Using A Facebook Group To Find Chinese Historical Gold

       Chinatowns originated as safe havens for Chinese immigrants from the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th century because anti-Chinese laws, prejudices, and hostility restricted where they could live.  Chinatowns provided “safety in numbers” for the early Chinese for if they ventured across the borders of Chinatowns, they risked being insulted, robbed, and physically harmed, if not even killed.
        Usually located in the worst parts of town, Chinatowns were avoided by non-Chinese they were dangerous and sinful places plagued by tong war violence, opium dens, prostitution, and gambling halls.  But by the 1900s Chinatowns were "discovered" and promoted as tourist attractions. They were rebuilt to resemble Oriental "Theme Parks," decorated with exotic pagodas and other symbols of Chinese culture.  Chop suey became the gastronomic and economic engine that triggered a fascination among younger whites with Chinatowns.
         As more of the children of Chinese immigrants acquired higher education and the social climate became more tolerant of Chinese after mid-century, the younger generations enjoyed the freedom to move from crowded and dilapidated living spaces in Chinatowns to the suburbs, returning to Chinatowns only to shop in Chinese stores and eat in Chinese restaurants.
        Important questions of historical value concern the nature of and consequences of living in ethnic enclaves such as Chinatowns.  What impact was there, negative as well as positive, of having little choice but to live in an all-Chinese neighborhood?  Archival documents and records that were produced a generation ago can provide some insight, but other answers might be found using retrospective accounts from contemporary interviews and memoirs. Each of these sources of information has strengths and weaknesses but both merit attention.  However, a major problem with the collection of new accounts is difficult because of problems and costs of identifying, locating, and persuading respondents to be interviewed.
             One modern method that technology offers at virtually no cost is social media such as Facebook (FB), an electronic "bulletin board" where individuals post information about themselves or on topics of interest to them, and presumably to their FB "friends." Most FB posts on pages of individuals do not generate many comments even when viewers click the LIKE button for specific posts.
      However, unlike FB accounts of individuals, FB Group accounts consist of ‘members’ who share some common background, interests, or goals. They can generate lively responses among members on many topics. These informal discussions sometimes include views that might not be expressed in person or at least not in the presence of a large audience.   Posts on FB, Group or  Individual pages are not made face to face, a condition which may encourage a higher level of responding and less self-censored opinions than might be expected in face to face discussion.
     One example of this potential of a FB Group is We Grew Up In San Francisco Chinatown (WGUISFCT).  The brainchild of San Francisco Chinatown artist, photographer, and community activist, Leland Wong, WGUISFCT provides a unique and rich source of personal reflections from Chinese who grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown (CT), most from the 1940s to 1980s, about how their lives in this close knit ethnic enclave shaped their ethnic identity and personality.  

The purpose of the We Grew Up In San Francisco Chinatown Group is to provide a forum for people who grew up in San Francisco Chinatown, for people whom San Francisco Chinatown played a part in their lives to discuss and contribute to conversations related to growing up in Chinatown.

This group is very active and is rapidly attracting new members because of the friendly and helpful environment its participants have created. Help maintain and promote this valuable resource by fostering a welcome atmosphere, thoughtful conversation and a free exchange of ideas, information and experiences about growing up in San Francisco Chinatown.

Thank you for joining us! Our motto "m soi pa chiu"

WGUISFCT creates a lively virtual community meeting with a dedicated following of Chinese (mostly).  Even though some members no longer live in or nearby CT, FB allows them to maintain their ties across many miles. The content on WGUISFCT varies widely from nostalgic reminiscences about what life was like growing up in CT, family life, generational conflicts, feelings about China, experiences of racial prejudice, school life, political commentary, social observations, and, of course, some idle and innocuous social chatter.                 

       Although WGUISFCT currently lists over 1,000 members, probably fewer than100 post regularly. There seems to be at least 50 who contribute frequently. The majority of members never join any discussions. No one knows how many of them are 'lurkers' who tune in regularly but rarely post and how many of them are completely inactive as no unsubscribe option exists.
       WGUISFCT provides a sense of virtual community that seems to enrich the experiences of the active participants, and probably has similar benefits for many of the passive members.  Moreover, WGUISFCT provides a rich and growing body of information about the perceived self-reported influence of growing up in a close-knit community of Chinese (mostly ABC) whose parents and/or grandparents were immigrants. 
      Although this growing archive of posts is not ideal for scholars and social scientists because of potential biases in samples, accuracy and bias in self-reports, it can supplement data obtained from more rigorously collected academic surveys and interviews.  WGUISFCT offers a veritable mountain of social data that contains potential nuggets for exploration, analysis, and hypothesis generation that could further our understanding of personal development under the constricted circumstances of living in enclaves like Chinatowns.
         Below are several examples of topics that I have posted on WGUISFCT. In the first example, I wanted to examine the prevalence of “paper sons” or the use of false identity papers among family members to immigrate to the U. S. I also wanted to see what type of impact this condition had on the descendents of immigrants who had paper son status. I created a brief simplistic survey posted on  the web with  Survey Monkey that people could answer anonymously.  Despite that safeguard, I failed to get many (less than 15) respondents completing the survey. The low response rate is consistent with my belief that paper son status is a taboo topic even years after these individuals have died.

