From Chinatown to Mississippi
Marion Kwan

[As told to and discussed by Freedom Movement veterans and family members at a story-telling session, U.C. Berkeley, September 30, 2018.]

Movement VeteransFamily Members & Guests
Marion KwanBill Hall
Peggy Ryan PooleChar Potes
Robert Singleton 
Roy Torkington 
Bruce Hartford 

Marion: In 1965 and 1966, two summers, I was with a group that's called the Delta Ministry. It's a national council of churches civil rights group that's stationed only in one place in the United States, and that was in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, so that's where I ended up.

Last week, I spoke to a large crowd in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and it was primarily Chinese-Americans who wanted to hear about me. They didn't know I existed, and when they found out, they wanted to hear me out. And so one of the questions after my speech, the President of this Chinese group, asked me this question; she was dying to ask me it. And so she went up to the mic and said, 'Marion, when I was little, and I grew up in Mississippi, unless they'd give me permission, I could not walk across the road to the other side. So how did you end up in Mississippi?' And my only answer was, my parents knew nothing. That's how I got there, because they knew nothing.

Roy: This is Roy. Were your parents immigrants then?

Marion: Yes. I was raised in San Francisco. Chinatown. And they knew nothing, because they didn't know the English language. When they watched television, they just watched the Chinese news, so when I told them I was going down South, they said, 'OK.' [General laughter]

Bruce: Blissful ignorance.

Marion: I have a feeling that we all went for sort of the same reasons, that we just wanted to do it. We just had to do it. It was just not a question. We just went.

Roy: This is Roy. Marion, you know, there are Chinese in Mississippi, and there were Chinese grocery stores. They had Chinese grocery stores. I got the impression — I talked to the Chinese girl that was the daughter of the grocery store owners, and she was very circumspect about — 'Oh, I get along with the white kids. I get along with the Black kids.' But I suspect that it varied from county to county, but the Chinese, I think, were generally treated as white people, and the kids went to the white schools.

Marion: Not necessarily. Not from what I hear.

Roy: Well, that was the impression that I got. But again, I never felt that she was completely leveling with me when she was talking to me. You know what I mean? And by the way, it was very strange to hear these Chinese people speaking with a Southern accent.

Marion: Oh yeah, it's really wonderful. I wish I could speak like they do. But no, they could not attend white schools. So they ended up having their own Chinese schools, and they would hire a white teacher to teach them, because they have no access to the public schools. But when I was there, I had no idea. I had not met any Asians at all. None of the stores [in Hattiesburg] had any Asians, so I had no idea. In a way, I'm kind of glad that I didn't, because when I think about it, if they knew that I was an outsider, and I was one of the freedom fighters, and I was walking and talking to Chinese owners, I knew that I would put them in jeopardy, and I couldn't do anything about it, because I wasn't there for them. So I mean, I thought about these weird configurations that could happen.

I think my story shifts as I speak a lot about it, but in essence, it has to do with two communities, side by side. I was born and raised in San Francisco's Chinatown, and I didn't know that my life was going to change when I went away to college. So I went through the public school system in San Francisco. I went through Chinatown like any other Chinese kid. I grew up there, and I did whatever I did there. When I say Chinatown, I meant that was my whole life. My parents couldn't speak English, so they didn't know how to take the bus, except one bus that goes straight to Market Street to shop and then come back. And that's their world. So that was my world, and there were eight of us kids born and raised. Well, my older sister was not. She was born in China, but she and my mother and my dad — well, she was 7 years old when my mother was pregnant with my oldest brother, and she was detained at Angel Island.

[Angel Island was the primary immigration station for Asians arriving by boat on the West Coast. In some ways it served as the western equivilent of Ellis Island in New York. But unlike Ellis Island where most European immigrants were welcome, there was an effort under the Chinese Exclusion Acts to block and turn back Asian immigrants.]

My family was detained at Angel Island, and my mother was there for several weeks. And I didn't know any of this history.

All I knew was that my life was Chinatown, and when I went away to college, I went away through a church-related organization. So I started at a place called Cameron House Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, and there was a Presbyterian choir teacher who talked to us about — she went to this Presbyterian school, and it's a great school, and I thought I needed to get away from Chinatown. So I ended up in Nebraska. [General laughter]

In the school. Don't laugh.

Bruce: Definitely away from Chinatown! [General laughter]

Marion: No Chinatowns there. You know, Chinatown was me, period. [General laughter]

And so it was during the Civil Rights — I mean, I graduated in '65, and you know what '65 is; '64 and '65 was the Freedom Summer. And this professor there talked to us in class about his experience with the Delta Ministry. Delta Ministry was church-related, and it was safe enough for me to say — well, my girlfriend and I, a classmate of mine, and we got excited. 'Hey, we're gonna graduate. Let's not go home. Let's just do down there and see where the action is.' 'Yeah, that's a great idea.' And so that was how young we were and how adventurous we wanted to be.

I just wrote home or called my mom and said, 'Oh yeah, it's church-related, Mom, don't worry about it. We're going down there.' 'Oh, OK.' So that was the extent of my conversation with my family, how I got there.

