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Interview with: Edward Chen
Interviewed by: David Goldstein
Date: April 17, 2008
DG: Today is April 17. We are in the home of Edward Chen, who we are interviewing for the Houston Oral History Project. My name is David Goldstein. Mr. Chen, how are you today?
EC: Just fine.
DG: Mr. Chen, let's begin at the beginning. Tell me your story and I guess, in your case, you would like to go back a little farther and tell me where your parents and grandparents came from.
EC: Right. My grandfather actually came to the United States in 1880. It was just when they were beginning to exclude laborers but he actually joined a company that was supplying groceries and food for the people who used to work on the railroads. And then, he went back to China and he got married a second time because his first wife had passed away, and he came to the United States in 1908 with his new wife. Actually, she was pregnant with my father at that time. So, he was actually born in San Francisco before the earthquake, so that we really know that he was, in fact, an American Chinese rather than a person who had merely claimed American citizenship by birth because, at that time, of course, that was the only way that you could become an American citizen. Now, my mother came to the United States much, much later because her father came to the United States through Salinas, California to San Antonio, Texas, and he opened a grocery story in San Antonio but he also went back and got my grandmother, although he had married my grandmother in China and had brought his son and her to the United States in about 1920 or so. But my mother was not able to come to the United States because he claimed that instead of having a daughter born in China, he had a son, because at that time, one way that you could come to the United States would be to come as what they called a paper son. So, he sold her papers to come to the United States because she could come as the child of a merchant. So, later on, he had to buy papers for my mother and she came when she was about 13 or 14 years old to live in San Antonio.
So, my parents . . . my father was born in California. They moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and then he moved to New York to become an editor of a Chinese newspaper. It was kind of an interesting story, again, back with Immigration as to why he had to go to New York and that was that he was a young man who spoke both Chinese and English, as did my grandfather in fact, but they got him to translate for people coming in through Angel Island and he translated everything exactly in the way in which it should be translated. And, in fact, the people were rejected. Well, because of the rejection of their admission to the United States, there was a contract placed on his life. Now, they made an agreement that if he would leave the California area and go to New York or go somewhere else and, in fact, take on a different name, and that is when he took on the name Edward instead of Peter which was his given name . . . well, he went to New York. He went to Columbia University and he also worked on a Chinese newspaper. At that time, the only way that they could do typesetting was to actually go out and pick out the characters out of a big stack and set them. So, he learned how to speak Chinese very well, and what happened was the Consulate of the Republic of China was established in Galveston, Texas in 1932 and they wanted people who were on both sides of the political spectrum. And, at that time, it turned out my father was on what was called the left side of the spectrum, and they got another person who was also a newspaper person to come who was on the right side and they established the Vice Council of the Republic of China in Galveston in 1932. Well, he went to San Antonio on some of his business affairs and he met his wife, my mother. It was an arranged marriage. Basically, my grandfather on my mother's side got to the point where they thought, well, she was getting to be an old maid so they needed to have her get married. And so, they, in fact, did get married. They were married in San Antonio, Texas and then came to Houston in about 1934. My sister was born here in Houston, Texas in St. Joseph's Hospital, 1935. And then, I was born in Houston, Texas in 1937 at St. Joseph's Hospital.
DG: Why did they come to Houston?
EC: Well, my father, of course, was working for the government and they established the consulate in Galveston. And then, they decided, well, Houston is a better place rather than Galveston. I guess they were worried about hurricanes or something like that. So, they decided to move the consulate to Houston. They first started it in the Second National Bank Building downtown an then they bought a place on Richmond Road, 714 Richmond Road, and that was the Consulate for the Republic of China from that particular time which was about 1935 up until much later when they moved to newer locations here in town. So, that was the reason why my . . . actually, my mother and father established one of the very first families of the Chinese families here in Houston. There were some others who were in the grocery business but they were the people who were accepted in the larger society. Because of the fact he was working for the government, he would be invited to all of the different things in the city - the mayor and all of that - and because he was the one who spoke better English than the vice-council who was Mr. Wong, he would also speak at these particular events and would be the spokesman for the Republic of China in Texas. And so, he represented the Republic of China in a lot of different events. One of them turned out to be a trial in Oklahoma where there was a Chinese student there who had gotten shot by a Caucasian co-ed and she was charged with attempted murder. Well, back in 1880, Roy Bean had declared that there was no law in Texas against killing a Chinaman so at least in Oklahoma at that particular time, because she was convicted, in fact, for attempted murder although she got a very light sentence - something like about 30 days in jail - but she still was convicted. And so now, there was, in fact, a law in Texas against killing a person of Chinese ancestry. So, that was one of his events that he did that actually made an impact as far as legal things. Of course, Roy Bean's declaration really was not put into the law books. I think he had a great big book that he said that he thumbed through and found his legal precedents for that particular item where the Chinese railroad person was actually killed by, in that particular case, an Irish person.
