By Eddie Wong.
“Judas and the Black Messiah,” a drama directed by Shaka King, and
“MLK/FBI,” a documentary directed by Sam Pollard, both recently released and available online, shed light on the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local police tactics to monitor, disrupt, and destroy organizations dedicated to the liberation of Black people. The FBI threatened to destroy the reputation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, by releasing wiretapped conversations that revealed aspects of his private life and political affiliations with leftists . In the case of Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party, an FBI informant provided a blueprint of Hampton’s apartment that was used in a Chicago Police Department raid on Dec. 4, 1969 in which Hampton and Mark Clark, a Panther member, were shot multiple times and killed.
News about the FBI’S Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) broke in March 1971 after activists broke into the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania and liberated 1,000 pages of memos and reports, which were widely circulated to the press. The Washington Post published a front-page story revealing the FBI’s covert operations against progressive organizations. In 1975, Sen. Frank Church convened hearings to review the work of the FBI, CIA, IRS and other agencies which were involved on spying upon U.S. citizens. By then, the FBI had amassed thousands of pages on the anti-war movement and civil rights and national liberation movements. Feminist organizations and the nascent environmental movement also faced FBI scrutiny.
Roots of the FBI’s interest in the Asian American Movement
The FBI’s monitoring of the Asian American movement was noted by William Wei in “The Asian American Movement” (Temple University Press, 1993), Chapter Seven: The Emergence and Eclipse of Maoist Organizations. However, interest heightened with the publication of “Subversives: the FBI’s War on Student Radicals and the Reagan’s Rise to Power” by Seth Rosenfeld in 2012. Ten pages of the book are devoted to Richard Aoki, a leader in the Asian American Political Alliance at UC Berkeley and a member of the Black Panther Party. Rosenfeld said that Aoki had been an FBI informant since the early 1960s. The subsequent release of 212 pages of FBI memos on Aoki by author Rosenfeld dispelled any doubt that this revered Asian American activist had been reporting on the Socialist Workers Party, Black Panther Party, the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA), which was founded at UC Berkeley in 1968, and the Third World Liberation Front, which led the UC Berkeley student strike to establish ethnic studies departments.
Rosenfeld’s book, however, did not focus much on Aoki’s service to the FBI vis a vis the Asian American movement. A partial look at the FBI’s spying on the Asian American movement is now available online at vault.fbi.gov under the file “Asian American Political Alliance.” The 1,663 pages of memos are broken out haphazardly in four pdfs with some documents repeated several times with minor marking changes. The memos are not in chronological order and jump from city to city.
The FBI describes the files in the following manner: “The Asian American Political Alliance was a protest group formed at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1968. This release covers the FBI investigation of the group and its leaders from 1969 through 1972. The FBI was especially interested in the contact the group or its members had with Chinese communists abroad.” This description dovetails with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s obsession with radical leftist movements that dates back to 1919 when he headed the Palmer Raids for the Department of Justice. Those raids in 33 cities targeted 4,000 anarchists, radicals, socialists, and communists who were gaining support in the post-WWI era of skyrocketing prices, worker exploitation, and racial unrest. Over 300 radicals were deported, and thousands were arrested.
Monitoring of Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans by local police red squads and federal immigration and security agencies dates back to the 1930s. Most notably lists of Japanese community leaders compiled by the Office of Naval Intelligence and the War Department’s Intelligence Division were used by the FBI to round up the Issei leaders immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Historian H.M. Lai wrote about the harassment of progressives in the Chinese American community as the Korean War began and on through the McCarthy era in his 1972 essay, A Historical Survey of Organizations of the Left Among the Chinese in America.
In the wake of COINTELPRO
The FBI’s preface fails to mention the other key reason AAPA was being monitored, i.e., the support Asian American groups were giving to the Black Panther Party. The FBI’s extensive monitoring of the Black liberation Movement via the COINTELPRO was spelled out in this August 25, 1967 memo to all field offices:
The purpose of this new counterintelligence endeavor is to expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership, and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder. . . The pernicious background of such groups, their duplicity, and devious maneuvers must be exposed to public scrutiny where such publicity will have a neutralizing effect. Efforts of the various groups to consolidate their forces or to recruit new or youthful adherents must be frustrated. . . Many individuals currently active in black nationalist organizations have backgrounds of immorality, subversive activity, and criminal records. Through your investigation of key agitators, you should endeavor to establish their unsavory backgrounds.
When I looked at the list of organizations on the FBI’s list, I gasped at the broad strokes the FBI used. Any group advocating for civil rights was placed under the “Black nationalist-Hate Groups/Internal Security” category. “Intensified attention under this program should be afforded to the activities of such groups as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Revolutionary Action Movement, the Deacons for Defense and Justice, Congress of Racial Equality, and the Nation of Islam,” said the FBI.
The FBI’s fixation on identifying leaders of movements of racial justice was delineated as Goal #2 in the memo: “Prevent the rise of a “messiah” who could unify and electrify the militant black nationalist movement…King could be a very real contender for this position should he abandon his supposed “obedience” to “white, liberal doctrines” (nonviolence) and embrace black nationalism. “ Less than a year later, Dr. King would be assassinated in Memphis after speaking on behalf of striking Black sanitation workers.
