese in Los Angeles. It was one of the first articles that he wrote; he wrote about different groups. Bill introduced Paul to De Falla. The three of them met and had lunch together, and Paul got interested. And the two of them said, “Why don’t we start a historical society and then teach people about the history of the Chinese in Los Angeles?” They decided to hold a series of meetings and talks at the Department of Water and Power – and then at Cathay Bank.
There were all of these things going on at that time especially with LBJ’s War on Poverty. My husband was very active because he was on the staff of Human Relations. He felt that that was part of his job to help communities build up. I remember Paul was always into bylaws and Robert’s Rules of Order. Every group needs to have a good sense of what their bylaws are about. He had long talks with Munson Kwok about policy and how to raise money. He was always an advisor; he never wanted to be in leadership. I was vice president though. Bill Mason and Paul De Falla were never officers either.
It was Stanley Lau who was the first president for the Society, and I think I was the corresponding secretary. Ann Lau was recording secretary. We started meetings at the Castelar Grammar School. The principal gave us permission to use the parking lot – which was the playground. And then there were the Yee brothers. We held all the board meetings at my home. Then Eugene Moy and Susan Sing got very interested. It was a very enthusiastic group.
We were predominantly second-generation Cantonese. We came from Long Beach, Torrance, and just all around. We decided to meet on Wednesdays, and we would invite speakers.
Southern California Chinese American Oral History Project
In the Bay area, the Chinese Historical Society of America with Thomas Chinn, H. Mark Lai, and Henry Kwock (H. K.) Wong were doing some interviews of Chinese Americans. I think Phil Choy was telling us that it was important to start interviewing old-timers who lived in Los Angeles, because the people would start dying off. I think I did some of the interviews. Lucie Cheng also encouraged this. Ella Yee Quan grew up in Santa Barbara. And then we had people from San Diego. But they later decided to have their own groups. That was why we called ourselves the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. Dolores Wong and her husband, Delbert, and Beulah Quo had roots in Vallejo, Bakersfield, and Stockton.
People still thought of themselves as “Chinese.” I remember saying, “Why can’t we say Chinese American?” Others said it made our name too long. I’ve always regarded myself as an American of Chinese ancestry.
We were good friends with Russell Leong. My husband knew his father, Charles, who wrote about things pertaining to the Chinese American community in San Francisco. I didn’t know Munson, but he grew up in San Francisco also. Suellen was very instrumental in helping with that Oral History Project. As was June Mei.
I always thought that there was so much energy in Southern California. They were just gung-ho about everything. It’s like the weather has something to do with it. They were very energetic people who didn’t mind driving all over the place.
At this time, African Americans were being very proud of being Black. Alex Haley’s “Roots” TV series came out in 1977. And there was a student movement that was going on at the same time. This contributed to this interest in genealogy and ethnic identity.
The CHSSC meetings were always interesting because we always had guest speakers. I had the idea to have a Christmas party. I thought that would be fun. We’ll sing Christmas carols and all of that. And then you bring the next generation. Paul always thought it was important to get the next generation interested. It was a fun congenial group. After our meetings, we would go out and siu ye 宵夜; we call it the late supper. I remember Eugene Cooper, an anthropologist from USC, would order these dishes that weren’t on the menu that none of us even knew about. He was really a funny guy. He was on the Board. The camaraderie was really, really great.