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Chinese-Americans Explore Diverse Roots of Culture

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As a Chinese-American actor in Los Angeles, Cy Wong has often been called to audition for roles to portray Chinese only to find himself facing producers astonished by his black skin and curly hair.

“I say to them: ‘You should have said you wanted a Chinese who resembles Chinese,’ ” Wong said.

Wong was among more than 200 people attending a conference on Chinese-Americans at Cal State Los Angeles on Sunday, the first of its kind in Southern California to explore the history and impact of the country’s largest Asian minority.

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While the three-day gathering--sponsored by Cal State L.A., UCLA and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California--explored subjects ranging from Chinese-American archeological finds to jazz, the participants also discussed the many ways to define the term Chinese-American.

Wong, for example, is descended from a Chinese great-grandfather who left China in 1867 to immigrate to Louisiana, where he married a woman who was part American Indian and part African-American. There were no Chinatowns in the American South comparable to San Francisco or Los Angeles, so his family “lived the life of black people,” Wong said.

He is writing a book on his family and the little-known Chinese immigration to the South.

“There are many Chinese identities,” said Russell Leong, of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center who led a workshop on the subject. “We have here first-, second- and third-generation (Chinese-Americans), people who were born in Asia but not necessarily China, people from Hawaii.”

Attorney Robert Kwan, a third-generation American who grew up in Los Angeles, described the dilemma of being categorized as Chinese while growing up in an Anglo neighborhood, but as American when he visited Taiwan.

“When you have no place, you have to figure out about making a place of your own, define yourself,” the 39-year-old South Pasadena resident said. “I think that’s why we’re here at this conference, to find a place of our own.”

Retired teacher Stanton Mu, a Los Angeles native, said people often ask him where he is from. “I say I’m an American, and they say, ‘But what are you?’ ” the Glendale resident said. “It gets me mad. Are they saying Americans are only white? They force you back to ‘Who am I?’ ”

Organizers said they planned the conference to expand knowledge of the diverse Chinese immigrant history.

“In textbooks they mention that Chinese were working on the railroad or doing laundry,” said Stanton Mu’s brother, Stanley, who coordinated the event. He said papers presented by more than 50 scholars and researchers from around the country dealt with Chinese-American business people, church leaders and civil rights activists. Legal issues and the effects of discrimination were also discussed.

“We want to see more reference material made available, so the stereotypes can be dispelled without us carrying placards and screaming,” Stanley Mu said.

The conference also signals a greater recognition for Asian-American studies in the last five years, some participants said.

“There’s been a resurgence among students, new faculty in ethnic studies, and a whole body of young scholars coming up,” said Stanford M. Lyman, who taught the first course on Asian-American studies at UC Berkeley in 1957 and is now a professor in Florida.

Discussing the pressures on Chinese immigrants to assimilate into Anglo culture, UC Riverside historian Paul Chace told how an annual dragon parade first staged by Chinese immigrants in the Gold Rush town of Marysville 120 years ago evolved.

The early immigrants’ efforts to encourage other ethnic groups to participate worked so well that today Anglo Boy Scouts carry the traditional gong and U.S. Air Force personnel from a nearby base propel the dragon in the parade. The Chinese religious tradition on which the parade was based is ignored, he said, adding that the parade is an expression of inter-ethnic relations.

“They use this ritual event as a time for harmony,” he said.

But Loni Ding, who is making a film for public television on Chinese-American history, said after Chace’s lecture that she was uneasy about accommodations that erase cultural expression. Accommodations have “to be viewed in the context of inequality,” she said.

The parade story reminded Ding of her childhood in an area of San Francisco hostile to Chinese, when her parents made her deliver cakes as gifts to the neighbors. “I understood it,” she said. “We wanted to stay. We wanted to bring goodwill. It’s about getting along, fitting in where you can.”


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