The late 1960s were certainly a volatile time. It’s hard to describe to my daughter, who is now in her early 30s, what it felt like to be young in 1967 and 1968 when so many truisms and norms about obedience to the status quo were being challenged. There was a sense of rebellion but also a joyous exuberance towards breaking the chains. Millions of people were in the streets in 1967 and 1968 protesting the Vietnam War and fighting against racist oppression. The feminist movement challenged sexism. Pop culture energized pro-Black liberation and “peace, love, and happiness” mantras. As much as we embraced the new songs of freedom, the authorities saw this uprising as a threat to white supremacy and capitalist rule. The FBI would serve as the hammer to smash the insurgence.
The FBI focus on AAPA
These files, located at vault.fbi.gov/asian-american-political-alliance, just cover a fraction of the FBI monitoring of the Asian American Movement. There are separate files on individuals and organizations that can only be accessed by a Freedom of Information Act and Privacy Act requests. I’ll leave it to other researchers and writers to look into the FBI files on the Red Guard Party, I Wor Kuen, Chinese Progressive Association, Asian Community Center, Wei Min She, Kalayaan Collective, Katipunan ng mga Demokratikong Pilipino/Union of Democratic Filipinos (KDP), East Wind Collective, Asian Americans for Action, Asian Study Group, Workers’ Viewpoint Organization, Asian Americans for Equality and other groups.
The FBI saw AAPA-UC Berkeley as the prime driver in spreading radical ideas among the Asian American communities. AAPA convened several Asian American Movement conferences and sent speakers to colleges throughout California and to New York. Other groups such as the Intercollegiate Chinese for Student Action, the Philippine American Collegiate Endeavor, and AAPA-SF, which formed the Asian wing of the 1968 San Francisco State Strike, also energized Asian American students and community members. But it was AAPA-Berkeley and its extensive work among colleges and in San Francisco Chinatown that are the focus of this collection of FBI files.
Identifying AAPA’s leaders and tracking the organization’s work was mostly accomplished through the use of informants and citations from AAPA’s newsletters and press coverage of forums and events. The files also mention electronic surveillance and personal surveillance, but in the main, the FBI used several informants, citing their separate observations, as a means to corroborate information on AAPA.
AAPA members L. Ling-chi Wang, Harvey Dong, and Lillian Fabros wrote eloquently about AAPA’s work in “Mountain Movers – Student Activism & The Emergence of Asian American Studies,” (2019 UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press). Lillian Fabros recalled that “during the summer of 1968,Yuji (Ichioka) was spearheading an effort to repeal the 1950 McCarran Internal Security Act and wanted AAPA members to sit out in Sproul Plaza on campus to collect signatures. Yuji and I had intense discussions about the Japanese American concentration camps. I said to him, ‘The Japanese invaded the Philippines and had real concentration camps, not at all what Japanese Americans experienced in America. ‘ We talked about the differences between Japanese Americans and the Japanese, and about the common struggles of Asian Americans. If Japanese Americans could be incarcerated, maybe other Asian Americans could too. Ultimately, I wound up sitting at the table in Sproul Plaza, encouraging people to support repealing the McCarran Act.”
AAPA’s numerous projects are described in those personal reflections. Quite unintentionally, the FBI files provide an archive of AAPA’s statements via flyers, newsletters and press coverage. The direct and passionate declarations displayed in AAPA’s October 1969 newspaper speak to AAPA’s appeal to thousands of students. I count myself as one of them. At the time, I was a freshman at UCLA and active with others to fight for an Asian American Studies program and protest the Vietnam War. Going to UC Berkeley to attend AAPA conferences was thrilling. There was that powerful realization of oneness that comes with forging a collective identity fused around common principles. Thus, AAPA’s principles resonated deeply. The following excerpts were cited in the FBI files:
The Asian American Political Alliance is people. It is a people’s alliance to effect social and political changes. We believe that the American society is historically racist and one which has systematically employed social discrimination and economic imperialism, both domestically and internationally, exploiting all non-white people in the process of building up their affluent society…
The goal of AAPA is political education and advancement of the movement among Asian people, so that they may make all decisions that affect their own lives, in a society that never asks people to do so… AAPA is only a transition for developing our own social identity, a multiplication of efforts. In fact, AAPA itself Is not the important link but the ideas generated into action from it – that we Asian Americans are no longer going to kowtow to white America in order to gain an ounce of respect; that we must begin to build our own society alongside our black, brown and red brothers as well as with whites willing to effect fundamental social, economic, political changes; that we have the right for determining our own lives and asserting our yellow identity as a positive force in a new life based on human relationships and cooperation.
These words are still powerful today. It’s the social critique in the service of a humanistic vision for an equitable society that aroused people’s passions. In the late 1960s, Asian Americans were struggling with a basic question: Which side are you on? Are you with the white majority as a silent, junior partner or are you with our black, brown, red brothers and sisters striving for equality and respect?
Aside from the power of the words, the AAPA leaders were an impressive bunch. Meeting Yuji Ichioka, Emma Gee, Floyd Huen, Wai-kit Quon, Bing Tom and others at those AAPA conferences exposed me to politicos who spoke in complete sentences, even paragraphs, while a simple “yeah, right on” would suffice both as the opening and closing of a conversation in laid-back LA. We, too, would soon grow in political sophistication.
