Ed. Note:  I read Jean Dere’s essay many years ago and it still retains a power that comes from her candid account of growing up in San Francisco Chinatown/North Beach and how that led to her to become a revolutionary.  The direct tone in her voice, unadorned and passionate, tells you immediately: this is true, this is how I feel, this is what I believe. The original essay, which was published in 2008 for a blog on Asian women in the Movement and later was incorporated in the book “Stand Up” (East Wind Books),  did not have a byline. Today, I am pleased that Jean Dere has not only allowed us to republish her story but also give us an interview that reflects back on her lifelong commitment to social justice.  

Asian American students at Oakland High protest killing of Bobby Hutton in 1968. Photo by Nikki Arai.

I was invited to write down some of my memories of my involvement as a woman in the Asian American Movement. I decided to do it because there is so little written about the Asian Community Center and Wei Min She (Organization for the People) both of which were an important part of the leftist movement in San Francisco Chinatown and the Bay Area during that time period.

Women’s Oppression Impacted My Life

Women’s oppression had a big impact on how I developed as a person. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time. And in fact, when I first heard the term “women’s oppression”, I didn’t think it applied to me. How am I oppressed as a woman? “I was free to be and do what I wanted” was the belief I had. In 1970 I went to one of the first Women’s Day celebrations in the Bay Area. But I did not fully grasp at that time how important it was to take on the women’s question. Only now, looking back, women’s oppression should have been one of the initial causes of why I became involved with the radical movement in the 1970’s. Also, it was my own experience of women’s oppression that is behind the reason why I never had the confidence to step forward to make even more of a difference during that time of widespread turmoil and activism.

I not only did not see myself as a leader, but also shied away from that role. One of the most vivid examples of this was during a trip to Canada in the early 70’s to attend a Women’s Conference that presented women speakers from Vietnam. This was an important international conference to build opposition to the Vietnam War and expose the atrocities that were being committed by the U.S. military. There was a bus load of women from the San Francisco Bay Area and other West coast cities that went to the conference. For the final day of the conference, the women voted for a representative to read a statement that would put forward their stand with the struggle of the Vietnamese people and oppose imperialism. I got the most votes because I was a member of the respected Wei Min She organization. But I was too timid to speak in front of an audience and declined, letting the second runner-up take my place. Even a woman from I Wor Kuen tried to struggle with me to do it, since I would also represent the Asians from the U.S. who were there (the runner-up was not Asian.) Needless to say, people from Wei Min She were not happy with me when I got back. Not being proud of my action, I avoided speaking about my trip to Canada even though it was such an important event. But I think my bringing it up here, in the context of talking about women’s oppression, makes a good illustration of how oppression can suppress a person, preventing the full development of an individual’s abilities and as a contributing member of a society or cause.

Fundraising poster for the indo-Chinese Women’s Conference, April 1971.

Women’s oppression impacted my life. It also impacted my life through how it influenced my mother’s life.

My mother came to the United States on a boat from China at the age of 22, just married to my father, and pregnant with her first child. My father had gone to China after World War II under the War Brides Act. On arriving in China, my father was introduced to two young women, and of the two, he picked my mother to marry him. She would have two more pregnancies after that, each one year apart. The third one was me. So here she was, in a new country, couldn’t speak the language, with very little money, and three babies. What a scary situation. My father wasn’t around much in those days since he was going to school on the GI Bill and working at night at various jobs such as janitor or washing dishes and cleaning up at restaurants.

Fortunately, she didn’t get pregnant again for another three years after that. But all the stress of having and taking care of three little babies must have been tremendous. This was quite common in Chinatown back in the 1950’s. People had big families back then. My mother ended up having a total of six children.

So, this was the situation into which I was born. And from the very beginning was a disadvantage. I was the third child my mother gave birth to within three years. All three were born in the month of August, one year after the other. Looking back, after I took courses in Chinese Medicine, it became clear why my health was never very good. According to Chinese Medicine, after giving birth, a woman’s body becomes depleted of qi, blood, and other substances and needs to recuperate. A two or three year gap between children would be better for the health of the mother and children. But this is not what happens in real life. As a result, I was never very strong and had headaches all my life due in part to my mother having three pregnancies within too short a time period. A woman who is overworked and depleted will not have enough qi and other vital substances to pass on to the next child for optimum health. Thanks to the women’s movement, women now have more control over reproduction, but there is the continuing struggle to keep the right for women to choose from being chipped away.

