"The Chinatown Files": McCarthy Witch-hunts in the 1950s

Revolutionary Worker #1205, June 29, 2003, posted at rwor.org

"The United States of America in Chinese means a beautiful country. We talk about democracy, we talk about freedom, but as soon as I entered this so-called beautiful country my whole experience was just the opposite.
"They would stop you on the street. Harass you and ask all sorts of questions, push you around. It became a daily part of our lives in Chinatown during that time."

-- Maurice Chuck in The Chinatown Files

America in the 1950s: these were the "good old days" for the U.S. ruling class which had just come out of World War 2 as the top imperialist power. The U.S. proclaimed the triumph of the "American way" with patriotism, apple pie and strict social conformity--as Black people suffered under Jim Crow segregation and women died from back-alley abortions.

Politically, the 1950s were a period of intense anti-communist repression, known as McCarthyism after U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy. The post-war world was being shaped by contention between the Soviet Union (at that time a socialist country) and the U.S. In 1949, the Chinese revolution, led by Mao Tsetung, kicked out the U.S.-backed Kuomintang (KMT) regime and liberated one quarter of the world's population. Inside the U.S., tens of thousands of people were called before government panels and Senate Committees and forced to answer the question: "Are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party?" A mere signature on a progressive petition was enough to ruin a career. Many people went to jail or lost everything because they refused to "name names."

While some information has come out about the government attacks against people in the motion picture industry or prominent intellectuals, few know about the attacks against Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans in this period. During the 1950s, thousands living in Chinatown communities in the U.S. were hunted down, jailed, and targeted for deportation.

This secret history is the subject of The Chinatown Files , an excellent documentary by producer/director Amy Chen. The documentary follows the stories of seven people who faced persecution during the McCarthy period. All quotes in this article (unless otherwise noted) are from the documentary.

Chinatown in the 1950s

"I was born in Chinatown in a Chinese Hospital on Jackson Street [in San Francisco]. We grew up, the five of us, in two rooms. If I remember correctly we had five bathrooms, five toilets for 22 families. I mean it really was, in retrospect, rather poor circumstances, but if you grew up with this and everyone else lived the same way you really didn't know."

--Connie Hwang, in The Chinatown Files

"Up until 1882, the U.S. was a country open to all immigrants. The only people who were excluded were prostitutes, lepers and morons. In 1882, Chinese got added to that list.... The fact that we have Chinatown today is an indication of the kind of institutional racism that was started back in the 19th century."

--Professor Ling Chi Wang, UC Berkeley

Chinese in America in the 1950s faced intense exploitation and discrimination. Under the "Chinese Exclusion Act," from 1882 until 1944 Chinese immigration was officially banned. Chinese in the U.S. were barred from becoming citizens and Chinese laborers could not bring their wives to live with them in the U.S. In 1940, 80% of the Chinese in America were men. Even after the repeal of the Act in 1944 only 105 Chinese immigrants were allowed into the U.S. per year because of strict racial quotas. It wasn't until the 1960s that the racial quotas would end, partially because they were embarrassing for the U.S. and partially because the U.S. wanted to draw in Asian scientists as part of its contention with the Soviet Union.

Chinese Americans were forced to live in ghettos known as Chinatowns. Connie Hwang remembers in The Chinatown Files , "We encountered problems you know, kids would chase us, because we were Chinese. There was name-calling. Certain shops that you went in, you were made to feel that your patronage was not welcome. They simply wouldn't wait on you."

Chinese who were able to come to the U.S. were fleeing the extreme poverty of pre-revolution China. "My experience when I was a boy in China was that a baby would die every day by the dozen," Maurice Chuck, who came to the U.S. in 1948 at the age of 15, recalls. "People starved to death every day. My own childhood friend who was only an 8-year-old little girl got buried alive by the landlord just because she was so hungry she stole one little sweet potato from the landlord."

Within the U.S., Chinese also experienced poverty. They were barred from many occupations and forced into low-paying jobs in the service industry. "I first arrived in Boston in 1940 and was detained for three months," said Henry Chin. "I worked in a laundry and slept on the ironing board. I made $4 a week in the laundry."

WW2 and the Chinese Revolution

After WW2, many Chinese in the U.S. were optimistic that their conditions would improve. China had been an ally of the U.S. in the war and many Chinese had served in the U.S. military. However, events halfway around the world, in China, would soon mean that to be Chinese in America was to be regarded as "the enemy" by the U.S. government.

At the end of World War 2, civil war broke out in China between the corrupt, pro-imperialist KMT government led by Chiang Kai-shek and the movement of the poor peasants and workers led by Mao and the Chinese Communist Party. In 1949, the revolution was triumphant and the KMT was forced to flee to the island of Taiwan.

Many Chinese Americans supported Mao's new socialist government in China. "In the Chinese community, clearly there was division," says Professor Ling Chi Wang. "The business people tend to follow the marching order of the Chiang Kai-shek government. The working class people in Chinatown, identified themselves with the Chinese Communist movement, not that they were Communists, but that they seemed to represent a new idea, a new movement for China that would be very modern, democratic and egalitarian."

