News

Couple recalls 'amazing' growth of Palo Alto's once-fledgling Chinese community

Eugene and Nadine Wu amazed by 'unimaginable' change that's taken place within their lifetimes

Eugene and Nadine Wu moved to Palo Alto in the 1950s. Eugene helped form the Chinese collection at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and later managed Harvard University's East Asian studies collection. Photo taken May 22 by Veronica Weber.

In 1950s Palo Alto, a cup of coffee cost a nickel, an apartment in College Terrace rented for $75 a month and the Chinese community represented a tiny minority of the population: Only 167 residents, or 0.7% of Palo Alto's residents, were Chinese, according to the 1950 U.S. Census.

This is the Palo Alto Eugene and Nadine Wu remember while living in the community as newlyweds. Eugene worked at Stanford University and Nadine at the Palo Alto Medical Clinic.

"There was almost no Chinese community. There was no Chinese grocery story. Even buying a bottle of soy sauce was difficult — you had to go to San Francisco to buy those things," said Eugene, who will turn 97 on July 12. He and Nadine celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary last month.

Today, mainstream Palo Alto grocery stores routinely stock Asian food products, and a house that in the 1950s sold for $13,000 is now valued at $3.4 million. The population of Chinese accounts for 17.5% of the city, according the U.S. Census' 2017 estimate.

The Wus recently sat down in their Menlo Park home with the Weekly to reflect on the transformation of this minority population, an "unimaginable" change that's taken place within their lifetimes.

They recalled their early days in Palo Alto when they served as unofficial ambassadors of the fledgling Chinese community. "We did a lot of things in those days because there was no Chinese consulate," Nadine said.

Eugene was sometimes called upon to receive visitors from Taiwan or Hong Kong who came to Stanford University, and Nadine was invited to Chinatown in San Francisco to celebrate events, such as Chinese National Day, she recalled.

Born in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China's Sichuan Province, Eugene came to the United States in 1945 as one of 100 interpreters enlisted to help train Chinese Air Force cadets to fight against the Japanese in World War II. Eugene had learned English as a young boy in Chengdu — memorizing the Gettysburg Address in high school — studied foreign languages in college and joined the Chinese Army as an interpreter. After the Japanese surrendered, he was able to stay in the United States to attend the University of Washington, where he met Nadine.

He came to Palo Alto in 1951 fresh out of library school after he was hired to help organize the newly acquired Chinese collection at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, which documented China's political, economic and social developments starting with the 1911 revolution.

Eugene recalled that there were only two Chinese faculty members at Stanford at that time.

While Nadine Wu worked as a lab technician at the old Palo Alto Medical Clinic, Eugene — always formally dressed in pressed shirt and tie — toiled in the basement of Hoover Tower. "We used to boast that we were the ones holding up the tower," he said.

His job was organizing and cataloging box loads of materials, many of them manuscripts written by leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. "Everything had to be done by hand," Wu said.

The English in the card catalog could be typewritten, but the Chinese had to be written by hand, he explained.

Living in Palo Alto wasn't always easy for the Chinese couple.

The Wus said they faced racial discrimination when looking for an apartment in Palo Alto.

"We'd look in the Palo Alto Times and find vacancies, but when we went and knocked on the door and they saw our faces, they'd say, 'Sorry, the place has been rented,'" Eugene said.

Nadine said they eventually found a close-knit neighborhood where their son and daughter — born in 1957 and 1960 — spent their early childhood years.

"Our neighbors were wonderful — we were all young mothers,"Nadine said about living on Louis Road. "It was very safe. You could unlock your door, go to the neighbor's house and nothing happened."

The Wus felt so secure that they let their 5-year-old son walk unaccompanied to his piano teacher's house.

In the early 1960s, the Wus moved to Massachusetts, where they spent 33 years while Eugene directed the Harvard-Yenching Library, a major center for East Asian research. When they returned to the Palo Alto area for retirement in the late 1990s, they were astonished by the growth and dynamism of the local Chinese community. "We joined a Chinese church, and it has eight branches all over the Bay Area," Nadine said. The main branch — located in Menlo Park and serving a mix of people from mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Southeast Asia and even some U.S.-born Chinese — holds multiple services every Sunday.

"It's amazing how the makeup of the Chinese community changed over time," Eugene said.

Before World War II, the Chinese community consisted of mainly Cantonese immigrants who ran restaurants and laundries. After World War II, the influx of new immigrants, mostly non-Cantonese, were academics and computer technicians, he said.

"After 1980, mainland Chinese students came to study, and it's amazing to see how many remained here and became professors at universities, medical doctors, engineers," Eugene said. "This was just unimaginable before."