Another disadvantage was that I was born a girl into a Chinese family with traditional views on the value and role of women. Even though my father was politically progressive, both my parents placed more value on having boys over girls. This outlook was very typical of my parents’ generation, much less of the many generations before theirs who lived under feudalism in China. I remember going out in Chinatown, when I was a little girl, and hear how some mothers would scold and call their daughters awful names. My mother used to point out how lucky I was that she didn’t use those types of words on me. While my parents wanted me to have good grades in school, they didn’t expect me to go to a four-year college like my brothers. What a shock it was to hear my father’s response to my applying to be admitted to S.F. State College. “Why would you want to do that?” my father asked me. He thought a two-year college was all I would need. Why waste the money? To lessen the pain, I felt from his response, I excused him for it by being understanding of the financial pressure he was under, having four sons he wanted to put through college.

My mother’s treatment of me has never been very good because I was not a boy. I tried to explain this to my oldest brother a few times when we were adults, and he never believed me until one day he saw it for himself. My mother made soup for the family, and there were a number of bowls filled with soup on the table. I went over to get one and my mother said “No, those are for your brothers, go get your own.” My brother looked at me, and I said, ”See what I mean?” He understood then what I had been talking about. I was a second-class citizen in my own family. It was unfair to be treated this way, but I understand that it was due to a cultural outlook that my parents grew up with in China. This was part of women’s oppression in Chinese traditional culture. Women were considered inferior to men, and women’s role was to serve the men in the family. My mother was never able to break from this view of her role, and it is sad for me to see how much her interests in life is limited to the family. Mao’s China took on this oppression, liberating the women of China from this feudal outlook and even influencing the development of the women’s movement in the U.S. as well. Unfortunately, some of these gains for women in China were reversed after Mao’s death as the succeeding leaders in China embraced capitalism.

Demonstration against the Chiang Kai-shek government in the early 1970s over the Tiao-Yu Tai issue.  The Tiao-Yu Tai movement brought thousands of overseas students into  political activism. Photo by Steve Louie. It was used in the Stand Up book and blog. Jean Dere is on the left front in the photo.

I’m Going Too!

The 1960’s was a time of social turmoil, both internationally and within the U.S. Countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America were fighting for freedom from colonialism. In the U.S. people were marching and demonstrating for civil rights and the right of Blacks to vote and ending Jim Crow laws in the South. There was the Free Speech Movement on college campuses. There was the start of the Vietnam war and the anti-war movement. With the start of the Black Power movement, similar movements arose in the Latino, Native American, and Asian communities. Militant groups like the Black Panther Party and Brown Berets developed across the country. San Francisco State College (now university) was one of the hot spots for the Free Speech Movement and the site of many demonstrations.

In 1968, I was 18 years old and it was my first semester at S.F. State. That semester, the first Third World Strike broke out. Among the demands were that education should be relevant to the community. That college education should be made accessible for minorities and the poor. That colleges and education should not be geared to the interests of making profits for the corporations and the military-industrial-complex. There should be ethnic studies so minorities could know their own histories and learn how to be of service to their communities. This was my start in becoming active in S.F. Chinatown and the Asian American Movement. It was here that I walked my first picket line and signed up to tutor immigrant school children in Chinatown. But the leaders of the strike did not reach out to involve me further and I was too shy to approach them myself. My further involvement would come from another direction.

Since junior high school (now called middle school) I was pretty much a book-reading recluse. I would borrow books from the public library and read on many subjects, fiction and non-fiction. In particular, I read as much science fiction as I could find. My particular heroes back then included astronomers Copernicus and Galileo and physicist Marie Curie. My two older brothers were more socially active. They went to Boy Scouts, drum and bugle corps, joined a kung fu club on Jackson Street, and played sports with friends. I was not into joining in with these types of activities. All my time was spent going to school, reading, and studying in my room at home. But this was going to change. Around 1968 I heard my brothers talking about going to Leeway, a pool hall for youth, where there were people talking about Mao Tse-tung, the Black Panther Party and reading from Mao’s Little Red Book. This was where the Red Guard Party would form. Later on, my brothers would bring one of the founders of the Red Guard Party, Alex Hing, to our home to meet our father. The Red Guard Party wanted someone to translate their leaflets into Chinese. My father agreed to help.

The Red Guard Party was modeled after the Black Panther Party. They recruited mainly street kids as members. My father was very progressive in his politics. He was against the war in Vietnam, supported revolutionary China, and was persecuted during the McCarthy era by the FBI for being a member of Mun Ching, a progressive youth organization in Chinatown that had disbanded in 1959 when they lost their club house. The government carried out their anti-communist investigation into the Chinese community for many years beginning in 1949 with the birth of New China under Mao. One angle to attack the left and progressives in Chinatown was through how many Chinese immigrated to the U.S. During the years when the Chinese Exclusion Act was still in force, many Chinese came to the U.S. illegally as “paper sons.” My father was harassed for years, and when a cousin of his “talked”, it opened the door for the FBI to act. My father’s citizenship was taken away even though he had joined the U.S. army to fight against fascism in World War II. He would have been deported to China except for the fact that the U.S. couldn’t deport him to a country they didn’t recognize.

