Volume 20, Number 41 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Feb. 22 - 28 , 2008

Downtown Express photo by Victoria Moy

A meeting of Chinatown’s American Legion Post 1291.

Chinese vets reflect on Iraq, racism and serving 2 cultures

By Victoria Moy

At the front of a Chinatown banquet hall, a lit candle, a rose, a slice of lemon and a miniature American flag sat on a table with white tablecloth. Behind it was an empty chair covered with a black P.O.W. and M.I.A. remembrance flag.

“We are compelled never to forget that while we enjoy our daily pleasures, there are others who have endured and may still be enduring the agonies of pain, deprivation and imprisonment,” said Theodore Leong, leading a remembrance for soldiers who weren’t there with them to enjoy the nine-course Chinese New Year banquet.

The 770 people he was speaking to at Grand Harmony and Oriental Pearl restaurants that evening were American Legion Post 1291’s veterans and their families.

“Those who have served, and those currently serving in the uniformed services of the United States are ever mindful that the sweetness of enduring peace has always been tainted by the bitterness of personal sacrifice,” Leong continued.

The words sweetness, bitterness and sacrifice hung with significance, as many of the veterans were also immigrants. In Chinatown, a community where Chinese Americans negotiate their dual identities, assimilating into American culture is a process ever bitter, sweet and full of sacrifices.

Talk about the Iraq War didn’t arise at the banquet. When prodded in subsequent interviews, many of the veterans agreed that no one wanted to be in a war, but that they participated in it for a greater common good and for the honor and duty of being American.

“I was personally against war,” said Eddie Wong, a 71-year-old veteran. “I was at the Washington Monument when Nixon got inaugurated. I was part of the anti-war generation. But the reason I went into the military was to save lives. I served eight years and loved it.”

Yet when asked about the Iraq War, Wong was hesitant to voice objections.

“Sometimes as a vet, it’s difficult to say anything against the president,” he said. “We don’t go against the grain. We’re supposed to support the president. That’s part of the oath and preamble in the American Legion. Personally, I don’t want there to be war, but we can’t pull out now and abandon the men the president’s already committed.”

Wong immigrated to the United States when he was 8 and grew up in New York and Detroit. In 1956, when he was 19, he dropped out after a year of college and enlisted as a medical corps man and Marine medic on Okinawa. His father was an American-born Chinese who went to China as an American soldier in World War II.

“My dad had an engineering degree — a master’s — from City College,” he said. “My mother was a dance hall girl and taxi dancer. We were caught in China during the war with the Japanese occupation in Shanghai. A personal friend of my father’s, an intelligence officer in the Army, located us and got us the papers to get us over. It was fast. The war ended in October and we got here in November.”

He did various jobs including selling insurance, being a maître d’ and being an actor, and is a volunteer paralegal translator who assists people in court who only speak Chinese. He also serves as chaplain at the American Legion, delivering eulogies and conducting military ceremonies for veterans who have passed away.

“I don’t want to see a vet go without any military honor,” he said.

Kingston Lam, a 28-year-old veteran of the Iraq War and Wong’s junior by about 40 years, also immigrated from China and joined the military with humanitarian intentions. Lam came to the United States from Fujian when he was 14, and joined the military in 1998 after his first semester of college.

“I joined because it was a challenge and I liked the idea,” he said. “I want to show honor as a U.S. citizen and fulfill my duty as a citizen.”

Lam was in Iraq from 2003 to 2004 and worked in Transportation Management, coordinating the distribution of supplies between Kuwait and southern Iraq. He volunteered to go to Iraq even though he wasn’t obligated to, as his six-year contract was for reserve duty.

“They were missing personnel and asked if anyone would volunteer,” he said. “I volunteered because they needed me…. I’m glad I did it. I enjoy helping people.” Lam now works at Beth Israel Hospital as an outreach coordinator.

He also saw his job as a contribution for a greater good than self. “We are soldiers and chose to be soldiers, but that doesn’t mean we like war,” he said. “And it doesn’t mean we’re not going to fight because we disagree with the war. The country won’t have strength or armed forces if no one wants to be a soldier. No one wanted to go to war and wanted to be deployed and risk our lives, but we were doing it because we were fulfilling our duty as a soldier. Peace and freedom don’t come for free and there are lots of sacrifices that go with it.”

