By Vincent Wu.
I am blessed to be bi-cultural, a Chinese American. I get to celebrate both Chinese and American holidays. When people ask me where I was from, I have to tell them it’s a bit involved.
I was born in Yunnan province of China during the Second World War. My father was sent to that province as a missionary, and we returned to Canton after the victory over the Japanese in 1945. He became an ordained minister and served in a church in Canton. Unfortunately, there was a civil war in China. Normally, a pastor of a church should stay and serve the church members in time of need such as during a typhoon, earthquake, or political danger. Unfortunately, or fortunately, my father was forced to resign his position due to church politics. There was a school associated with the church, and the school principal was the son of a church board member. They forced my father out because they wanted to convert the parsonage where we lived into school classrooms. I cannot imagine how our family would have fared under the Communist. We probably would not have survived. During that troubled time, I remembered the barricades on each side of our street in Canton to protect the residents.
We left Canton and went to Hong Kong in August 1949, and the Communist took over Canton two months later. We went by boat, and I remembered that we stacked our luggage by the door of the stateroom in case of shootings by the river pirates. During a portion of the passage, our ship turned out all the lights and drifted silently past a point where the pirates were known to board ships. Again, we were fortunate that the trip was uneventful.
My father served as pastor of a Chinese church in Hong Kong in 1950~1951, and during the height of the Korean War, my father was hired to serve at the First Chinese Presbyterian Church of New York City. So, every step of the way, our family, as God’s servant, was guided by his protection
My American story starts with our family immigrating to America, the “land of the free”, in 1951. As all of us, my two younger brothers and I, were young; we really didn’t have much to say in the matter but to come with our parents from China to America. In 1951 the US quota system was in effect, and it only permitted 105 people of Chinese origin to immigrate legally. We were able to come to America as non-quota under the EB-4 visa as religious workers and family. At that time, air travel was prohibitively expensive, and so we came by boat. Hence, “my back is wet!” We disembarked one day before my 9th Birthday on March 18th, 1951. I never forgot that morning when our boat passed under the Golden Gate bridge; it was the beginning of our American dream.
This is my “Green” Card.
Immediately, during the week we disembarked from the ship at the Presbyterian Church, Chinatown, San Francisco.
In Hong Kong, I was in 4th grade and had just learned the English alphabet, my ABCs. That’s all I knew when we first arrived in New York City. Since most young people are infinitely adaptable, we learned English in no time flat. On the first day of class, my 2nd brother and I were assigned to the same class in the morning. He, however, needed to be excused to go to the bathroom. I remember vividly that I spoke out to the teacher in Cantonese that my brother needed to go to the bathroom. Of course, our teacher didn’t comprehend what I was saying. Finally, I had to just rise up from my desk and take my brother to the bathroom. On multiple occasions, I distinctly remember my school mates ignorantly teased me with “chop suey, chop suey!” I didn’t know what they meant. I thought it was “Chop Soul” which in Cantonese means an electrical two or three prong plug. I really didn’t take offense, and the young people in school were just immature.
From left to right: my 2nd Brother, Jon, my Mother, Helen, My 3rd Brother, Howard, my Father, Paul & me.
In New York City, we lived in a mixed neighborhood away from Chinatown. My friends and playmates were Italians, Dutch, Jews, and other Whites, but no Black friends. Looking back, it was an idyllic youth. My mom took us and our neighborhood kids to Central Park on Saturday for roller skating. We played punch ball, stoop ball and stick ball in the street. There were some intimate bars and restaurants on our block, and we acted as doormen for the cabs collecting tips. We really made hay when it’s raining as we opened the door and shielded the passenger with an umbrella. After we collected enough money, we bought a pizza to share with everybody. Those were good times!
Even though my brother and I were a minority, we never felt that we were being discriminated against. We were just one of the boys living and growing up in cosmopolitan New York City. I distinctly remember there was a Black bully in public school who challenged me. He said for me to wait after school and he will “take care” of me. I remember sneaking out of the school and missing his “appointment”. That’s the only interaction with Black people that I remember having in my youth.
