COLUMN ONE : Building Bridges to Equality : Bringing people together is Stewart Kwoh’s vision, and his talent. With a low-key tenacity, he has opened up opportunities and won changes for Asian Americans.
Stewart Kwoh had left a message for a friend at United Way.
“Oh, Stewart, you won’t guess how your name was pronounced this time,” she said when she called back. “My secretary says to return this important call from Mr. Stewart at radio station K-W-O-H.”
Both laughed at the garbling of his venerable Chinese surname.
On one level, the anecdote was humorous. But it also was a poignant reminder of the lack of awareness of Asian culture in the American mainstream.
It was especially poignant because a similar experience had prompted Kwoh’s mother, then an aspiring actress, to change her name four decades earlier. A TV producer, perusing her resume, had quipped: “What’s this? The name of a radio station someplace?” In a concession to mainstream tastes, Beulah Kwoh became Beulah Quo .
For the now well-known performer and her son, who is considered to be the nation’s premier advocate for Asian Americans, such incidents illustrate the challenges facing the country’s nearly 8 million people of Asian ancestry.
“To the larger society,” Kwoh said, “Asian Americans are either invisible, or forever foreigners or honorary whites, or problems.”
The 46-year-old attorney attacks such stereotypes by combining low-key but tenacious diplomacy with his knowledge of the law and politics.
The Los Angeles legal center that he co-founded 11 years ago has scored dozens of victories for Asian Americans, California’s second-largest minority. It enhanced their political clout when the center intervened in a legal challenge to the 1990 California reapportionment, helped eliminate rules barring Asian immigrants from speaking their native languages in some workplaces and thwarted a Monterey Park mayor’s attempt to keep Chinese-language books out of the city library.
Last month, under Kwoh’s prodding, the Los Angeles Police Commission reinstated the Asian and Pacific Islander Advisory Council, which will provide direct access to the powerful panel that those communities had lacked. At the same time, the Chinese American attorney is continuing his fight to increase the percentage of Asians in the Los Angeles Police Department from 4.1% to better reflect the city’s population, which is 10% Asian.
Fourteen years ago, when the LAPD settled class-action discrimination lawsuits, Asian Americans were not included in the affirmative action hiring goals set up to boost the ranks of women and minorities.
To Kwoh, the exclusion of Asian Americans from the landmark consent decrees represented yet another battle to make Asian Americans more visible. In 1989, under pressure from Asian American groups led by the legal center, the Police Commission established a non-compulsory timetable to increase Asian Americans in the department to 7% by 2000. That action, say Kwoh and the Law Enforcement Assn. of Asian Pacifics, is woefully inadequate.
Working with a coalition representing more than 50 Asian community organizations, Kwoh has been lobbying the mayor’s office, City Council members, the police chief and the Police Commission to get Asians included in the consent decrees.
“We will go to court, if we have to,” he said, “but we would much rather resolve this without filing a lawsuit.”
Although Kwoh’s public persona is low-key, behind-the-scenes policy-makers and corporate America seek him out.
“Stewart is one of a handful of people that I turn to for advice all the time,” said Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan.
“There is nobody whose judgment I respect more than Stewart’s,” said William Ouchi, Riordan’s chief of staff.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), a rising Latino political star, said Kwoh’s influence goes far beyond the Asian community or California: “The work he does can be felt here in Washington, D.C. I call Stewart a master bridge-builder.”
Kwoh’s operating base is the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, a modest set of offices in the First United Methodist Church at the edge of Downtown. From there, through a nationwide network of Asian American organizations, Kwoh keeps abreast of what is happening in Asian communities around the country and in Los Angeles, home of the largest concentration of people of Asian and Pacific Island ancestry in the nation.
Inside the South Flower Street quarters, a staff member listens to a tearful Japanese woman with burn marks on her arms, who says she has left her husband because she could no longer take his abuse. Another staffer counsels a frail 97-year-old man who has been told his welfare payments will stop because he has $2,000 in the bank. The man explains that he did not consider the money income; he had set it aside to return to China to visit his ancestors’ graves before he died.