I remember my father’s response to losing his citizenship, he said that it’s alright because he would rather be “a citizen of the world.” So, my father had been politically active when he was a young man, and after the Black Panther Party formed in the Bay Area, he used to bring home copies of the Black Panther newspaper that he bought on the street. So, it was no surprise that he would help translate for the Red Guards. My father would later also translate material for the Asian Community Center and Wei Min Newspaper. I was proud of him for his hard work. He would go to work all day, and when he came home, he would stay up late to do the translations. He continued to do this even after he had a heart attack.

When the Red Guards started a free breakfast program like the Black Panthers, I volunteered to help during the summer of 1969. It was run out of one of the clubs on Broadway Street. But my long-term involvement in Chinatown as an activist would not be with the Red Guards, but with a group of students from Berkeley who would set up the Asian Community Center and Everybody’s Bookstore at the end of 1969.

Asian Community Center Youth Program. Summer 1971. Photo from Asian American Movement 1968 blog.

I didn’t know these students from Berkeley since I went to S.F. State. But both my older brothers went to U.C. Berkeley and they got pulled into action like many others. Berkeley had a history of student activism on campus. In the late 60’s Berkeley really heated up with protests. There were teach-ins on the Vietnam War, anti-draft actions, the Third World Strike, People’s Park. In response, the national guards were sent in with tear gas and even fired shots into crowds. The first time I saw some of these Berkeley students was in a huge anti-war protest in 1969 that marched from downtown San Francisco to Golden Gate Park. My brothers were going to the march with a friend. When I said, “I’m going too,” they didn’t object and I went too.

There had been many demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and now I was in one myself. My family was against the war but had never taken part in protest before. Now I was actually in one. It was very exciting with so many people. Along the way, we came across the Asian Contingent and marched with it. They had their own banners and signs. They raised opposition to the war from an Asian perspective, one I never thought about before. They said the Vietnamese people were our brothers and sisters. That the U.S. military called the Vietnamese “gooks,” and that was how the military saw all Asians. I was amazed that some of them spoke Chinese, in fact they spoke Sze Yup like my family did at home, and not Sam Yup (Cantonese). As the march approached Golden Gate Park, we saw some Black Panther Party members passing out pamphlets by Mao Tse-tung and selling their newspaper. We stayed to hear speeches and finally had to leave since we had nothing to eat or drink.

Surrounded By Banned Books

One day my oldest brother was talking about how he and a number of other students at Berkeley had chipped in $50.00 each to open a bookstore. At the mention of “bookstore” I immediately said I want to go there to work. I loved to read and had always wanted to work in a bookstore or library and be surrounded by books. He said he would find out for me and that was how I ended going to Kearny Street where I attended my first meeting. I was quite shocked when I was asked to give my opinion. As I mentioned, I was pretty reclusive and did not talk much.

The meeting was held in the basement of the building next to the International Hotel, at what was once the United Filipino Association Hall, 832 Kearny St. This would be the first location of the Asian Community Center. Later, we would be evicted, and we moved into one of the basements in the I-Hotel at 846 Kearny Street. The bookstore was named Everybody’s Bookstore and was in a storefront in the I-Hotel. Staffing for ACC and the Bookstore would all be done by volunteers, there was no money to pay for staff. Originally, the Bookstore was in a very small space, the size of a room in a house. It had very few books in the beginning, some were in English and some in Chinese. Many of the pamphlets and books were from China. The source of the books was probably China Books. I wasn’t involved with buying books for the store, but there was only one possible source for books like Mao’s red book and other writings.

 

Everybody’s Book Store. Photos from Asian American Movement 1968 blog.

China Books was the only importer for books, posters, and records from China in our area. I had gone to China Books before with my father and a number of his friends who used to be Mun Ching members. It was considered subversive to go to China Books because it imported goods from the People’s Republic of China, which was not recognized by the the U.S. government. The China the U.S. recognized was Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China located on the island of Taiwan. Chiang Kai-shek and the political party he led, the Kuo Min Tang, had fled to Taiwan after the victory of Mao Tse-tung’s revolution in 1949. In fact, Chinatown back then was polarized along the lines of supporting Mao’s communist China and Chiang’s KMT Taiwan. Back in the 1950’s when Mun Ching had their club house on Stockton Street, the KMT used to throw garbage in their doorway. Mun Ching had members who supported the People’s Republic of China, so they were accused of being “communist.” So, I remember I had gone to China Books with my father, and I was shown books that were stamped by custom officials with words indicating the material was “banned”. I didn’t quite understand the politics and what it meant at the time since I was young.

My second brother didn’t get involved in ACC. He worked with the International Hotel for a while and often hung around with two I-Hotel women friends. My mother was quite upset when he brought them home a few times, one friend holding his arm for a guide as she was blind. I had a good laugh over her disapproval. I think my mother was also upset that I started to get active and leave the house. “Mh nah ga!” – which meant “never staying home.”