My Grandfather, the tall man in the center, was a laundryman in Flushing, Queens, New York City. This is a beloved 1959’s picture of him, his partner, my 3rd “uncle”, my mom, and I’m the eldest of three brothers. In 1920’s, my grandfather “jumped ship” in San Francisco as he bought a passage as part of the entourage of the Chinese Nicaraguan Ambassador. He then somehow went to St. Louis, worked with some relatives, and finally went to New York City. He worked in this laundry and lived in the back of the store. I cannot imagine the hardship that he endured throughout the Depression and subsequent years. He sent money home, so that my father, uncle, and auntie could become educated, and they became in modern China, a pastor, a doctor, and a schoolteacher. Little did I know until later, that my grandfather was instrumental in my father’s hiring as the assistant pastor of the First Chinese Presbyterian Church in New York City. It turns out that my grandfather paid $100 to make-up my father’s $200 per month salary. My grandfather’s travails in America are typical of many, many immigrant families, and in fact, this is the essence of most immigrants with the American dreams, to earn money to send home to better the lives of their family.
Our family, just like many other typical Chinese families, went overseas from the Pearl River Delta of Kwangtung Province of China. I was the fourth generation overseas, and yet, all of us were born in China. It turns out that my grandfather had two sons and a daughter before he came to America. And my maternal grandmother’s father was supposedly a food peddler in Oakland, California. In my hometown, all the families were Wu.
Like all Chinese family names, my ancestors were related to a famous historical figure, like an emperor. Most probably, we were just peasants or serfs under his rule. It’s no big deal, because all family names were similarly associated with a famous person, one way or another, in the long history of China. In New York City, my grandfather was very active in our village family association. He was literate and was considered the scholar of the association because he wrote letters home to China for all my “uncles.” The name of this village association was the “Three Abdications Association”. I knew the name, but never knew what it meant until I looked it up on the Internet. It turns out that my supposed ancestor was a famous person who gave up the throne three times. It was written up in the Analects of Confucius. Why am I telling this story? Well, I have to explain it with another story.
When I was born, it was the privilege and honor of the grandfather to give grandchildren their names. However, I was born during the Second World War, and communication between the US and China was severed. I was given a temporary name, “Wun Sung,” which means born in the cloud. It was derived from my birthplace Yunnan (Southern Cloud) province. It became my English name, Vincent. When communication was re-established, and we received my grandfather’s letter, I was named “Hau-Leong.” Now, most Chinese names are coined to encourage and inspire the person named, and my name means to copy or emulate virtues. I took the meaning of my name extremely seriously to heart and tried to live up to it all my life. So, to sum it all up, I have always tried to be humble, and be adverse to power; it’s kind of like trying to live up to the tradition of my ancestors. We all know the famous statement of Lord Action that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
I can’t speak for my brothers who grew up nearly completely Americanized. Their only Chineseness is the love of the family and Chinese foods. I was old enough to read and speak Chinese. In my youth, I went to the public library, and borrowed many Chinese books and read up on many Chinese folk legends and wushu (Chinese martial arts) novels. I am forever grateful to the free public library system of America. In addition to English, they also have books from many different languages, in particular, Chinese. I’ve always said that reading those books preserved my Chinese reading comprehension. They taught me to be patriotic, seek justice, protect the weak and honor the blood brotherhood covenant These themes are virtues that I try to emulate throughout my life.
It’s obvious that I was foolishly proud of being Chinese. However, somebody once taught me that we should never be proud of what we were. After all, we’re all born being something or another, and can’t help it. We didn’t do anything except being born by our parents. We should only be proud of what we individually accomplished with the opportunities given to us. But, it is not to deny that the Chinese is a proud culture and one of the oldest existing and continuous civilizations in the world.
I note this because the Chinese culture, Christian Faith and European Enlightenment and Science made up my personality. In my mind and character, I am a pure mongrel! All mixed-up. From the Chinese, I deeply believe in the ideals of filial piety and “yi chi.” which are Confucian and what I considered as Chinese culture’s contributions to the world’s ethics. Filial piety is our obligation to our family, of love, caring, protectiveness, and respect to our elders especially to our parents and grandparents. 義氣 “Yi Chi” is the covenant of brotherhood, it’s kind of like the Chivalry of the Knights of the Round table. It is selflessness for the brotherhood or sisterhood. In Chinese history there is a blood oath: “We don’t wish to be born on the same day, but to die on the same day!”
From Judeo-Christianity, I acquired the concept of justice, love and non-violence. From the Enlightenment and Science, a deep sense of personal responsibility and the search for Truth. I have strong ethical imperatives, as a Chinese, as an American, as a Christian, and as a human being. As a preacher’s kid, we were taught to behave, to be beyond reproach, and to set an example for the other families within our church.
