By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
This month, 75 years after the end of World War II, U.S. Congress awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal to the Chinese American veterans of World War II in recognition of their patriotism, loyalty, and courage during a time when our nation denied citizenship to Chinese immigrants. The medal was presented on Dec. 9 by the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, in a virtual ceremony.
This award puts the veterans in a direct line with George Washington, who was the first recipient.
As many as 20,000 Chinese Americans, including 40% without citizenship, served in World War II. Today, there are only somewhere between 300-550 still living, according to the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA), which spearheaded and led a decade-long campaign that culminated in the bill.
The bill, enacted into law on Dec. 20, 2018, was bipartisan legislation introduced by Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Thad Cochran (R-MS), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), and Congressmembers Ed Royce (R-CA) and Ted Lieu (D-CA).
“Without this ceremony, many people may not be aware that Chinese Americans had served,” said Ming-Ming Tung-Edelman, the founder of the Seattle chapter of CACA.
For others, it had personal significance.
“My father, Captain Moon Chen, served during World War II and inspired me to follow in his footsteps,” said Major General William S. Chen, U.S. Army Ret. “Chinese Americans served across the U.S. Armed Forces—Army, Army Air Forces, Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and Merchant Marine. The award of the congressional gold medal completes the story arc for the Chinese American World War II veterans and paves the way for future generations to serve. They are a source of inspiration and motivation for our younger generations.”
The ceremony also encouraged and educated family members to look through their veteran parents’ documents and increase their understanding of their stories, said Tung-Edelman.
Response from veterans
Even so, veterans in the Seattle area slated to be awarded gold medals sloughed off suggestions of facing overt discrimination.
They recounted instances that were anecdotal, both before and after the war, when scholars say discrimination surged mostly heavily.
Gene Moy, 103, arrived from Guangdong at the age of 13 in Lewiston, Idaho and skipped grades after starting sc
hool, as he accelerated his English language learning. To him, the racism seemed subtle.
“When I went to get a haircut, I’d have to wait until after the shop was closed. That’s all,” he said.
Lip Mar, 93, who was born in Seattle, opened a Chinese restaurant in Idaho after the war. There, he met and fell in love with one of the waitresses. But she was white. And it was illegal for them to marry.
So the couple moved to Seattle, where the marriage was legal.
Still, at least part of these veterans’ sangfroid, looking back at any discrimination they faced, came from what they described as confidence born of serving in the military.
“Being in the army gave a little more confidence—you feel more like an American,” said Moy. “You were out spending your time defending your country, and you should get some credit for it.”
During the war, both insisted that they were treated fairly.
Moy was made a mess sergeant and, after first cooking for soldiers in basic training for two years, island-hopped to oversee the cooking for those fighting in the Pacific Theater. He met his first real girlfriend while he was stationed in the Philippines. But he was shortly shipped out to join the occupation of Japan.
For his part, Mar signed up to be a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy.
As such, he treated sailors coming back from battle with severe injuries. His first assignment was in the burn ward, in a naval hospital in Oakland, Calif., where he would peel off the dressings of scalded men and treat them with ointment.
However, he was soon transferred to the tuberculosis ward, where he contracted the disease and ended up being hospitalized with it for three years.
“We didn’t do anything, we just lay in bed,” he said.
Scholars say Chinese Americans encountered much less discrimination in the military.
“Although many Chinese Americans in the military experienced some degree of discrimination, mostly off-color remarks, the majority of the veterans assigned to mixed units claim that they did not encounter overt discrimination,” wrote Scott Wong, a professor at Williams College, in his book, “Americans First: Chinese Americans and the Second World War.”
It was a major departure from decades of anti-Chinese racism.
The Chinese Exclusion Act
CACA launched a campaign several years ago to have lessons about the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was passed in 1882 and suspended Chinese immigration, incorporated into the Washington state high school curriculum.
In 1886, bands of armed vigilantes, led by the mayor of Tacoma, burned down Chinese homes and forced Chinese immigrants onto trains. The riots spread to Seattle.
In her book, “Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans,” Jean Pfaelzer recounts that some Chinese, threatened by increasing violence, bought Winchester rifles in bulk to defend themselves.
Between the turn of the century and the war, economic hardship coupled with bigotry forced many Chinese Americans to return to China seeking jobs, according to “American Exodus Second-Generation Chinese Americans in China, 1901–1949,” by Charlotte Brooks, a history professor at Baruch College.
In the end, though, most of them returned to the United States, having failed to find a foothold in China. “The Nationalists didn’t really accept them as fully Chinese,” she said in an interview.
The advent of the war with Japan forced a change in American attitudes toward Chinese Americans. For instance, Life Magazine came out with pictures claiming to allow readers to distinguish between Chinese and Japanese.
Still, some Chinese American organizations were unwilling to participate in racist narratives that distinguished them from Japanese, as Wong describes in “Americans First.”
On the other hand, many were forced to carry cards or buttons that signaled they were not Japanese, Wong recounts.
The three main factors that contributed to a lessening of racism against Chinese Americans in the mid-1940s, he writes, were the strategic need for China as an ally that forced policy makers to distinguish Japanese from Chinese, the celebratory tour of America by Madame Chiang Kai-shek, and the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943.
Moy and Mar said they did not experience any discrimination in the military.
“They all sort of evened it out in the army,” said Moy.
But after the war, discrimination continued in many areas, such as housing practices. Still, U.S. foreign policy at least brought discussion of some discriminatory practices against Chinese Americans into the national media, according to a paper by Brooks, “Sing Sheng vs. Southwood,” published in the Pacific Historical Review.
A case in California, in which a neighborhood voted not to permit a Chinese American family to settle there, was brought to national attention after leaders such as former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt said that such discrimination could be used as negative propaganda against the United States. As the States fought the Korean War, Roosevelt and others worried that communist regimes would use such cases to convince Koreans and other Asians that the United States did not live up to its democratic and pluralistic ideals at home, according to Brooks’ paper.
Unlike other ethnic groups, however, some Chinese Americans were allowed into the mainstream economy after the war.
Moy worked at Boeing for 28 years and then went into the restaurant business. Mar went to drafting school and found work at the Northern Pacific Railroad. Later, he also opened a restaurant.
For Mar, his restaurant served as a community, until recently. Located in Edmonds, other business owners, such as the owner of the bait shop, would regularly come in. They became friends. And eventually they began regularly going down to Palm Springs together for golfing.
While both men achieved prosperity with large extended families, the echo of the early years still rings in their voices.
Sitting in the atrium of his house, which he built with his brother in 1955, remembering the war, Mar seemed unfazed by the recent celebration of his service.
“To me, that was life, you just did what you had to do,” he said.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.