So, another case that my father had was the Alien Land Bill because here in Texas, they passed a bill saying that aliens who were not eligible for citizenship, and Chinese were among those particular aliens because of the Chinese Exclusion Acts which were passed in 1883 and extended to 1943 in perpetuity . . . perpetuity was only like 60 years, as you can see . . . but anyway, they tried to pass a law saying that Chinese could not own land in the urban areas and, in fact, he testified in the Senate and they got the bill killed in the Senate hearing so that it didn't even get to the floor of the Texas Senate because he and a woman named Rose Wu from San Antonio went up and testified and both of these people were American citizens because they were born here in the United States. So, the Chinese in Houston actually went through ups and downs.
In the 1900s, there were as many as 50 Chinese but then when the Chinese Exclusion Acts were passed in perpetuity in 1903, although the first one was passed in 1883, then the Chinese population dropped down to about 10. Well, in about 1930, a number of Chinese came back with General Pershing and helped to build Ellington Field, in fact, and so the population was up to about 50. By the time I was born in 1937, there were probably fewer than 100 Chinese people living here in the city of Houston. So, I have seen the particular things grow and develop quite a lot. And, of course, I don't remember too much about that when I was about 2 or 3 years old but I do have a newspaper clipping which shows me in front of the Rice Hotel and they have a sign up there where they were trying to raise money to fight the Japanese invasion of China, and I am playing with that with a rice bowl, they called it Rice for China, and I was playing up there. I guess I was about 6 months old in that picture. In our family, that is a joke, that I always go around and mess into everything and have my hand in the rice bowl mixing up everything like that. So, there were only about 100 or so Chinese in Houston at that particular time.
A lot of the people came to Houston because in the south, there were laws against Chinese going to the Caucasian schools because they were considered to be not white, and they would have to go to the black schools in Arkansas, Mississippi. In fact, one of my uncles married a woman who actually her father took the case all the way to Supreme Court. That was Gong Lim (sp?) versus Rice, and that is not Rice University, that is the Rice school board at that particular time. But that was really the first case where the Supreme Court ruled that it was, in fact, legal to have separate but equal schools. It was not for the blacks. It was for people of color at that particular time including the Chinese. So, a lot of the Chinese moved from that part of the south to Houston because in the case of Houston, we were considered to be equivalent to the whites, in fact. One of my uncles, who was, in fact, the first graduate of Rice University, told the story about when he went to be admitted, at that time, it was called Rice Institute - he asked what should he write on the application form? The dean told him, "You write white," because, in fact, Rice University was founded for whites, in fact, white Texans and, of course, by now, all of those particular things have changed. He actually got admitted on a basketball scholarship, so you might say he was the first Yao Ming. The only thing, he was about 5 feet 8, and his name was the same as the detective, Charlie Chan. So, he was the first Rice graduate. And then, his brother happened to be the second Rice graduate who was of Chinese ancestry. That was George Chan and he later served in the Navy. So, I have the distinction of having 2 uncles and then my father who were among the first graduates of Rice, the first 2 graduates. I have an aunt who attended but didn't graduate. Her name was Jane G. And then, my father was the first Chinese then to go to University of Houston. He went to the University of Houston when it was Houston Junior College. In fact, he got an Associate of Arts degree at Houston Junior College and so, therefore, he was the first American Chinese to be graduated from the University of Houston. He later on got a master's degree and a bachelor's degree and ultimately came to the point where he was a college professor there. He taught languages because after the Mainland of China fell to the Communists, he had to have a job and so they hired him to teach Spanish and French and different languages, and that was because he was doing that in order to be able to be a better diplomat. But before that, it was interesting because he became a representative of the Republic of China and in doing so, he had to give up his American citizenship. Because he was born in the United States, he was automatically an American citizen. Because he became an official diplomat for the Republic of China, he had to give up his American citizenship, which he did. Prior to 1947, he was just an employee, a secretary to the Vice Council but, at that time, he was promoted to the position of Chancellor and so he actually did give up his American citizenship and become a Chinese citizen, because the Chinese constitution says that all you have to do to become a Chinese citizen is to be of Chinese ancestry. Well, of course, then the Communists took over and then he was able to become a naturalized citizen. So, he is one of probably the very few people who was both a native born citizen and also a naturalized citizen.