What We Want. What We See. What We Believe

The first time I went down the stairs to the basement was in December 1969. People were watching revolutionary movies and newsreels. The free community film showings were one of the first programs the Berkeley students set up. The newsreels were documentary shorts on things like the Black Panther Party. They showed movies like “Battle of Algiers” which depicted how the Algerian people organized to fight for liberation from the French. The film program was one of the ways to educate the people to become political and class conscious so they could organize themselves to change society. After ACC was officially formed in 1970, I would soon learn to run the projector myself, and help set up weekend movie shows. We often showed movies about revolution and films from China showing the struggle for socialism that came from sources in Canada, since Canada did have relations with China. I will never forget the time we showed “East is Red,” a song and dance drama of the Chinese Revolution, one weekend. We showed it for a total of fourteen times and it was packed for each showing. There was so much emotional response from the audience. During one afternoon showing, when it came to a scene of a woman forced to sell her daughter in the movie, a woman in the audience started sobbing loudly. It was too dark to see who it was, but we wondered if something similar had happened in her family.

 

I-Hotel tenants and friends. Photo from Asian American Movement 1968 blog.

In the early days, many of the regulars who came down to the basement were elderly men. Later, people of all ages would come down, including grade-school children. Due to exclusion laws against the Chinese, many of the early immigrants could not bring family members to the U.S. The men grew old all alone, working here and sending money home to families in China. ACC became the daily hang out for many of these old men. Some supported Mao and China for the politics, and some out of pride seeing their home country strong. I spent much of my time in the 70’s at ACC. At school, when I got involved going to meetings to discuss the very beginnings of the Asian American Studies program and the Asian Women’s class, I was seen as someone coming from ACC.

At the Asian Community Center, we had meetings to discuss the center’s aims and purpose. Many groups in those days had a program. The Black Panther Party had their Ten Point program. We wanted something of our own. After discussing the issues that plagued Chinatown such as the highest TB rate in the country, crowded living conditions, sweat shops and restaurants with low paying jobs, long working hours, we came up with “What We Want. What We See. What We Believe.”

WHAT WE SEE

We see the breakdown of our community and families.

We see our people suffering from malnutrition, tuberculosis, and high suicide rates.

We see the destruction of our cultural pride.

We see our elders forgotten and alone.

We see our Mothers and Fathers forced into meaningless jobs to make a living.

We see American society preventing us from fulfilling our needs.

WHAT WE WANT

We want adequate housing, medical care, employment, and education.

WHAT WE BELIEVE

To solve our community problems, all Asian people must work together.

Our people must be educated to move collectively for direct action.

We will employ any effective means that our people see necessary.

I learned a lot about radical politics in these meetings. One thing the Berkeley students raised was how to work together. We were going to work collectively. Everyone would have input on decisions. Another thing we decided was that we were going to base ACC on the working class, not the lumpen proletariat (street people) like the Black Panthers or the Red Guards. It was here that I became aware of different political lines between groups. People who had similar lines would be able to come together and do work, whereas people with different lines would not. The original group of students who formed ACC were all American born but was able to join with a group of Hong Kong born students shortly after. Later Wei Min She was formed as an organization to lead the work politically.

Eventually we started many “serve the people” programs such as: weekly film showings; the Food Program where we distributed government supplemental foods to pregnant women and young children; we put out a family newsletter; in the summer we had a Summer Youth Program for school age children with tutoring and field trips. We set up health screenings for TB and glaucoma for the community at ACC soon after we formed, and later helped organize health fairs with other Chinatown organizations at Portsmouth Square, the park located a block from the center. We took on housing issues such as improving conditions at the Ping Yuen housing projects in Chinatown and the International Hotel. We supported workers’ struggles at restaurants, garment shops, and electronic factories.

Jung Sai Garment workers on the picket line. 1974. Photo: Cathy Cade, Union WAGE collection, Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University

There were so many areas of work that special work groups were set up at different times. There was labor, health, education, housing, the newspaper Wei Min Bao, the Bookstore, etc. We also set up study groups to carry out political education for ourselves and for the volunteers who were interested in working with us. We studied the writings of Mao Tse-tung and applied much of it to our work. We studied the current conditions in the world, in the U.S. and in Chinatown. We went out to the masses to investigate their situation and get their opinions. We tried to apply criticism and self-criticism as we summed up our work. We studied the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and books on the revolution in China such as Edgar Snow’s “Red Star Over China.” We read the writings of Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Frantz Fanon and many others in search of the direction forward for revolutionary change. We set up classes to study the “the women’s question,” and “the national question.” In the summer of 1971, historian Him Mark Lai gave a series of six lectures on “Chinese in America” at ACC.