The center’s main job is providing multilingual and culturally sensitive legal help to low-income Asians and Pacific Islanders. But the agency is also involved in related social service and education projects.
In 1994, the center’s 35-member staff, augmented by hundreds of volunteers, served 15,000 people and helped 3,000 become naturalized citizens. It also helped obtain settlements, ranging from $5,000 to $25,000, for victims of the 1992 riots.
Its inter-ethnic relations leadership project, co-sponsored with Latino and African American groups, has been named the nation’s best program of its kind by the Ford Foundation. Its domestic violence conference on Asians drew capacity attendance.
The legal center’s influence stretches far beyond Southern California through ties to hundreds of organizations, including the nation’s only pan-Asian civil rights advocacy group, which Kwoh helped found in 1991. The center’s growth and stature reflects Kwoh’s vision, philosophy and ability to raise money from mostly private sources totaling $2 million a year--a quarter of which he shares with other Asian groups.
Although he is a man in the middle of many factious issues, Kwoh seldom comes under criticism. Some may disagree with him, but no one questions his commitment or heart because of his long history of working in Chinatown and Little Tokyo, dating back to his student days at UCLA.
He earns $54,000 a year at the center--a fraction of what he could command elsewhere. He has no secretary and is often the first one to arrive at work and the last one to leave.
“We are all expendable here except for Stewart--and that is the highest compliment I can pay him,” said Estelle Chun, his deputy and head of legal services.
When Kwoh says he has no political ambitions, people believe him. “He is too honest and unselfish to become a member of the political Establishment,” said a friend.
“He has no hidden agendas,” Ouchi said. “He has a wonderful optimistic outlook. He has a very gentle manner. He’s got a mind like a steel trap. He’s got tremendous courage. He is always willing to fight for what he believes.”
“He is hard to dislike,” said T.S. Chung, a founding president of the Korean American Coalition and a ranking U.S. Commerce Department official, who worked with him closely after the riots. “His center delivered a lot of services to riot victims, and provided leadership in a very broad way. Thank God that the center exists!”
The only criticism leveled at Kwoh is that he tries to do too much.
“We are stretched very thin as it is,” Chun said. “We are not always equipped to handle all the projects Stewart wants to do.”
Those who know Kwoh and have worked with him most often use two words-- visionary and bridge-builder-- to describe him.
Unlike many Asian American community leaders, his approach is pan-Asian. He tries to balance his Asian Pacific interests with the broader interests of other minorities and the city as a whole.
“Stewart is one of L.A.'s terrific assets,” said Joe R. Hicks of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Hicks praises Kwoh as a leader who looks at the interests of all of Los Angeles.
Kwoh says he has been told by well-meaning Asians, “Why don’t you just do the Chinese American thing” instead of talking about “Asian Pacific Americans"--a concept still new to many who prefer to see themselves as Japanese Americans or Vietnamese Americans.
But that is not his vision. “Our history demands something else,” he said, explaining that it is important for newer Asian immigrants to understand why the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited immigration of Chinese laborers to the United States, and the World War II internment of Japanese Americans are relevant to their lives now.
Kwoh cites his work as an attorney for the family of Vincent Chin, the Chinese American beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two white unemployed auto workers who mistook him for a Japanese. He says that incident--in which the men never served any jail time--convinced him more than any other that Asian Americans have to first build their own community, then reach out to connect with the larger community.
Watching Kwoh move in his many circles, it is apparent that he is equally at ease in the corporate boardroom and among down-and-out immigrants.
He serves on two dozen community, corporate, state and city boards and commissions, ranging from Rebuild L.A. to El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Commission.
Meeting after meeting, no matter how dull or long, he retains the attentive but calm expression that is his hallmark. He never frowns. “Why should I frown?” he asked. “I’m an optimist.”