The survey is about the "taboo topic" of "Paper Sons" but I hope you will participate. Thanks in advance

A second post that I created  was an informal poll asking group members about their experiences in Chinatown elementary schools back in the period from around the 1940s to 1960s.  It was aimed at determining how many, and in what years, had a Chinese teacher during that period, or if all of their teachers were of “Caucasian” ethnicities?

Glancing through old Jean Parker (School) and Spring Valley (School) class pix posted on this site from the late 50s and 60s, it seems the classes were 99.9% Asian (Chinese?), AND all the teachers were young white women. Just out of curiosity DID anyone from that era ever have a CHINESE, female or male, teacher? If not, was it because Chinese teachers were very few and/or they sought or were given assignments beyond Chinatown?

This question generated much greater participation, and generally confirmed the evidence from class photos that people posted on the site that showed most elementary classes contained 99+ percent Chinese children and a white female teacher.

A third post I made dealt with relations and experiences that WGUINSFCT Group members [most of whom were American Born Chinese (ABCs) with immigrant parents from Guangdong] had with new immigrants not born in the U. S. or  “fresh on the boat” (FOBs) during the period when they were  growing up.

Judging from the name of this group, most members are ABCs or maybe "1.5"s. Growing up, did you get along well with FOBs? Or was there a type of social separation generally between ABCs and FOBs (With jet travel, FOB is more accurately FOP, but that has other interpretations that may offend)

This question generated over 100 postings, with some respondents making more than one response.  A wide range of experiences were described ranging from complete dissociation to negative encounters to positive interactions.  Moreover, even though the question referred to their experiences when they were growing up, which would have been back around the 1950s to 1970s, many posts dealt with contemporary relationships and tensions among newer subgroups such as immigrants from Taiwan, People’s Republic of China, and even those from the original source of Chinese in America, Guangdong. 

One fascinating point raised was that whereas many ABCs admitted they looked down on FOBs back in the 1950s,  they felt the tables had been turned today.  That is, ABCs felt that the Mandarin-speaking immigrants from Taiwan and People’s Republic of China today, many of whom are highly educated and affluent, disdain contact with the ABCs with Toishan-wa speaking immigrant parents.  In addition, unlike Chinese who came over almost a century ago from Guangdong, some of the more recent immigrants from the same region came with higher education and financial resources than the pioneering Chinese did.  Some older ABCs felt that these newer Guangdong immigrants look down on them.

Not all of the gems on WGUISFCT involve controversy. A totally different type of posting on WGUISFCT is the sharing of Chinese recipes. Organizers plan to collect recipes to create a WGUISFCT Cookbook.  Some (many?) of these recipes are family recipes that involve home cooking of the dishes that Guangdong immigrant families enjoyed at home rather than dishes served at banquet restaurants. Collecting these recipes that may ohterwise become lost is of historical interest.

  •  Let's preserve the ABC home cooking. Submit your recipes......... COMFORT FOOD!!!!!!!! Let's get to 100 recipes and then PRINT and Bound it!!!!!!! half of the Way. Also, as some of you try these recipes, take pictures and post, I will collect the pictures and incorporate them, but you will need to help the book by posting.

As societal attitudes in the U.S. and Canada have become more accepting of Chinese than in the past, and as the Chinese have become more affluent, many Chinese no longer must live in traditional Chinatowns. In southern California, for example, the suburban San Gabriel Valley “Chinatown” which sprawls for mile after mile does not resemble the old compact inner city Chinatown that occupied only a few space of several blocks.  Thus, future generations of Chinese in America will not have the same experiences, for better or worse, that the generations that grew up in substandard living spaces in congested Chinatowns encountered.  WGUISFCT offers one source of valuable information about the experience and consequences of growing up under the conditions in traditional Chinatowns.  The next few years may be the last chance to obtain new evidence about this aspect of the history of Chinese in America.

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