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CELEBRATING CULTURE & COMMUNITY HISTORY PROJECT: George Haw


Celebrating Culture & Community is putting together interviews of 25 El Cerrito residents, a project aimed at showing the diverse communities that have contributed to the city's history.

The interviews have been made possible largely through support from the California Council for the Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

For more information about Celebrating Culture & Community , contact Eve Ma at 236-3255 or ccandc_97@yahoo.com

Following is one of the interviews:

Interview with George Haw, 5/25/00

Interviewer:  Dr. Eve A. Ma

NOTE:  This interview is mostly about Chung Mei Home, which operated in El Cerrito from the 1930s until the 1950s.  It was an “orphanage” for Chinese American boys run by the Baptists under the leadership of Dr. Charles R. Shephard who was called the "captain".

1.  When were you in Chung Mei Home (from when to when in years, and how old were you when you   first began there, how old were you when you left)?

A.      I was one of the original 7 when the home opened in November of 1923, and I’m the only one of those still living.

My background is that I’m only half an orphan.  I became a ward of the juvenile court. My parents came over legally from China.  At that time, when a Chinese woman came over with a man, she was “community property” and spent the rest of her life paying back the cost of her coming over.  My mother was one of these.  She became a servant to my father.  By word of mouth they were legally married.  They entered the United States in Seattle, so they did not have to stay at Angel Island.

When I meet people and show them photos of my brothers and sisters, I never say “My sister is Wanda Lee, my brother is Bill Wong;  I just give their first names.  We all have different last names, different fathers.

I was in Chung Mei from 1923 until 1935.  In 1935, I graduated from Berkeley High School and then went on to Stanford.  I never graduated. I went right into the army.

2.        Who was running it [Chung Mei]?  How well was it run, from the kids’ point of view?

A.      The Baptists ran it, Dr. Charles R. Shephard.  The original home was at 9th and Ashby in Berkeley, and we went to the Berkeley schools.  (I went to Hawthorne Elementary, then Edison, then Berkeley High.)

The home was run poorly due to the lack of money support-some how CMH came up. Then later results justified the aims of our "captain" from the kids’ point of view.  It was an “orphanage” for kids with problems.  We had no resources.  The home was under the Baptists and they were tight with money.  The kids had to go out, to sing and beg to get money to operate the home.  Dr. Shephard was a British missionary in China for 35 years.  He spoke Cantonese well and gave sermons in Cantonese.

3.        Who were some of your favorite teachers, and who were some of your least favorite ones?

A.      When we opened, the staff was three ladies.  I was the smallest one [boy in the home] and I was always at the end of the line.  At first, we were all in one area.  There was a dormitory—there were beds, lockers, nothing more.  We went to the local primary school and wore donated clothes.  I was issued one pair of pants.  I wore them until they fell apart.  The clothes didn’t fit, either.

There were no actual teachers.  Instead, there was the staff, who were like den mothers.  They did their best.  The kids moved from one group to another so one staff person was in charge.  The cook was Chinese.  All the staff including the cook were female.

4.        What were some of the things you used to do in the classroom?  What are some of the things you used to do outside of class?

A.      At Chung Mei there was Chinese school and devotional services had classrooms.  The rest of our schooling we got in public school.  We had no free time.  There was lots of farming out to menial jobs.  We also had to maintain a B average in school or get a whipping from Dr. Shephard.  And if you had any financial problems, you had to go earn money.  I worked as a houseboy from the time I got into junior high through my college years.  I got 14¢ an hour. 

5.        I’ve heard stories about how the kids there used to work in the summers in the Delta;  is that true, and if so, what did you do, how hard was the work, was it any fun, did you get to keep the money you earned, etc.?

A.      In the summers, we worked in Sebastopol picking berries.  Sixty-five percent of what we earned went to the school and the rest to use, for necessities.  We also worked in the Delta during the summers, lugging big ladders around to pick pears.  We had a loupe to measure the size of the pears [to see if they were big enough to pick].  For the berries, we got 6¢ or 7¢ a tray.  If in one day, you made 30¢, why you’d say you were lucky.  For the pears, they paid by the lug.  Also, you had to pay kick-backs.