DG: Let's talk about you for just a minute. What are your earliest memories of Houston?
EC: My earliest memories -- like I say, I can't remember about the time that I was there in front of the Rice Hotel but I do remember going to Chinese New Year's celebrations at what was called the Oriental (??) Merchant's Association. They would always have a party and a dinner. Again, my father was one of the people who would give speeches as he represented the Republic of China. And I remember all of the different Chinese people there getting together and celebrating what we called the double pin celebration which, in fact, still continues all the way up to the present time. The other thing that I really remember as far as the Chinese community is concerned is the end of the war because, at that time, we were able to go to a Chinese school. There was a Chinese community center that was actually, and in fact, even today, there is a Chinese community center - there are actually 2 of them - one is for Mainland China and one from Republic China of Taiwan, but these 2 particular facilities at that time, there was only one and I do remember going to a Chinese school right after the second World War was over and I was able to buy a bicycle. Now, I wasn't supposed to be buying a bicycle. I was only like 9 years old. But my sister wanted a bicycle and so I said, well, if she is going to get one, I have to have one also. And so, I got my bicycle. I can remember the pictures that we have with the United States flag and the Republic of China flag on my particular bicycle . . . which goes back to another interesting story about the Chinese in Houston, which is that of course when the second World War broke out, all of the Japanese were interned and, of course, many people cannot tell the different between Japanese and Chinese and so what we had to do as a Chinese person was to identify ourselves and the way in which we did that was to wear a badge. I do remember that badge. There was just a circle with the USA and China on it. I actually have some pictures over here you might want to take later on. But it shows this particular badge. It was designed by my uncle who was the architect who went to Rice and was the first graduate. So, those are kind of the first recollections.
I do remember a rather unfortunate incident that was about 1943. I was about in the second or third grade so that would have been 1943 or 1944, some time during the second World War . . . the Art Linkletter Show, which had interviews with children; in fact, even up to modern times . . . his book that he wrote, "Children Say the Funniest Things" or something like that . . . but he was interviewing people and they came to our particular school which was Wharton Elementary School and they had picked several different people to be interviewed; kids that were 6, 7, 8 years old. I was one of the ones that was chosen at that particular time. Well, about the time that they came up and were to have the show, they came to me and said, "You can't be on this show." Now, they said I couldn't be on the show because my father was a diplomat of the Republic of China. Of course, at that time, he actually was only a secretary. I always feel that that was a certain amount of discrimination because they didn't want the people to think that the Chinese were a part of the people in Houston, Texas at that particular time. So, I always hold that in my mind and I also remember that my sister came home crying one time. She was saying that the kids in elementary school were calling her an Eskimo because she had Asian features and were laughing at her. And so, those were some of the unfortunate things that happened. But, for the largest part, I think that my feelings are very good because those were things that, except for the thing with Art Linkletter, those were things that kids were doing and I do feel like those were the adults, especially the people who were in the church and also in the schools, were not discriminatory. In fact, if anything, they tended to favor the Asian people even as they do now and call the Asian people the model minority people who are very smart and who do very well in school. So, that was kind of my childhood.
We did go to church. My father, again, was instrumental in starting the Chinese Baptist Church here in Houston. My grandmother passed away in 1941. They felt that the Chinese population was getting rather large. It was getting up to 200, 300 people and they needed to have a church. And so, he worked with the First Baptist Church and helped to establish the Chinese Baptist Church, again, along the lines of his efforts with the Chinese government but also just because of the fact that he had a personal need in that particular situation to have spiritual guidance, with the loss of his mother at that particular time.
DG: Where did you live?
