Breaking barriers for 50 years

Venerable Stanford Area Chinese Club legacy continues through Hua Kuang Chinese Reading Room

Even as new groups of immigrants are working to help recent arrivals acculturate to life in America, a local 50-year-old Chinese residents' organization is bowing out.

The Stanford Area Chinese Club was founded in 1965 with a goal of bringing education about Chinese culture to Palo Alto. The club sponsored the Palo Alto Chinese Language School, which taught Cantonese in Palo Alto Unified School District classrooms and grew from a dozen students to more than 1,000 throughout the Peninsula, members said.

Stanford Area Chinese Club was the first Asian-American club for both men and women in Palo Alto, and it inspired other organizations, such as the nonprofit Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACI), which offers social, health and housing services and advocacy throughout Santa Clara County.

"We have been influential in educating the community at large and instilling a multicultural consciousness long before that term came into being," longtime member Al Chin said recently.

But now, the group members are old, and they are passing the torch to the younger generation, they said.

The group made its last civic contribution to the city on Feb. 25. Gathered near a wisteria arbor at Mitchell Park, nearly 20 members dedicated a bench as their last act together.

"A park bench is community; it reflects community," Chin said.

In many ways, club members faced a much more hostile Palo Alto when they were young than current Chinese-heritage residents, they said. They faced discrimination in housing: In the 1960s, they could not buy a home north of Oregon Expressway, Chin said. There were covenants attached to the deeds of some homes that prevented the sale of that home to anyone of Chinese descent.

Although Chin was born in the U.S., he said that he and many others born before 1970 lived in the shadow of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 -- one of the most restrictive immigration laws in American history. It banned Chinese laborers from legally immigrating and was not repealed until 1943, when it was replaced by the Magnuson Act. That act allowed some Chinese immigrants to be naturalized -- the first time since the Naturalization Act of 1790 that any Asians could become naturalized citizens.

But Magnuson was less than magnanimous. Chin remembered the difficulty he had bringing his wife, a resident of Canada, into the U.S. because of the restrictions. It limited Chinese immigration to an annual quota of 105 new-entry visas -- fewer than any other ethnic group -- and it prevented property ownership by ethnic Chinese.

Until the Magnuson Act was repealed in 1965, many states had full or partial restrictions on property ownership by Chinese Americans, such as the covenants in north Palo Alto.

Thus marginalized, and being just 1.1 percent of Palo Alto's population at the time, according to the Association of Bay Area Governments, the Stanford Area Chinese Club was born. The organization was a trailblazer in sponsoring annual Chinese cultural fairs between 1970 and 1979 that were co-sponsored by the Palo Alto Unified School District and were incorporated into its multicultural education program, Chin said. The proceeds sponsored overseas-study programs, cultural grants and scholarships for young people.

The club also founded the Palo Alto Area Chinese Youth Club to help meet the younger generation's social, cultural and recreational needs and a Far East Studies program, which sent youth for two weeks of study in Taiwan. The organization also published a book for its 20th anniversary, "Profiles in Excellence: Peninsula Chinese Americans," which is still in print.

Connie Young Yu, a fifth-generation Chinese American who attended school in Palo Alto and authored the book, said the youth club enabled her to connect with her Chinese roots.

"It was, for me personally, an exciting time and an opportunity to be an activist. It was a time of such social upheaval," she said of the Vietnam War and the 1960s and '70s. "It was the first time when there was the concept of Asian-American ethnic studies."

The influence of Asians in the U.S. has even extended to interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, she said. One federal case, Yick Wo vs. Hopkins, set a precedent in 1886 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that if a law that is race-neutral on its face is administered in a prejudicial manner, that is an infringement of the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment, Yu noted.

One contribution of the Stanford Area Chinese Club lives on through the Hua Kuang Chinese Reading Room at Cubberley Community Center. Founded in 1981, the reading room is a repository for Chinese culture, history and traditions and is open to the public. Founders Ernest and Grace Hung donated thousands of books from their private collection so that people could read materials in Chinese, Hua Kuang President Kelly Tsai said.

Over time, it has grown in its functions: Hua Kuang serves as a research library with more than 15,000 books, magazines and newspapers and Chinese-language videotapes; a resource for finding job listings; and a place to meet new friends. It also houses a collection of books about Chinese culture in English.

Past President Jeanie Fong started citizenship classes which, along with English language sessions, are under Tsai's tutelage today. The classes have helped many students pass their oral citizenship exams, Tsai said.

Language classes are especially helpful for seniors who have come to the U.S. to help raise grandchildren but who have little social interaction with Americans, said Mike Fong, a reading room founder.

"Many have been here for 20 years but don't speak English. This kind of tutoring is really valuable," he said.

The library also offers calligraphy, flower arranging, knitting and Chinese painting classes. Hua Kuang will take part in Cubberley Community Day on Saturday, March 19, hosting a dance performance and table displays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

More information about Hua Kuang Chinese Reading Room is available at

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Pushing for integration in Palo Alto

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