Susie Ling

Editor’s Note: Susie Ling was born in Taiwan and raised in the Philippines. She is Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at Pasadena City College. She has done oral history projects on Asian American women activists, San Gabriel’s pre-War Japanese Americans, and African Americans and Chicanos of Monrovia. She has been with the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California since the 1980s, recently as editor of Gum Saan Journal. This is as told to William Gow on September 29, 2018 in Temple City, California, and edited by Samuel Yee.

Early Multicultural Identity

Dr. Judy Chu and Susie Ling in 1984. Photo courtesy of Munson Kwok.

My origins definitely shape who I am. My parents are Chinese from the mainland, but my mother was actually born in Japan because my grandfather, her father, was active with Chinese revolutionaries in Tokyo. My paternal great grandfather was from Fujian. He was also active in the 1911 Revolution. My parents met at the University of Nanjing. They were educated, science-oriented, and fairly ambitious. I was born in Taiwan in 1958. Because of my father’s career as a plant pathologist in agriculture, we actually came to the United States in 1959 so that he could pursue his graduate degrees. First, we lived in segregated Baton Rouge, and then in Wisconsin. Our experiences in the United States at that time were not positive because of our race. My dad, now with his Ph.D., got a job in the Philippines in an international agency doing research on rice. As a result, I was exposed to a very well-educated international niche in a rural Filipino community.

I went to the local elementary school in Los Baños, Laguna. The best years of my life were at that school. We played jacks in the dirt. Afterwards, we played marbles. We hopscotched. I knew my family had more money, but I was still a little less resourceful than my classmates because they could buy street food and my Tagalog was not as good as theirs. Instruction was in English because Philippines was a U.S. neocolony. I was learning about George Washington by the second grade.

After the local school, I went to this elitist International School in Makati, Manila. I was a good girl. If the teacher said, “Turn in your homework,” I turned in my homework. I would go to math class on time, listening and trying to do my best. Then there would be these other kids who would come into class late with no homework, and the teacher would say something like, “Oh, very nice of you to come today.” I was, of course, very confused. Nobody explained this. Years and years later, I came to realize that those classmates’ last names were associated with the Filipino oligarchy under President Marcos.

The Philippines fell under the Marcos dictatorship, and Nixon recognized China. When I graduated from high school in 1976, my Taiwan passport was not recognized by most nations as a valid political document. Dad meant well, and he provided for my college education and social education outside the classroom, but he did not know that such politics would impact our existence. I really would have struggled to go to college in the Philippines because I didn’t have Filipino citizenship, and I could not go to school in Taiwan as my Mandarin skills were lacking. I was lucky that the United States would take me.

Education at UCLA

“So what should I major in?” In my discussion with my parents, I would say something like, “I think I’ll major in art.” My mom said, “I don’t think so.” Then, “I think I’ll major in history.” My mom goes, “Hmm.” Eventually, I said, “I think I’ll major in biology.” My mom and dad were both biologists, and they said, “That’s a good idea, Susie.” My mother had a sister in L.A., so I applied to one school, UCLA, as we had heard of this name. On July 2, 1976, I came to the United States on a student visa.

UCLA was then about twelve percent Asian. I met Asian Americans for the first time. They sure were different; I thought that their English language skills were better but their level of confidence was less. Foreign-borns, like me, were raised in an environment where we were in the majority. Culturally, it was just so different. Now, we have movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Shang-Chi with Asian American hunks and Asian Americans in multiple roles. I was raised in Asia, and I watched lots and lots of Chinese movies and Filipino movies where they had Asian hunks, Asian bad guys, and Asian romance.

However, with time, I realized the racism. There was this one interaction with my dorm mate. She was from “San Marino”; I thought she was a foreign student like me. She was a White woman who was rushing for sororities. She moved out without really explaining.

In my dorm, there were social events. There was going to be this meeting of the Asian Women’s Rap Group. I thought, “Well, I’m Asian, I’m a woman,” so I went, and I was really shocked that only four people showed up. I was like, “Where’s everybody else?” If twelve percent of UCLA is Asian, that’s a sizable segment of the population of 30,000 students. Later, I realized that cool 18-year-old Asian American women didn’t want to be associated with other Asian women. But I thought this rap group – sponsored by the Asian American Studies Center – was wonderful. The rap group talked about issues like Lau vs. Nichols and Little Tokyo redevelopment. This jibed with me. My parents were politically conscious; they were never shy about sharing their opinions, so we were raised progressive. Keiko Sasaki, our leader, was the assistant coordinator of the Student/Community Projects unit. She was there to bring an Asian American identity and politicize us.

By the end of my first year in college, I was hanging out at Campbell Hall. Ken Izumi of the Asian American Studies Center decided to strengthen the umbrella student group called the Asian Coalition – which would be the parallel to MEChA and BSU.[1] The Asian Woman’s Rap Group was one of ten members of the Asian Coalition, and I was their representative. To be blunt, the Asian Coalition was formed for economic purposes. We would go to the student government and say, “we want X amount of dollars to do some Asian programming because BSU and MEChA got funding.” We were just starting to be politically and numerically significant enough to make a statement. I eventually went into leadership in the Asian Coalition.