ACC and Everybody’s Bookstore was also a part of a larger Kearny Street community. There was what was left of Manilatown, reduced from ten blocks to just the I Hotel, the barbershop, Mabuhay Restaurant and the pool hall across the street. There was the International Hotel’s fight against eviction which drew many people from the community and students from campuses to join in the struggle. There were various other organizations that rented space in the I Hotel throughout the 70’s including Draft Help, the Garment Co-op, the Red Guard Party, Chinese Progressive Association, I Wor Kuen, and Kearny Street Workshop.

This period of time in my life was rich with experience and people. I learned to do things I never dreamed of doing before including leading group meetings and discussions. I changed from being timid to a community activist on the streets of Chinatown, selling newspapers, passing out flyers, and talking to people on the various issues we took up. We had such hopes then of revolution, of changing the world and all of the existing social relationships. We wanted a world without exploitation and oppression. Looking at the world now, there is still so much more work to be done.

********

Looking Back at a Lifetime of Activism: An interview with Jean Dere

Jean Dere (l) and her niece at Oakland City Hall demonstration. 2019. Photo courtesy of Jean Dere.

Eddie Wong: You described the oppressive preferential treatment afforded your brothers in your article. Did your parents ever change their views on that issue? Do you think traditional views of women’s roles persist among Asian families?

Jean Dere:  On the question of oppressive family dynamics of preferential treatment for boys, and I have four brothers, that never changed. My father passed away when I was 30 years old. He died relatively young at 58, so how I was treated later on in my life is based how my mother treated me. How my mother treated me always had a negative vibe and she was rather harsh in how she spoke to me. It was not just my observation, as later on, my two nieces began to notice it as they got older and we talked about it. We talked about it but also realized that we would not be able to change the situation.

As my mother got older, she relied on me to help her with such things like taking her to doctor’s appointments, getting medication, shopping, and anything else she needed help with, especially on workdays. One of the reasons she asked me to help her was because she told me she did not want to trouble her sons whose time and jobs were “more valuable”. But when it came to handling something big, like she needs surgery or the emergency room, those things would be taken care of by one of my brothers. So even after I got married and lived across the Bay from her, I made a point to visit her once or twice a week.  But I did have another reason to visit her once she started to babysit my niece and nephew after she retired. I really had a close relationship with my youngest niece and nephew and wanted to spend time with them. When my mother got into her late 80s and 90s and started to have dementia, she mellowed out and that negativity was gone.

I think that this traditional and Confucian view on women still exists. Look at what happened in China with the one child policy and how many families made the choice to have a boy rather than a girl. Now China has a big problem with gender imbalance.

I don’t like the revitalization of Confucianism in the People’s Republic of China and that they named their overseas language and cultural program on college campuses after Confucius. I remember the struggle in China over the world view of Confucius as part of the fight for the liberation of women in the 1970s. Since the early days of the revolutionary struggle in China, the fight for equal rights for women was primary and that “women hold up half the sky.” Women’s organizations and groups on many different levels were very important. Even on the village level in the countryside, there would be a women’s group or committee to take on patriarchy and problems women face in their day-to-day life and do education work with both men and women on the role women can play in society. China has definitely taken a backward step from this. Recently, awareness of how big a problem domestic abuse is within China today was brought to light in a new music album by a popular female singer with songs about different abuse cases that have been in the news. I don’t think those women’s groups exist any longer. They most likely disappeared along with the dismantling of the collective farming system that was set up that provided healthcare and education for the peasants during the Mao Era.

As for Asian Americans, how daughters are treated in the family depends on the thinking of the parents. I know some Indian families still want to arrange marriages for their daughters. Asian Americans cover such a wide spectrum of ethnic backgrounds now compared to when I was young that it’s not such a simple question to answer.

Photo by Jean Dere.

Eddie Wong:  How did your parents react to your activism and that of your brothers?

Jean Dere:  My parents’ reaction to my activism was actually not bad in the beginning. The first time I went down to the Kearny Street basement to see a movie showing, I actually went with my father. When I wanted to work with Everybody’s Bookstore, I also got involved with the Asian Community Center (ACC) since it was the same grouping of people doing both. Everyone was volunteering their time. I was still a student when I got involved so whether I was in school or involved with activities on Kearny Street it was not always that clear to my parents.

It did upset them that I would come home late at night since ACC was open from 2pm to 10pm. After my first year in college, I was paying for tuition and books myself. My parents didn’t care how well I was doing in school and never bothered about my grades anymore, even though I was still living at home. I would get too busy with my volunteer work with Everybody’s Bookstore and ACC that I found I had to drop classes since I was not doing the schoolwork. It took me five years to get my BA. But once I was working, then there was more concern about what I was doing with my time.

Part of the reason I had the freedom to be an activist was that my father was an activist too when he was young. In fact, he also went to some of the programs and activities that ACC put on and occasionally so did my mother. My father was working full time as an electrical engineer, so he didn’t have time to participate much, but he did help with translation work when it was needed.

