Los Angeles Chinatown and World War II

Written by Annie Leong (PDF)

On December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States entered World War II. Among those who joined the armed forces were Chinese Americans who wanted to show their patriotism and loyalty to their country. Others fought a different battle, raising funds and selling war bonds. The war offered opportunities and experiences that would change their lives forever and affect the course of Chinese American history.

Approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese Americans served in the war or 19-25% of the total Chinese population in the United States served in the U.S. Armed Forces. According to one survey of Southern California Veterans of Chinese decent, 42% served in the Army, 39% in the Air Corps, and the remaining 19% were in the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, or Merchant Marines.1 They were assigned a variety of jobs ranging from cook to pilots with ranks ranging from Private to Major.

As the war continued, Chinese Americans not in uniform fought the battle in a different way. Many joined the campaign to save, recycle, and/or ration tires, rubber, scrap metal, and gasoline. Even before American involvement in the war, Chinese Americans were trying to relieve China, who was suffering from its war with Japan. With Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s visit in 1943, the Chinese Americans had already been raising funds for several years. Simultaneously, Chinese American women were entering the war industry as men were sent off to the war. Through this, they were able to expand the roles of Chinese Americans and women in the war industry.

Through the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (G.I Bill), many war veterans were able to attend to college to resume their education. The bill provided loans to veterans who wanted to buy houses or start businesses and paid for the G.I.’s entire education if they chose to attend school. Through the bill, many Chinese Americans from Los Angeles Chinatown entered universities such as the University of Southern California, University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, Berkeley. Many became engineers, teachers, judges, doctors, and professionals.

——————————————–1. Jim Fong & Marjorie Lee, “The Unsung 390,” in Marjorie Lee, editor, Duty & Honor: A Tribute to Chinese American World War II Veterans of Southern California, (Los Angeles: CHSSC, 1998), 81.

The Japanese Ship Boycotts of 1939

In 1939, the Chinese Patriotic Society organized a boycott of Japanese goods and lobbied for a national embargo on war materials to the aggressor country. Scrap iron was being recycled into war material in Japan; the United Chinese Societies called for volunteers to protest at the docks against allowing scrap metal-carrying ships to head toward Japan. Many of the protestors went to the waterfront near Los Angeles to picket ships that were chartered by Japanese agents. There were similar protests in the docks of San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle. In 1939, approximately 2,000,000 tons of scrap iron was exported from the United States to Japan.

It wasn’t just men at the protest, women and children joined as well. Marie Louie remembers, “Well, we didn’t buy Japanese made goods. Every time we bought something we looked at the label.  So we boycotted Japanese goods. MarieÂ’s mother was among the Chinese women, who went out to San Pedro and demonstrated against sending scrap iron to Japan, “My mother went with Mrs. Tom, our dear friend. They went together and joined other women and they picketed the long shore men that were loading things… My mother is a very shy person. And yet she went to picket, which we thought was out of character for her, but she really felt the need to picket.”

Due to the protests, many of the longshoremen refused to load scrap metal onto the ships. Some workers sympathized with the protestors and joined in the protest. Various people of other ethnicities also joined in the protest. On December 19th, the Waterfront Employers’ Association gave the ultimatum for the protests to end and the longshoremen to continue to work or the entire shipping business of San Francisco and the West Coast would be tied up. The United Chinese Societies met with the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) who told them that the Chief Information Officers (CIO) Council passed a resolution embargoing all materials to Japan. On December 20th, the protestors withdrew their picket line.