Many of the veterans at the American Legion post feel immense pride, and the sweetness of being American, but some also have feelings of ambiguity.

“There were good experiences and there were bad experiences being the only Asian American,” said Tony Chuy, a Vietnam War veteran with 24 years of service on his resume. As the only Asian among 500 crew members on an American carrier during the war, he was called names and made fun of by both superiors and those of his own rank.

“They picked on me for what I am, because of the way I look and for my name,” Chuy said. “They called me ‘Ho Chi Minh’ — the leader of the North Vietnamese. They made fun of my eyes.” But he also had good times. When the ship stopped in Taiwan and Hong Kong, soldiers genuinely interested in understanding Asian culture asked him to be their ambassador. “I knew the language and I knew how to get around and took them to places to eat. Those were good times.”

Jerry Chan, who had immigrated from Hong Kong and served in the Navy for more than 10 years and was in Bosnia in 1993 and 1994, also feels inequity. “It seems a lot of people don’t know how Chinese Americans got here,” he said. “We’ve been here for almost as long as the Europeans. It feels like no matter what we do, no matter how much we learn to be like Americans, we’re still foreigners to them.”

He noted during this year’s Super Bowl, people of various races read from the preamble of the constitution, but there was no Asian face to be seen.

“They think we’re not American,” said Chan.

Yet Lam, the Iraqi war vet, didn’t feel that his Chinese American identity had much bearing on his military experience. “When you’re there, you’re an American soldier,” he said. “When I put my uniform on, I don’t think about being Chinese American, because that has nothing to do with it.”

Fang Wong, a longtime legionnaire who worked in intelligence during Vietnam, gave his perspective on generational changes in the community and in the post. Currently Adjutant of Post 1291, he was recently appointed chairperson of the National Security Commission for the Legion by National Commander Marty Conatser.

“The War on Terrorism brings a brand new generation of Chinese Americans serving Iraq,” said Wong. “Most of them are like our founding fathers — first-generation Chinese Americans trying to serve their newly adopted country and find their place and interface to get into mainstream society.”

Qi Kang Chen, a first generation Chinese American, joined the Navy in 1990 and served in the Gulf War. He is glad that there is an American Legion post where he can find fellow veterans to relate to. Chen didn’t know about the American Legion until he had already found his job. But he believes that his transition would have been easier if he had been part of the American Legion earlier.

“People who are about to come out of the military can benefit from American Legion if they are looking for jobs and want to know what fields they can get into,” he said. He sees the legion as a team, where a network of people supports the individual.

Since its founding, Post 1291 has served as a bridge between the Chinese and mainstream communities. G.I. bills and V.A. loans have helped Chinese Americans get educated and start businesses, and opened doors for them to enter the working and middle classes. The post founders, Chinese American veterans who returned home from W.W. II, saw that the solidarity of an all Chinese American post would allow their voices to be heard more easily. Their post was established in 1944 known as the Lieutenant Benjamin Ralph Kimlau Memorial post, which honors the Chinese American World War II Air Force bomber pilot who made the supreme sacrifice.

The Post boasts 630 members, with about 200 veterans from World War II, 100 from the Korean War, 130 from the Vietnam War, and the remaining from Iraq, the Gulf War and smaller conflicts.

Chinatown’s Legion Post has done many community projects, including a sendoff and family day activities for the 353rd Civil Affairs Command at Fort Hamilton — the unit redeployed to Iraq to re-establish basic and essential services to local communities after destruction from fighting and insurgence.

“I want my fellow troops to come home. My main concern is the guys stationed there and I want them to come home too,” said Joseph James Wong, 41, who joined the military during peacetime but stayed throughout Desert Storm, Desert Shield, the Serbian War and Iraq. Thankfully, he was able to be one of the many present to share the celebration of a new year at a banquet with four generations of veterans.

After a night of many rich and exotic flavors, the banquet ended with red bean dessert soup and almond cookies, something sweet. Post 1291’s motto, “C.A.P.” doubles as an acronym for Chinese American Pride and Contribute, Assimilate, and Progress. It seems that that’s exactly what they’re doing with their commitment to keeping cultural flavors of both the new and old country.

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