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Feature

Parades, Pickets, and Protests

Chinese Americans on the Home Front

By K. Scott Wong | HUMANITIES, July/August 2007 | Volume 28, Number 4

For China itself and for Chinese Americans, the Second World War was not confined to the years 1941-1945, but began when Japan made its first incursions into Manchuria and Inner Mongolia. In September 1931 the Japanese attacked the Manchurian city of Mukden, and by the end of the year they were in complete control of Manchuria. News of the dire situation in China filled Chinese American publications.

By 1937 Japanese aggression in China was unbridled, as epitomized by the brutal Rape of Nanjing. In fact, in most Chinese histories of the war, the period 1931-1945 is referred to as the War of Resistance (and Japanese often call it the Fifteen-Year War, or at times the Great East Asian War), because for most of the period the rest of the world was not involved in the Sino-Japanese conflict.

Many Chinese Americans felt doubly assaulted, abandoned by the international community in the struggle against Japan and victimized by racial discrimination in America. The war in China was a constant concern, especially for those who had families in China; the bleak economic and social prospects for the second generation were a persistent worry; and even within Chinatowns themselves, a safe haven was being threatened by competition from Japanese Americans and outside interests. The Japanese American author Monica Sone wrote that Japanese Americans in Seattle were treated coolly by local Chinese Americans, especially after the Japanese stepped up their military aggression in China: “People stopped patronizing Japanese shops. The Chinese who were employed by Japanese resigned their jobs one after another. I dreaded going through Chinatown. The Chinese shopkeepers, gossiping and sunning themselves in front of their stores, invariably stopped their chatter to give me pointed, icicled glares.”

The Chinese in America responded to Japanese aggression with great speed. Soon after the Mukden Incident, the Chinese-language newspaper Chung Sai Yat Po advocated that China declare war on Japan. In addition, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) wired both the Nationalist and Communist factions in China, calling on them to join forces to defeat the Japanese. Organizations with names like Anti-Japanese Association, National Salvation Association, and National Salvation Fund Savings Society were formed in Chinatowns across the country. Throughout the early and mid-1930s, as the Japanese army continued to attack parts of China, Chinese Americans raised money to send to China, and frequently urged other Americans to support their cause. Demonstrating a new sense of political enfranchisement, they petitioned the American government and the League of Nations to intervene in the conflict in China.

In July 1937, the Japanese launched a major offensive. To coordinate relief activities, the CCBA called a meeting of more than a hundred representatives from the various community organizations; from this was founded the Chinese War Relief Association (CWRA), of which B. S. Fong, president of the CCBA, was elected chairman. Within a week, $30,000 was raised in San Francisco alone. The largest individual contribution ($15,000) came from Joe Shoong, head of the National Dollar stores. His employees numbering several hundred, reportedly pledged a month's salary as their contribution. In San Diego, Fresno, Tucson, Phoenix, and New York, other Chinese American communities also formed conjoint organizations to raise money. By this time many non-Chinese Americans were alarmed by Japanese aggression in China and showed support for China's predicament.

In November 1937, the CWRA launched a second fundraising campaign with a parade through San Francisco Chinatown. Three hundred campaign volunteers and an equal number of students marched with banners and placards reading “Voluntary Giving to Save the Nation,” “Military Resistance to the End,” and “Racial Freedom and Liberty Forever.v This last slogan implies that Chinese Americans linked China's grievance and victimization with their own situation. A similar development had taken place in New York with the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance (CHLA). The historian Renqiu Yu points out that the CHLA's wartime motto, “To save China, to save ourselves,” linked its patriotic support for China to its struggle against exploitation and discrimination in the United States. Chinese Americans, like other racial minorities, came to view the Allied championing of democracy in the Second World War as intimately tied to the struggle for civil rights on the home front.

The Chinese in New York took the lead in public demonstrations in support of China. On May 9, 1938, some twelve thousand Chinese Americans, from Newark and Jersey City and as far away as Baltimore, Boston, Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Washington, D.C., marched three-and-a-half miles from Mott Street in Chinatown through Lower Manhattan. Sponsored by the CCBA, this parade, perhaps the largest showing of Chinese Americans ever, was held on the twenty-third anniversary of Japan's Twenty-One Demands on China. In 1915, Japan had made a series of demands in an imperialistic grab for control over China's internal affairs.