Again, due to church politics, my father lost his job in New York City. In my opinion, there is no more vicious politics than church politics. People do whatever, even up to killing each other for the glories of God. We have the example of the world wars with both sides worshiping the same God, and yet mercilessly kill each other. Incidentally, that is why I am a committed pacifist. My father’s contract was not renewed, and my father went back to seminary for further studies, and my mom went to work in the New York garment industries to support the family. There is a Chinese saying… due to the 5000 years history, there’s always a Chinese saying for everything under the sun…“When drinking water, one thinks of its source.” We all are indebted to all who come before us. Absolutely, for all of us, our parents’ sacrifices made us what we are today.
Finally, in 1955, an opening was available due to the sudden death of Dr. Gam, the pastor of the Chinese Cumberland Presbyterian Church of San Francisco, and my father was hired to replace him. We moved from New York City to San Francisco in November of 1955. Suddenly we discovered ourselves to be part of the Chinese community in San Francisco Chinatown. Now almost all of my schoolmates and buddies are Chinese. In New York City, there was only one other Chinese in our public school. I had a normal upbringing; went to high school, and then later to college. In high school, I had such a strong sense of my Chinese identity that I was nick-named the “Formosan!”
Jackson and Powell St. Cumberland Presbyterian Church on the right. Photo by Justin Tse from the Patheos Catholic blog.
In the late fifties & early sixties, many Chinese were influenced by the Nobel prize Chinese recipients, and I, too, studied Physics. I graduated from San Jose State College and went to University of Illinois and majored in Mathematics. I went to Illinois because it was the most prestigious university that I had applied to.
It was at the University of Illinois that I became a Quaker and became active in the student movement. It was the spirit of the times, and I was a child of the Sixties. We were impacted by the news, by the outrage against society’s evident hypocrisies in all that we were taught. I participated in many anti-war and Civil Rights protests and activities. I was committed to non-violently changing myself and the world.
The American Civil Right Movement ever since the founding of our nation was an on-going struggle mostly by Blacks themselves for their freedom and dignity. In the sixties the most prominent person leading it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. There are many, many other contemporaries such as CORE (The Congress of Racial Equality) and SNCC (The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.) Frankly, my sympathies were with the “young turks,” the SNCC people. In 1965 a major high point of my life was my participation in Selma, Alabama in support of the Civil Rights Movement. I was young then, but I am today still young at heart. The reason that I joined was because I was an immigrant to the US and I was and am a believer of the America Ideals exemplified in the U.S. Declaration of independence:
“…that all men are created equal,….”
Democracy means “Ruled by the People.” And it boils down to fundamentally: one man, one vote. (To be more correct: one person, one vote.)
Winston Churchill said: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried…”
Now, we all know that the USA is a democracy, but throughout her history, she was still so far away from her ideals:
She mistreated and continued the European’s policies to kill off almost all the Native Americans.
She had slavery until the President Lincoln freed them in 1863. But racism still exists up to this day.
Something close to home is:
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that was finally repealed in 1943.
Women didn’t have the right to vote until 1920.
The Japanese American internment of World War II
The Civil Rights Movement was a struggle for justice that took place throughout America’s history and came to the forefront probably due to the widespread viewing of TV News in the 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement was for Blacks to gain equal rights under the law in the United States. The conditions were so bad that it required major legislation to correct past wrongs. There were many instances of segregation primarily against the Black people in many places in the South:
Black people were victims of segregation, based on customs and unjust laws. There were separate water fountains, separate bathrooms, and separate schools. On the same bus, Blacks had to sit at the back of the bus and had to give up their seats to Whites. They didn’t have any political power and were kept under by Whites. In 1965, at Selma there were close to 30,000 people, 50% White and 50% Black, but the voter registration was 99% White, and one of the side effects is that if there is a jury trial, the jury is white because it is drawn from the voter roster.
The heroes of the Civil Right movements are not the people who got killed innocently. It’s the people who knew the dangers and the threats of beating, gassing, facing police dogs, trampled by horses and were still willing to speak truth to power with their bodies, hearts and souls.
The freedom riders
The volunteers for the voter registration drives in the South
the Marchers of Bloody Sunday in Selma
The Marchers of Turnaround Tuesday in Selma
The Civil Rights Movement at that time was fundamentally committed to non-violence as a belief and as a tactic. Non-violence is the use of peaceful means, not force, to bring about political change. You cannot overcome evil with evil, but only can overcome evil with good. Not many people will change their mind through arguments, but they can be moved through examples and kindness. Black people needed to register to vote to make change non-violently and fulfill American democracy. So, in early 1965 in Selma AL, there was a campaign to register to vote, and people marched to the County Court House peacefully for many days. They were blocked by the local Sheriff who ordered them to disperse and when people refused, they were arrested. More than 2000 people were arrested and put into jail.