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Comments

13 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 6, 2019 at 9:36 am

The newspaper put quotes around "amazing" in the headline because they wanted to stir up controversy over an increasing non-white population in Palo Alto. Realistically, white Palo Alto continues to ignore its non-white population. There are no Asian supermarkets in Palo Alto and the mainstream supermarkets don't stock any fresh Chinese fruits or vegetables other than bok choy.


13 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 6, 2019 at 10:49 am

Posted by resident, a resident of Downtown North

>> There are no Asian supermarkets in Palo Alto and the mainstream supermarkets don't stock any fresh Chinese fruits or vegetables other than bok choy.

There aren't any -super-markets of any type in Palo Alto, so, why would there be an Asian one? Unlike some, I have no problem with that. Markets in Palo Alto are small-to-medium. Whole Foods has quite a variety, but, it costs too much for me. Trader Joe's has its particular assortment. Safeway is, well, Safeway. etc. Hence, large shopping runs are to Mountain View, where there are medium to large supermarkets of many varieties. "Asian"? How about "99 Ranch Market, 1350 Grant Rd, Mountain View, CA 94040. (650) 966-8899."

The powers that be have decided that building more and more office space in Palo Alto is much important than grocery stores. So, everybody goes to Mtn. View for that big weekly shopping experience. So what? Maybe you can convince Stanford to build some big supermarkets in the Research Park. (But, I doubt it.)


12 people like this
Posted by Max Hauser
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 6, 2019 at 6:19 pm

Max Hauser is a registered user.

Mr. Wu also owns a bit of immortality in the cooking world.

Some background: Starting in the late 1960s, Chinese cooking became both better appreciated and more diverse in the US. The regional cooking of Sichuan was downright fashionable in the 1970s, mentions of it surfaced in pop culture. Contributing to all that were recent, authentic English-language Sichuanese cookbooks. The collaboration by Chiang Jung-Feng with Ellen and John Schrecker ("Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook," 1976) says the following about ma po dou fu (ma po tofu), one of Sichuan's best-known dishes:

"Eugene Wu, the librarian of the Harvard-Yenching Library, grew up in Chengtu and claims that as a schoolboy he used to eat Pock-Marked Ma's Bean Curd, or mapo doufu, at a restaurant run by the original Pock-Marked Ma herself. You ordered by weight, so many grams of bean curd and so many grams of meat, and your serving would be weighed out and cooked as you watched. It arrived at the table fresh, fragrant, and so spicy-hot, or _la,_ that it actually caused sweat to break out. . ." (Mr. Wu is said to've endorsed the book's recipe.)


4 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 6, 2019 at 10:20 pm

Interesting people!


9 people like this
Posted by i am a chinese
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jul 7, 2019 at 12:16 am

we the Chinese want to live in harmony with all other communities - blacks, whites, browns, pinks and grays.


6 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2019 at 9:20 am

Given the percentage of Asians in Palo Alto, it amazes me that Chinese New Year isn't a school holiday.


2 people like this
Posted by Xiao Ping
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 7, 2019 at 9:29 am

More Chinese will be coming to Palo Alto. It is a very attractive and affordable living environment despite the overall congestion. Financing not a problem.

Current 40% Palo Alto Asian demographics is a growing number as overseas Chinese RE agents are arranging many property transfers for relocation to SF Bay Area.

Palo Alto & Los Altos are preferred midpeninsula communities...also Menlo Park and Mountain View.

Close proximity to schools and shopping very important.


6 people like this
Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 8, 2019 at 12:42 pm

eileen is a registered user.

>>>Before World War II, the Chinese community consisted of mainly Cantonese immigrants who ran restaurants and laundries. After World War II, the influx of new immigrants, mostly non-Cantonese, were academics and computer technicians, he said.

"After 1980, mainland Chinese students came to study, and it's amazing to see how many remained here and became professors at universities, medical doctors, engineers," Eugene said. "This was just unimaginable before."

This statement sounds a little bit of a put down toward Cantonese speaking immigrants, who mainly come from Hong Kong. (which is now fighting for their FREEDOM from the mainland) I'm sure the Wu's did not mean to imply that only Mandarin speaking Chinese coming to this country, are educated doctors, engineers, professors, or students.


6 people like this
Posted by Trygve
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 8, 2019 at 5:35 pm

Chinese New Year should NOT be a school holiday, as it does not apply to the vast majority of residents.


4 people like this
Posted by Native
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 10, 2019 at 12:00 am

Since Xiao Ping says financing is not a problem, should be no problem to have a large tax on home purchases by foreign nationals and another large tax on ghost houses, like Vancouver has:

Web Link


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