"We were really happy that there was a new China," said Henry Chin. "Just like Mao Tsetung said, `The Chinese people finally stood up.' "

Inside Chinatown, many Chinese, especially young people, joined progressive organizations that supported the revolutionary government in China. One organization was Min Ching (The Chinese American Democratic Youth League). Eleanor Wong Telemaque says in The Chinatown Files , "We sang songs. We learned how to sing "Chi Lai" (the Internationale ), we learned the (Chinese) national anthem... What it really was is that you were becoming part of the people. You have to realize that New China was built on the people, on the farmers. So for me it was... I thought it was very great."

Maurice Chuck remembers attending the first October 1, 1949 celebration of the victory of the revolution in China at the Chinese American Cultural Association on Stockton Street: "The whole atmosphere in Chinatown was so excited."

The KMT hired men to violently attack and break up the celebration. The next morning, on every lamp pole in Chinatown, there was a blacklist from the KMT listing supporters of the People's Republic that they wanted to kill.

In 1950, the Korean War broke out between the Korean People's Army and the U.S.-puppet Republic of Korea (ROK) under the despotic rule of Syngman Rhee. Although it had just achieved independence and was struggling to rebuild the country, China sent 300,000 volunteer troops to fight in Korea.

Ellen Schrecker, author of Many Are the Crimes , a history of McCarthyism says, "China was treated very much the way Iraq is treated today, as an outlaw nation. Chinese Americans who were sympathetic to China were also viewed as being tainted in that same way."

Eleanor Wong remembers how Chinese came to be viewed as `the enemy': "I heard a lot of rumors that they were fixing up the concentration camps for the Chinese. My brother came and said that he wanted to change his name to Wongamita. `I'm going to be Japanese.' Maybe it was stupid, but I didn't think it was going to touch us."

FBI Stalking

"For some of them, when they walked out of the clubhouse, they were walking down the street, the FBI can just grab you and drag you into the car, interrogate you like that way."

-- Kathy Lowe

Members of Min Ching, The Chinese American Democratic Youth League, were followed and hounded by the FBI.

Connie Hwang described how during an FBI interrogation she was confronted with statements that she had made in private conversations. "Apparently some statements that I had made were quoted to the FBI by someone because when I told these statements I was quite startled that they had some way made their way into the files."

Dr. Rolland Lowe, another Min Ching member, describes how the FBI tried to get him to identify other members. "They had pictures of people in it and asked me to identify each of these people as to whether I knew them or not. And how they stand in relation to their point of view of China."

Other groups were also targeted. Eleanor Wong was a member of the Chinese Student Christian Association (CSCA). Eleanor worked in an office under the State Department and was called in front of a State Department loyalty board because of her involvement with the CSCA. The government claimed that the CSCA was a Chinese communist front. According to Eleanor, the Association was a social club and she joined to meet guys in the 1940s and '50s. "It was very, very scary," Eleanor recalls of the hearing.

When Min Ching closed its office in response to the repression, they discovered a sensitive microphone hidden behind a bookcase in their library.

A supporter of the RCP whose father was targeted by the FBI in San Francisco Chinatown showed the RW the FBI file she had obtained on her father under the Freedom of Information Act. Her father, a U.S. citizen, had lived in China for a number of years and married a Chinese woman before returning to the U.S. in 1951. A CIA report in his file says that in China he had "gone `native' associating more and more with lower middle class Chinese and less and less with foreigners."

The file documents years of government harassment of the man, who belonged to no political organizations and was "completely apolitical," according to a relative. He was grabbed off the street and interrogated by the FBI. The FBI labeled him a "communist sympathizer" because he had said that people ought to earn enough to feed their families, was critical of the way the new Chinese government was portrayed in the mainstream press, and had sent money to support his family in China. He was unable to get a decent job in the U.S. He had to take jobs like loading the dead U.S. soldiers from the Korean War onto trucks. Companies told him straight up that because he had lived and had family in China, his job application had to be processed by the FBI and that they would never hire him.

Trading With the Enemy Act

In New York Chinatown, The China Daily News was founded by laundrymen. The paper, unlike all of the other Chinatown newspapers, was not tightly controlled by the Chiang Kai-shek government and the KMT. It played an important role in informing the Chinatown community about the positive changes taking place in China under Mao.

The United States government sought to silence the newspaper's pro-China views. With the "Trading With the Enemy Act" it found a legal justification to suspend freedom of speech and shut down the press. Using the Act, originally passed during World War 1, the government sought to criminalize the act of immigrants sending money home to support their families.

After The China Daily News published an ad for the Nanyang Bank in China informing Chinese Americans that they could use the bank to send money home, the editor of the newspaper was arrested for receiving $150 for placing the ad. And three laundry workers were arrested for sending money home to their families in China.

Judge Thomas Jones, who defended the laundrymen, said, "It became clear that this case was not only meant to demonize these three men, that because they were Chinese, there's a racist quality in this, but it also was intended to intimidate the American people. Why did they choose these laundrymen? It was part of the build-up of terrorizing people. They chose these men who were defenseless, had no lawyers, didn't hide what they had done, didn't commit any crime for what they did. This case was intended to demonize these men--there's a racist quality. But it was also intended to intimidate American people."