I talked with Floyd recently about how they developed such direct, evocative language to convey politics effectively. He replied, “We (the founding group) were a small group – Yuji, Emma, Richard Aoki, Vicci Wong, Jean Quan, Victor Ichioka, myself – and we were united politically, heavily influenced by the Peace and Freedom Party platform. Yuji and Emma were active in the Peace and Freedom Party and wanted all of us be in an Asian contingent. Our basic anti-imperialist stance came from Peace and Freedom politics.”
The FBI Monitoring of AAPA’s Growth
The bulk of the FBI memos center on discussions among AAPA members on strategies to use in confronting the UC Berkeley administration, which was dragging its heels on implementing ethnic studies departments in the wake of the January to March 1969 Third World Liberation Front strike. Detailed accounts of the meetings and those with the TWLF were made possible by informant SF 2496-R/Richard Aoki, AAPA’s second chairperson and representative to the TWLF, and he was reporting to the FBI on meetings in which he was a leading participant.
After reading the memos, there’s nothing earthshaking in Aoki’s reports on AAPA. Anyone who has been in the Movement knows that it is filled with strong personalities and conflicting agendas. In Aoki’s September 26, 1969 report to the FBI, he divided the AAPA leadership into three camps: militants, moderates, and conservatives. This may have burnished his insider credentials, but in the end this information was probably was of little value to the FBI. AAPA resolved its differences and continued functioning.
Aoki was not the only informant reporting on AAPA. Informant T-2 whose identity was redacted but is described as “YMCA Director of College Youth Work in San Francisco Bay Area.” He observed that there are no officers or formal membership, which dovetailed with Aoki’s assessment. Informant T-3, who is described as a youth worker, identified Floyd Huen and Wai Kit Quon as two main leaders of AAPA-Berkeley. This was hardly news as both Huen and Quon had been quoted in the campus newspaper as spokespersons for AAPA.
AAPA leaders spoke at meetings and smaller conferences organized in Oakland, Hayward, Sacramento, San Jose, and Los Angeles. This spurred the growth of new student organizations under the AAPA name. “There was just an explosion of Asian American consciousness in 1968-1969,” said Floyd Huen. “It was unbelievable…the number of people who got involved.” The FBI certainly took note of it by employing people to monitor Asian American meetings and rallies.
Five informants were used to monitor the AAPA chapter at Columbia University according to the FBI memo of July 31, 1970. None of the informants are described, although New York Police Department detectives are cited in a few other memos. It’s almost certain that a student reported on the April 23, 1970 AAPA meeting which focused on the need for a Chinese curriculum at Columbia University. This informant would also report that “Getting Together,” the newspaper of I Wor Kuen, was being sold on campus by unidentified young people. AAPA leader Chang Han-hua was also noted as an attendee of a rally sponsored by I Wor Kuen in New York Chinatown on April 19, 1970. The police and FBI took pictures of the attendees and identified several other participants including members of Asian Americans for Action.
In Los Angeles, the fledgling chapter of AAPA was graced with the presence of an informant at a meeting on Feb. 17, 1969 at the Universal Methodist Church. The informant reported that 50 people listened to Frank Wilkinson, a lawyer and civil libertarian who was on the FBI’s Security Index, Priority I due to his purported membership in the Communist Party USA. He spoke about the possible return of concentration camps in the U.S. via the McCarran Internal Security Act.
The FBI also interviewed officials at 15 Japanese American community organizations and businesses in December 1969. I highly doubt folks at the LA Bureau of Saudai Shimbun (A Tokyo-based daily newspaper), Gardena Buddhist Church, Japanese Art and Cultural Institute or Sumitomo Bank knew that their names would be redacted in an FBI memo declaring them to be sources. The FBI noted that “in contacts with above sources, no information was obtained regarding possible infiltration of Japanese aliens as suspected Chinese Intelligence sources. Los Angeles (office of the FBI) will remain alert for development of additional sources in this program.” (FBI, pdf #2, pg. 134-139)
In some cases, the informants were hilariously uninformed. At the July 1970 meeting of Asian Americans for Action, which was founded by Nisei activists, the informant remarked on one agenda item. The informant wrote, “At the meeting, mention was made of a JACL convention to be held in Chicago, Ill., from 7/14-18/70. JACL was identified either as the Japanese American Citizens League or the Japanese Americans for Confrontation and Liberation.” I burst out laughing because JACL was certainly not known for its confrontation and liberation mojo in those days.
The bulk of the monitoring was done by people who could fit in the public and private meetings. Thus, informant T-4, who is described as “of the Chinatown-North Beach Office of the EOC (Economic Opportunity Commission); identity covered by request,” reported that the first meeting of the AAPA chapter at California State College at Hayward was held on Feb. 20, 1969 at the home of Allan Fujita with 12 people present to formulate demands to be presented to the administration through a Third World Liberation Front.
