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."