Although the Chinese president, Yuan Shikai, accepted these terms, the Chinese people protested and there was an upsurge of Chinese nationalism. Thereafter, the Twenty-One Demands became a symbol of China's humiliation and the need for resistance against the great powers.

In China, it had long been commemorated as a “day of humiliation,” but the parade in New York was organized as a “Solidarity Day,” demonstrating that Chinese Americans from different backgrounds could come together publicly for a common cause. In Manhattan alone, it was reported, fifteen hundred Chinese laundries, restaurants, and shops closed until five o'clock so that everyone could attend the event. At the head of the parade, CCBA officials marched in front of a banner reading “China Defends!” An immense portrait of Chiang Kai-shek followed, flanked by marchers waving placards declaring “War in China—Made in Japan!” Above the parade flew six airplanes piloted by Chinese who had trained at Roosevelt Field in the hope they could soon return to China to aid in the fight against Japan. The marchers were divided into ten divisions of a thousand people each. There were floats, dragon dances, banners, bands (playing both Chinese and American music), and thousands of flags.

Of pioneering significance was one group of a hundred Chinese girls in fashionable Chinese dresses (the cheongsam) carrying a 45-by-75-foot Nationalist Chinese flag. The New York Times reported: “Though no appeal was made for funds, the spectators began showering coins—pennies to half dollars, and even dollar bills—onto the flag. About $300 was collected.” This feature of the parade appears to have been the prototype for other fundraising parades that would take place in Chinese American communities over the next few years. Sometimes the same flag used in New York, the largest Chinese Nationalist flag in the country, was flown to other cities for their parades. According to newspaper accounts, the flag became so heavy with money that each parade had to be stopped three times for the flag to be emptied.

Later, Rice Bowl parades and parties were some of the most popular and effective venues for raising money and strengthening support for China's efforts against Japan. The Chinese Digest reported that the first Rice Bowl parties were held simultaneously in cities across the country on June 17, 1938. This event was organized by the United Council for Civilian Relief in China, of which Colonel Theodore Roosevelt Jr., was national chairman, working with the CWRA. That day was set aside as “Humanity Day.” In San Francisco the party started with a parade down Grant Avenue and continued with cultural entertainment that lasted into the late evening. More than two hundred thousand people lined the streets of Chinatown to enjoy fashion shows, dancing, Chinese and Western music, theatrical entertainment, a mock air raid, and a dragon dance. Everyone who entered Chinatown was encouraged to buy and wear a “Humanity button” that sold for fifty cents or else risk being tried by a “kangaroo court” of voluntary judges and fined up to a hundred dollars. Throughout Chinatown, locals in Chinese clothes and mock beggars, and children riding on floats, held out alms bowls and asked for donations to fill the “the rice bowls of China”: hence the name “Rice Bowl parties.” On that one day, San Francisco Chinatown collected $55,000. This event was so successful that a second one was held for three days in 1940 (raising $87,000) and a third for four days in 1941 (raising $93,000).

Chinese Americans also boycotted Japanese goods and picketed the docks where ships bound for Japan were moored. Because silk was one of Japan's leading exports, a call went out to stop wearing silk stockings. In January 1938, the Chinese Digest printe photographs of Chinese American women wearing cotton hose with the caption “Be in style, wear lisle.” Another photograph, published in early 1939, showed two Chinese American sisters, Catherine and Partricia Joe, posed with one aiming a gun at the other for wanting to wear silk stockings. Chinese characters meaning “to resist” or “to boycott” appeared in the background of the photo; the caption below read: “You will, will you?” Realizing that using silk only aided Japan—and later, after the United States entered the war, that silk and nylon were needed for parachutes, medical supplies, and other wartime necessities—the Chinese American community wholeheartedly joined this boycott. Indeed, the boycott was effective enough to reduce Japan's exports of silk by three-fifths from 1936 to 1938.