On March 7th, 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King’s group, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) decided to march to Montgomery, AL, the state capital, to petition the government for redress. All they wanted to do was to be able to register to vote. After crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge just outside of Selma, they were met with police who shot teargas and beat them with clubs. This was called “Bloody Sunday” and it was broadcast on TV all over the world. This caused people of good will everywhere to be outraged.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. sent out a call to all religious leaders and people of goodwill to come to Selma. I was one of them, and I joined the Selma March for Freedom. It was not until March 25th under the protection of 2,000 or more Federal military guards that Dr. King and the marchers reached Montgomery to complete their goal.
Our trip was coordinated by the Unitarian Church on the University of Illinois campus. I went down to Alabama with a group in a VW bus loaned by a professor. Selma in those days were very segregated, and it was not safe to be out of the Black area. I was hosted by a kind family in the housing project and had my first and most delicious Southern cooked meal in my life.
During the Selma march, I took up duties wherever it was needed. I volunteered to serve as a transport coordinator in the office and drove and picked up people from Montgomery bus station to Selma.
On the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Selma March, I was blessed to be able to take my daughter Mary Alice to the celebration. This was the Greyhound Bus Station in Montgomery, AL that I picked up fellow civil rights activists. It is now a Freedom Ride Museum.
During one of those trips in Montgomery, I was arrested innocently just because I was an outsider and was thrown into the county jail.
This is the modern-day Montgomery AL County Jail taken during the 50th Anniversary Celebration.
So, that was my first experience of being in a jail. I was bewildered but wasn’t really scared as I remembered. I was placed in a cell with other fellow civil rights workers, and I stayed overnight in jail and was released the next day after getting represented by a civil rights lawyer. It was the first and only time that I had grits for breakfast. I was driving the exact same car that later Viola Liuzzo drove and in which she was shot to death.
I also served as one of the parade marshals that guided and supported the marchers. I distinctly remember that we marched along the side of the column and joined in the spirited singing and sloganeering. On the first day of the march I went ahead of the march to prepare the campsite for the night. I will never forget seeing the sight of the marchers at dusk coming over the crest flying the American flag. It was glorious!
Of the many pictures in the Selma’s march to Montgomery, I couldn’t locate any picture of me. Of course, in those days, we weren’t really interested in doing a selfie. This might be a picture of my back next to the leftmost American flag at the far left or that could’ve been me.
One of the most memorable duties as a parade marshal was to protect Dr. Martin Luther King. We linked arms and formed a circle around Dr. Martin Luther King as circumstances dictate, and I was also close to many celebrities that were there. It was the greatest honor of my life to “protect” Dr. King with my life if that was to be. As we all painfully know now the Dr. King was in fact assassinated later in 1968.
The Selma march along with Ms. Liuzzo’s death resulted with The Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark piece of federal legislation in the United States that prohibits racial discrimination in voting with tough conditions for the southern states. Cynically, one can say with some truth, that it took white people being killed to bring forth change.
It was one of the most important events in my life…little did I know then that it was considered so important in American history. Dr. King called it “more honorable and more inspiring” than all others in American history, and that President Johnson judged it equal to the battles at Lexington, Concord. The U.S. Congress passed Public Law 114-5, which awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Foot Soldiers who participated in Bloody Sunday, Turnaround Tuesday, and the final Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March.
My other Civil Rights activity in the South was in May 1966 when I went to Greene County, Alabama to serve as a driver to take people to the polls for Thomas Gilmore, a civil rights worker, who ran for Sheriff in the Democrat primary. We were scared, but we had a job to do. We drove voters from their home to the polling station. In the country roads, we drove rented cars like a “bat out of hell!” We were scared that we would be shot by the Whites with guns. Rev. Thomas Gilmore didn’t win the first time, but finally succeeded in 1970 and he was the second Black sheriff in Alabama and served for three terms. He was known as “The sheriff without a gun!”
The last time I was in the deep South prior to the 50th Selma reunion in 2015 was in 1968 for Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. The “Clean for Gene” campaign held a voter registration drive in Jackson, Mississippi. An interesting side note was that to be “Clean for Gene,” I went to a barbershop there, and the barber marveled at my straight black hair. They’ve never seen anything like it before.
