My father’s gravestone is lined on three sides with Chinese characters, most of which I, as an ABC (American-born Chinese), cannot read. The words I can make out say that Wilbur Kuotung Woo was born in Guangdong province in a village called Ngow Mo Leng, or Cow’s Hair Ridge.
I wish I knew what inspired such a rustic name; I should have asked him years ago on a trip to the Woo ancestral village. But I did take note of a water buffalo wading in a rice paddy a hundred feet from the mud-floor house in which Dad was born. “There, but for the grace of God …,” I thought, sweat dripping from my every pore as I imagined myself in a different life, dependent on that beast.
Luckily for me, Dad immigrated to the United States with his parents in 1919, when he was about 4 years old. He spent his early years living in various humble homes near downtown Los Angeles.
It was here, in Los Angeles, that he attended elementary school and learned to love baseball. It was here that a teacher gave him his first English name, Sam, which he later dumped for Wilbur. And it was here — after World War II stranded my American-born mother, Beth, in China for six years — that they bravely resumed their marriage. They would have five children, the last three born in the U.S. I was No. 4.
In the 1950s, Dad helped his father build a successful wholesale produce business in the old City Market downtown. In the early 1960s, he became vice president of Southern California’s first Chinese-American-owned bank. In the 1970s, the Los Angeles Times called him “one of Chinatown’s leading citizens” for his activism on behalf of the local Chinese American community.
And in the 1980s, Dad, a loyal Republican, set aside his political differences with my brother, Mike, to support his run for Los Angeles City Council. Mike became the first Asian American to win a seat on that body, a victory over the prejudice that Dad had spent much of his life trying to erase by reaching out to people who were different from him and showing them they had nothing to fear and much to gain through friendship.
He encountered racism — when he was a UCLA student in the early 1940s, no one in Westwood would rent a room to a Chinese person, and restrictive covenants kept him and Mom from buying a house in certain neighborhoods. He sometimes recounted a smaller but no less irksome slight, an incident in which a CHP officer, who stopped him for a minor infraction, couldn’t believe that Dad’s occupation was banker. “You mean baker,” the officer insisted. Still, Dad made it into the mainstream of society and then helped guide others there. To him, the possibility that an immigrant could move from society’s margins to its center was the promise of America.
“I feel very much like an American,” said Dad, who navigated his dual identity with an ease I envied, “but also, at the appropriate time, I’m Chinese.”
Dad has been gone for several years now; he died at his hilltop Monterey Park home in 2012 when he was 96. Every June since, my siblings and I have gathered for a special dinner to celebrate his birthday, which falls near Father’s Day.
This year I found thoughts about Dad colliding with the stream of upsetting news out of Washington — particularly the caustic talk about immigration — and I wondered what he would have made of the mess we’re in.
The history of our country is, to a great extent, one long, cantankerous argument about who deserves to become an American. Dad’s contribution to the debate came in 1965, when he went to Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the National Chinese Welfare Council, the earliest national organization formed by the Chinese in America. At the top of the group’s agenda was eliminating the draconian quotas on Chinese immigration that had been in place since the 1920s.
For several decades, Chinese were barred from immigrating to the United States under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Forty years later, a new law was put into place that allowed admittance of 105 Chinese a year. Highly restrictive quotas were applied to every country except for a few in Western Europe whose citizens received 70% of the slots.
For Chinese seeking a U.S. visa, the waiting list was impossibly long. Among those trapped by the national-origins system was my Cantonese maternal grandmother, who had lived in California for two decades until the Depression sank her husband’s farm in Stockton. In 1934, she took her children, including my teenage mother, to China to live off the ancestral land. Mom would meet Dad in China.
When my grandmother tried to return to the U.S. after World War II, she was caught in the logjam. It didn’t matter that all five of her offspring were American citizens or that two sons had fought on the U.S. side in the war.
In 1950, Mom appealed to her senator for help. Richard M. Nixon was moved by Grandma’s suffering under China’s communists and sponsored a special bill that granted her a “non-quota immigration visa.” A year after Mom first wrote to him, my grandmother came home.
As a thank you, Mom sent Nixon a set of ornate Chinese dishes, but his secretary, Rose Mary Woods (who would be forever linked to the Watergate cover-up) returned them with a letter explaining Nixon could not accept gifts because “such actions might be misinterpreted.” The “Nixon dishes” became part of family legend. A few are in my china cabinet.
Grandma’s experience may have helped propel Dad into political activism. When he went to Washington in 1965, he met Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who invited the National Chinese Welfare Council to participate in a hearing the next day on a major immigration reform bill he was championing.
As Dad told the story, he pulled an all-nighter helping to write remarks that another council leader delivered. Months later, when Congress passed the sweeping Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, he was proud to have been part of the process that replaced a discriminatory immigration system based on national origins with one that emphasized family reunification and needed skills. For Chinese immigrants, the annual cap was now 20,000, the same for every country.
Dad may not have realized how profoundly those changes would alter American society; for him, it was a matter of fairness. But that 1965 law flung open the doors to immigrants from around the world, and every wave of anti-immigration fervor since then has been a reaction to that opening.
I know many people — maybe even Dad, if he were here — say the door is broken now, but we can’t agree on whether to fix it or nail it shut. The only certainty in my mind is that it opened for a boy from Cow’s Hair Ridge who made his passage worth the struggle.
Elaine Woo is a former Times staff writer.