Eddie Wong: Looking back at working at ACC, what were the things that you are most proud of?

Jean Dere:  Looking back at my work at ACC, and being involved in Wei Min She, I feel that it was one of the best times of my life. What I valued most was the strong sense of unity and spirit of people joining together to make a better world. Not only transforming society but ourselves as well. We had social consciousness and were willing to act on it.

I know Mao is denigrated by lots of people now but his writings on making revolution, philosophy, and on how to do work was very useful. The value of making a class analysis, how to work with people, knowing who are advanced or backward in thinking, what are the contradictions among the people, all make a big difference in whether you can be successful in a project or action. You have to make a concrete analysis of concrete conditions in society, be willing to do investigation and talk to people. In organizations or committees there should be democracy and not have individuals dominate. And there is a need for political education at all levels of work. These were things we learned from reading Mao but also the writing of many other revolutionary and Marxist writers. Do activists today put much effort in studying revolutionary writings and theory?

We also learned from an older generation of activists from the 1930s and 1940s who came down to work with us. We called them the “old left.” A few were involved with the labor movement and participated in the San Francisco General Strike in 1934. A mistake we made was allowing Wei Min She to disband due to the influence of another organization, but there is also the question of whether we could have lasted much longer after the eviction of the International Hotel and we lost our physical location. While the bookstore relocated, there was not a space for ACC to continue its programs and that was the end of the center.

SF Police Dept. smashes the door of the Asian Community Center on Aug. 4, 1977, eviction night of the I-Hotel. Photo from Asian American Movement 1968 blog.

Eddie Wong: How did the experience of doing community and revolutionary work shape you later in life?

Jean Dere:  My involvement with the Asian Community Center, Everybody’s Bookstore and joining an anti-imperialist organization like Wei Min She had a huge impact on my life. It helped clarify my world outlook. Of course, I was already influenced by my father in many ways. My opposition to the Vietnam War and reading the Black Panther Party newspaper that my father would bring home.  I was inspired by the Panthers for standing up for their people, building pride, taking on the police and the system, and their serve the people programs.   The Panthers popularized the slogan “Serve the People” which they got from reading Mao’s writings. Wei Min She’s name literally translate as Organization for the People and comes from that slogan in Chinese.  The discussions and study groups I attended really made a difference in my understanding of the world.

What was going on in the world and what was put on the evening news on TV at that time showed the real turmoil going on in society and the world which was much more honest than what we get in the news today. News and media today are so controlled by such a small group of people. Reporters are hampered from reporting the truth under new regulations and national security laws. Unlike during the Vietnam war where you could see what was going on right on the ground as shown by reporters, now you are threatened to be charged with aiding terrorists if you show what was really going on in the wars in the Middle East. Look what happened with Wikileaks.

I was anti-war during the Vietnam war and I am anti-war now against every action the U.S. military takes anywhere in the world as well as the sanctions they put out against countries whether in the Middle East, Asia, Africa or Latin America.  I continue to be anti-imperialist. But so many people in the U.S. are ignorant of what the military is doing in the world. After World War 2, the U.S. has dominated the world and waged so much war all over.  There are about 800 U.S. military bases in more than 70 countries and territories all over the world. When will the American people take action to shut this all down? Of course, they need to be aware of what their government is doing first. Wake up!

Photo by Jean Dere.

I want to see an end to the injustice and oppression going on in the world. I see the United States as a plutocracy, with both political parties serving the same rich class of people. The faces on top may change but the policies do not. In fact, the wealth is increasing at the top and the living standard of the average working person has gone down.   Even with Covid-19 and so many people have lost their jobs and are struggling to survive, the biggest American companies continued to make profit in the billions.

Every day, I don’t need to walk more than a couple of blocks that I see homeless people out on the street. Each year it’s been getting worse, especially this last decade. Hunger is a real issue in America as so many families can’t make ends meet. Recently China has announced they have gotten rid of absolute poverty with their poverty alleviation program. I have been following some of the work done in China on this and am very impressed by it.   The government in the U.S. need to be concerned with the welfare of its own people.

Photo by Jean Dere.

I have questions on whether China is socialist or not. I see China as a state capitalist country, but it does have socialist characteristics. In particular how they alleviated absolute poverty in 2020 is one demonstration of its socialist aspect. But there is still a very wide wealth gap in China, and conditions in the cities vs the countryside is huge. I watched some clips on YouTube of how they would send Communist Party members to an area where they would live with and work with the villagers to change conditions and they work hard at it. But China doesn’t promote what I see as socialist values overall in their society. You can tell by the characteristics of the art and culture that is being produced.  Just watch the movies and dramas that come out of China now, and there is a lot coming out, with an obvious attempt to do what was so successfully done in the entertainment field in Korea for years. But in recent years I find I do prefer to watch both Korean and Chinese shows more often than what is available on American TV.  I grew up watching wuxia movies and that is still my favorite genre.