EC: We lived actually in the center part of town, right around what is now called Montrose and West Gray. I could actually go to Chinese school. I would ride my bicycle from my house. It was only about like 3 or 4 miles. The Chinese school was on Louisiana Street. And so, we would go there. My mother actually taught the Chinese classes. She also taught English and Chinese at the Chinese Baptist Church which ultimately, they got their own facility at 1823 Lamar Street. My uncle happened to be the one who designed that particular building, the one who was the architect, so we had a lot of first type of things there.
DG: What schools did you attend?
EC: I attended Wharton Elementary School which was on West Gray. Then, I went to San Jacinto High School where I was pretty much a nerd because I was interested in science. I remember there a very interesting event with my chemistry teacher, a lesson I always remembered and he took a beaker and a graduated cylinder and he poured the water from the beaker to the graduated cylinder back and forth and he said, "What do you learn from this?" Well, some people said, "Well, water can flow from one place to the other." There were a lot of other points but no one got to the real issue that he wanted to bring up which was that you never get out of something more than you put into it. You always have to put in the greater effort in order to get the best results. And so, I always remembered that and always tried to do my best although sometimes . . . you know how that goes! It didn't work out too well.
I finally then went to Rice University to study chemistry. There is a case where I tried as hard as I could but I still wasn't as smart as a lot of the people who were there. I came out kind of in the middle of the class. I graduated with about what would be equivalent to a C+ average. And then, my father passed away at that particular time. He had gone to Washington, D.C. to teach the FBI agents how to read and write and speak Chinese so that they could go into the community and find out who were sympathetic to the Communist cause at that particular time. And, in that matter, the Chinese were not interned. In fact, there was an effort to do that back in the 1940s when the Communists began to attack in Korea and also when they were, of course, taking over the Mainland China. The FBI, in fact, came to my father because he had been a diplomat, of course, and at that time, he did change and become a naturalized citizen again. They asked him if there was a way in which we could identify the American Chinese or Chinese living in America who were sympathetic towards the Communist cause, and to identify them and to single them out rather than to do something like was done with the Japanese at the time of the second World War. And, in fact, that is how we got involved with the FBI. He began to translate the intelligence information that came from the Korean War and then he went to Washington, D.C. to teach the FBI agents how to read and write and speak Chinese, so that they could go into places like San Francisco or New York where there were large populations of Chinese people and find out who were, in fact, sympathetic. And so, they did not do the internment; rather they selectively found the people who were not loyal to the United States. So, he passed away in 1957. And so, I went to work for the Shell Development Company working on the secondary recovery of oil not very far from here, right on Bellaire Boulevard, in fact, and we got a couple of papers published so those were my first publications.
When I finished my degree at Rice, it was a time when the draft was still in effect but people were selecting numbers. And so, you would be drafted according to your number. Well, I had a deferment in order to finish my education and so when I pulled my number up, it turned out to be a very low one so what I decided to do was to go ahead and volunteer for the draft. Besides, at that time, I had already met someone that I was very interested in, my wife. And so, I decided well, let's get the military service over with and then I can come back and do whatever it is I wanted to do. At that time, I was going to become a high school chemistry teacher, again, following the lines of my chemistry teacher whose name was Mr. Finprock (sp?), in fact. So, at that particular time, I went to the Army. I went to Fort Hood, Texas ultimately after going to Colorado and getting my hair all cut off. So, I went to Fort Hood, Texas and did basic training there. And, at the time, we had actually gone ahead and eloped and had gotten married. My wife and I had gotten married. Then, after basic training, my wife came up to Huntsville, Alabama where I was working. I was there at the same time that they were splitting out the National Aeronautics and Space Administration program from the Army. And so, I was really a rocket scientist. I worked on the rocket motors and I can remember Werner ________ coming and talking to the people who were taking over his program because he was going to be the head of NASA and he was saying that it is very important to make sure that we have both offensive and defensive rocketry because, of course, he was the one who was developing the B2s that were bombing Britain during the second World War. At that time, obviously, he was with the Germans. But he emphasized that we needed to have both offensive and defensive rockets and so one of the last things that I worked on during my 2 years of service in the Army was to work on an anti-ballistic missile. Now, the problem with anti-ballistic missiles is that you have to have enough fuel on board to get it up in order to be able to intercept the missile but if you do that, you fight a losing battle. So, what I did is I went to the papers that the Navy had been working on for a rocket motor which they called the Pop Up and what that does is that puts the fuel down on the ground and it builds up a high pressure so that you actually shoot the missile out of a canon so it gets up in the air and then you have smaller rocket motors which will then take over to be able to go and try to hit the missile. And so, some of that technology is still being used today in the anti-ballistic missiles. So, I always recall that that was, in fact, my idea about how we were going to be able to do that because other people just didn't know how you could get that much what they called thrust up there at that particular time.