I was fortunate to be a child of the Sixties. I was a member of the Student for Democratic Society whose founding document, “The Port Huron Statement:” from which I quoted
“When we were kids the United States was the wealthiest and strongest country in the world
…As we grew, however, our comfort was penetrated by events too troubling to dismiss. First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb…”
So the two major issues of the Sixties were Civil Rights and the Cold War. Please remember that we as a generation had experienced in 1962 the almost “end-of-the-world” of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the ongoing struggle of the American Civil Rights.
Finally, this is what we believed;
“We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love.”
As Michael Metz wrote in “Radicals in the Heartland.” “We were naive…we thought that we could make it the country it was supposed to be. We thought if we change America, we would change the world.”
“Naivete was certainly a component of the sixties movement, but it comes with confidence born of affluence, youthful courage, and the clarity of the moral issues with which the students were confronted.”
Protest at the University of Illinois 1970 when the Governor sent in the National Guards. I was wearing a jean’s jacket with a bandana.
The lesson is this: in our life, we don’t really know what will turn out important. How would I have known 50 years later that I had participated in an event that Dr. Martin Luther King was remembered for. We must live our life with a good conscience and do the best we can. We’ve “crapped-out” from time to time, but we must go on and try to do good again and again.
I would like to exhort you with some dialog from the movie Selma…I don’t think Dr. King said it, but it certainly sounds like he would have:
“Our lives are not fully lived, if we were not willing to die for those we loved and for what we believe.”
His most famous quote is: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
I stayed in Illinois from 1964 until 1979 working at the University of Illinois and got married and started a family there. I came back to California in 1979 to work in the high-tech industry. These are three highlights from my professional experiences.
I was a member of a team that was the first to migrate the Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations (PLATO) system from a Control Data Corporation mainframe to a mini-computer system. The University of Illinois’ PLATO system is one of the forerunners of the Internet, and it was a system of thousands of computer terminals dedicated to computer education. Nobody thought it could be done because of the difference in computer power and architecture. Our team was successful which proved that nothing is impossible as long as people have the vision and work hard toward it. It is only a matter of dedication and time.
I was the author of the Atari “The Learning Phone” which brought home computer access to the PLATO system. Again, people thought that it was impossible because the PLATO terminal cost $12,000 and had a resolution of 512 x 512 pixels. Here is a picture of the PLATO terminal:
I was using a TV which only has 320 x 192 pixels. I redesigned the fonts and compressed the graphics and the legibility was problematic and had much to be desired. Serendipitously, I left my terminal on as I attended a meeting, and as I returned to my office the terminal screen was in a screen saving mode. In order not to “burn-in” a static screen image the computer randomly flashed different color schemes. One of those random colors was black on yellow which improved the legibility of the screen by providing maximum contrast. So, hard work plus luck equals success.
I was a co-founder of a small networking company called Invisible Software. It was in the early 80’s when we designed, manufactured, and marketed home networking products that connected personal computers together to share and backup data. My partner who was a brilliant developer and I were not business people, and our successes were primarily due to my wife, Regina, who truly has great business sense and operational experiences. In our initial growth, I was dropping sales orders on the floor, and Regina took pity on me and decided to join the company and made it a success. We had a great run for 13 years before Microsoft released their Windows for workgroup in 1993. Our networking software was superior, but it cost extra and Microsoft’s was free as it was bundled with the Windows operating system. We were completely self-funded, profitable, and never owed anybody any money. We alerted our users, dealers and distributor half a year in advance. Then we closed the company in 1997 gracefully without regrets.
I came back to California after my divorce, re-married, and established a new family. I now live in Burlingame. My mother was an early widow because my father died when he was 59 years old. Being back in California, my wife and I were able to look after her. We shared her final years and were able to see her celebrate her 100th birthday. She died two years ago peacefully in her sleep without suffering, and we were and are blessed.
Now that I’m retired and close to being senile, my goals are more modest. I want to maintain my health so that I won’t be a burden to my loved ones. I’m a passionate Bridge bum and wish to keep my mental agility, and I’m a gym rat, thanks to my wife Regina. We go to the gym four times a week to do a dance exercise called Zumba. My ethical goals continue to be:
Act with kindness
And to create beauty
I want to live a life of showing appreciation for all things
My personal Motto is:
Living well is the best revenge!
We are all heroes of our individual life. After all, we all survived.
Vincent Wu is a retired software engineer, manager, and co-founder living in Burlingame, California with his wife, Regina. His works in the US hi-tech industries include computers, home networking, telecom systems, infrared red devices, and fibre optics. He is forever grateful for the opportunities America has provided to acquire an education and to be able to be productive for all these years. It wasn’t too long ago when his family was poor dirt farmers in China, and for this immigrant family the American dream is alive and well.