The government painted a picture of an extensive conspiracy to siphon money to the communist government in China, supposedly involving murder and bribery. Headlines in the mainstream press parroted the government's claims. At the trial the government was forced to admit that no conspiracy existed. Nevertheless the laundrymen were sentenced to six months in prison for the "crime" of sending money home to their families.

The decision, and the government's harassment against the newspaper, ruined lives. Several were deported, some committed suicide, one man disappeared and one died under mysterious circumstances.

Henry Chin, who was president of The China Daily News from 1955 to 1975, was followed constantly by the FBI for over 20 years. He said, "Our treasurer was harassed by the FBI. Finally, he hung himself. Tom Sung, he's another one, he was the manager of the Wet Wash Laundry. They harassed him a lot. Finally, he jumped from the Brooklyn Bridge. Because of the case, two friends died, three friends went to jail."

All of the newspaper's contributors and its 6,500 subscribers were investigated.

Tung Pok Chin wrote poetry for The China Daily News. He was interrogated and harassed by the FBI for the "crime" of writing poetry. "I stopped writing and burnt over three hundred poems," he wrote in his autobiography. "But even so, the FBI continued to haunt me. I could not hold back the tears as I watched my life's work go up in flames."

Using Immigrationas a Weapon

Like today, in the 1950s the government used immigration as a weapon of political repression. A report by the U.S. Counsel General in Hong Kong declared --falsely--that over 90% of Chinese were illegal immigrants. Hysteria was fanned by the press and the government, painting a picture of extensive communist infiltration.

Iris Chang writes in her book, The Chinese in America , "No one was immune from investigation. If you were Chinese it was likely that you would soon receive that knock on the door and be subject to a long series of questions on every aspect of your life." Attorney Lloyd Brook subpoenaed 40 major Chinese organizations, demanding that they produce all records and photographs of their membership and a full account of their income within 24 hours. A judge later threw out the subpoena, calling it a "mass inquisition." But much damage had already been done as agents raided Chinatowns from coast to coast. Business fell $100,000 per week in New York's Chinatown alone.

The government used the hysteria to start a registration program of Chinese immigrants. In order to entice people into the process, the government said that, if people came forward and confessed, the government was willing to "forgive and forget." The program was called the Chinese Confession Program.

While some Chinese immigrants were able to clear their status as a result of the confession program, the government took an extremely hard line stance against anyone who was progressive or allied with the left.

Maurice Chuck recalls, "The Immigration Service went after my father, telling him unless he made a confession saying that his true name was not Chuck but Wong he would have a lot of problems, including deportation. Of course he was so afraid, unable to understand that the so-called confession program was directed at me, not him. They used my father's confession as evidence against his own son. So I lost and I was put in jail for three months and five years probation."

Many members of Min Ching, including Kathy Lowe, were forced to surrender their citizenship papers. "When [your citizenship] paper was taken away from you, you lost everything. It was, you know, you feel tragic," Kathy says in The Chinatown Files. "You didn't even know why it happened. I thought that if you lost your citizenship, you could get it back in a couple years. But that's not what happened. Every time you ask them, they say your case is in the process. They would never give me a reason why I was not given a chance."

"I really cannot tell my children how proud I am to be in this country," Kathy says bitterly. "I cannot tell my kids this country has given me so much that I should be proud of. After all these years, I cannot say that."

Large numbers of Chinese immigrants became the target of immigration investigations and were subjected to deportation and deportation proceedings. In addition, thousands of Chinese Americans were put into a status called suspension of deportation. This meant they did not have citizenship status, did not really have the right to be in the U.S., were not going to be deported, but the minute they stepped outside the U.S. boundaries, they could not come back.

A Hidden History

"It's really unfortunate how Arab-Americans are being targeted today just in the same way Japanese-Americans were targeted during World War II and Chinese-Americans were targeted during the Korean War. There's no reason for the U.S. government to feel that certain national groups are responsible for threatening the national security of the country."

-- The Chinatown Files Director/Producer Amy Chen

Amy Chen got the idea for her documentary after reading a footnote about the Trading With the Enemy Act in Peter Kwong's book Chinatown, New York . Chen wrote in a statement about her film, "Beyond the footnote, there was no literature I could turn to that documented or described Chinese-American life during the anti-Communist crusade of the McCarthy era. We eventually found and interviewed over 100 people to help shed light on the period and some who were personally affected by the government investigations." Most of those that Chin interviewed declined to tell their story on camera because they still fear government repression.

Beyond uncovering a hidden history of repression and resistance, the film is particularly valuable now because of the similarities between the repression against immigrants then and now.

"You just don't want history to repeat itself, where people because of their race or how they are perceived are persecuted," Don Young of the National Asian-American Telecommunications Association, which helped to fund the film, told the Far Eastern Economic Review . "With September 11 and how Arab-Americans and South Asians and Muslims are treated, we all need to be careful that we make sure that we preserve the rights of individuals."

The Chinatown Files video is available from Third World Newsreel, 545 Eighth Avenue, 10th Floor, New York, NY 10018, twn@twn.org

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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