Well, after my time in the Army, I decided, well, I would come back to Houston. Actually, I thought about working at NASA at the time and went to interview but my wife encouraged me to go ahead and get a doctorate degree in chemistry. So, I came back and started working at the University of Houston on my doctorate with Professor Wayne Wentworth who was my mentor and we did a lot of very interesting things, published a number of papers, some of which are now becoming classics because they were the first ones to do what we were able to do at that particular time.
Now, let's go back and talk a little bit about the Chinese history during this particular time. In the 1950s, there were no Chinese who were admitted to any of the professional schools. Not dental school, not medical school, not law school. It was about that time that they first started getting in. In fact, the Chinese were allowed to immigrate to the United States if they were skilled or had some things that were necessary, some job skills that were necessary such as, for instance, doctors and nurses and all of that. So, they started to come in. At that time, there was a quota. In fact, the quota for the Chinese at that time was less than 100. It was based upon what the population of the Chinese and the United States was at the time of the original bill. Later on then, John Kennedy opened it up so that there was a much larger number of Chinese who would be admitted. But, of course, we had a problem because there was Mainland China and there was Taiwan and then there were also Chinese who were living in the Hong Kong area, so that created a problem. So, they set up special quotas for each one of those particular groups. Of course, the Mainland China at that time was not being recognized so the people came mostly from Hong Kong and Taiwan to come to the United States. A lot of those people were students and professional people. That is how my wife came when she was a student to go to the University of Houston in the 1960s. So, the population rose to over 1,000 in 1950 of American Chinese or Americans of Chinese ancestry to probably around 2,500 by 1970. And, of course, today, the population is very large. In fact, I don't know exactly how to count it because we have persons of Chinese ancestry who are Vietnamese and who are Filipino and who are from so many different groups, that we really don't know exactly what to classify the people with.
To go back again to my history, personal history, when I was a young person, the center of the Chinese community was the Chinese Baptist Church. Everything pretty much revolved around that particular group and there was also a building that was very close by on Chartra Street which was the Online Merchants Association. Those two buildings were the locations and places where all of the Chinese would tend to gather and you would have large groups of people. So, we would have dances there, we would have meetings. A lot of times, people would come to prayer groups on Wednesday. And so, that was kind of the center of the Chinese community activity. The Chinese wanted their children to marry Chinese. That was one of the old traditions is that they would like to have their children marry Chinese. Of course, now, that is a very different situation. That is how the social activities would go along. We could go to, for instance, there were large communities in New Orleans and in San Antonio. We would travel and there would be like football games and dances and so on like that, that we would attend as a group. I was a little bit different because I would tend to mix more with the general society and that is what I have done, in fact, for the majority of my life. In fact, I don't speak Chinese. My wife does. I feel that I am more a part of the total society rather than of the Chinese community, but I do still participate in the Chinese community. I have served as the president of a number of different organizations and I am the unofficial, I should say, historian of the Chinese community and trying to put together things that recall the activities. That is why I have such a memory bank of the events, even though I am concentrating primarily on the things in my particular life.
