Activists recount grassroots efforts in Chinatown

Asian Resource Center

By Lupe Cazares

In the late 60’s and the 70’s Oakland's Chinatown was changing. In fact the U.S. was changing rapidly. In 1965, immigration reform opened the door to new immigration from places like Latin America and Asia. Let’s hear from professor Greg Mark about how that new immigration affected Chinatown.

GREG MARK: As things moved into the 70’s and 80’s, it became much more visible and apparent. Not just the changing of organizations from Chinese-American to Asian-American, but also the people. One of the communities or immigrant groups that came in that have really kind of meshed together are the Vietnamese-Americans who started coming in large numbers in the 70’s. One million left around 1980 and some came to Oakland and they were ethnic Chinese. And so they were able to fit in. It was kind of compatible to who they were.

That’s professor Greg Mark who grew up in Chinatown. UC-Berkeley’s Richard Walker says the new immigrants revived a decaying urban core.

RICHARD WALKER: Chinatown changes so dramatically because you get these new waves of immigrants. It’s going to revitalize it. It’s going to expand it. It’s going to bring in a whole group through Hong Kong, especially, but then later out of Vietnamese, Chinese, Vietnamese, after the fall of Saigon for the next 10 to 20 years and Koreans. An new wave of Koreans. So you’re going to get, there’s gonna be arguments amongst all these people because “Asian” now is the, you know, combination of many nationalities who historically don’t necessarily get along at all. And also, as it revitalizes, your old merchant class of course is gonna grow. There’s gonna be new money coming in.

New money, but also new immigrants without resources, like refugees. Historian Anna Naruta says this was the perfect mix to ignite a new generation of activists.

NARUTA: And also that meant that a lot of people worked really hard to create institutions to support those new immigrants.

Reporter Lupe Cazares has that story.

*     *     *

LUPE CAZARES: By the 1960’s, Oakland’s Chinatown had developed a strong middle class, who could afford to send their children to college.

TED DANG: UC-Berkeley was considered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for many families who grew up in the minority communities.

Ted Dang is a commercial real estate broker and developer. He grew up in Chinatown in the 1950’s and 60’s.

DANG: Our parents’ generation really felt that a good education was a way to improve our life.

Dang started college in 1969 – and he was the first person in his family to do so. He arrived at UC-Berkeley to find a world that was totally different from the one he left behind in Chinatown.

DANG: It was a very tumultuous time. It was just at the tail end of the civil rights movement it was the middle of the free speech movement and the beginning of the ethnic studies movement and so while we were on campus we learned that there were a lot more things happening than just what you can learn in the classroom. Students were speaking out against the war in Vietnam and they clashed with the police on a regular basis.

The push for social change inspired Ted Dang and his peers. They saw a need for change in their own communities.

DANG: In the late sixties there was a significant increase in immigration and with immigration you had a lot more people who had difficulty finding work, finding housing, finding services, you the language problem, and a number of organizations formed in the response to those needs.

But those organizations were scattered across Oakland. So the youth leaders decided to try to bring them together in one building in the center of Chinatown. Dang gathered some recent graduates from the architecture department, and combined their expertise with his background as a business student.

DANG: We formed a grassroots organization that looked into developing real estate for the community.

They called their group the East Bay Asian Local Development Corporation, or EBALDC. And they decided to create their Asian Resources Center in a building near where Dang had grown up.

DANG: It was a vacant and moving storage building, it had been vacant for a number of years.

LYNETTE LEE: I walked past this building and it was all run-down, and I thought wow what an interesting looking building, never thinking I would end up being part of this...

That’s Lynette Lee. Eventually, she would be the executive director of EBALDC – for 33 years. But when I meet her in Chinatown, she explains that in 1976, she didn’t even know EBALDC existed yet.

LEE: I heard that they were having an open house for this building this old warehouse that they are going to raise money to do a multi-service center. So I came to the open house and got excited about it.

Lee had graduated from San Francisco State University in 1971 with a teaching credential and she had already gotten her feet wet as a community organizer. After graduating, she worked with a group called the Youth Council to help run an afterschool program in Chinatown. One of her colleagues was Gregory Yee Mark.

GREGORY YEE MARK: When we did that, it was like a training. I mean, you know, it’s not like you have years of training and went to a graduate program that taught you how to mobilize the community. We just did it.

Mark, who is now a professor of ethnic studies, says that ad hoc training served Lynette Lee well later in her career.

MARK: We kind of made our contributions, the Youth Council, to EBALDC, by you know, really kinda training a whole cohort of people who became organizers and Lynette is probably the best known of all of them.

When EBALDC first got started, Lynette Lee says the group had plenty of enthusiasm, but not much cash.

LEE: We had a little office here, and when it rained the roof leaked and we had to mop up, and there were broken windows in which the pigeons could fly in and out of and sometimes we had to go clean pigeon poop.

And it didn’t get any easier. Ted Dang says funders were not always excited about the group’s plan to build a social service center.

DANG: They thought we were just a bunch of kids playing around, and they didn’t really believe that we could do it.

But the young activists were motivated by their dream of creating a new kind of Chinatown—one that would put the needs of the elderly and poor on par with those of the more well to do.

DANG: One thing that was our advantage was that we didn’t know how difficult it was to do this kind of project, none of us had a track record at the time.

But the group was scrappy and resourceful. Ted Dang knew how to write a lease. Another member – an architecture student – built a scale model of the community center out of cardboard to show to potential funders. Still, it took eight years of fundraising, going to meetings, and presenting at community events, before the group finally got the Asian Resource Center built. Not only did they get rid of the pigeons, but they also built a gallery and created a space for nonprofit agencies, businesses and a clinic. But there was still more to do.

DANG: Completing that project we soon recognized that our work should not stop there that, that was just one building that could provide services and programs to one segment of the community that had a lot more needs.

Today, EBALDC has grown to manage more than 900 units of affordable housing, and it controls hundreds of millions of dollars of real state. It’s seen as a model around the nation. Gregory Yee Mark, who worked with Lynette Lee in the early days, says looking back, what they did was groundbreaking:

MARK: Here we had a group of 20 year olds, literally and that we could have such an impact on the city of Oakland and the Asian-American community.

Community organizing has changed a lot since those days, says Ted Dang.

DANG: Now, people actually get training in that business, and instead of volunteer students or young people that do the project, EBALDC for example has a staff of 80 people today and many skilled people with higher degrees, able to apply their knowledge to the needs in the community.

But it was EBALDC’s idealistic work that paved the way for generations to come.

In Oakland, I’m Lupe Cazares for Crosscurrents.

This story originally aired on June 16, 2010 as part of a series on Oakland's Chinatown.