Author and historian Judy Yung has written and contributed to many books. Her latest book San Francisco's Chinatown will be presented at an AACP, OCA of San Mateo, and San Mateo Library sponsored event on Tuesday, November 14, 7pm, at the New San Mateo Library Main Branch. Come and meet Judy Yung for what is sure to be a very fascinating evening.
Until then, here is an interview I conducted with Judy Yung.
Leonard Chan (LC)
Judy Yung (JY)
LC: Tell us about the making of your book San Francisco's Chinatown. How long did it take? Whose idea was it to make this book?
JY: Arcadia Publishing wanted a book on SF Chinatown for their series, Images of America, and approached CHSA (Chinese Historical Society of America) to do it. Sue Lee, CHSA Executor Director, asked me. I was in between projects and thought it would be a fun project, as well as a way for me to introduce my home town to readers and tourists. Having researched and collected photos on SF Chinatown for years, I thought I could do it in 3 months. It took me six months to look for more photos, do the research for the captions, and decide on the story line.
LC: Tell us about the pictures - did they all come from the CHSA?
JY: SF Chinatown must be one of the most photographed communities in the country, and the Internet made my research much easier. I got many old photos from CHSA and Phil Choy. I also found a good selection at Bancroft Library, California Historical Society, and San Francisco Public Library. Many of the contemporary photos I got from Chinatown photographers such as Harry Jew and Ben Chan. I would have used more from the San Francisco Chronicle except they charged quite a bit more than the other archives for the reproduction and use fees.
LC: Roughly how many were there and how many made it into the book?
JY: Arcadia has very specific guidelines for this series-180 to 200 photos and 128 pages. I had at least 1,000 images to choose from and ended up using 184 photos in the book.
LC: Tell us about how you chose the pictures for the book. Was it a case by case process or were you trying to match a theme?
JY: I decided to do a history of Chinatown through pictures, showing how Chinatown developed as a residential neighborhood, shopping center, business community, tourist attraction, and cultural mecca. I wanted to show daily life, historical and political events, and economic and cultural changes from the Gold Rush to present day. I organized the book into three historical periods and looked for an equal number of photos for each period to reflect these themes. Of course, the quality and "punch" of the photos was a major consideration. For example, I knew I wanted to include the photo that appears on the cover and the one of Mrs. Qiong holding the mousetrap on page 120.
LC: For our readers that don't have the book yet - the cover has a picture of some kids playing with some sand that has been dumped in the middle of an intersection in Chinatown and the Mrs. Qiong picture shows her smiling with the caption saying that she caught 39 mice in six month with that trap.
So what made these two pictures stand apart from the rest?
JY: The cover photo reminds us how American Chinese kids were in the 1930s, dressed as they were in knickers and tennis shoes and engaged in building a sand pyramid against the background of Chinatown with its neon Chop Suey signs and wall ads advertising Chinese herbs and fine arts.
The second photo is a rare shot of the interior of an elderly woman's apartment in Chinatown, showing her triumphant face in catching her 39th mouse in the last six months. Despite the living conditions of Chinatown, seniors like Mrs. Qiong still prefer living here than in the suburbs.
LC: Tell us about some of the pictures that you wish you could have included in the book. Having lived in San Francisco for most of my life, I was kind of hoping to see more of the Chinatown I remembered. Because of the limitation for the size of the book, was it tough for you to leave some of the pictures out?
JY: Space limitation was a problem. I left many of the Arnold Genthe photos of the 1890s period out because they have been widely published before. I wanted to include more photos by Chinatown photographers like Harry Jew, Benjamen Chin, Kem Lee, and Ben Chan, but that would have overloaded the 1945-2000 section. I had a hard time finding pictures of gang violence and of the 1989 earthquake, mainly because the photo files of East West and Asian Week were inaccessible. Because of space limitations, I couldn't tell the entire story of the demolition of the International Hotel.
LC: Can you tell us a little bit about these photographers?
JY: Harry Jew was an amateur photographer who took photos of Chinatown life and events from the 1940s to the 1990s. He died a few years ago. His family donated his photos to the Chinese Historical Society.
Benjamen Chinn is still alive. He worked as a photographer with the U.S. Army until he retired in 1984. Chinn studied with Ansel Adams at the California School of Arts after the war. He grew up in SF Chinatown, enjoyed photographing life in Chinatown through the years, and still lives in Chinatown today.
Ben Chan worked as a journalist and photographer for Sing Tao Newspaper in the 1980s. He now works for the city, but continues to take photos for the love of it.
Kem Lee was a major studio photographer in Chinatown from the 1940s until he died in the 1990s. He also took many photos of community events. His collection has been donated to the Ethnic Studies Library at UC Berkeley.
LC: Were you able to track down any of the Chinatown portrait photographer collections to see if any of them dabbled in non-portrait work? I've always been a little curious about the Chinatown photographers and photo studios that took pictures of my family and others during the 1920s and 30s. Know anything about them? Were there many or were there just a few of these photographers doing all the work?
