Asians Set Their Own Course as Kiwanians

Times Staff Writer

The Kiwanians pledged their allegiance to the flag, sang a chorus of "America" and sat down in a hotel banquet room to a conventional service club lunch--a small salad followed by a plate of mixed vegetables, mashed potatoes and meat smothered in brown gravy.

President David Ma introduced guests, thanked members who worked on the club's latest community service project and appealed for volunteers for the next project. There was the customary banter, and the inside jokes might have been lost on outsiders anyway--but they were certainly lost on those who don't speak Mandarin Chinese.

The newest service club here is the Kiwanis Club of San Gabriel Valley--the first Kiwanis Club organized in the United States for Asian immigrants, according to officials of Kiwanis International. Meetings are conducted in a combination of English and Chinese and the club bulletin is printed in both languages.

The club, established four months ago, has enrolled 43 members, but not everyone is rejoicing over its success.

Out of Mainstream

Tom O'Donnell, an insurance agent who is president of the longstanding Monterey Park Kiwanis Club, said he wishes the club well but he is troubled because Asians formed a separate organization instead of joining the existing Kiwanis Club.

"I hate to see it because we've always been a mixed ethnic organization," he said.

By isolating themselves, Asian immigrants miss a chance to work with people from other backgrounds and join the mainstream of society, said O'Donnell, who added that his club has only 13 members, including three Asians. He said his group's membership should have been strengthened before Kiwanis chartered a new club.

But Neal McGinnis, lieutenant governor for Kiwanis clubs in the west San Gabriel Valley, said the new club was organized because Asian immigrants were not joining Kiwanis even though they are moving into the area in large numbers. The Monterey Park Chamber of Commerce estimates that 35% of the city's 65,000 residents are Asian.

More Comfortable

McGinnis said it was apparent that the only way to attract Asian immigrants to Kiwanis was to form a new club in which they could feel comfortable, particularly with the language.

The Asian club "is not a separatist organization," McGinnis said, and is no more divisive than the Sons of Italy or an organization for people of Irish heritage.

Ma, charter president, is a businessman who was born in China and moved to the United States as a teen-ager. He said all club members are immigrants and most have been in this country less than five years.

Ma said members joined Kiwanis for the same reasons as most service club members: "Basically they need to expand their business and social contacts and broaden their horizons. And they want to participate in community work."

Although some are fluent in English, Ma said, all are more at home in Chinese, and if they joined a club in which only English was spoken they might "feel left out."

Stresses Community Projects

Ma said the club is striving for an image as a major contributor to community improvement and does not want to settle for just getting together for lunch once a week. The club's projects have included a free health fair, a charity ball and a student art competition. The club motto is "We Love San Gabriel Valley. We Participated."

Dale Watts, president of the Monterey Park Rotary Club, said about 40% of his club's 42 members are Asian and there has been no move to form a separate Asian club.

But an Asian club is being planned by the Monterey Park Lions Club, said President Ed Kretz Jr.

Kretz, whose club has 85 members, said he is troubled by the segregation implicit in forming a separate Lions club for Asians, but "I just got tired of fighting it." Kretz said club members discussed the pros and cons of a separate club and decided there is justification for forming one for people who are uncomfortable with English.

"It's just a matter of language," Kretz said.

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