So, after I went to Huntsville, Alabama and came back and got my Ph.D., I went to work for a company called United Carbon. And we were making carbon ______ at the time. I worked there for about 5 years. They decided to move their headquarters to Ashland, Kentucky and I decided I did not want to go to Ashland. I am trying to think if it was Ashland, Ohio. Anyway, I cannot remember exactly. It is Ashland. I decided I did not want to go so I looked for a different job and I went to work for a company called Signal Chemical Company. It was a brand new chemical company out on the Ship Channel. I saw this particular facility developed from a grass roots basis where there was nothing on the ground to the point where we had our plant up and running. The only trouble is there were difficulties in the quality of the material that was being produced at that particular plant and ultimately, the company decided they wanted to close it so what they did is they sold it, in fact, for the land value to a company that was very close by that is called Big 3. Big 3 is a company that manufactures . . . it doesn't manufacture, it actually purifies gases from the air in order to be able to sell it for industrial uses. So, that was my second job. But then, at that point, I said, well, I would like to get back into academics. And so, what happened was that the University of Houston was establishing a campus in Victoria and I applied for the particular job as a chemist in the area and went to work at Victoria. Well, I actually did not move down there permanently. We still live here in this particular area because my wife was here and she was doing a job of building houses. In fact, this house that we are in right now is the house that she and a builder, contractor, built. She built a number of houses in the West University area and we sold them. We had to do that because the land value got to the point where it was too expensive to be able to maintain those houses as a rental house and so we tore down houses and my wife built up those houses. At the time that she was doing that though, she came down with a case of ovarian cancer and she went to M.D. Anderson and she was actually cured of that particular disease. She has been, now I think it is probably 20, 25 years. Every year, she goes back to the hospital, so I am very grateful to M.D. Anderson for what they have been able to do.
I have 2 children. My daughter is in Portland, Oregon. She is married to a Caucasian. They do not have any children. I think a lot of times, people nowadays do not want to have children. They think that maybe the world is too populated or maybe it is too difficult or whatever it is to have children but she does not have children. She is a graduate of Rice University. She has an electrical engineering degree and also computer science and math science. My son has gotten a Ph.D. from the University of Houston in bioinformatics using computers to be able to look at the information that biochemists can get in order to . . . he is working now at Baylor College of Medicine. Their goal is to tailor medical treatment for individuals based upon the human genome, so that you find out specific types of treatment that could be done for individuals. That is their new big thing that they are working on. So, he has been doing that.
Since I have retired, I have actually continued to do research and publish. That is the beauty of the internet. You can do a good total library search by doing a Google. You can find out all the information that is necessary of the things that have been done, the work in the particular area. Then, you can go back and either do theoretical or, in fact, I have done experimental procedures. I have a laboratory up in my garage apartment so I go out and do those during my retirement. So, I think that life has really been pretty good here in Houston. I have no fundamental complaints. I do think that there are still problems with respect to the racial situation, not only with blacks and Hispanics but also Asians, and I think that in many cases, the problems with the Asians are more serious because they are not so overt, because people don't think about the problems that people have when they . . . I still can remember some very recent instances, going through the airports where people would draw their eyes up and slant them and say "Ching Ching Chinaman sitting on a fence, couldn't make a dollar out of 15 cents," or something like that. And so, those particular things are still there and I think that we have to work towards trying to overcome them. But it is not just the general society. It is the people who are here and who also do not participate. I work with young people at Kincaid High School, working with them on their science fair project. I also advise young people at the Buddhist Temple here and one of the important things that I always try to enforce or try to impress upon the young people wherever they are - if you cannot be passive, this nation is the greatest nation that there ever was and I don't see any other that will overtake it but what it depends upon is the individual person to take an interest in how things are going and to do things to participate, to go out . . . how many people vote when you really think about it? You think about the people in Iraq, the number, the percentage of people who go out and vote. In the elections that we have here, we will be lucky to have 60% of the people voting in a presidential election. I think that is really the crime and I think that it is incumbent upon both sides - the larger society and the people who feel like they are discriminated against. And I do still feel like I am partially discriminated against to participate. And that is what I try to do. That is what I tried to impress upon my students. I also did, and still do, impress upon the young people that I work with at Kincaid and also the people that I work with at the Buddhist Temple. We have to participate. We have the greatest nation that there ever was and if we don't participate, then we will certainly lose it.
Incidentally, I was also the vice-chairman of the Harris County Republican Party so I will get that plug in there for my particular side of the political spectrum but that is another thing that we need to do: we need to participate in a civil manner so that, in fact, we don't have the animosity that has built up so much where politics turns out to be war because, in fact, if we have a civil war, then that is the way in which we will eventually have our nation destroyed.
DG: There are minorities in Houston and there are stories of discrimination, there are stories of abuse of those minorities and, at the same time, Houston, more so than other large cities in the south, avoided the riots, they avoided the militancy and the head-to-head confrontations. How did that process of gaining your identity affect the Chinese community?
