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Why an overdue honor for Chinese American World War II veterans took so long

Chinese American troops from the U.S. Army Air Forces train during World War II.

FAMILY OF PAUL GOOY BOO LEE

By SAMEER RAO | The Baltimore Sun | Published: May 31, 2019

BALTIMORE (Tribune News Service) — In 1976, The Sun’s John Dorsey opened a review of the China Doll restaurant by writing: “There are certain little restaurants tucked away here and there that you walk by all your life and never think about.” Dorsey praised the food, highlighting the “excellent” wonton soup and diced chicken, in an overall positive review that still called it “eminently neglectable.”

Today, those who walk by China Doll’s now-weathered three-story building, or the rest of Park Avenue’s 400 block, might not think about it or the vibrant Chinatown that thrived around it. But Andy Wong remembers his uncle Howard’s Chinese restaurant well.

Though raised in Timonium, where he still lives, Wong and his family frequently traveled downtown during his childhood in 1960s Baltimore. He recalled seeing martial arts demonstrations, as well as dragon dances during Chinese New Year celebrations. He remembered visiting his uncle’s restaurant for lunches after the family went to Lorraine Park and paid respects at his grandparents’ graves.

“That’s how I learned how to use chopsticks, and where I first learned to like rice as well,” Wong said. He also remembers learning bits and pieces about his uncle and father’s U.S. military service, though rarely from the source.

Private Howard Wong and his first cousin, U.S. Navy Petty Officer Hugh Birckhead Wong, didn’t relish reliving their World War II experiences before they died in 1988 and 2011, respectively. They fought the Axis powers because it was the right thing to do.

But unlike other members of the Greatest Generation, neither the Wongs nor the other Chinese Americans who served in World War II figure into its popular history.

It would take over 70 years for the U.S. government to formally recognize this group. Activists and politicians led a push for recognition that resulted in Congress honoring Chinese American World War II veterans with the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation’s highest civilian honors, last December.

The remembrance follows CGMs for other overlooked service members of color, from the Tuskeegee Airmen to the Indigenous code talkers, over the last two decades. On May 22, Andy Wong and his wife Maria traveled to Washington D.C., where the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS), a non-profit organization advocating for greater Asian- and Pacific Islander American representation in politics, honored these veterans during its 6th annual Military Leadership Luncheon.

Maryland State Sen. Susan Lee, one of APAICS’ founding board members and the first Asian member of this state’s upper house, said the World War II cohort’s stories (including those of her father Henry, who served in both the Atlantic and Pacific naval theaters) counter the xenophobia that Asian Americans, like other communities of color, survived ever since the country’s founding.

Chinese Americans didn’t serve in segregated units like Japanese or African Americans, but they still experienced both interpersonal and institutional racism. For instance, Major General Robert Lee (no relation to Confederate leader Robert E. Lee or Susan Lee), an authority on Asian and Pacific Islander American military service, noted that until 1942, Chinese Americans in the Navy could only serve as stewards.

Chinese American women confronted both racial and gender biases to serve in various military branches as translators, nurses and more, according to the American Forces Press Service. Senator Lee said that her father also experienced harassment from other sailors and feared being thrown overboard.

“[These veterans’] contributions are not truly recognized the way they should have been,” she said.

E. Samantha Cheng made preserving these veterans’ stories both an archival and legal priority. She directs the Chinese American WWII Veterans Recognition Project, through which she worked with Chinese American Citizens Alliance to write the legislation that resulted in the Congressional Gold Medal. About 20 percent of the nearly 100,000 documented Chinese Americans served during World War II, including 70 from Maryland, according to the organization. That said, she acknowledged the data remains incomplete.

Cheng, who also highlighted Chinese-American vets’ stories in short documentaries, wants her multi-branch database to be offered to scholars and educators.

“In the history books, all we’re asking for is a sentence or sentence fragment that says, ‘Chinese Americans served in World War II,’” she said. “It [doesn’t sound] unreasonable, but it’s so hard.”’

Given the poor treatment minorities experienced in the military, why did they serve? The reasons vary, but Major General Lee, a part of the Congressional Gold Medal review committee, points back to a theme these veterans’ stories all share.

“In every conflict that Chinese Americans and other minorities fought with American forces, we get to see what it’s like on the other side,” he said. “Even when America treated them like second-class citizens, America was worth fighting for.”

That fight didn’t prevent the next generation from experiencing this treatment. Andy Wong recalled fellow University of Maryland students shouting, “Jap, go home!” at him. Until then, Howard and Hugh, two of many suburban parents to the Baby Boomer generation, raised their children to believe they were as American as anybody else. Andy now works in IT at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences at Walter Reed, and is happy that his family’s military history is now being honored.

“A lot of people stepped up and took responsibility to make sure [the CGM] happened,” he said. “I’m very proud of my dad and uncle’s service, and the rest of that generation that took it upon themselves to step up.”

srao@baltsun.com

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