The word “bittersweet” comes to Maria L. Koh when discussing her recent gift to UW Libraries Special Collections — oral histories of the “second wave” of Chinese immigrants to the United States. And quiet tears may follow.
“Bitter” because it represents a painful time in Koh and her familys life and what she calls a “lost generation” of Chinese immigrants who left family behind, often for life, to come to America. But then also sweet, because “I finally felt my journey was kind of blessed.”
Koh, now retired after 38 years working at the UW, has donated the transcripts and tapes of interviews conducted with 35 Chinese Americans — many, like herself, with UW connections — who immigrated to the U.S. between 1934 and 1968. The interviews were conducted by writer Dori Jones Yang, commissioned by Koh to compiled them into a book. That fascinating volume, “Voices of the Second Wave: Chinese Americans in Seattle,” was published in May 2011.
UW notables among the interviews are Paul Liao, who earned his doctorate at the UW and headed KCM Engineering as CEO for many years; Shi-Han Chen, a pioneer in pediatric genetics; Kuei-Sheng Chang, retired professor of geography; Winnie Y. Lee, who worked more than 30 years at the UW as a medical technologist; and Conrad Lee, now the mayor of Bellevue, who earned his masters degree in business administration at the UW.¬
“We didnt have many choices, the choices were made for us,” Conrad Lee said in his interview. “When we came here it was on a one-way ticket. Anything was better than the alternative: going back to where you came from, which was chaos and war.”
The first wave of immigrants from China came here in the mid to late 19th century “for survival,” Koh said, but also “to find a pot of gold.” Instead, many ended up working on the railroads and suffered brutal prejudice and mistreatment even as they helped create Americas powerful rail infrastructure.
“I shouldnt use the word ‘slave, but after they did their necessary work, they were chased off and buried,” Koh said. And this remains a subject of future research work for her. Their lives were made even harder by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which prohibited Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens and suspended immigration from China.
Koh, who came to the U.S. in 1951, was part of the second wave. These were people from all parts of China who came in the 1940s through 1960s, fleeing the imperial Japanese invasion of the mainland during World War II, and later, Chinas own Communist leadership.
“We were not refugees per se, yet we were not immigrants because we came on student visas,” Koh said. “A lot of the students were naïve, you know, because they wanted to have their education and a sense of responsibility.”
Much less has been written about the second wave than the first, said author Yang. Those in the second wave tended to have more education and found professional careers in the U.S. “In most cases they came as adults and had to learn English. Most had relatives and friends left behind in China that they were not allowed to go back and see for decades.”
Speaking of Koh, Yang said, “She called it a lost generation partly because most Americans aren’t aware that there was a whole second wave of Chinese immigrants — Mandarin speakers — who came to the U.S. as students and had a very different experience from the first wave.”
Conrad Lee described the second wave this way: “This group of Chinese was lost between two historic wars, which tore apart families, destroyed identities, removed them from their birthplaces and stripped them of their homes, country and citizenship.”
Koh came to Seattle in 1960 and retired from the UW in 1998 after 38 years of work as a nutritionist for UW Medical Center. (“Thats one thing about immigrants,” she joked. “We dont change jobs!”) Koh and her husband have been strong supporters of education at the UW, donating to several departments over the years. She also co-founded the Seattle Chinese Womens Club and the Seattle Chinese School in the early 1960s, and has remained a key figure in Seattles Mandarin-speaking Chinese immigrant community.
Though it doesnt look like much — a box with transcripts and recorded interviews on two CDs — this donation to UW Libraries will provide research materials for students in generations to come.
John Findlay, professor and associate chair of the UW Department of History, said that though Seattle became increasingly diverse in the 20th century, many parts of its population remain under-represented in historical archives. “These interviews fill an important gap in our story by allowing researchers to hear the voices of a significant group of immigrants.”
The tapes and transcripts provide a vivid slice of Chinese immigrant life in the U.S. during the 20th century and make a meaningful gift for UW Libraries, said Blynne Olivieri, Pacific Northwest curator for Special Collections.
“Through their voices, you hear the challenges and delights in having a career, raising and caring for a family, and being an active part of the community. We are honored to hold this collection, which adds to the rich history of the Pacific Northwest.”
Here is a list of those included in “Voices of the Second Wave” who have a UW connection:
Retired faculty: Kuei-sheng Chang, geography; Shi-Han Chen, pediatrics; Isabella Yen, Chinese language.
UW graduates: Winnie Lee, B.S. in physics; Paul Liao, doctorate, environmental engineering; Hsiung-Fei Lee, masters, electrical engineering; Lillian Lin, masters, library science; Betty Tonglao, masters, library science; Conrad Lee, masters of business administration; Winnie Y. Lee, masters in medical technology.
Others: Maria L. Koh, Lensey Namioka, Isaac Namioka, Margaret Yang.
- Dori Jones Yang contributed
background material for this article.