Written by William Gow
Watch Cheermerlyn Phuong’s video on the Mei Wah Drum Corp
The decades of the 1930s and 1940s witnessed a demographic shift in the Chinese American community. Between 1900 and 1940 the percentage of Chinese Americans born in the United States grew from 10% to 51%.1 For the first time, cities like Los Angeles had a sizable native-born Chinese American population. Unlike many of their parents who tended to see themselves first and foremost as Chinese, many of the young people who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s began to define themselves not as immigrants but as Chinese Americans, developing a youth culture that was uniquely their own.
Most of the young people who came of age during this period in Los Angeles attended high schools like Belmont, Lincoln or Polytechnic, racially diverse schools that provided opportunities for young Chinese Americans to interact and befriend classmates from a wide range of ethnic and racial backgrounds. At school, Chinese American students joined after school clubs and sports with children of other racial backgrounds allowing them to interact with a wide variety of people in a way that had been impossible for earlier generations of Chinese Americans.
Outside of school, they participated in activities and groups quite distinct from the activities and groups that their parents joined. Young Chinese Americans founded sports teams, such as the Guardsmen and the Wah Kue and marching bands, like the Mei Wah Drum Corp. They spent timetuning up their cars at places like the CFO gas station. They began to attend Christian churches, like the Chinese Presbyterian Church. They attended Chinese school in the evenings and on weekends to help assuage their parents’ worries that they didn’t know enough of the Chinese language. All of these activities were quite different from the district and family associations that members of their parents’ generation joined.
As these Chinese Americans came of age, they served in the US armed forces and helped on the home front in the Second World War. Fighting for the country of their birth, many returned from the war with a strengthened sense of themselves as Americans. While they were certainly not immune from the racism that their parents’ generation had faced, for many Chinese Americans service in World War II helped further solidify a sense of belonging to the country of their birth. In short, the decades of the 1930s and 1940s saw the development of a Chinese American youth culture and social network quite distinct from that developed by earlier generations of Chinese Americans. The essays and video clips in this section explore the various youth activities that Chinese Americans in Los Angeles participated in during this pivotal period in time.
1 According to the US census, in 1900 there were 9,010 native-born Chinese Americans out of a total population of 89,863. In 1940, there were 40,262 native-born Chinese Americans out of a total population of 77, 504. Between 1900 and 1940, the percentage of Native-born Chinse Americans increased from 10% to 51.9%. See Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 303.