EC: Well, not only just the Chinese community but I can also speak to why it didn't happen with the black community also. The leaders in the city of Houston, people like, for instance, Mark Shapiro at Texas Commerce Bank at the time, he organized groups to keep in contact with the different ethnic groups. He had blacks, he had Hispanics, he had Asians come together at least every 3 months and to talk about and discuss the ways in which the society could come together and avoid these things. And so, there were people in each one of the different areas who knew that this might be a problem.
DG: How long ago was this?
EC: Oh, let's see . . . I was on that thing from about 1980 until about 2000, something like that, in that particular timeframe where, at the time, they were having some of the riots in Los Angeles. Now, that was a little bit after the Chicago riots, but they made a distinct effort and they had leaders in the community. It wasn't just Mark Shapiro, it was also other people who were on those particular committees that got together. We would just talk about it. We would talk about the problems. They didn't feel like they really could gain anything by having these riots and burning and so on like that. And so, I know I was a part of it and I could see exactly during the time of the Los Angeles riots, in fact, how the community here . . . Reverend Bill Lawson was one of the people who was active in that particular thing . . . the Hispanic community, the former city councilman but I cannot remember his name right now . . . not Ben Reyes, no, it wasn't Ben Reyes, it was somebody else. Anyway, I cannot remember his name right now. But anyway, these people would get together and I think that is one of the reasons why it never happened. Now, as far as riots among the Chinese, Chinese and Asians tend to be more passive anyway. They don't tend to riot although there was the one particular situation with _________, of course, when there was a possible demonstration and, in fact, there are now demonstrations periodically now as there are larger populations of Asians and Chinese. But I think Houston had a group of leaders that were sensitive to the potential of those particular types of things. I do remember during the earlier, the Chicago riots, one of my uncles, my mother's sister's husband, Albert Gee, was working with the black community because, at that time, they were thinking that well, the Chinese were taking advantage of the black community. They had the businesses there. Something like the Korean situation in Los Angeles where there were attacks. And so, again, these people got together with and they talked about it. Instead of actually having these riots take place, they had discussions with each other and I think that is the main thing. If people get together and talk about what their problems are instead of just trying to do something vocally . . . you are right - we haven't had anything like this in Houston. Houston has actually been a very good city that way. Back in 1880, there was a discussion Harpers Monthly that talked about the different groups that were down in the Houston city square and they talked about at that time Italians and the blacks and the Chinese and the Hispanics and all of the different groups that were there meeting together in the market square. The story was that Houston was, in fact, a city where there was a large tolerance for different types of ethnic groups.
DG: A lot of major cities in this country, you go there and there is a specific area known as Chinatown; San Francisco, of course. Would you say that the Houston Chinese community on balance was more interested in assimilation or in maintaining a separate identity?
EC: O.K., first of all, there weren't that many Chinese in Houston. As I was saying, you are talking about less than 200, 300, even by 1950. So, the other thing is that their businesses, most of them were working in grocery stores or restaurants, so they could not pretty well get together. There was a Chinatown but it wasn't a place where the Chinese would live. A lot of the Chinese would have stores in the black areas and that is why I was talking about the fact that there were some situations where problems could have broken out but they didn't. So, it is not that the Chinese did not try to stay together and that they wanted to assimilate, it was really that the economic necessity forced them to be in different parts of Houston. But the only one who really tried to assimilate into the larger society were the people who started going to college and, of course, as I said earlier, my father had an entre because he was a representative of the government and he did. We, as children growing up, were neither a part of the group that was traditional Chinese, that were in the grocery business or in restaurants, nor were we a part of the larger society, so we really sort of did not feel like we belonged anywhere. In fact, I eventually did work in a grocery store. My aunt had a grocery store and to a certain extent, I did that because I wanted to feel like I was a part of the rest of the Chinese community. And so, the answer to your question is that no, the Chinese community did not conglomerate in a given Chinatown area as, in fact, they are now but they did not assimilate either because they were working most of the time. A lot of times, the only time they would ever get together would be on Sunday. They would go to church and they would go to the Chinese community center and the men would play mahjong. Of course, not for money.
DG: Of course!
EC: But anyway...
DG: You mentioned during World War II that there was an issue of being confused with the Japanese.