JY: There were a handful of such photographers. One of the most well know was May Studios, run by Leo and May Chan. They did studio portraits and Chinese opera as well as covered community events.
LC: Will you be showing any of the left out pictures at your upcoming presentation in San Mateo? Can any of them be found on display at the CHSA museum and website?
JY: If you think people would be interested, I could show a few of the ones I left out. My slide talk mainly focuses on the photos that I included and the story I am trying to tell through the book. For anyone interested in seeing more photos of SF Chinatown, I recommend these web sites:
Library of Congress, The Chinese in California, 1850-1925
San Francisco Public Library photo collection
LC: Yes, please do show some of your favorite pictures that you couldn't get in the book.
Were the captions easy to find or were they available from the owners of the pictures? Tell us about the process of doing the research for the captions.
JY: The captions took the most time to research and write. I relied on other photo books on SF Chinatown and read many books and articles on the history of SF Chinatown (see my bibliography). I also asked people I knew in the community to help me identify some of the photos (see my acknowledgements). Arcadia only allowed me to include so much text, so every word had to count in terms of identifying the photo and making a point.
LC: There's so much that is not mentioned in the captions too. I love looking at old pictures and noticing all the little details - from the clothes people wore, to signs on windows and buildings, to the products being sold at the stores, to the brick streets and concrete utility poles, and most of all the people. Each of the pictures in your book seems rich with details. What are some of the details that you love looking for in old pictures? Can you quickly mention a few examples from the book that are not pointed out in the pictures' captions?
JY: Some examples that showed how much I was able to pack into a caption appear on page 9 (historical significance of Portsmouth Square); page 25 (barbershops and the wearing of queues); page 28 (description of Chinese opera house); pages 29-31 (Chinese prostitution); and page 71 (Fong Fong's, except I misidentified the owner as George Kao instead of Philip Fong, which Arcadia will correct in the next print run).
LC: What are some the most interesting things you learned in making this book that you didn't already know at the start?
JY: The early geographic layout and living conditions in Chinatown; the rebuilding of Chinatown after the earthquake; how foreign investments and real estate speculation forced small businesses out of Grant Avenue; funeral customs; the impact of earthquakes.
LC: You being a native San Franciscan must have personally observed many of the changes with San Francisco's Chinatown. Name some of the things you miss from the past versions of Chinatown and appreciate with the current incarnation. I personally miss some of the old foods - for example chow mein is cooked pretty differently now. The latest residents and workers of Chinatown have a different style of cooking. Know any places that still make a good peanut cake :)?
JY: I grew up in Chinatown in the 1950s when the community was less crowded and more tight-knit than today. I miss many of the old hang-outs like Fong Fong, Sun Wah Kue, and Uncle's Café. Sam Wo is the only restaurant left where I can get jook and sam jup noodles the way I like it. I miss Sun Wah Kue's peanut cake and custard pie. Eastern Bakery still offers coffee crunch cake, but it's not as good as before. I use to buy my Chinese school supplies and greeting cards at Fat Ming's, but the store has been sold and changed. I rarely eat or shop in Chinatown anymore-too crowded and hard to park. I think community organizations like Chinatown Community Development Center and Self-Help for the Elderly have done a fantastic job of cleaning up Chinatown and providing services to the elderly.
LC: Tell us a little bit about your other great book that came out this year - Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present.
JY: Glad you asked…The book is co-authored with historians Gordon Chang and Him Mark Lai and published by the University of California Press. Fifteen years in the making, Chinese American Voices is a diverse collection of primary documents and stories by Chinese Americans from their arrival during the California gold rush to the present. The anthology includes letters, speeches, testimonies, oral histories, personal memoirs, poems, essays, and folksongs, many of which have never been published before or have been translated into English for the first time. They bring to life the diverse voices and experiences of immigrants and the American-born; laborers, merchants, and professionals; ministers and students; housewives and prostitutes; and community leaders and activists.
LC: There's lots of interesting original historical source materials in this book. How about describing one or two pieces from that book that really piqued your interest?
JY: One of my favorite pieces is Liu Liangmo's essay on how he got Paul Robeson to introduce China's national anthem to the American period ("Paul Robeson: The People's Singer," p. 204).
Another is the description of a bone collector going around the country looking for the remains of fellow countrymen to send back to China ("The Second Exhumation and Return of the Remains of Our Departed Friends to the Homeland," p. 26).
Of course, as an oral historian, I tend to favor those selections. One of the more unique and interesting ones concern the only Chinese American to be captured by the Japanese in the Pacific war ("There but for the grace of God go I: The Story of a POW Survivor in World War II," p. 212)-soon to be published as The Adventures of Eddie Fung: Chinatown Kid, Texas Cowboy, POW Survivor, by the University of Washington Press.