Even events such as “Asians in America, “ conference sponsored by the Asian American Students Association at Yale University on April 18, 1970 was noted by the FBI. Glenn Omatsu, a graduate student in the Psychology Department at Yale, had attended a public forum in New York Chinatown entitled “Dilemma of the Asian in America” sponsored by AAPA-Columbia University and Asian Americans for Action. Thus, the Asian American Students Association at Yale was tagged “IS -Misc” (Internal Security Miscellaneous File).
The FBI often worked with campus police as in the case with UC Davis’ Asian American Concern and Sangha Club, an association of young Buddhists. Members of both organizations attended the AAPA conference on Jan. 11, 1969 in Berkeley. They followed up with several meetings on campus to “go beyond the myths and explore the Asians real identity.” The informant advised that “he is not aware of any subversive purposes of the Asian American Concern.” The FBI proceeded to close the case but put the names of the officers of Asian American Concern and the Sangha Club in its security index. (FBI, pdf#1, pg. 145-152)
Asian American Movement publications were analyzed by the FBI to track AAPA’s progression. Gidra, the Asian American community newspaper started by UCLA students in April 1969, was described in a Nov. 6, 1969 memo as “mildly militant and sometimes obscene in nature and espouses all yellow power issues.” The Los Angeles FBI office “has obtained a subscription under a fictitious name and is currently preparing a communication suitable for dissemination based on the first eight issues.” In a hearty endorsement of Gidra’s value, the Special Agent In Charge of the LA office wrote, “It (Gidra) reports regularly on Asian American activities on the California campuses as well as other areas of the country and has proved to be a wealth of information concerning the identities of organizations and individuals devoted to these causes.” At the end of the 58-page memo on the Asian American organizations mentioned in Gidra, there is a list of staff members and contributors with short descriptions about their work. (FBI pdf #1, page 1-58).
The FBI also expressed interest in Aion, a journal published in April 1970 in San Francisco. Informant T-2, who is described as “working with college youth for the San Francisco Bay Area YMCA”, reported that he knew Janice Mirikitani, who was affiliated with AAPA and also the editor for Aion. T-2 reported that Janice told him that the publication would represent a wide spectrum of Asian American interests and was not an AAPA journal.
Aion indeed presented a rich mixture of political analysis, e.g. “The Need for a United Asian American Front” by Alex Hing, Minister of Education of the Red Guard Party; poetry by Lawson Inada, George Leong, Janice Mirikitani and Francis Oka; artwork; and photography by actor/photographer Victor Wong in a simple but beautifully designed chapbook. The informant, who also taught at SF State College, furnished a copy of Aion to the FBI and provided detailed information on all the contributors, artists, and editors of the publication many of whom attended SF State College. (See FBI file, pdf#1, pages 317-327.)
Follow the Leaders – the FBI’s modus operandi
We all know that leaders play an important role as public speakers and key organizers for the activist core of groups. Thus, the FBI wanted to know as much as possible about the movers and shakers in AAPA and associated groups.
Yuji Ichioka is widely acknowledged as a founder of AAPA and for coining the term “Asian American” to replace the much-despised term “oriental,” i.e., we are not rugs or vases. Informant T-1 (Richard Aoki) reported to the FBI that “a Yellow Power” group had been newly formed by a group of Orientals at Berkeley, California, which would be known as the Asian- American Political Alliance. The Source identified the head of this group as Yuji Ichioka, a graduate student of Japanese ethnic descent, studying in the field of Agricultural Economics.” This was hardly breaking news since The Berkeley Barb, an alternative newspaper, announced that the planning meeting to form AAPA on June 2, 1968 would take place at 2005 Hearst St, Berkeley and to contact Yuji Ichioka, telephone number 845-7156.
In the Barb article, Yuji Ichioka declared that AAPA needed to be formed because “all existing organizations in the Asian American community are too committed to the status quo.” “We must redefine our relationship to the Black, Mexican-American and Indian liberation movements,” said Ichioka. The FBI report includes Yuji’s comment about the U.S. “which now shows every evidence of liquidating Black people” and which is “waging the politically and morally insane war in Vietnam.”
The nine-page profile of Yuji Ichioka written on March 28, 1969 consists mainly of informant reports on Yuji’s attendance at public meetings about the Black Panther Party, participation at a Free Huey rally at Oakland’s DeFremery Park, and his articles calling for the repeal of Title II of the McCarran Act which could be “invoked against Black militants and white radicals” and against Chinese Americans if a major war would break out between China and the U.S. Yuji left Berkeley for New York in late 1968 and later settled in Los Angeles where he taught the first courses at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Program. (FBI/AAPA file, pdf #1, pg. 133-141.)
I wish someone would write a book about Yuji and Emma. Many of us young students admired Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee as role models of a hip, politically committed couple. In addition to their politics, they loved jazz and rhythm ‘n blues and good food. I remember staying at their house once and Yuji told me, “You gotta to listen to this!” and Swamp Dogg’s “Total Destruction of Your Mind” came blasting out of the stereo shaking up the house. Many friends will recall Yuji as an serious poker player, street baller, elbows flying hoopster, avid drinker and scholar. Very little mention of Emma Gee appears in the FBI files, but she certainly was a political leader in her own right. She was known for teaching the first course on Asian American women at UC Berkeley and as the editor of Counterpoint – Perspectives on Asian America (UCLA Asian American Studies Center 1976) .
