"We Gave Workers a Sense of Dignity": An Interview with Ah Quon McElrath, Union Social Worker
Yung, Judy, Chinese America: History and Perspectives
Interviewer's Note: It was 1982 and I was in Honolulu, Hawai'i, conducting research for a traveling exhibit and book on the history of Chinese American women. People at the Hawai'i Chinese History Center had said to be sure to interview Ah Quon McElrath, an outspoken labor organizer from way back. I found myself in a restaurant face to face with this 67-year-old Chinese woman who, although retired, still held a passionate interest in the plight of the working class. You could hear it in her voice, in her choice of words, and in the stories she told non-stop, with an occasional outbreak of laughter as she reflected on her past.
Compared to other Chinese women I had interviewed in Hawai'i, Ah Quon McElrath was unusual, from her given name to her choice of profession and her political activities. Ah Quon was born in Honolulu in 1915. Her parents were immigrants from Zhongshan county in Guangdong province. One of my first questions to her was how she got the name Ah Quon. She replied that it was a diminutive of her Chinese name, Leong Yuk Quon, and that she was too embarrassed to tell me what Christian name actually appears on her birth certificate. She took the surname McElrath after her marriage to union official Robert McElrath in 1941. Ah Quon was the sixth child in a family of seven children. She grew up in poverty but managed to graduate from the University of Hawai'i and become a social worker. While her peers chose "respectable" professions such as teaching, law, and medicine, she chose to go into labor organizing, first among longshoremen in Hawai'i and then among African Americans in Alabama during the Civil Rights era.
Much of my ninety-minute interview with her delved into her political views on race, class, and gender discrimination and explored how a Chinese woman like her got involved in labor organizing. Ah Quon was straightforward in her responses, but analytical at the same time and never condescending. A born storyteller and a woman of strong political convictions, she seemed to enjoy reminiscing about the past and presenting the larger picture of things to me. I have removed most of my questions except where needed to understand the flow of the conversation. I have also rearranged parts of her interview for a smoother read, but the words, manner of speech, and ideas remain very much hers.
"WE ALL WORKED ATA VERY TENDER AGE."
I was born in 1915, in Honolulu, in a little spot called Iwilei, which was the official red-light district. And we had a house in an area that was very near the beach, filled with kiawe trees, and it was very convenient. My father was a part-time carpenter, hack driver, egg producer, gambler, alcohol maker, call it what you will. He was all of those things. And, I suspect because it was cheap, we lived there for quite a number of years. See, my father died when I was about five, and so we had to make it on our own after he died. My mother never really worked at any job at all. She had bound feet and barely spoke English. So we were a truly bilingual family as we were growing up.
Typical of all the immigrant women, she cooked, washed clothes, tended the chickens, did a bit of sewing for us. She'd make Chinese clothes for the girls. I remember going to school in pantaloons and the jackets that had the frog [buttons] on the sides. And one of the really charming stories I remember is that she used to make underclothes of sugar and rice bags, so that one side of your buttock would read "Honolulu," and the other one would read "Plantation" (laughter). You could never wash off that ink (laughter).
There were seven [children]. I think two died at birth. And the story I like to tell about the place in the family as concerned my brother and me is that we were the sixth and the seventh child. Mother had me when she was forty-two and forty-four when she had my brother. So we said that, for all intents and purposes, we should have been idiots (laughter). …