Organizing Chinatown in the 1930’s


(Translated from Chinese)

Mr. Ja Chong was one of many revolutionaries who organized among Chinese workers in the 1930’s. Today, he is an adviser to the Guandong Investment Company in the People’s Republic of China. He visited the United States upon the invitation of the Chinese American Association of Commerce last fall. With the current worsening conditions and rising resistance, we have many lessons to draw from Mr. Ja Chong’s experience.

The following are excerpts from his interview with UNITY

“I came to the United States in 1923. I stayed at Angel Island for over 40 days during which I thought of many things. China was oppressed and carved up by foreign aggressors. We Chinese people who came out of China were just as op­pressed by these foreigners. I thought if China becomes strong one day, our status will be differ­ent. Life at Angel Island reaffirmed my patriotism.

organizingchinatownThe first year in San Francisco, Ja worked for his father in a small fruit and vegetable store in Chinatown. He strug­gled very hard to learn English. He at­tended St. Mary’s night school, San Ra­fael High School and Draw Private School. In 1924, he worked as an elevator operator at the Powell Street Hospital. His monthly salary was $40.

Fighting for China’s liberation

“In 1925, the May 30 Tragedy broke out. At that time, workers in Shanghai staged strikes and foreign troops opened fire on the workers. Many were massa­cred. I was unemployed at the time. I thought that imperialism was the number one enemy of the Chinese people. Along with Olden Lee, George Fong, Chang Hen Tong and Eva, we organized a Chi­nese Student Association. We united with the Chinese Night School to mobilize a march against imperialism. Several hun­dred marched with us on Grant and Stockton. One time we held an indoor rally at the Chung Wah Theater which was also at­tended by non-Chinese sympathizers, including the International Labor Defense and many unions. Through these and other activities, the Wah Que (Overseas Chinese) gradually became aware of the aggressive face of imperialism.

“At that time the Kuomintang Party (KMT — ed. note: the Nationalist Party) recognized the importance of an inde­pendent China, but in 1927 Chiang Kai- shek {ed. note: leader of the KMT) sold out. There was an internal split in the KMT into a right and left faction. In San Francisco, the left faction withdrew from the KMT headquarters and started pub­lishing a Kuo Men Newspaper and had a storefront on Sacramento Street.’’

“At the end of 1927, some foreign stu­dents and others formed the Anti-Imperi­alist Alliance. These new progressive forces quickly linked up with the Com­munist Party, USA. In 1928,The Van­guard, the first Chinese newspaper which openly published Marxist-Leninist ideas, circulated in the Chinese community.

Organizing during the Depression

“In 1929, we witnessed the Great Depres­sion. Four thousand workers out of a 20,000 population in Chinatown were un­employed. Chinese were living in Ports­mouth Square or on the streets. Little babies had no milk to drink. We began to recognize the importance of organizing the unemployed. Later that year we formed the Unemployment Club at Kearny and Clay streets.

“Often we stood at the corner of Waverly and Washington streets to propagate about unemployment. We explained that it is the capitalist system which caused unem­ployment by exploiting workers. We talked about over-production and surplus value. The widespread unemployment is created by the government and is not the fault of the people. As the economic situa­tion worsens nationally, Chinatown is sure to be affected. Stores and laundries in Chinatown laid off workers. When we first promoted these ideas, they were for­eign to the people. Also there was a lot of anti-communist propaganda in the com­munity. Only about ten people would stop to listen, but we were patient and we went all out to pay family visits to people’s homes. Within three months, 3,000 people joined the club.

“The police came to stop us. They said that we were obstructing traffic and arrested me and Fong Bak. We were dragged to the park and beaten up. The next day we went out again. Several days later, a team of police busted our house. There were four of us there. We had a map of the Chinese Red Army on the wall. It was this map that became evidence of be­ing ‘Red Elements’ and therefore we were arrested. I was sent to Angel Island the following day to await deportation.

“When the International Labor De­fense {ed. note: a group of progressive lawyers and trade unionists) heard of my arrest, they bailed me out for $2,000. I re­turned to the Unemployment Union. At that time, laundry workers were waging a strike for better wages. During the strike, the bosses hired Blacks and Chicanos as strikebreakers. We got in touch with the AFL. They sent representatives to talk to the Black and Chicano workers to explain the strike. We got them to understand and quit. That’s how the laundry workers won their strike.

“But still what should the unemployed do? I suggested that we should unite with the western (American) unemployment group to demand that the government grant benefits to the unemployed. But most workers felt we should raise our de­mands to the Six Companies (the China­town establishment group which repre­sents major businesses, family associa­tions, tongs). Although we disagreed with their assessment of the Six Companies, we respected the wishes of the majority. Five hundred people marched to the Six Com­panies and sent in representatives to talk with them. Their answer was let us hold a meeting to further investigate the situa­tion first. When the crowd heard this, they rushed the office, but the no-goods escaped out the back door. This exposed the stand of the Six Companies.

“In 1932, the labor movement organized a national campaign to protest the unem­ployment situation. We organized a contin­gent from Chinatown. Several thousand marched down from Chinatown to join the march. When we merged with them at Third Street, we received tremendous ap­plause. The march was very militant and showed the unity among many nationali­ties. Today, the rally is still very vivid in my mind. At City Hall, we sent in representa­tives to meet with the mayor. We demanded $30 for each unemployed worker and $15 for each family member. But the city gov­ernment played the ‘can’t-answer-you’ tac­tic with us. We were outraged. The struggle continued.

In the early 1930’s, the U.S. govern­ment announced its cancellation of  of Ja’s bail and ordered his immediate deporta­tion to the Chiang Kai-shek regime in mainland China. The labor movement and ILD strongly opposed this decision and organized mass action. They de­manded that Ja should have the right to stay in the U.S., as he wished. This battle went back and forth from the local court to the federal court. At the end of his legal battle, Ja was not deported to Chiang Kai-shek-dominated China. He was al­lowed to leave the country freely.

Mr. Ja, who was only 24 years old, was already an outstanding cadre of the U.S. Communist Youth League. The Chinese community was shaken. Many working people who had come to know Ja cried when they heard he was forced to leave his beloved San Francisco.

Under the arrangement of the ILD, Ja arrived in the Soviet Union, where he lived for five years. He attended the Lenin school and reaffirmed his belief to fight for revolution.

In 1935, Ja returned to China and joined the guerrillas at Hoi Ping. Following the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Ja was appointed the first military government head in Guangdong Province. Since then, he has always held key positions in the government in educa­tion and overseas affairs. He was the vice chair of the Chinese National Overseas Chinese Affairs Association.

It was the work of people like Mr. Ja that laid the seed for the progressive movement in Chinatown. It was his spirit that set an example for those who have chosen to continue this work. The Chi­nese national movement is forging ahead; let us treasure the work and experience of our elders.