The decades of the 1930s and 1940s
witnessed a demographic shift in the Chinese American community. Between 1900
and 1940 the percentage of Chinese Americans born in the United States grew from
10% to 51%.1 For the first time, cities like Los Angeles had a
sizable native-born Chinese American population. Unlike many of their parents
who tended to see themselves first and foremost as Chinese, many of the young
people who came of age in the 1930s and 1940s began to define themselves not as
immigrants but as Chinese Americans, developing a youth culture that
was uniquely their own.
Most of the young people who came of age
during this period in Los Angeles attended high schools like Belmont, Lincoln or
Polytechnic, racially diverse schools that provided opportunities for young
Chinese Americans to interact and befriend classmates from a wide range of
ethnic and racial backgrounds. At school, Chinese American students joined after
school clubs and sports with children of other racial backgrounds allowing them
to interact with a wide variety of people in a way that had been impossible for
earlier generations of Chinese Americans.
Outside of school, they participated in
activities and groups quite distinct from the activities and groups that their
parents joined. Young Chinese Americans founded ,
such as the Guardsmen and the Wah Kue and marching bands, like the Mei Wah Drum
Corp. They spent time at places like the CFO gas
station. They began to attend Christian churches, like the Chinese Presbyterian
Church. They attended Chinese school in the evenings and on weekends to help
assuage their parents’ worries that they didn’t know enough of the Chinese
language. All of these activities were quite different from the district and
family associations that members of their parents’ generation joined.
As these Chinese Americans came of age,
they served in the US armed forces and helped on the home front in the Second
World War. Fighting for the country of their birth, many returned from the war
with a strengthened sense of themselves as Americans. While they were certainly
not immune from the racism that their parents’ generation had faced, for many
Chinese Americans service in World War II helped further solidify a sense of
belonging to the country of their birth. In short, the decades of the 1930s and
1940s saw the development of a Chinese American youth culture and social network
quite distinct from that developed by earlier generations of Chinese Americans.
The essays and video clips in this section explore the various youth activities
that Chinese Americans in Los Angeles participated in during this pivotal period
1 According to the US census, in 1900 there were 9,010 native-born
Chinese Americans out of a total population of 89,863. In 1940, there were
40,262 native-born Chinese Americans out of a total population of 77, 504.
Between 1900 and 1940, the percentage of Native-born Chinse Americans increased
from 10% to 51.9%. See Judy Yung, Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese
Women in San Francisco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 303.
© 2008 Chinese Historical Society of Southern California.