He is also a private person--a family man devoted to his wife, Pat, a computer programmer at Warner Bros., and their adolescent sons, Steven and Nathan. He is computer illiterate, drinks nothing stronger than 7-Up, is nursing an ulcer and has diverse interests ranging from fishing to shooting craps--hobbies he has not had much time to pursue lately. He has a reputation as a good dancer and basketball player, and he enjoys martial arts movies and smoking his own fish.
“The first time he brought smoked fish, he put little bags of fish--with heads, tails and all--on people’s desks,” Kathy Imahara, a center civil rights attorney, recalled with a laugh. “You walked to your desk the first thing in the morning and there is a dead fish on your desk.”
Late in the 1970s, Kwoh was in North Carolina on legal business. At a restaurant, he had just given his order to a white waitress when she asked: “Where does your family come from?”
“My great-grandfather mined in New Mexico, my grandfather was a tailor in Oakland and my mother was born in Stockton,” Kwoh replied.
Before he could tell her about his father’s side, the waitress interrupted him: “So how do you like your new country?”
America, of course, is hardly new for Kwoh; he has lived here nearly all his life. His maternal ancestors were poor immigrants from China. His father’s family were scholars--the elite of Shanghai, China’s most cosmopolitan city since the 19th Century.
Kwoh’s great-grandfather was the first Presbyterian minister in China, a forward-looking intellectual who believed that China could benefit from Western learning. He sent his grandson, Kwoh’s father, Edwin, to America to study. After World War II, Edwin Kwoh and his American-born wife, whom he had met while both were graduate students, went to China.
But their dreams of helping to rebuild their ancestral land, ravaged by the Japanese, were cut short by civil war.
Their son, Stewart, was born in Nanjing. In 1948, when he was 2 months old, the Kwohs went to Shanghai, then to America. Settling in Los Angeles, Edwin Kwoh, despite advanced degrees from Princeton and Columbia universities, could not find professional work because of discrimination. So he went into business selling hats and accessories. Beulah Kwoh, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of UC Berkeley who also had a master’s degree from the University of Chicago, taught at a community college.
Then fate made her a Hollywood actress.
She went to 20th Century Fox studios to seek a job as a language coach for actress Jennifer Jones, who was playing a Eurasian doctor in the 1954 movie “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” Instead, the director offered her a part in the movie. Under her stage name, she has appeared in more than two dozen movies and 100 TV shows including “Magnum, P.I.” and “General Hospital.”
She quips that her first-born used to be known as Beulah Quo’s son, but nowadays she is referred to as Stewart Kwoh’s mother.
Kwoh attributes his social and political consciousness to his religious upbringing and the civil rights movement. His involvement in the Brotherhood USA Camp of the National Conference of Christians and Jews gave him a chance to meet African Americans and other students from across the city.
Kwoh attended UCLA, where he was president of the Asian American Student Alliance, fought for the Asian American Studies Center, opposed the Vietnam War and tutored immigrant children in Chinatown.
He went to Hong Kong after graduation to study Chinese, and returned to Los Angeles to attend UCLA Law School, where he excelled.
He opened a poverty law office near Downtown with a classmate, sometimes earning as little as $300 a month, “helping people who probably earned more money than us,” his former law partner, Mike Eng, recalled. Kwoh was in private practice until he helped found the legal center in 1983. The work quickly became more than a full-time job.
Asian Americans have much to offer to the future of Los Angeles, the state and the nation, he says. “Our strongest institution, by far, is the family,” he says. If Asians could extend the attitude they have about the family toward outsiders and view the “broader geographical community as an extended family,” he believes, they could make an enormous difference in the quality of life in the United States.
“The greatest dream I have is for Asian Pacific Americans to be treated as an equal,” Kwoh said. “In the meantime, we have to build up our institutions. We need to develop a whole system of values, justice and equality and to be able to harmonize it within the Asian Pacific American community, then with other groups.”