Keiko said that they were looking for a student assistant upstairs in the main office of the Asian American Studies Center. I was the one answering the main phone. This was 1977 and 1978, so I met the end of the Asian American Movement. I stuffed the mailboxes for Yuji Ichioka, Russell Leong, John Liu, Marlon Hom, and Sun Bin Yim, who later on went to Chicago and did wonderful research on Korean Americans. I was the lowly student assistant that ordered supplies and ran the mimeo machine. But I was so lucky. I met Ron Hirano, Tim Dong, and Lucie Cheng. I was right there.

UCLA was such a learning environment. I went to listen to all kinds of speeches. I went to Black events, and they all looked at me like, “What are you doing here?” I thought African Americans were cool, but they didn’t think I was. I felt like I was Latina because I had been raised in the Philippines, but MEChA didn’t think so. With time, I came to understand that I am grouped as Asian American.

Gendered Activism

The Asian American Movement, as well as the Black and Chicanx Movements, had some gender stereotypes that I did not like. You were aware of the gender dynamics immediately. I remember that the Asian Coalition decided to have a picnic with barbecue chicken. I ended up having to cut sixteen whole chickens by myself. Women took the minutes. There was another incident that I will always remember. I was having a disagreement with this peer who was very buff. He started using curse words; it was a bullying tactic. I was not going to stoop that low, but it was unfair. In those days, you still had to wait for a guy to ask you to dance.

I quickly joined feminist groups; we formed the multiethnic International Women’s Solidarity Coalition. This was around 1981, and the organizer behind that was a young girl by the name of Dolly Gee – now a United States District Judge. The women were very supportive and even role models for me, so it wasn’t like I was figuring things out alone. My political identity was being formed. Issues of race, gender, class, sexual preference, and disability should have a place in American conversations.

While I started at UCLA, I didn’t know what “community” meant. My classmate, Karen Umemoto, was from Gardena, a Japanese American niche. I had a handicap. I was not from L.A.; I was not even from the United States. I had never been to Little Tokyo; I had been to Chinatown only to eat and shop at Yee Sing Chong market. My family wasn’t near.

The late 1970s was the era of disco and polyester. Reagan came in the 1980s, and the climate turned more conservative. In that milieu, progressivism at UCLA was less and less. The Greek fraternities were back in control of student government. I was now working as staff with the Student/Community Projects unit at the Center, taking over Keiko’s role.

The Center’s Assistant Director, Tim Dong, said, “Why don’t you get a master’s in Asian American studies?” They needed students at that time. I thought about it, and I said, “You know, I really like this stuff. Yeah, I’ll do it. Whatever comes of it, I’ll worry about later.” I did my thesis on the Asian Women’s Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. I interviewed about twenty Asian women activists that were then in their thirties, older than me. I transcribed those cassette tapes on my electronic typewriter – with bottles of White-out near me. The project politicized me more. I got an incredible education.

Linking Our Lives and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California

Lucie Cheng had linked up with the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. Lucie approached me – and others – and said, “Hey, let’s do this project of writing down some of the Chinese American women’s experiences.” Lucie was a visionary, and I really am very fortunate to have even worked with her. I had taken Intro to Asian American Studies from Dr. June Mei. I had been the teaching assistant for Dr. Judy Chu. Marji had started in the Asian American studies M.A. program before me. Sucheta Mazumdar had worked with me in the International Women’s Solidarity Coalition and at Student/Community Projects.

We talked about how we would divide up the task. Suellen introduced us to the interviewees on the cassette tapes. This was before computers, and they needed someone to, not transcribe the tape as that would take a million years, but to at least outline the main points. My younger sister did that; she was a great typist. Lucie was going to make it all happen. The Studies Center had xerox machines, typewriters, access to the campus’ typesetters and mass printing. We now had publishing capabilities. In retrospect, it was an inventive bringing together of people and resources.

But, as Munson Kwok said, we struggled. We didn’t know how to do this stuff. I had never written anything except school papers, so I was lucky that I got teamed up with Judy. Judy Chu takes my work and edits it, and then it goes up to Lucie and Suellen who edit it some more. I did my best, but I honestly feel that my name as co-author is unfair, because I didn’t do that much. I had luckily fallen in with a group of wonderful and talented human beings, and I was very happy – and humbled – to be considered part of this collective.

Autographs in Susie’s copy of Linking Our Lives.

There is no way I could claim much ownership for Linking Our Lives, but it opened a door for me into the Society. I learned that there are community people with much more knowledge and talent than I, but who may be a bit intimidated by writing. I’m not intimidated by typing or writing, so that was my role: to document what they already knew. I’d fallen into oral histories. I don’t deserve credit for the information because it was theirs. When Ken Chan was president of the Society, he asked me to go out and interview Chinese American grocers. I did, and it was a very informative issue of Gum Saan Journal. He then sent me out to interview Chinese American bankers. President Susan Dickson told me about this collection around community leader Irvin Lai, and that was another special issue of Gum Saan Journal. For most of the Gum Saan Journal issues I’ve edited over the decades, my teammates in the Society know what I can do and what I cannot do, and they send me out on assignments. If they tell me I can walk through fire, I’d go try.

[1] BSU or Black Student Unions were formed on many college campuses in the 1960s. MEChA was the acronym for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan, or the network of Mexican American student organizations founded in 1969.