DG: And then, you talked about the Communist Chinese and your father going to work with the FBI so they could help identify them. Was there an issue then in Houston of being an extra stigma because they thought you might have been . . . certainly anti-Communism was a way to get elected in a lot of places. Did you feel an additional stigma of being a potential Communist?
EC: Well, we found out who were in so they were ostracized by not only the Chinese community but, in fact, the FBI kept tags upon those particular people. Yes, and we knew who they were and, in fact, it is a little bit discriminatory towards those people but even today, some people are known as Communist Bill or Joe or John or Jack or something like that because we knew that they were Communist sympathizers but as I say, the FBI actually kept tabs on those people and they did the same things that we are doing now for people who are sympathetic towards Al-Qaeda. They did the same thing at that particular time. This is the badge that we wore, that my uncle designed, to identify us as Chinese, not Japanese.
DG: Anybody who has heard Steven Kleinberg do his demographic study projections understands that the Asian community is going to grow, it is going to become a more dominant force in Houston. What do you see personally for the next 20, 25 years for the Chinese community, for the Asian community in general?
EC: I am afraid that the big problem is still going to be participation. Now, what you were saying before as far as wanting to be isolated, I think there is a large tendency towards doing that. That is why I keep on preaching as far as getting people to participate. People get involved. It is not just the Chinese - I shouldn't say that because, after all, the Chinese are only a small proportion of the total population and yet, we only have 50% of the people voting in a good year. And if you look at the number of people who vote in the primary, it is even worse than that. You don't need to have a majority of the people to win an election. You have to have a very small proportion. And that is the problem. That is the whole problem. In that particular regard, the black community has learned that one way to get people that they want elected is to go out and vote. They do tend to go out and vote in larger numbers. I think that that is what all of the people need to do or else we are going to lose it. Benjamin Franklin said, "What have we wrought a republic if we can keep it?" So, I mean, I think that is the point. If we have a government which is dependent upon people participating, when people don't participate, for whatever reason, for whatever reason whether it is racial gerrymandering . . . incidentally, that is another thing that I would like to bring in. I was a plaintiff in the racial gerrymandering case as far as the Congressional districts were concerned. And so, when the opinion came out . . . in fact, when the case was heard by the Supreme Court, I was actually sitting there . . . but when the opinion came out and I read it, on the first page, it says, "Chen has no standing," because of the particular Congressional district that I was in, wasn't one of the ones that they said was being racially gerrymandering, but at least I got on the front page of the opinion for the Supreme Court!
DG: Well, that is something to be proud of. To wrap up, how do you describe Houston to other people? If somebody said, "You have lived here all your life. What kind of city is Houston?" how would you describe it?
EC: Houston is a friendly city. It has probably the friendliest people . . . it is hard to say that they are the friendliest people in the whole of the United States but I do feel very strongly that the people are very friendly. The climate, well, you can't say anything about that - it is terrible. Just wait, it is going to get bad. If it is bad today, it is going to get worse tomorrow. It is hot, humid. The feeling of can-do spirit, I think that is another thing that I characterize Houston by. Think about NASA. Think about the Medical Center. These are things that we are going to have to be looking forward to in order to accomplish them. And I do think that there is less, and there has been less, political animosity for a long time, of course, because the Democrats were totally in control so it was a family fight. It was the Liberals and the Conservative Democrats. I do think today, that Houston is probably a little bit better than the larger society with respect to politics. I think that people do come together. You can look at the City Council. Of course, it is a nonpartisan but still, we hail that there are Democrats and there are Republicans on the City Council. You can look at the county government. I think that people don't hold to the fact that politics is war. Yes, they want to get control but I do believe that once the elections are over, that the politicians tend to get together and say, well, let's work together. The other thing I would say is education. We have some of the best schools in all of Texas. I mean, the one that I went to, Rice, even though I didn't come out within the middle of the class, it is one of the best universities in the south. And the University of Houston is certainly an impressive public university serving the needs of a lot of people. And Texas Southern, St. Thomas and all of the other universities, Baylor College of Medicine . . . the Medical Center. Where would you want to go if you had any sort of a problem as far as medicine is concerned? So, I would never want to live anywhere else. I have lived here all my life and I think that even with the football and the basketball and those teams that are not winning necessarily, I think that Houston is just a great and wonderful place to live.
DG: Thank you, Mr. Chen.
EC: O.K., you are welcome.