By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Do you remember what you accomplished when you were in your 20s?
If you scratch your head, sigh, and think, “Absolutely nothing,” you are not alone. While some regret many missed opportunities to serve the community, it’s never too late to help others or give back.
The founders and successors of the first Chinese radio program in Washington state can share countless memorable stories that they are proud of from their youth, in the first reunion after more than 40 years. Held at the Alumni Association of the University of Washington (UW) last weekend, about 30 members attended and they couldn’t help but reflect on their good old days.
Inspired by the 1960s movement by students across the nation, a group of UW Chinese students from Hong Kong started the Seattle Chinese Voice (SCV) in 1973. The program was later renamed Chinese Radio Hour. A weekly Chinese radio program, SCV provided information, news, and entertainment to non-English speaking Chinese immigrants. Relying on dedicated volunteers in their 20s, the program aired on KRAB, now a defunct station, and lasted over 11 years, from February 1973 to April 15, 1984. SVC discontinued because KRAB was shut down. (Listen to audio here compiled from former KRAB manager, Chuck Reinsch: tinyurl.com/yd445ek3)
Why it was founded
Although the program no longer exists, the impact on its members and the community were profound and powerful. In those days, listeners, including restaurant and garment factory workers, couldn’t wait for the next program to air.
None of the Chinese foreign students had much money. What they gave was time, energy, ideas, and passion for social justice. Their dedication and commitment were indescribable beyond words.
What motivated Cecilia Fung of Vancouver, B.C., one of the founders, was that she discovered “so many old Chinese people, living alone (in America). Some died without anyone knowing it …
Many met at a garment factory union meeting without knowing what’s going on.” She instantly understood the Chinese community needed help, especially a translation service.
Faye Dow, one of the youngest volunteers at the time, recalled that so many Chinese women like her mother worked full-time, and had no time to learn English. The radio program had filled in a void in these women’s lives.
Dr. Eugene Lai, also a founder and now neurologist in Houston, said the radio program was a wake-up call for young people. “What can we do to help?” And young people can make a difference in their community. It’s an opportunity for us “to learn about our native land, China, and also about ourselves through volunteering,” he said.
How it inspired
“It was an invaluable experience [working together and having intellectual stimulation],” said Yvonne Tso, a member of the first news anchor team and now health care consultant in California. “My interest in politics might have started at that time.”
Dr. Bill Lau, one of the volunteers, recalled it inspired him to get involved in his later career as a scientist at NASA. Now, he is involved with the March for Science. SVC has inspired him to change the system and advocate for social justice. Now, he is supporting a scientist to run for office in Arizona.
May Lee of California, another volunteer, was proud to be a part of the group. The experience enriched many volunteers “to start their nonprofit organizations later in life with the power to better the community,” she said. A food science major, she was happy that she was able to share her knowledge to educate the Chinese community about shellfish poisoning.
Dr. David Chow, one of the news writers and founders and now a philanthropist, said he had wished for a reunion when he left the SVC decades ago to live in New York. Last week, he was excited that his wish came true. Chuck Reinsch, a former KRAB manager, said SVC’s presence changed the radio station. Instead of being just monolingual, it was transformed into a multilingual and multicultural station. The transformation aligned with the founder’s vision of creating a “community radio station.”
Lily Woo, who was in charge of the drama segments, said, she had made great friends. But the best prize was marrying a fellow volunteer, King Lee. Yes, romances did flourish then.
“We might not have been able to achieve our goals at the time,” said Fung. “But when we got involved, it changed our lives.”
It was definitely life-changing for me. I was one of the volunteers, responsible for writing and producing dramas and acting in some of the characters. I am the only “descendant” from the group, to continue on in the media world. I founded the Seattle Chinese Post and Northwest Asian Weekly. My media organization continues to inform and empower the community through relevant news and information. SVC was and still is my inspiration — a gift for the past 35 years.
Label as “communist”
The Chinese Information and Service Center (CISC) was founded in 1972 and helped Chinese immigrants fill out forms and translated for them at doctor appointments, for example. Many who volunteered for CISC also volunteered for SCV. Funny how it worked in those days. Liana Fong who founded CISC, and her boyfriend David Chow, one of the founders of SCV, were married later.
It was unthinkable for old timers that these young people did everything for free. Their suspicions turned to labeling volunteers as “leftist,” “communist,” and even trouble rousers. In today’s terms, the volunteers were actually community activists, said Dr. Roger Leung, another founder.
Or community organizers.
The only difference is that they got no funding, as opposed to many current community organizations that now receive funding from the government, corporations, and foundations.
The labeling never scared the students away, as some supported China’s claim in the controversial fight for the Diaoyu Islands between Japan and China. The old timers changed their perception only when they received direct service from CISC. In the meantime, some young local immigrant students joined these two groups, which fostered credibility to both organizations. And the rumors began to diminish.
Today, Chinatown community organizations are mostly pro-China instead of pro-Taiwan. Yes, the students were not only pioneers, they were visionaries. And not just about U.S.-China relations, but in so many areas.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.