People in China do not have class consciousness. There has been the rise of a class of super rich businesspeople in China. The society does not have the “Serve the People” mindset that I valued so much from the Mao era.  Now is more about making money.  But then I do admire how they handled Covid-19 and how people pulled together especially in Wuhan. So many doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel from other parts of the country were willing to go to Wuhan to help and that was so admirable.

As far as Covid-19 goes, countries in the East have done much better than the West. A lot has to do with philosophical outlook. In the East, there is more of a culture of collective wellbeing vs in the West where individuals and individual choice counts as more important, and it becomes almost stupid when people refuse to obey safety practices because it’s their individual right not to, even if it spreads disease and people die.

Eddie Wong:  What field of work did I pursue?

Jean Dere:  After college I wanted to be a nurse and go into preventive health. My mother objected very strongly. Instead, I got trained as a pharmacy technician and started working. That got interrupted when I was asked to help with organizing garment workers, and I worked for two years in garment shops and I helped translate at a number of union meetings for the Chinese workers. I next worked in a childcare and after school program for the school district for almost ten years and then went back to work in a hospital as a pharmacy tech. I retired in 2016.

I also did a lot of volunteer work. I had continued working with a revolutionary organization up until 1990 and was a volunteer with Revolution Books which took over from Everybody’s Bookstore in the late 1970s. The last few years working with that organization was difficult as I felt they began to be too controlling and even told me who I can or cannot see.   This experience left me with a distrust of organizations.

Afterwards, I studied Chinese herbs from a home study program and had to take classes in acupressure in order to learn how to take the pulse as this is how illness is diagnosed in Chinese medicine. With the acupressure training, I volunteered for about ten years at three different clinics that worked with low-income people, the last one being with women with cancer. I finally had to stop because I began to have pain in my shoulder. After I retired, I started to volunteer with a reading program with school children and had to stop when the pandemic hit. I also did ceramics at a clay studio for about five years which I also had to stop when the pandemic hit. Another thing I miss is helping East Wind Books in Berkeley with doing book tables at events.

School volunteer Jean Dere at 2019 Halloween Health Fair. Photo courtesy of Jean Dere.

Eddie Wong:  What do I think of the current wave of activism over George Floyd and Breonna Taylor?

Jean Dere: I think it was good. I was frustrated that I couldn’t participate due to Covid-19. I was not taking public transportation and it would be too difficult for me to walk to where the demonstrations were held, go on a march and then walk back home. I also did not attend the May Day demonstrations in 2020 due to Covid-19.

The massive turn out of protest was the largest in U.S. history. One figure is 26 million people took part all across the country and in every state. People of all ethnic background turned out. And it set off a wave of protest globally where people in other countries also protested to support Black Lives Matter and called out not only George Floyd’s name but also names of other Black men and women who died at the hands of police in their own country. This is a very hopeful sign that people want justice and demand change.

I never stopped going to demonstrations and protests ever since I became an activist in my youth. I may not be involved with an organization now, but I will always participate in protest. I’m disappointed that many of the people I used to run with do not always show up at protests.  I went to anti-war demonstrations, free Palestine, police killings of Black people, environmental issues, education, the Women’s marches, the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations, May Day, ending the concentration camps at the border and ICE raids, stop the Dakota pipeline – water is life, demand justice and apology for the comfort women in World War 2, and the demonstrations in Chinatown over the anti-Chinese violence that affected all Asians living in western countries due to the scapegoating of China for Covid-19.

I will always stand with Black people.  I was married to for over 20 years to a Black man so I have Black family.  I experienced being stopped by the police for no reason except my husband was driving a car.  I participated in BLM demonstrations when they first started and had participated in the protest for justice for Oscar Grant and other Black people before there was a BLM movement. There is a history of Asian and Black unity in the movement and there are Asians who are for BLM. I would like to see a formation of a multi-racial/ethnic movement/organization or that there be more coalition work done among different groups of activists.

Photo by Jean Dere.

One thing I really like about the May Day marches and rallies is that the people are so diverse. It gives me a feeling of hope. I think I continue to go to these actions is because my dreams and aspirations from my youth for a new world without war, oppression and exploitation never got realized. I go because I can’t let go of that dream and I also feel frustrated that I feel I am not contributing enough to make change.

Eddie Wong: How much do current activists know about the work of the early Asian American movement?  What do you want them to know about what we did and how we did it?

