Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Oral History of Thomas Wai Sun Wu, DDS

Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Oral History of Thomas Wai Sun Wu, DDS

Article excerpt

I took the oral history of my father, Thomas Wai Sun Wu, over the course of several days in July 1994 at my parents' home in San Francisco. My father was born in San Francisco in 1915, so at the time of the oral history he was seventy-nine years old. I questioned him about his immediate family, particularly his father, Rev. Daniel Gee Ching Wu (Ng Gee Ching), and mother, Won King Yoak, who helped to found two Chinese-oriented Episcopalian churches--one in San Francisco and the other in Oakland; what Chinatown was like in the early to mid-1900s; the musical bands in which he was a major player; the relationships between the Chinese and other racial-ethnic groups in San Francisco; his education as a dentist; his public life as a leader in Chinatown and San Francisco; and eventually, his participation in state and national organizations. The oral history that follows concentrates less on family and more on Chinatown and his public life. My mother, Helen Hoh Wu, was present during most of the taping of the oral history.


When you were a young boy, what area did Chinatown encompass?

The Chinese were concentrated near Sacramento and Grant [Avenues]. No Chinese could cross California Street. And that's only one block from Sacramento. No Chinese could cross Broadway And most Chinese just went as far as Pacific, and not even the block between Pacific and Broadway.

When you say "no Chinese could cross," does that mean that there were barriers set up or that it was dangerous?

It's dangerous because Caucasians always beat up Chinese; Chinese people got beaten up for no reason. The [Caucasian] people just hated to see Chinese.

Was it dangerous for you to go to school? Or did you go to school just in Chinatown?

I went to school in Chinatown--Commodore Stockton School, at that time called Oriental School. And the Chinese people couldn't go anyplace else, not even Spring Valley or any other schools. We had to go to Oriental School, which is Commodore Stockton now.

Was that Oriental School located right in Chinatown?

Yes, on Washington Street above Stockton.

Did you have all Chinese teachers at that school?

No, no. We never had Chinese schoolteachers.

Let's talk about your elementary school experience at the Oriental School. You said you had all Caucasian teachers. Did they allow you to speak Chinese?

Whether they allowed us or not, we all spoke Chinese in school. We never spoke English in school.

The classes, though, were conducted in English?

In English.

What did they teach you? Was it mainly about America or did you learn something about China, too?

No, it's all America.

How did the teachers treat the students at that school?

Not bad. The principal, Mrs. O'Neill, liked Chinese very much and she even helped my father to teach in church.

So you went up to sixth grade at that school?

Yeah, but I didn't go to Oriental School at that time until the second grade. [First] I went to the Presbyterian church school to start learning English. Then starting in second grade, I went to the Oriental School.

I see. So the Presbyterian school was a private school?

A private school from the Chinese church on Stockton Street.

Why did your parents send you to that school first, before sending you to the Oriental School?

They were afraid that I might not be treated well at the Oriental School. At that time it was very hard for Chinese people to be anywhere because Caucasians or non-Chinese didn't care for Chinese people.

So did you spend all your time growing up in Chinatown, or were there times when you left Chinatown?

No, all the time in Chinatown.

[The discussion continues about individual family members--his mother, Won King Yoak, and his three sisters, Mary, Lilla, and Elizabeth. …

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