Floyd Huen was noted by T-1 as AAPA’s “second in command.” Numerous pages in the FBI AAPA collection are devoted to Floyd’s appearances at conferences and rallies, especially his participation along with other AAPA leaders at the Hemispheric Conference to End the War in Vietnam held in Montreal on Nov. 28 – Dec. 1, 1968. The conference, which was sponsored by many organizations including the Communist Parties of Canada and the U.S., featured representatives of the National Liberation Front and the government of North Vietnam. The fact that AAPA representatives along with leaders from the Black Panther Party met with “the enemy” alarmed the FBI. Nearly 2,000 people attended the conference including noted Mexican artist David Siqueiros and African American actor/writer Ossie Davis.
Floyd’s family was interviewed by the FBI several times and in those conversations, his parents and siblings reaffirmed Floyd’s belief in non-violence. Informant and fellow activist Richard Aoki concurred with this assessment. Yet, the FBI continued to interview family members over the years. “It got to the point where my father would just tell the FBI, ‘you’re wasting my taxpayer money’ and slam the door on them,” said Floyd.
After many years, the FBI finally had a phone conversation with Floyd during which he was “superficially friendly but uncooperative” and offered “nothing of security value.” The FBI hoped that Floyd would provide information on other AAPA leaders, one of whom had gone to Cuba with the Venceremos Brigade and met activists in the Weathermen.
Shoshana Arai became an activist while she was in high school in Chicago in the early to mid 1960s. She helped start a Chicago high school area Friends SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) chapter and worked with the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) Metropolitan Chicago on tenant organizing that led to a rent strike in 1964. The FBI highlighted records of Shoshana’s arrests in August 1963 at a civil rights demonstration and in June 1965 at a march for better housing for minority groups. By 1968/1969, Shoshana was starting an AAPA chapter at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle. The FBI began questioning her neighbors about her associates and her whereabouts; Shoshana had traveled many times to the SF Bay Area in 1968. The neighbors told Shoshana about the FBI visits, and she told them, “Just make up whatever you want.” When I asked her recently about the surveillance, Shoshana dismissed it: “the FBI and Chicago Task Force shadowy surveillance, at best, afforded them with only a keyhole vision of the world.”
The FBI’s myopic view of the Asian American Movement was often reinforced by the conjecture of the informants. AAPA members worked with the Red Guard Party on a May 4th Movement rally held on May 14, 1969 in Portsmouth Square. The May 4th Movement was an anti-imperialist uprising led by Chinese student to protest Japan’s retention of Shandong as part of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. Informant SF T-3, who was described as “of Youth Work for the Human Rights Commission of San Francisco and Organizer of the Chinatown North Beach Youth Council,” noted “growing concern about the possibility that leaders of the AAPA may have an interest in the development of the Red Guard.” The informant singled out the role of Alex Hing, Minister of Education of the Red Guard Party. T-3 wrote, “Because of the friendship that exists between Alex Hing and some of the leaders of the AAPA, there is a danger that the latter could make use of the Red Guard as the open or surface element of a revolutionary movement.” T-3 added that “he is sure that with the exception of Alex Hing, there are no Red Guard leaders who would have been capable of organizing and sustaining a revolutionary program.” The informant added that “the possibility that with AAPA leadership, the Red Guard could become a possible threat to the peace of San Francisco Chinatown.” Perhaps this conspiratorial view of how a group of college students and Chinatown street kids could wreak havoc in SF Chinatown was merely a ploy to “add value” to this informant’s work, or maybe it was playing to the crowd, which in this case was the paranoid FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. In any case, there is dubious intelligence at work here, not only myopic but wrong. (FBI, pdf #2, pg. 63-73)
Professor Isao Fujimoto, who taught in the Applied Behavior Sciences Dept. at U.C. Davis, was monitored by the FBI both because of his involvement with AAPA-Berkeley – he attended a meeting on Sept. 22, 1968 and spoke on “Asians in the Melting Pot” at the AAPA conference on Jan. 11, 1969 – but also because of his participation in the anti-war movement. The Davis Police Department provided information that Isao and his wife Linda were members of a local anti-war groups the Resistance and Davis Women for Peace.
An FBI source in San Francisco also alerted the Sacramento FBI office that Isao and Linda had registered to attend the National Conference for New Politics in Chicago on Aug. 31 to Sept. 1, 1967. The FBI does not indicate the purpose of the conference, but a quick internet search revealed that this little-remembered conference brought 3,000 people from 350 organizations to discuss a strategy towards the 1968 elections. Participants included Julian Bond and Maria Varela from SNCC, Paul Booth and Tom Hayden from SDS, Fannie Lou Hamer from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Dr. Benjamin Spock of SANE, the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party, Reies Tijerina/La Alianza Federal de Mercedes, members of the Socialist Workers Party and Communist Party USA and others. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke on the opening night of the conference. Unfortunately, the diverse gathering had not built the ties needed for ongoing work and participants left without a coordinated strategy for the 1968 elections. Groups continued local organizing and/or work in progressive electoral campaigns. There’s no mention of an Asian American presence at this conference but these efforts at forging multi-racial unity among radical across diverse movements represented danger in the eyes of the FBI.