Jean Dere:  I don’t think the current younger activists know much about the work of the early Asian American movement. Just like when the Justice for Vincent Chin movement started, they didn’t know about the Asian American movement that took place on the west coast or the east coast. They didn’t know about the Third World Liberation Front that fought for Ethnic Studies on school campuses and that there were Asian American Studies departments that were created out of their struggles. That was why the organizers of the Vincent Chin movement would talk about how they were the start of the Asian American movement. I think that’s where your blog can be helpful and that people need to take the classes offered in Asian American studies in universities and colleges.  People also need to read, study and discuss revolutionary writings and apply it to the real world.

The Asian American Political Alliance was the first to use the term Asian American and was openly anti-imperialist and fought on many fronts from workers’ struggle, supporting the Panthers, to anti-war. Ethnic study curriculum should be included in the public schools before kids even get to college. Knowing about the common oppression and discrimination people of color face would help build unity and also win white people to fight racism and injustice just like what happened when George Floyd was murdered and millions came out to the streets.  People need to know first before they can act.

Eddie Wong: Did your father ever tell you more about Mun Ching?

Jean Dere:  My father did not tell me much about Mun Ching. I learned more about it as an adult from the writings of Him Mark Lai who was also a Mun Ching member and he researched and wrote on a very broad range of topics on Chinese American history. He also wrote extensively on the history of the Marxist left in the Chinese American communities across the U.S. I think I read all or most of the articles and books he wrote about the Chinese Left. As a child, I was taken to the Mun Ching clubhouse on Stockton Street and to many of Mun Ching’s activities. I was told to call all the adults who were there “uncle” or “auntie”.  In the last decade of Mun Ching, it was not openly political due to the repression of the McCarthy era and their activities became mainly cultural and recreational. After Mun Ching lost their clubhouse, the people continued to meet weekly at one of S.F.’s public recreation centers especially in connection the Folk Dance Association that they formed. My father would bring his children with him to the recreation center. We would play basketball and play with the other children and hangout. Mun Ching also organized outings to parks for picnics and even some camping trips. I remember one trip where we ran into a problem where the people at one location did not want to rent camp sites or cabins to us because we were Chinese.  That area probably had a history of being a “sundown town.”  I don’t know the details of what happened, I was probably not even ten years old, but we eventually did get to set up camp somewhere.

Eddie Wong: Are you hopeful about the future? What are the big challenges and big opportunities we face?

Jean Dere:  I don’t know if I feel hopeful for the future. One major reason is environmental. I fear for what the younger generations might have to face when ocean level rise and people lose their homes because their land is underwater, or what might happen with the food supply or even water supply runs low. If governments like the U.S. in particular, which refuse to act in a responsible way on this issue, it’s not good. On the other hand, China is seriously moving on this issue. They have planted trees in desert regions, switching to all electric cars, developing clean energy sources. Even though they still use coal, the government has set a goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2060. If all the countries were able to set these types of goals, I would be more hopeful.

Photo by Jean Dere.

The Western world makes only 12% of the world’s population. The rest of the 88% of the world’s people are people of color, or the global south, who had at one time or another been colonized and severely exploited and oppressed. The U.S. heads up this 12% and is the most aggressive and militaristic force in the world causing much death and destruction in many regions of the world. Hopefully an end will come to this set up.  People need to start having a global perspective and care for the wellbeing of all people and bring balance to the world.  Pandemics like Covid-19 will be on the rise if we continue to disrupt nature.

Author’s Bio: Jean Dere, or Jeanie to all of her friends and family, was born in San Francisco at the Chinese Hospital in 1950.  She spent her whole life living and working in the Bay Area.

 

4 Comments

  1. Palma You on January 28, 2021 at 8:05 am

    Jean, great article and recounting of your activist lifestyle. I admire your strength and conviction and learning the how and whys of active advocacy for the greater good. Thank you.

  2. Bob Wing on January 28, 2021 at 5:49 pm

    Jeanie!!! It’s been decades since we’ve seen each other. But I will always remember you fondly from the Asian Community Center and Everybody’s Bookstore days. I always thought you were a gem. I’m glad you have kept your politics and thoughtfulness. Be well, my old friend, and maybe someday we will meet again. Thank you for these great stories. Stay well, Bob Wing

  3. warren mar on January 29, 2021 at 2:27 pm

    Jean,

    Thank you for your article and recollections of Wei Min She. I remember you and your brothers growing up in the same area of North Beach. Thank you also for participating in the interview with Eddie, which helps fill in many gaps in the current period. I also appreciated and still feel a profound bound and inspiration in regard to the Chinese Revolution under Mao and how often many of the advances made are misinterpreted by the western and U.S. media. So thank you for bringing that up too.

    In solidarity, Warren Mar

  4. ALEX HING on February 4, 2021 at 7:48 pm

    Jeanie,
    I’m so glad you found your voice and we are all the better for you shining a light on our movement in Chinatown. Your story about growing up under Confucian patriarchy is eye-opening. Thank you. Keep on writing and speaking the truth.
    Alex

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