By Helen Floersh
To Ronald Benson Wong, the story of how his family came to call the Richmond District home is proof that, for at least some Chinese American immigrants, the “American Dream” was indeed attainable.
Wong was one of a couple dozen locals who came out on April 24 to the “Chinese in the Richmond” open house at the Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP) headquarters at 1617 Balboa St.
He told the story about how his great-grandfather first immigrated to the United States from China during the Gold Rush, serving as a cook on the railroad. His grandfather and his father both owned restaurants, saving up enough money to buy homes and, in his father’s case, get into real estate.
Three generations and lots of hard work later, Wong – who grew up in a house near Second Avenue and Arguello Boulevard after his family moved from Chinatown in 1962 – is now retired. He and his wife, Irene S.H. Wong, own their home in the neighborhood as well, where they raised their children.
“It shows how an immigrant can come here and live the ‘American Dream,’” Wong said. “America is wonderful.”
The event was part of a historical documentation project WNP is conducting in collaboration with the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA). The groups seek to fill a knowledge gap in the history of Richmond residents of Chinese descent by encouraging them to share their stories and physical mementos, which will be photographed or scanned to be used for research purposes and displayed this winter as part of a larger exhibit.
“We feel like history is always in the making, but you have to collect it, you have to write it, you have to present it,” Palma You, gallery coordinator for CHSA, explained.
The “Chinese in the Richmond” initiative, first launched in 2019, is a companion to the CHSA’s “Chinese in the Sunset” project. Together with the Sunset project, the family photos, school garments, awards, business documents and first-person stories brought in by the Richmond’s Chinese residents, will help weave together the narrative of how the west side’s vibrant Chinese community came to be.
While the Sunset District was the first neighborhood to be documented as part of the project, it is the Richmond that was the initial home of Chinese residents as they migrated westward in the City in the mid-1900s. They were seeking bigger homes and more space. One reason for this was redlining – systemic segregation between neighborhoods – which carved out the Inner Richmond as an area where banks would be willing to lend to minority residents so they could buy homes.
“In the Inner Richmond … they would sell to minorities,” You explained. “So Chinese Americans took advantage of that happening.”
The second reason boiled down to simple logistics. The Richmond was closer to Chinatown.
“The Sunset seemed like it was so far away that it was another country almost,” You said. “The Inner Richmond was closer, so that’s where Chinese residents went first, in general.”
In addition to encouraging Chinese residents to contribute to the project, the open house also gave locals the chance to learn from the organization’s “Chinese in the Sunset” project through colorful banners displayed along the sidewalk in front of the WNP headquarters. The banners, with historical photos and detailed descriptions, told the history of the Chinese population in the neighborhood. Putting history on display helps forge bonds between the Chinese community and residents of other cultures by illuminating the contributions of the local Chinese population.
Event-goer Fei Tsen said the project helps Chinese residents put their own history into perspective.
“It gives validation to your community,” Tsen said. “You don’t realize it at the time, but to see it so documented, you see it in relation to what else was evolving in the City, and you realize that you’re part of a community. You may not feel it when you’re living there – you’re just a family – but then when you see this historically, it’s great.”
You added that, in a time when attention is finally being drawn to racism against Asian Americans, it is especially important that community members have a chance to tell their own stories.
“Chinese American history written by others eliminates a lot of things,” she explained. “It doesn’t tell the whole story, or it tells an incorrect story. So, by telling our own story, we’re telling the true story.”
You observed that there is a stereotype that Chinese Americans are monolithic. Projects like “Chinese in the Richmond” and “Chinese in the Sunset” give the public an understanding of diversity within the community.
“By presenting these stories of complex people, we hope to convey that Chinese Americans are like any other immigrants to this country from day one,” You said. “Chinese Americans are like anyone else here.”
For more information, go to the Western Neighborhoods Project website, www.OutsideLands.org.