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Project puts history into focus

Chinese immigrants to the San Gabriel Valley survived change in their native land and wrought it in their new home.

January 12, 2007|David Pierson | Times Staff Writer

A bespectacled Benyang Tang grins sheepishly in the old black and white photograph.

His mother and father are pictured sitting next to him, alongside a high-ranking Communist official in uniform. The event took place 33 years ago, and it marked the day Tang departed for a farming commune for what he then thought was an idealistic journey to revolutionize China's rural economy.

In reality, it was the beginning of years of desperate hardship and poverty -- conditions that eventually led Tang to flee China and set up a new life in the San Gabriel Valley.

Three decades later, using his collection of old photographs, Tang recorded his personal history on a digital video camera. It's part of an ambitious effort to gather the stories of first-generation immigrants who helped begin the Chinese transformation of the San Gabriel Valley.

Many of these immigrants from the mainland arrived on student visas and gained U.S. citizenship. Today, their stories are underrepresented in most Chinese American histories, which often focus on Cantonese and Toisanese immigrants who formed the various Chinatowns decades earlier, or newer immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

But their narratives are all the more poignant today because they illustrate how much both countries have changed.

China's economic rise has coincided with a new surge of mainland immigrants to Southern California in recent years. But many tend to be wealthier than in years past, and there are now established Chinese communities where they can settle.

That wasn't the case for earlier arrivals.

"These people came here with nothing. They really had to build their own lives and careers with empty hands," said Ying Li, the project's director and a doctoral student at the USC Annenberg School for Communications. "They know now that the stories will be kept forever and for their children and future generations. They want to encourage them. And they can, because they are survivors. They are people who made it."

Their stories are many.

There is the son of a factory worker who successfully escaped China only after his third attempt swimming to Macau, while braving border guards and stints in prison. He now promotes environmentalism, arguing that China's unbridled development could use some restraint.

Then there is the tale of an ambitious political science major who was denied serious professorships in China because of her gender. She eventually moved with her husband to the U.S. where, despite her extensive education in China, she could find work only as a waitress, a nanny and a housekeeper.

For Tang, a NASA scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge, looking back provided a lesson in impermanence.

His grandparents fled China for what was then the British colony of Hong Kong in the 1900s to escape poverty. His parents, Communist sympathizers, fled Hong Kong for China in 1949 to join the Communist Revolution. And in 1985, Tang left for Canada to attend college before settling in Los Angeles.

Now his daughter, a senior at Columbia University, wants to move to China and join the economic boom.

"The wind always changes direction," said Tang, 51, whose video title is loosely translated as, "Crossing the Border by Four Generations of Dreamcatchers."

Tang said he was once brainwashed as a member of the Red Guard who memorized Maoist slogans and outed intellectuals and capitalists. Even his parents were sent to labor camps, accused of opposing Mao's socialist utopia. Tang skipped two years of high school and had to raise his three brothers himself.

All that has changed.

Tang gleefully noted that the Communist official in the photograph with him and his parents is now a wealthy shoe manufacturer in the boomtown of Shenzhen in southern China.

"We could be wearing his shoes right now," Tang said.

Li, the project director, said the videos were uploaded through YouTube with the intent of reaching a mainstream audience. She hopes they'll be seen by people in China who are not used to candid discussions about the effects of the Cultural Revolution, for which Beijing has yet to produce an official history.

Li, 31, returns to her hometown just outside of Beijing once a year, and still finds friends and family unwilling to discuss the Cultural Revolution earnestly.

"They feel like they should be speaking the voice of the government," she said. "It's the old way of thinking. My generation is open to hearing about it. But most are more concerned with pop culture. My cousins, who are around 25, don't care. They just want to get rich."

The storytellers belong to the American Chinese Culture Organization, a 2-year-old nonprofit organization with 120 members, most of whom are immigrants from the mainland who lived through the Cultural Revolution.

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