8/29/10

New York Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MOCA) 2006


           New York's Museum of Chinese in the Americas hosted a book signing for Southern Fried Rice in April.   Located in the heart of New York's Chinatown is this small historic but vibrant museum tucked away on the second floor of a public school building that date back to around or before the early 1900s.
     I could not have asked for a better setting for the talk because the 'platform' was in their Chinese laundry exhibit, complete with a red laundry sign and authentic packages of unclaimed  laundry still wrapped in the original brown paper and tied with strings behind me.
     I was literally pinned against the wall as the overflow audience filled the small space. I could barely see what slides were being shown because the screen was about a foot behind me. I was not surprised in Atlanta when I spoke, but I did not think that New Yorkers would be that interested in a talk about Chinese in the South. This tight spacing afforded good eye 'contact' and rapport with the audience that included my wife, Phyllis,  brother-in-law Alan and his family who came from Toronto.   A former student, Angeles Cheung, just finishing her PhD in New York, and Kay Deaux, a friend from grad school days who is now a Distinguished Professor at CUNY also came to hear the talk.  As if that was enough pressure,  a reporter from the Chinese newspaper was there to interview me and write a story about the event. 


      As with my "Georgia tour," I received a warm response to my presentation. For the New York audience, the appeal was from learning about something most of them had no knowledge about.  They found it fascinating to learn how Chinese managed their lives under circumstances so different from their own. It was an exciting experience for me because I could then claim that the book had been well received "from coast to coast."

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  


Talk at Association of Asian American Studies, Atlanta, Georgia, 2006

        Daniel Bronstein, my website contact mentioned in an earlier post, introduced my book, Southern Fried Rice, to his professor,  Prof. Krystyn Moon.  She encouraged me to present a talk about it at the forthcoming national conference of the Association of Asian American Studies in 2006. This organization is an academic group that includes historians, literary scholars, political scientists, psychologists, and sociologists writing and researching on issues relevant to Asian Americans. Its annual conference was held in Atlanta that year, and they were especially receptive to contributions dealing with Asian Americans in the South.  This opportunity encouraged me to 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.  
     One of the other presenters at our session was Daniel Bronstein who spoke on  his PhD research on the history of Chinese in Georgia. We had corresponded frequently over the past year after he discovered our common interests via my website. Without these fortuitous contacts with him and his mentor, I doubt I would have presented at this conference.

8/18/10

Book Talk at Chinese Historical Society Museum, San Francisco, 2006

     Once I published Southern Fried Rice I then had to find ways to promote its sales on my own since I was self-publishing the memoir.  I sought venues where its intended audience might be more likely to found than at your big box bookstore.  One of my first choices was the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) Museum in San Francisco. My original goal had been to see if they would stock some copies of my book  on consignment so that I could test the market  for my book.  To my surprise and joy, CHSA not only purchased some copies outright but also invited me to do a book reading and signing.



Actually, I had never even been to a book reading in person so I wasn't really sure what was expected.  Just reading to an audience seems boring until you can emote like Richard Burton.  I settled on  reading of a few passages verbatim, since I assumed one goal was to give the audience samples of your writing, augmented by some extemporaneous commentary. I used visuals from the book to provide background and generate interest. Fortunately, interest in the story of our life in the South was strong and the audience was receptive.  However, I decided that at future 'readings,' I would mainly talk about the book and explain how it came to be,  describe its purpose and its impact on me as well as on readers rather than read straight from the text.

8/12/10

Some Fortunate and Fortuitous Sources of Early Support

Luckily  two scholars of Chinese American history found  a somewhat amateurish website  that I had created to publicize my memoir,  "Southern Fried Rice: Life in a Chinese Laundry in the Deep South" and contacted me.  One was Judy Yung, a prominent historian of Chinese American women (Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco).  She generously read my manuscript and gave important advice and direction. At her urging, I submitted a proposal to the Chinese Historical Society's 2005 Conference in San Francisco, "Branching Out The Banyan Tree." This exposure would lead to a local television interview about my memoir.

The other fortuitous contact I made via my website was with Daniel Bronstein, a grad student at Georgia State University working on his Ph.D. thesis about the history of Chinese in Georgia. Since then we have shared much valuable information and resources about this topic. And this contact would lead to an invitation to participate in the 2006 Association of Asian American Studies Conference in Atlanta.  Again, one thing leads to another.

As luck would have it, I also had a beneficial contact beyond the website.  A colleague, Jean Bader, hearing about my research referred me to her good friend, Sylvia Sun Minnick who had published "Sam Fow," an excellent history of  Chinese Americans in the San Joaquin valley.  When I contacted her, (after procrastinating for the better part of a year because I was hesitant to cold call someone) Sylvia was very supportive and guided me toward finding my voice. Incidentally, I learned that we shared other commonalities as both of us had attended Lowell High School in San Francisco and we had lived only 2-3 blocks apart during the 1950s.

8/5/10

Once A Teacher, Always A Teacher

      I officially retired in 2005 after 4 decades as a Professor of Psychology, with no intention of starting a new career, and certainly not one centered around Chinese American history.  My modest goal somewhere around 2002 was to write a memoir that focused on my parents, especially my mother, who immigrated from a village in Guangdong, China in the 1920s and settled in Macon, Georgia.  There they operated a laundry and raised a family of four children, the only Chinese people in town with the nearest other Chinese about 100 miles away in Atlanta.

      It was not easy living in cultural isolation, especially in a time and place where racial discrimination was firmly entrenched.   And although blacks were at the bottom of the society, at least they had a community of other blacks to socialize with whereas being the only Chinese in Macon, we were totally isolated.  As I was growing up, I came to 'accept' this isolation in the sense that I didn't have any other experience to compare it with. I got along well at school with teachers and classmates and had a relatively happy childhood.  In contrast, my parents did not know or accept many American customs and values.  They had no recreational or social opportunities and their lives centered on working to survive.

      In writing a memoir, I wanted to record the history of my parents' lives. Why and how did they end up in Georgia rather than in San Francisco or New York, for example, where there were large Chinese communities?  I wanted the memoir to be a record and tribute to my parents and the difficult and lonely lives that they had in Macon.

This undertaking was unlike anything I had ever written for psychological journals or textbooks. I was not even confident that the memoir would even be of interest to others even if I managed to complete it. Somehow, with some guidance and editorial advice from mentors and friends, Southern Fried Rice: Life in A Chinese Laundry in the Deep South emerged.


     Next, I had to find a publisher but as I feared, the small market for this topic discouraged the few publishers that I approached even though they felt the story was worthwhile.  After some searching for solutions, I decided to self-publish because I felt that there was so little written about the very few Chinese living in the Deep South during the middle 20th century that our family's story would never be told.

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