Voices of the Second Wave: Chinese Americans in Seattle

Doug Chin July 20, 2011 1

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“Voices of the Second Wave: Chinese Americans in Seattle” is a collection of 35 interviews of Chinese immigrants of the “lost generation” who settled or lived in the Seattle area. This “second wave” refers to Mandarin-speaking Chinese who came to America between 1934 and 1968, many as college students to escape the Japanese invasion or to flee the mainland with their families to Hong Kong or Taiwan to escape the Communist takeover of China. They are also referred to as the “lost generation” because most could not return to mainland China. (The first wave of Chinese immigrants, of course, were those Cantonese-speaking Chinese, mostly from Toishan, who came to America in the 1800s.)


Dori Jones Yang, a former correspondent for Business Week in Hong Kong, compiled the profiles (i.e. interviews). She now lives in the Seattle area with her husband, who is one of those interviewed. The book was commissioned by Maria L. Koh, who funded the interviews and transcriptions. She is also one of those profiled in the book.


The general story-line of most of the persons profiled in the book is that (1) most attended the best high schools or colleges in China, Taiwan or Hong Kong; (2) most attended leading colleges in the U.S. and received graduate degrees typically in Engineering or the Sciences; and (3) all had outstanding careers in the private sector (many with Boeing) as well as the public sector, particularly the colleges and universities in Seattle. For sure, the book has a home feel because all those profiled worked and live or lived in the Seattle area.


The interviews in Voices of the Second Wave are informative because in telling their life stories, those profiled talked about their struggles and the challenges they faced. Unlike the early Chinese immigrants – who were mostly poor, unskilled, and uneducated laborers from the rural areas- those profiled in this book are immigrants of the complete opposite. These are Mandarin-speaking, intelligent, cultured, well-educated and talented Chinese immigrants mostly from the urban areas. They are clearly among China’s best; perhaps even the best of the brightest. It was fascinating to learn how the best Chinese immigrants faced obstacles like the language barrier, racial and cultural differences, and discrimination. It was interesting to discover that some feel that there is a “glass ceiling” or that they should have risen to a higher-level in their respective company, while others never felt any racial discrimination. Some also talked about their self, cultural and national identity. Still others made suggestions on what cultural changes Chinese needed to make – like being more assertive- to get ahead.


Some of the more familiar persons profiled include Bellevue City Council member Conrad Lee; former Seattle Community College President Peter Ku; writer Lensey Namioka; CEO and developer Paul Bao-Ho Liao; architect and community activist Dennis Su; professor Isabella Yen; and Boeing engineer and community leader Winnie Lee. While all the interviews were revealing, I found some particularly interesting: the interviews of Hua Lin (who become “chief scientist of Boeing Aerospace” and had an interesting relationship with her daughter), Tim Wang (who got his BA from Stanford University in two years and became a leading aerodynamic at Boeing), and Yih-Ho Michael Pao (who started and ran three high-tech companies).


Voices of the Second Wave was apparently written to tell about the Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrants, in this case the members of the “lost generation” in the Seattle area. But while the profiles or interviews in this book are interesting and revealing, the book has its drawbacks. Indeed, those profiled may be among “the best of the brightest” of the “lost generation” and, therefore, probably not representive of the entire group of Mandarin-speaking Chinese who came here in the 1940s through the 1960s.


Moreover, the profiles provide anecdotal information rather than a qualitative analytical study that takes into consideration the relationship among the events and factors regarding the Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrants. Jones, for instance, provides a brief description of the historical background and circumstances in China in which the those profiled left that country, but does not mention anything about the historical situation of Chinese in the United States at the time they immigrated here. Yet, we know that when China and the U.S. became allies in a war against Japan, the attitude of Americans became favorable and economic opportunities for Chinese here began to open up. We also know that the civil rights movement in America in the 1950s and 1960s further employment opportunities for people of color. But, while those interviewed mentioned the greater availability of job opportunities in America, neither those profiled nor Jones referred to these events in America as factors in their successful careers.


The book’s title – its reference to the “Second Wave” (the “lost generation”)- could also be slightly misleading. Most students of Chinese America consider the second mass immigration of Chinese as the period since the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which has allowed up to 20,000 from each country to enter the U.S. annually and has resulted in the largest wave of Chinese immigrants to this country since the 1800s. Moreover, there were nearly 60,000 Chinese who immigrated to America from the 1940s to the mid-1960s compared to the number of the “lost generation,” which historians estimate to be around 5000. But, this issue is inconsequential.


Indeed, we should applaud the publication of “Voices of the Second Wave” because it begins to give us an understanding and an acknowledgement of Mandarin-speaking Chinese Americans. For this, the book deserves a lot of credit because the ever-increasing Mandarin-speaking immigrant population has become a substantial proportion of the Chinese in the Seattle area and the United States. Without question, more needs to be told of their experience and growing role in Chinese America.

One Comment »

  1. Skennethpai July 21, 2011 at 4:14 am -

    Well said and all fair, from the perspective of a member of an earlier wave (or, non-Mandarin-speaking community). This group of “best and brightests” have little in common with those in the Chinese community, and contribute little. The traditional way of life and values are challenged. The new people exert greater impact on America due to their high profile (and later with greater economic power). For better or for worse, the Seattle Chinese community is forever changed with their arrival.
    Compiler/Author Yang, who spent long years in Singapore Hong Kong, where traditional Chinese customs are deeply entrenched, and in China where she had access to people in all walks of life, must have sensed there is a pitfall in attempting to take on this assignment with is akin to painting a epical mural on a small canvas with tiny brushes.
    The introduction provided a much needed backdrop to pull the diverse “actors” together to tell one story with individual voices, the story of a sad and dark period in modern China on the one side. A promising
    The individuals profiled all spoke for themselves. There is no room for postpartum narrative or stylistic embellishment. Yet, most seem about to jump out of the page and be heard.