8/28/10

Talk to Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA), Atlanta, 2006

           The Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) is an academic group that includes historians, literary scholars, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists who write on and research issues relevant to Asian Americans. Its annual conference in 2006 was held in Atlanta, and they were especially receptive to contributions dealing with Asian Americans in the South.  I decided submit a proposal about how chain migration and networking among about 19 male descendants of my great great great grandfather led them to all operate laundries in the American South.
      AAAS  issued press releases about its 2006 Conference to the media.   Asian American communities in Atlanta were invited to attend and possibly present talks or panel presentations about programs, issues, and research relating to Asian Americans.
         The Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) chapter in Atlanta, a community-based social activist organization, learned from press releases that I would be at the conference.  Dennis and Teresa Chao, leaders of  the Atlanta chapter called and invited me to speak at their monthly dinner meeting for a book talk and signing for Southern Fried Rice one evening after the conference meetings ended. 
        At first, it looked like the dinner event would be a disaster! First, there had been a misunderstanding between the organizers and the restaurant which did not expect a party of 100. Not only was there the danger of not enough food but there were the usual glitches in getting the lcd projector connected to the laptop so it was not possible to show some images to illustrate my talk. So by the time the long delayed 10-course meal ended, the evening was already long so I realized it would be best to shorten my formal talk to around 15 mins. to allow time for some Q &A. Then what I assumed would be a brief 5-10 mins. of Q & A turned into a lively exchange lasting about 45 mins. before I decided cut it off while I was still ahead.  The audience interest, which was wonderful, allowed me to avert disaster and actually develop a much warmer tie to the audience than I could have done with my prepared talk.
      
        Earlier that same day, something unusual happened that might have been an omen that it was to be a day of surprises.  In the morning, I was introduced to Sachi Koto (long time CNN news anchor woman) who, noting that I was an author about the Chinese experience in the South, invited me to be the keynote speaker for an gala black tie event she had organized for the following month to honor Asian American outstanding achievers in many fields at a celebratory event at the Omni Hotel, Who's Who Among Asian Americans in Georgia.  I was so startled to receive this invitation that I could only mutter that I need a few days to think about it.
My initial reaction was a mixture of curiosity and anxiety. What did I have to say to such a distinguished set of men and women as well as prominent civic and government officials who would be in attendance. It would have been easy to just decline the invitation, but something told me that this was an opportunity knocking that I should accept. This was another case of 'being at the right place at the right time." The keynote address was well-received and I made many valuable new contacts, with even one request for help in tracing the history of a Chinese laundryman!


  After the dinner talk with OCA, there was another surprise invitation! I met  Karen Tran, President of the Atlanta Chapter of the National Association of Asian American Professionals. NAAAP is a social network of young Asian American professionals.  They meet to develop career skills and contacts as well as volunteer in community service projects and engage in social activities. She invited me to return to Atlanta the following month to speak to their group. To receive 2 totally unexpected invitations to come back in a month from California to speak in Atlanta was a bit exciting but also unnerving.
         I was hesitant to accept the NAAAP invite because I feared that  this late 20s age group would not be interested  in old history but Karen insisted that it was important for young people to know about lives of Chinese in the South in the past.  Luckily, the schedule allowed me to speak to NAAAP on a Friday evening and to the Who's Who Among Asian Americans in Georgia Gala Celebration event on Saturday night! More on both of these events later.

And as if that wasn't enough excitement. The day after the AAAS conference,  I had the chance to go to Augusta, Georgia, to speak at a potluck dinner at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, founded in 1927, with leaders including my father's uncle and cousin.  In 1939, the CCBA acquired a vacant church in downtown Augusta to serve as the hub for the Chinese community, including a Chinese language school. It also held weddings, banquets, and other celebrations.  
       
   Augusta was important in terms of Chinese American history, with the largest number of Chinese in Georgia for decades starting in the 1870s when Chinese laborers were brought in to help build the Augusta Canal, providing an economic boost to the region by powering its cotton mill industry.
Although Augusta had the largest Chinese community in the southeast then, there were surprisingly few laundries aside from one run by my father's cousin. Most Chinese there ran small family grocery stores in black neighborhoods. When I had lived in Georgia, I had never had the chance to go to Augusta, but my father had worked there for several years when he first immigrated from China in 1921.  Before returning in 1927 to China for a marriage to my mother arranged by a matchmaker, he wisely invested $500 to become a 'paper merchant' in Augusta because, as a laborer, he would not have been allowed to reenter with his wife in 1928.  So, my Augusta visit was a pilgrimage  to see the site where he had worked.
       A highlight of the visit was a chance to go to the site where my father worked and to meet his the family of his cousin, Kam Lee, who had run a laundry. I stayed at the home of his widow, June, and visited with his son, Grant and his family.

 At the delicious potluck dinner at the CCBA, I am seated at the table in the center foreground  


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