As AAPA organizers graduated and left campus, the FBI followed them as they became community organizers. Pam Tau Lee, who had organized an AAPA chapter at California State University, Hayward, became an Asian history and reading teacher at Oakland Technical High School and helped establish the East Bay Asian Legal Services in the summer of 1972. An informant noted Pam’s attendance at a community meeting at the Lincoln Elementary School auditorium and reported that “the speakers usually extoll the virtues of the People’s Republic of China.” An FBI agent interviewed Pam’s supervisor at Oakland Tech for details of her employment. Another informant who was conducting surveillance at the Kearny St. office of I Wor Kuen observed Pam entering the office on July 24, 1972. All of this resulted in the FBI labelling Pam as “potentially dangerous because of background, emotional instability or activity in a group engaged in activities inimical to U.S.” in a December 12, 1973 memo. As you can see, the FBI spent a lot of time and money to track the activities of one activist, who has since been widely acclaimed for her work in the community, labor and environmental movement. (see Environmental Justice is Rooted in the Community)
Alliance Building Among Radicals
The FBI also focused on AAPA’s efforts to coordinate with the Red Guard Party, the Black Panthers, SDS and other organizations. These efforts turned out to be one-off events that have receded into obscurity. However, at the time, they held interesting potential. The summer and fall of 1969 was rife with opportunities for joint work.
Informant T-1 reported on meetings at which the Red Guard and AAPA coordinated plans to participate in the Black Panther Party’s United Front Against Fascism conference in Oakland on July 18-20, 1969. Ten delegates from AAPA-Berkeley, ten from AAPA-SF, and seven from the Red Guard would form the Asian Contingent. Penny Nakatsu of AAPA-SF would be featured on the panel “Role of Women Against Fascism.”
Members of the Asian Contingent also participated in the SDS Regional Conference on Aug. 2-3, 1969 where protest plans for Japan Week and the International Industrial Conference both occurring in September in San Francisco were discussed.
On Sept. 5, 1969, the arrival of the Amatsukaze, a Japanese warship with envoys from the Japanese Imperial Family, provided an opportunity to protest the renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, which would take place days later with Vice-President Spiro Agnew present for the ceremonies. An informant reported on the Aug. 27, 1969 press conference where representatives of the Red Guard announced that they would be leading the demonstration and would be joined by AAPA, the SDS, the Revolutionary Union, the Independent Socialist Club and Los Siete de la Raza, which had been formed in SF’s Mission District to defend seven Latinos who had been arrested and charged with murder of a SF police officer. Protesters cited Japan as the staging area for U.S. bombing of North Vietnam and activists in Japan did not want US military bases based there any longer.
Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Union Square on Sept. 18 while President Nixon addressed the International Industrial Conference, which was organized by the Stanford Research Institute, to advance the goals of corporate America.
SF and New York Chinatown: A Focal Point for the FBI
As mentioned earlier, the U.S. government kept a close watch on Chinatown activists since the 1920s. Anti-imperialists, socialists and social reformers were active both in support of a free China but also for improved working conditions in the U.S. Activism increased in the late 1960s as recent immigrants from Hong Kong and China swelled the population of Chinatown. They faced crowded, decrepit housing, inadequate education, and few job opportunities. For decades, the Chinatown establishment had done little to pressure the City for improvements in housing, health care and job development. It was into this cauldron that a mix of Chinese American liberals, radicals from the streets and campuses, and foreign-born youth forged an alliance to demand change.
Ling-chi Wang, a graduate student at UC Berkeley and AAPA supporter, described what led to the groundbreaking march on August 17, 1968: “On that day, a forum on Chinatown problems, sponsored and organized the Summer Youth Program, an anti-poverty summer program, was held in the basement of Cumberland Chinese Presbyterian Church. For the first time, college students from AAPA Bay Area, Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action (ICSA) at SF State, and other organizations around the Bay Area met to learn about the myriad of problems in Chinatown and discuss what needed to be done about them. With prior planning, the all-day session ended with the students joining forces with a newly formed group, Concerned Chinese for Action and Change (CCAC), made up of young Chinese American professionals led by attorney Gordon J. Lau; together, they embarked on a provocative and noisy march down Grant Ave during the height of Chinatown’s tourist season. The march ended with a mass rally in historic Portsmouth Square in the heart of Chinatown. Speaker after speaker denounced slumlords, sweatshop operators, greedy restaurant owners, the deplorable conditions in Chinatown, racism, and City Hall.” (Mountain Movers – UCLA Asian American Studies Press 2019, pg. 98).
Three FBI informants focused on the AAPA’s participation that day with T-1 listing the AAPA marchers; T-2 citing the many people who wore AAPA’s button “Yellow Peril;” and T-4 commenting on “the almost professional ability in protest activity” of the students. T-4 speculated on AAPA’s communist proclivities: “…some of the AAPA members who participated in the Chinatown march used terms and phrases which were quite derogatory concerning white Americans and American society in general.” He wondered “whether it (AAPA) might have been influenced by some communist movement action, although he has no facts to prove such influence.” It boggles the mind to think that the FBI paid for this level of intelligence gathering.
