Youth Activities in Los Angeles Chinatown

Written by William Gow PDF 

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 sports teams, such as the Guardsmen and the Wah Kue and marching bands, like the Mei Wah Drum Corp. They spent time tuning up their cars 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 in time.

———————————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.

Chinese American Sports

Written by Albert Deng PDF

During the 1920s, sports flourished all over Chinatown. Due to the unavailability of physical activities such as fishing, many teenagers of the period found entertainment in sports. Teams were formed and the children planned meetings out of their busy schedules to go to the park and practice. Though some family members disapproved of such get-togethers, the children continued to play without notice. Many of the teams were randomly formed as Johnny Young recalls, “We asked people if they wanted to join up and then they joined up and then we just started playing together.” Tyrus Wong remembers the local Low Wah baseball team, “We had one Chinese that was really tall. We called him ‘city hall’ because that was one of the tallest buildings in LA. But he was a very smart guy.”

In the beginning, sport teams in Chinatown had little help in getting equipment. Many of the athletes had to use discarded or worn-out equipment from former teams to practice. Kenny Ung recalls that, “when we first started, we used discarded equipment from the old Chinese team. The bats were cracked; we nailed and taped them together with wiring tape. After we got through with taping the ball, I would say that it must have weighed a half pound more than the original ball.” Due to the lack of recreational areas in Chinatown devoted to sports, many of the youth were forced to go to lesser than safe areas to practice. Johnny Young remembers, “We practice in Downey playground mostly.  Hazzard Avenue playground in Boyle Heights. In fact, David had his four wheels stolen from his car.”

Their opponents were not limited to Chinatown as Johnny Young recalls that the Wah Kue basketball team “played against Christian groups…and some Japanese teams. And when we got older we used to travel up to San Francisco and play there and maybe stop in Fresno and play them.” Many of the sports teams of Chinatown faced discrimination and racism first hand. Though they faced prejudice initially, they began to change the minds of the spectators as they gained respect from their games. Sponsors began to support the team, along with help from city officials, and spectators began to yell words of encouragement and congratulations rather than racial slurs. Kenny Ung remembers, “The spectators sometimes called us ‘Chinks’. The younger people who played ball with us were okay. The older people thought we still wore pigtails. They would yell at us from the stands. However, by 1930, they were applauding us when we played a good game.”[2] (Additional research by Annie Luong).

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 in time.

Quoted in George and Elsie Yee, ÂThe 1927 Chinese Baseball Team,” Bridging the Centuries: History of Chinese Americans in Southern California (Los Angeles: CHSSC, 2001).

Car Hopping

Written by Johnny Dip PDF

Between the 1930s and 1940s, a hobby called “car hopping” was popular among the young Chinese American adults of Los Angeles. Car hopping meant tuning cars for better performance. Many young people of this age found cars to be exciting especially when test driving their “hopped up” cars. Co-founder of C.F.O. Service Station, Abe Chin, was one of the many who enjoyed car hopping. CFO was one of two Chinese-owned gas stations in Los Angeles in the 1930s and 1940s. The “C” stood for the Chin brothers, consisting of Abe Chin, Howard Chin, and George Chin. The “F” was for Wesley Fong and the “O” stood for Henry Ong. It is evident from their founding of the business that they were fond of cars. People would have gatherings when someone’s car was “hopped up.” Wesley Fong put a V8 engine into his Model A Ford with Abe Chin’s help.

Excited with its new power, they wanted to test drive it although it was 2 am. For precautions, they had people stationed at all intersections in the neighborhood. At the roar of the engine, lights went off at numerous houses. Johnny Young, like many of the younger kids in the neighborhood remembers the practice, “We did a few of those [hopped up cars]. But it was mostly the older generation, my brothers and all that. They had hopped up Model A’s. In fact that’s how I learned to drive.” Car hopping was something enjoyed not only by the Chinese American youth, but by other ethnicities as well. In short, the hobby of “car hopping” can be seen as one of the precursors to car tuning and modified cars that are popular among today’s youth.