LC: Ah, I thought I read something about how you were related to Eddie Fung or had some sort of connection with him and this book. Did I read correctly? Did you ever meet and get to know him? What made his story so unique?
JY: I met Eddie in 2002 when I interviewed him for my book, "Chinese American Voices." We got married in 2003. Here's a Chinese American who ran away from home to become a cowboy in Texas, ends up joining the National Guard in Texas, gets captured by the Japanese in WWII, and survives 42 months of slave labor and abuse. I found his story and character fascinating enough to write a book about it.
LC: Some of the questions I asked above for San Francisco's Chinatown could also apply here. Such as what didn't make it into this book and what were some of the most interesting things you learned in making it? You don't have to answer these questions for this book, but feel free to pick your own question and answer it.
JY: Again, because of space limitations, we couldn't include many selections, and we needed to be representative in terms of geographic location, historical period, political perspectives, and population diversity. I wished we had had the space to cover more contemporary issues like sexual orientation, media stereotypes, intermarriage and mixed race, the Vietnam War, 9/11, China politics, globalization, illegal immigration, etc.
LC: What are you working on now? I've heard you are working on a book about the complete history of Angel Island. Can you tell us anything about it? Is there anything we can help you with - such as people's personal family histories with the place? Could you use any other help with the research? Maybe some of our readers would love to help you. I wouldn't mind. When do you plan to have the Angel Island book finished?
JY: My next book project is a narrative history of Pacific immigration through Angel Island, sponsored by the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation and co-authored with Erika Lee, Associate Professor of History at the University of Minnesota and the author of At America's Gates: Chinese Immigration during the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943. Slated to be completed when the newly renovated immigration site opens in 2010, the book will encompass the experiences of immigrants from around the world, including people from China, Japan, India, the Philippines, Korea, Russia, Portugal, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, Central and South America.
Approximately 400,000 immigrants were processed through the Angel Island Immigration Station, two-thirds of whom were either Chinese or Japanese. While much is known about the experiences of Chinese immigrants at Angel Island because of their long detention there and the poems they carved into the barrack walls, little has been written about the experiences of the other groups. We are particularly interested in finding documents, writings, stories, oral histories, and photographs related to the experiences of immigrant groups other than the Chinese at Angel Island. Should anyone have such information and material or wish to help with the research can contact the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation (AIISF) (email@example.com) or me (please email AACP and we will forward your email to Judy Yung).
LC: Something you also worked on was the Angel Island Chinese Poetry book called Island. I heard that there have been new poetry discoveries on the Island since the publishing of that book. Any chance that these new poems may get into this book or another one? By the way, did any of the other immigrant groups leave any interesting graffiti?
JY: Close to 100 new but incomplete poems in Chinese have been found, as well as signatures by other immigrants and POWs. I will be including some of these in my next book on Pacific immigration at Angel Island that I am co-writing with Erika Lee under the sponsorship of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation. Over half a million immigrants from 60 countries passed through Angel Island between 1910 and 1940. The Chinese was the largest group, followed by the Japanese and Russian Jews.
LC: While we're on the subject of poetry, I checked out one of your web links you supplied above and found an interesting Chinese poetry book quite by accident. Apparently a group called the Golden Gate Poetry Club created the book (sunsite.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/flipomatic/cic/brk4251). Are you familiar with this club and this book and if so what can you tell us about this group? Has the book been completely translated and published yet?
JY: Take a look at Marlon Hom's book, Songs of Gold Mountain.
LC: What is your schedule for other upcoming presentations? In case some of our reader can't make your presentation on November 14th, 7pm, at the San Mateo Main Library please let us know of other ones that you may be making.
JY: The following is my schedule of slide talks on both books:
Saturday, October 28, 2006, 2:30 pm - Chinatown Branch, San Francisco Public Library (1135 Powell Street, San Francisco, 415-355-2888) - San Francisco's Chinatown
Sunday, November 5, 2006, 2 pm - Chinatown Photographic Society (132 Waverly Place, San Francisco) - San Francisco's Chinatown
Tuesday, November 14, 2006, 7 pm - San Mateo Public Library (55 West 3rd Avenue, San Mateo, 650-522-7800) - San Francisco's Chinatown
Thursday, November 16, 2006, 7 pm - El Cerrito Public Library (6510 Stockton Avenue, El Cerrito, 510-526-7512) - San Francisco's Chinatown
Tuesday, October 24, 2006, 6 pm - Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library (150 E. San Fernando Street, 2nd Floor, Room 225, San Jose, 408-808-2397) - Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present
Saturday, January 22, 2007, 2 pm - Cesar Chavez Central Library (605 N. El Dorado Drive, Stockton, 209-937-8239) - Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present
Saturday, January 27, 2007, 2 pm - San Leandro Public Library (300 Estudillo Avenue, San Leandro, 510-577-3971) - Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present
LC: Do you have your own website where people can find your schedule and other information about your work?
JY: Not yet, but am working on it.
LC: Thank you very much for this interview.