Perhaps the most vibrant view of this historic march comes from the Chinese section of East-West newspaper. The FBI ordered full translations of the Chinese section after noting that Maurice Chuck, longtime pro-China activist, was the Managing Editor. The FBI added, “Security Index Subject, Mark Lai (SF file 105-1494) has both an English language and a Chinese language article in the issue for 7/31/68. Both articles appear to deal with the same phase of overseas Chinese history in California, but it is requested that the Chinese version be closely scanned for any evidence of pro-Chicom sentiment.” (FBI, pdf. #2, page 184).
Several writers in the Chinese section of East-West newspaper marked the significance of the Aug. 17, 1968 march. “Demonstration is something very common in the United States, but for it to happen in Chinatown is quite unprecedented. No wonder it caused such a stir for a while…The demonstrators were well-behaved, but their voices were rather boisterous. These are the ‘new voices’ of Chinatown. They want to accomplish something; to abolish Chinatown’s ‘Monroe Doctrine;’ and to make the derelict leaders vacate their ‘chairs.’… The young intellectuals were born and brought up here. They have been exposed to the problems of Chinatown with personal experience…They dare to say things that fame and profit seekers dare not say and they are willing to do what do-nothing talkers are not willing to do.” The signs carried by the demonstrators included: “Low salary and extra- long working hours in Chinatown.” “Rice Tubs, we are human beings too!” I have never heard the Chinatown establishment being referred to as tubs, but it certainly is apt in the way that they hoard wealth for themselves.
This march was just the beginning of the social reform movement in SF Chinatown. AAPA leaders transitioned to leading the Asian American Studies Program at UC Berkeley and instituted a Chinatown Project in 1969 that led to a two-nights per week tutorial program where college students worked with Chinatown youth. This vibrant period of organizing and subsequent campaigns for public housing in the 1970s and 1980s in Chinatown are captured in Harry and Josh Chuck’s excellent film “Chinatown Rising.”
In the early 1970s, the Asian Studies Field office, staffed by UC Berkeley students and community volunteers, would spin off a garment workers cooperative, a bookstore, childcare programs, a draft counseling and legal aid service and the screening of films from the People’s Republic of China. In fact, when members of the Asian Community Center staff went to Ottawa, Canada to meet with the China News Agency about obtaining more films, they were photographed surreptitiously, and their names placed in the FBI Security Index.
The FBI files on AAPA mention the intervention of the Chinese Nationalist government, whose operatives offered information to the FBI on the leftists in Chinatown. The Chinese National Ambassador (name withheld) sent a letter to the FBI on May 12, 1970 stating that they planned to infiltrate the “local public bookshop, 840 Kearny St.” The ambassador also noted that an “Information Service for Youth” has been set up at 852-854 Kearny St. for draft counseling and alleged that financial support for AAPA “originates with Chicom Embassy in Cuba.” (FBI, pdf #1, pg. 328). One can file this nugget under “lies by spies,” because AAPA’s main source of income seems to be proceeds from sales of the “Yellow Peril” and AAPA buttons.
In New York, Chinese Nationalist Ambassador Chow Shu-kai met with the FBI on Feb. 4, 1970 to report from his sources that “since Autumn, 1969, (the) AAPA movement has spread to New York City where 30 individuals are active at Columbia University.” He added that “a splinter group of the AAPA has recently formed in New York and has been identified as captioned organization (I Work Kuen) and that they contend that the yellow race is oppressed and should fight for equality.” (FBI, pdf #1, pg. 193-195).
By 1972, I Wor Kuen, which had merged with the SF-based Red Guard Party, moved most of its organization to San Francisco. The FBI initiated tower surveillance (phone tower monitoring) from Feb. 27, 1972 to May 27, 1972 to aid the process of identifying “likely members of IWK.” Five informants contributed information to the ongoing monitoring of IWK’s activities with a particular emphasis on its leaders and its pro-China advocacy. (FBI, pdf #2, pgs. 271-285)
The FBI files on AAPA began to wind up at this point. AAPA had ceased to be a functioning political organization as many people went directly into the Asian American Studies Program and joined revolutionary organizations in the community. The primary informant, Richard Aoki, told the FBI that he wanted to concentrate on getting his Master’s degree in Sociology and furnished little information after April 1970. In September 1977, the FBI contacted Aoki who expressed his desire to discontinue “seeking information for the FBI because he believed that this was inconsistent with his present career and objectives as a student counselor and instructor at a junior college in Oakland, California.”
The FBI and San Francisco Police Department’s Intelligence Division very likely continued to monitor the revolutionary organizations housed at the I-Hotel on Kearny Street. There was certainly a huge amount of left organizing throughout San Francisco in the mid to late 1970s to fight the eviction of elderly Pilipino and Chinese tenants at the I-Hotel.
