Eastside author captures untold generation of Chinese immigrants
Photo by Chad Coleman
How to watch football – that was one of the first things China-born Peter Ku had to learn when he came to the U.S. in 1963.
“Of course, in Asia, what we call football you call soccer,” says Ku, who was perplexed by the father in his host family who could sit in front of the TV watching the game for hours.
Mastering English was another challenge. Ku, who thought he was pretty proficient in the language, could barely understand what his professor was saying in his first graduate school class at the University of Minnesota.
But he didn’t give up.
With the help of friendly classmates who lent him their notebooks, Ku would eventually go on to earn his Ph.D. and later, become Chancellor Emeritus of Seattle Community Colleges
“I’m one of the happy immigrants,” says the Bellevue resident. “I feel grateful and blessed with a life in this country where, if you work hard, you can be successful.”
Ku is part of the “second wave” of Chinese in the U.S. who came to this county between the mid-’30s and late ‘60s, mostly as students seeking degrees, professional jobs and citizenship.
This group is often overlooked by historians, who’ve paid more attention in the past to the “first wave” of Chinese immigrants with more dramatic stories. The first wave built railroads, created Chinatowns and faced severe discrimination, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banning immigration from China.
But now, Ku’s and his generation’s stories will live on in Dori Jones Yang’s new book: “Voices of the Second Wave: Chinese Americans in Seattle.”
A former foreign correspondent in Hong Kong, Yang, a Newcastle resident, is now an author of several books, including acclaimed young adult fiction, “Daughter of Xanadu” and “The Secret Voice of Gina Zhang.”
In her newest work, Yang used her journalist skills to interview 35 Chinese Americans who immigrated to the U.S. between 1934 and 1968. She hopes her work will provide a more complete understanding of the Chinese immigrant experience.
She also refers to the people she interviewed as the “lost generation,” because most of them were cut off from the land of their birth and unable to even check in on relatives left behind under communism.
“If they had stayed in China or Taiwan, they would have been the best and the brightest, respected leaders of their country, but instead they struggled with English and faced many challenges as they tried to succeed in America,” Yang says.
In 2009, Maria L. Koh, one of the interviewees, commissioned Yang to create this book of oral histories inspired by the Japanese American legacy project, Densho.
The book is, “a work from the heart,” Yang says, because she undertook it as a tribute to this group, (which includes her husband, Paul Yang), and not to make money.
The Eastside author is fascinated by the intersection of Chinese and American cultures – where they clash, where they blend. She aims to increase understanding between Americans and Chinese.
“I think this is vital for a peaceful and prosperous future,” she says.
The Second Wave speaks:
I was country-less for many years. I was in communist China but I wasn’t a communist. I went to Hong Kong, a British Colony, but I wasn’t British. When people raised flags and sang anthems, I never had a country to belong to.
- Conrad Lee, Warlord’s nephew, elected Bellevue City Council member, Deputy Mayor
We came [to the U.S.] more or less partially educated already. During the first 20 years here, we didn’t dare lift our heads or speak out. Men and women would say, ‘Where are you from? Where are you really from?’ I never wanted to say Shanghai because I didn’t want anyone to think I was a Communist.
- Maria Koh, Nearly deported student, lifelong nutritionist