Even more significant was the picketing of ships that were to carry scrap iron and other materials to Japan. In late 1938 and early 1939, Chinese Americans joined with other Americans in demonstrating at the docks in San Francisco, Long Beach, Portland, and Seattle in order to publicize the fact that much of Japan's war material was coming from the United States. In December 1938, the SS Spyros, a Greek freighter chartered by the Mitsui Company of Japan, docked at San Francisco to load 8,500 tons of scrap iron for transport to Japan. The United Chinese Societies called for volunteers to go to the docks to protest. On December 16, two hundred Chinese American volunteers went to Pier 45 and were joined by three hundred sympathetic volunteers of various ethnicities: Greeks, Jews, and others. Speeches were made and picket lines formed. When the longshoremen broke for lunch, the crowd began to chant: “Longshoremen, be with us! Longshoremen, be with us!” After the lunch break, only a few returned to work. The Chinese Digest reporter Lim P. Lee wrote:

The majority of them honored the Chinese picket lines, and the few that worked were so ashamed that they dropped their hooks and joined their comrades. Victory! Victory! The call was shouted through Chinatown and the pickets began to arrive in trucks, in streetcars, in automobiles. The radio and the press flashed the news to the nation: —Chinese pickets tied up scrap iron to Japan and American longshoremen refused to load implements of destruction.

By the time the news was flashed back to Chinatown, pigs were being roasted for the nourishment of the Chinese pickets and American sympathizers. Soda pops, coffee, hot tea, sandwiches, oranges, Chinese buns were streaming toward the waterfront to feed the pickets and the longshoremen. Chinese came in from Stockton and Valley towns; they marched in from Palo Alto and Peninsula cities; and thousands poured in from the Bay Area till the climax of the picketing numbered 5,000 strong and more!

With support growing, the picketers held their ground for four days. On December 19, the Waterfront Employers' Association gave the protesters an ultimatum: They were to remove the picket line and the longshoremen were to return to work; if they refused, not only trade with Japan but also the entire shipping business of San Francisco and the West Coast would be tied up. The various parties discussed their options. The full membership of the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU) “voted not to pass the picket lines even if there were only one Chinese on picket duty.” They instructed their union leaders to negotiate with the Chinese for an amicable solution, but told them “not to let the Chinese down.”

A new round of emergency meetings was called and the United Chinese Societies met with ILWU officials who told them that the CIO Council had passed a resolution “to instruct the secretary to call all labor, fraternal, civic, and religious organizations for a Coast-wide conference to study and promote the embargo on all materials to Japan.” On December 20, the Societies claimed victory and withdrew their picket lines. They had succeeded in calling attention to the issue of supplying Japan's war machine, and they had gained the support and cooperation of other Americans. Fong spoke for the Chinese American community, expressing heartfelt thanks to the longshoremen for honoring their picket line. The demonstrators then marched in a mile-long parade past the longshoremen's headquarters and through downtown San Francisco back to Chinatown, where a mass meeting was held. They marched singing “Yiyong Jun Jinxing Qu” (“The March of the Volunteers”), China's song of resistance. Soon organized labor and other organizations, including the CWRA, helped lobby for an embargo of arms sales to Japan.

The Rice Bowl parties and parades, the boycotts, and the protest against the SS Spyros galvanized the men and women of Chinese America. These activities decreased the isolation of Chinese Americans, bringing them into close contact with their compatriots of other ethnicities who rallied against Japanese military aggression. As Chinese Americans became more visible in the public eye during the period leading up to U.S. involvement in the war, the negative images of China and the Chinese began to erode. Once the United States officially entered the war against the Axis powers, Americans of various ethnic backgrounds would fight side by side on the battlefield, and Chinese Americans would begin a new era of interaction with the nation's mainstream society.

About the Author

K. Scott Wong is chairman of American Studies and a professor of history at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts. He received $31,600 in NEH research funding to study Chinese Americans.

Funding Information

Reprinted by permission of the publisher from Americans First: Chinese Americans and the Second World War by K. Scott Wong, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press. © 2005 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.