FBI monitoring of Chinese scientists in San Francisco
On a parallel track with the monitoring of SF Chinatown activists was the FBI’s surveillance of Chinese scientists in the U.S. Many of them were foreign-born but had studied and worked at U.S colleges and universities. After the People’s Republic of China tested a hydrogen bomb in 1967, the U.S. government did not believe that China could have developed the advanced technology needed on its own. The memo stated the following: “We have long suspected that Chicom collection of needed information is accomplished through contacts with ethnic Chinese scientists and technicians in this country.” Mara Hvistendahl, author of The Scientist and the Spy (Riverhead Books, 2021), reported that the FBI monitored 4,000 Chinese scientists in the U.S. over the next several years.
One of those scientists was Professor Chang-lin Tien, who was Chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley from 1974 to 1981. He became Chancellor of U.C. Berkeley in 1990 making him the first Asian American to head a major university. Known to have pro-China sentiments, the FBI began to monitor his travels to Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China. At a meeting with the FBI in 1975, Tien refused the FBI’s request to inform on visiting Chinese scholars to U.C. Berkeley. On May 8, 1970 he was once again asked about a visiting delegation from the People’s Republic of China. The FBI memo states: Professor Tien stated he did not desire to have any contact with the FBI and questioned the FBI’s right to ask questions about PRC scholars, stating they were all legitimate scholars involved in purely academic pursuits. He expressed his belief that the FBI was continuing to harass Chinese academicians like himself just as was done during the 1950s.” (Chang-linTien FBI file, pg. 247-248) .
Tien was one of the people noted at the January 26, 1977 reception in San Francisco for the Han T-ang Murals, which were being exhibited at the Chinese Culture Center on Kearny St. FBI agents followed officials from China from the moment they landed at SF International Airport until the time they went to bed. In typical FBI fashion, the agents focused on naming the pro-China sympathizers at the reception, which besides Tien, included Dr. Rolland Lowe (his name was redacted but the descriptor is “a prominent Chinese physician in San Francisco and former officer of the Chinese Culture Center.”) Several elected officials and SF business leaders also attended the event. Once more, a large amount of taxpayer resources was spent to provide information that could be found in press coverage of a community and cultural event. Tien was never accused of any subversive activities, but the FBI never seemed to stop monitoring him.
Unfortunately, the accusation that Chinese scientists were selling information to China continued with the famous case of Wen Ho Lee, who was imprisoned for nine months until his release on September 13, 2000. The charge of selling nuclear secrets was dropped and the U.S. paid Wen Ho Lee $895,000 for violation of his privacy.
As I look back on the weeks spent poring over these files, I come away with a deeper appreciation of the many hours of hard work activists put in to create programs with lasting impact. The FBI informants focused solely on who was at which meeting and not why they were there in the first place. In addition to having the events described in these FBI memos noted for the historical record and contextualized, we need to tell the full stories of people who gave so much of their time and energy to create the Asian American Movement. Two profiles were posted earlier this year: A Wei Min Sister Speaks: Then and Now and Memories of the I-Hotel and I plan to interview more activists later this year.
As one reads these files, please do not treat what is presented as true. In many cases, the information is wrong and unverified by the historical record. FBI officials also sometimes admit that they were uncertain of certain people’s identities. Perhaps, one day people who were active in the organizations under surveillance will set the record straight on their goals, accomplishments, and shortcomings.
It’s a natural part of human nature to wonder about the informants. Much has already been written about Richard Aoki, so I won’t rehash all of that. Suffice it to say that his experience among activists most likely changed him and made him more reluctant to inform on his comrades. Yet, he continued to do so and was compensated to the tune of $175/month plus expenses at the height of his work. (FBI, Aoki files, pdf #15, pg. 46)
The descriptors provided in the FBI memos have led people to guess the identify of other informants, but until those files are released, one can’t be certain. It came as a bit of a surprise to learn that several social/youth workers in Chinatown and a professor of Asian history at San Fernando Valley College (renamed to California State University at Northridge) would be so willing to report on a social reform movement in which they participated. Rather than infiltrating the movement, these individuals saw themselves as allies but also most likely held deep anti-communist views that led them to cooperate with the FBI. Rather than speculate on their identities, I’ve chosen to focus more on what kinds of information these informants provided and whether or not it was of any value. In most cases, the information was insignificant and not particularly revelatory.
Lastly, I come away from these files with the realization that the FBI could barely keep up with the developments of the Asian American movement in the 1968-1977 period. They failed to realize that leaders are nothing without followers. People were rallying to the cause because of unjust conditions that they could no longer tolerate. Leaders surely galvanized people to act, but these movements succeeded in winning reforms through collective pressure.
There was so much more happening among radical circles and among liberals, i.e., activist groups such as Chinese for Affirmative Action were also forming during this time period and their efforts led to victories in bilingual educational rights. The FBI was looking in the rear-view mirror while the Movement was pushing ahead breaking new ground, winning new allies, and making social change. It is no exaggeration to say that the people’s movement was a big factor in ending the Vietnam War. Rather than subverting society, Asian Americans and other activists from the Black Panther Party to SDS were pushing for a society that is more equitable, more just, and more peaceful than the white supremacist order that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sought to maintain.
Author’s Bio: Eddie Wong is the editor/publisher of East Wind ezine. He has a long history in the Asian American Movement starting with co-editing Roots: An Asian American Reader (UCLA AA Studies Center 1971) to co-founding Visual Communications, the nation’s first Asian American non-profit media production company.