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A Chronicle of Triumph, Pain in Chinese American Community


In 1985, more than a century after the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants in California, the City Council of Monterey Park considered the adoption of a law that would require all public signs to be in English.

Ironically, Asian Americans constituted a majority of the population, but a few irate citizens were apparently annoyed at the sight of Chinese characters on the signage that decorates the city streets.

The scene is contemplated in "The Lonely Queue: The Forgotten History of the Courageous Chinese Americans in Los Angeles" by Icy Smith (East West Discovery Press, $39.95, 204 pages), a bilingual book that celebrates the Chinese American community of Southern California in English and Chinese with the intimacy of a family album and the authority of a historical monograph.

"In rebuttal, one Chinese American in the audience stood up and pointed out that since many of the local street names used the Spanish language, and [there were] others with Italian, German and French, it would be as expensive as it would be ridiculous to implement such a demand."

The title of "The Lonely Queue" turns out to be an artful pun, conjuring up the long braid that was once worn in traditional Chinese communities and, at the same time, the long line of Chinese immigrants who filed into Southern California to work as gold miners and railroad laborers. Smith, whose Chinese name is Sui Bing Tang, draws on a wealth of historical photographs that seem to shimmer on the page as if in a dream--a gang of hard-pressed field workers stare out at us, a mission school full of earnest young students showing off their Chinese-language Bibles, a vegetable peddler bearing two heavy baskets on a long pole casts a weary smile at us.

But "The Lonely Queue" is not an exercise in nostalgia, and Smith never lets us forget the taint of racism that is the dark side of American history. Thus, for example, she shows us one of the first Chinese neighborhoods in Los Angeles: "Negro Alley," a pocket of poverty and despair hedged in by slaughterhouses and railroad yards. And she puts some of the old stereotypes into a sharp historical perspective, explaining that the Chinese laundry was the last resort of immigrants who were banned from other businesses and occupations: "One only needed soap, a scrub board, an iron and an ironing board."

On every page, we are invited to contemplate the contrast between the fantasy and the reality of the Chinese experience in California. Smith describes the 1938 construction of a tourist attraction in downtown L.A. called "China City": "It was pure Hollywood, complete with rickshaws and set decorations from the film 'The Good Earth' "--and contrasts a man dressed as a Chinese peasant for the benefit of the camera-toting tourists with the more authentic expressions of the Chinatown community, including a group of thoroughly modern young men suited up for a basketball game.

Perhaps the single most poignant image and the one most deeply layered with meaning is a photograph of two sturdy welders on an assembly line at a defense plant during World War II. One man is African American, the other is Chinese American, and they are both hard at work on an airplane wing. But the Chinese American, mindful of the racism of the era, felt obliged to put a hand-lettered sign on the back of his jacket: "Me Chinese Please--No Jap."

"The Lonely Queue" brings the Chinese American saga up to date, and Smith pauses to express her outrage at the prosecution of Wen Ho Lee, the nuclear scientist who was accused of passing secrets to China. "Racism against Chinese," she warns, "has not disappeared."

Still, she ends on an upbeat note. For the 400,000 Chinese Americans who live and work in Southern California, the open expression of their cultural identity now "is not only accepted, but something celebrated." And the book closes, as it opened, with an observation about the place that once tried to ban Chinese-language signs.

"Some say the world's top Chinese restaurants are no longer in Asia," she writes, "but in places like Monterey Park."


For those under the impression that the world of jazz is defined by what you see in the Ken Burns documentary, there is more. "Songs of the Unsung: The Musical and Social Journey of Horace Tapscott" by Horace Tapscott (Duke University Press, $24.95, 260 pages) offers a glimpse into the life of a jazz musician who resolved not to abandon the place where he started out--the streets of South-Central.

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