10. Chinese Americans – The Battle to Defeat Imperialism Abroad and Racism and Home – Victories at Last
At the turn of the 20th century, China had been “carved up like a melon” into “spheres of influence” by England, France, Germany, Russia, and Japan. Chinese reform and revolution leaders knew that the first priority for the Chinese people had to be the defeat of these imperialist powers. They looked to Chinese Americans, with their access to western military technology, as a vanguard for the building of a modern Chinese armed force.
The Cantonese reformers, Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, both came to America seeking the support of Chinese Americans. Kang founded the Baohuanghui or Chinese Empire Reform Association in 1899. He visited a score of American cities, at each one forming branches of the Baohuanghui. By the time Liang arrived in the United States in 1903, there were fifty local chapters. San Francisco was the national headquarters. Kang was chosen as president and Liang as vice-president. The Baohuanghui quickly developed into the most powerful Chinese political group in America.
In 1903, the Western Military Academy was formed by the Los Angeles branch of the Baohuanhui. It was commanded by General Homer Lea, a European American who volunteered his services. He was later appointed by Sun Yat-sen to be Commander in Chief of the Revolutionary Army in China. Lea recruited as his drill sergeant, Captain Ansel O’Bannion, who was responsible for training the troops. The Academy’s mission was to train the Chinese Imperial Reform Army to defeat the Manchu forces in China. The academy headquarters was located at 416 Marchessault Steet in Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown. They trained and held maneuvers in Eagle Rock, a section of Los Angeles near Pasadena.
Starting with Los Angeles, branches of the Western Military Academy were soon formed in more than 21 cities, including St. Louis, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Fresno. Over one thousand young Chinese American men volunteered.
Sun Yat-sen was also active in seeking the assistance of Chinese Americans to help strengthen China. Among his recruits was Tom Gunn, a pioneer aviator, often called the “Wright of China”, who was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1890. In 1910, Gunn represented China at the International Aviation Meet in Los Angeles. When the revolution broke in China, Sun Yat-sen invited Gunn to China to set up a national Chinese air force.
Sun Yat-sen had visited the Delta area in California on several occasions in the early part of the twentieth century. He recruited a number of young Chinese men that later became active in the Kuomintang. Chancy Chew, of Courtland, was one of them. In the 1920s Chew became an agent for Sun in charge of buying aircraft and training pilots and mechanics to be part of a national air force in China. Chew acquired several planes that were surplus equipment left over from WWI and set aside the back section of a ranch in Courtland for a base camp. Chinese American volunteers from the delta, Portland, Seattle, and Honolulu signed up as volunteers. After months of hard work, the pilots and mechanics had been trained. On the eve of the day when the planes were to be sent to China, a fire broke out in the barn where they were stored and all the planes were destroyed. But all was not lost. Many of the volunteers later went to China on their own or joined the American armed forces to fight the Japanese.
Chinese Americans not only volunteered to help China directly, they also joined the American armed forces to help win the war for democracy. During WWII, Chinese Americans enlisted in the armed forces at close to double the percentage rate of the population as a whole. Like many Americans they served in every branch of service in every theater of war including Europe, the South Pacific, the North Atlantic, and the China Burma India Theater. Most of the Chinese American servicemen served in integrated units. But two units, the Fourteenth Air Service Squadron and the 987th Signal Company of the Fourteenth Air Force (the Flying Tigers) were all Chinese Americans and served in China.
When China and America became allies in WWII, a hundred year dream of Chinese Americans become true. For years, the Chinese in America hoped that their ancestral homeland and their adopted would unite in a common cause. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the United States and China joined together to defeat Facism in Asia. This alliance set the stage to help battle racism against the Chinese in America.
In 1943, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, China’s first lady, visited the United States to strengthen ties between the two wartime allies. She spoke to a joint session of Congress and met with President Roosevelt. She was greeted by thousands of Chinese Americans during her tour of America. Madame Chiang, as well as the Chinese American communities, received a very favorable press. For the first time, European Americans saw a new Chinese America. Instead of the stereotypes of gamblers and opium dens, pictures of Chinese Americans looking very much like European Americans were in the nation’s newspapers and magazines. Several months after Madame Chiang’s visit to America, the Chinese Exclusion Act repealed. For the first time in our nation’s history, the Chinese could become citizens of the United States.
With the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the racist, had been beaten. America’s true destiny, a country open to everyone had been reaffirmed.