6.        Who were some of your best friends?  What are some stories about kids in the school?

A.      My best friend was Dr. William Gee.  We grew up together;  he was the best brother I ever had.  We would cover for each other when one didn’t want to go to work.  And we would trade clothes with each other.  There were other people, like Raymond Wong, but I have forgotten some of their names.  There were no extra activities for kids like me who depended on outside work—nothing but school and work.  My work started at 3:30pm and ended at 7:30 or 8:00pm.  I would cook, clean, serve dinner.  On Saturday I had a full day of work.  On Sunday, I had to work at Chung Mei House—ironing, cleaning.  I’d iron 60-70 shirts a week.

I’d do my homework after work until about 11 pm, and I’d get up at 5 am.  It was hard to keep my grades up.

7.        How did you come to be there?  What about the other kids.

A.      Chung Mei was a home for Chinese boys of school age to high school who had problems.  Later, it opened its doors to families who could pay.  My group came from broken homes with parents unable to train and care for their kids.  We had attitude problems.  Chung Mei was a home to guide and help us and make us good citizens.  By the 1960s, 70s, and 80s—many of the kids were very sharp.  Most of the kids got good grades.  Many became lawyers, doctors and the like in the Chinese community, and had become quite successful by the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

8.        I understand that some of the Chung Mei boys fought in World War II;  Were you one of them?  Were any of your friends among them?

A.      Most of the boys who were of draft age fought in World War II.  Many distinguished themselves;  some were commissioned officers.  I was a soldier from 1939 to 1963, and I am proud of my record.  I was in communications.  I moved up to the top.  I was in the Pentagon a couple of times and was in charge of communications at Fontainbleaux.  Later, I was with the 9th Infantry.  When I went back to the Pentagon, I was assistant chief at the White House (for about three months).  I spent four periods of time in Korea 1st Cavalry Division Signal Corps and then in Japan.  I met my wife in Japan.  Because I married a foreign national, I lost my clearance and became an auditor, and ended up as assistant team chief.

9.        What about Chung Mei Home in El Cerrito?

A.      The “second” Chung Mei Home was in El Cerrito.  The original Chung Mei Home extended itself and bought the land in El Cerrito.  To pay for the land, we had to put on minstrel shows.  Dr. Shephard would always say we were volunteers but we volunteered under duress.  We were always reminded that we were orphans.  We also paid for the building in El Cerrito and just about then, when the building was finished, I graduated from high school and left Chung Mei.  In the new Chung Mei, the seniors had only two or three kids per room but in the original home in Berkeley, there were no such luxuries.  There was only one room for all the kids, and each kid only had a bed and a locker.

10.     How do you look back on your time in Chung Mei—as good, or as not so good?

A.      There were some high points.  Chung Mei was good for what it did for me but the kids who had money didn’t like it because of the constant work.  They would pay instead of working.  On Saturdays, we would have to saw wood and sell it for $4 a cord.  (A cord is 4 x 4 x 8.)  The kids with money would just pay for the amount of wood they were supposed to saw and sell.

We had a back yard in Berkeley and the kids could build huts, and we would go in there to read and hide our clothes in there (so no one would steal them).  Dr. Gee’s cousin had a great hut and a vegetable garden.  We would steal his carrots, eat them and put the tops back in the ground sticking up out of the ground.

As for social life, we were not allowed to go out and go steady with a girl, and we didn’t know how to dance.  We were too tired for school social activities.  I maintained my B average but was a social dud.  We just barely had the strength to march in our high school graduation.  But I did go in for swimming.  I was the only one in my weight class (95 lbs.), so I got an award.

Looking back, I’d say there were some bad things (all the work) but I made good friends and some of them really prospered.  Benny (William) Lai became very well established as a gem supplier;  he may even have been a millionaire.  Ernest Wong became an insurance agent in LA.  He also became very wealthy.  Dr. Gee and I always asked Ernest Wong for donations for worthy causes.  Benny Lai had a photographic memory.  He’d memorize and add all the numbers on passing freight trains just for fun.  He didn’t go to college;  he just wanted to make money.  Now, he is deceased.

 

CELEBRATNG CULTURE & COMMUNITY (CC&C)

1900 International MarketPlace, San Pablo, CA., 94806

(510) 236-3255;  fax (510) 236-3068

e-mail:  CCandC_97@yahoo.com


Run dates: 2000-06-24 - 2000-07-14
 


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