But looking back on my experience, I just want to touch base about the two cultures. When I was in Chinatown, I knew that there were other people who were not Chinese, and they were what we called "tourists."

And they would come to the ghetto — because to me Chinatown still is below poverty level, it's the poorest of the poor in the entire district of San Francisco. When I was raised there in the 1940s and it's still the same. It hasn't changed. The poverty rate rate is still really, really poor.

When I ended up in a town called Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which I figured it is about 1200 miles [from San Francisco], it could not have been more similar. And it sort of threw me for a loop. Because being raised in Chinatown, I knew that it was a geographical boundary. And I understood reservations. I understood the Western Addition and Hunter's Point [the two African-American ghettos in San Francisco at the time]. I understood Chinatown. I understood boundaries, minority boundaries.

And years later, I realized that my experience in Hattiesburg was really grassroots oriented. If I were with SNCC or if I were with SCLC or COFO, NAACP, I may have experienced Hattiesburg differently. But I was with this group called the Delta Ministry, and their approach was you stay home. This is your home. And everything you do will come out of that one area. So I did nothing but, I would say, 80% grassroots organizing or grassroots community work, voter registration.

And then when I went home, like you can imagine yourself, your mind's just blown out of proportion. I mean, your senses were so vividly tied to where you were in the Deep South. It was just such a different experience that it just sort of transformed me, but I couldn't articulate it. I was just changed. My personality, my demeanor of being a very quiet, obedient Chinese girl, I became the outspoken, angry kid.

And they were saying, 'What happened to you?' And I said, 'I don't know, but something happened to me.'

So much so that it propelled me to go back again the next summer. I didn't have to go back. In between that time, I did a citywide workshop where [George] Moscone, at that time, he was a [state senator]. He wasn't mayor then. He came to my workshop, because he hadn't heard of the Delta Ministry. He didn't know what was going on, and so out of curiosity, he attended my workshop. I was like, 'Whoa! That's not bad.'

And what woke me up was this story that I'd like to share with you. Having been born and raised in Chinatown for 16 years, when I was stationed in Hattiesburg, I knew every street. I knew my neighbors. I knew where the 4th District was, and I knew how to walk from Mobile Street where the Delta Ministry was in town — I know how to walk from there to home, and it took me maybe half an hour to get there. I knew neighbors and so forth, and I was able to sit on the front porch with them. And we got to really know each other very, very well.

And I realized, I kept saying to myself, 'How come my adjustment was so smooth?' I couldn't figure it out. And it took me a few years later when I had to talk about it that I realized it was poverty. It was poverty. I just flowed from one community to another, and the way the neighbors relate to each other was the way the Chinatown neighbors relate to each other. When I grew up in Chinatown, all the adults were "aunties" and "uncles," even though I don't know who they were, you know? On weekends, my family would go out, and there was such a large group of us, we would get stopped at every block to chat; adults chatting with other adults, and I was supposed to say, 'Hello uncle, yes how are you?' And you know, we'd do that every weekend.

I just felt that how folks in Hattiesburg treated me was so natural that I treated them the same way as with people in Chinatown. So it took me awhile to figure that out, that it was the poverty; it wasn't the race. It wasn't simply geography. It was the Deep South, but Chinatown could've been in the Deep South, easily. They could've spoken Chinese with a drawl. I met a lot of Chinese people a couple of weeks ago with drawls.

So one of the things that I felt when I was speaking to groups about this story, if I were to bring this up, there was a key sentence that I learned through speaking that was very important to me. I would start out talking about Chinatown as being a tourist [attraction] and a ghetto, because that's how I met white people. They were tourists, and they would come up to my front door, and I would see them as tourists. But when I went to Hattiesburg, I wasn't a tourist. And then there was this word that came up that was so important to me. When I was in Hattiesburg I realized that in my time there, the first summer, I was no longer a tourist. I was a witness. I was a witness to crimes against humanity, to Chinatown and to Hattiesburg.

And that finally clicked. It clicked to me so, so hard and so fast that it's poverty we're talking about. It's housing; it's education; it's food in your stomach; it's medicine when you're sick; it's basic decent human survival of any group. It doesn't matter who it is. And I finally saw humanity from my perspective, because I came from there. But I think what I felt like I had a blessing that African-Americans didn't have [which] was that my parents came as immigrants. They did not come as slaves. So my culture was intact; my religion was intact; my way of living was intact, except for the poverty.

I came to accept the poverty, but I couldn't accept the fact that my identity would've been taken away from me, and I felt like that's what happened to the slaves. And that was a difference. It was how we all came here to the United States, number one, and it was secondly the poverty. So to me, it's class. It's always been class first, and all the racism comes first that comes along with poverty, but for me personally, in terms of my identity, I didn't have the problem with my identity. I kept my identity, because I knew it was solid.

Somebody in the audience in Albuquerque said he wanted to be 100% American, and I said, 'I'm already 100% American, and I'm also 100% Chinese,' and I felt very secure about my identity. Whereas, we're fighting for a group of people whose identity was taken away from them, so I thought that that was more important than anything else that was missing. So that was my own give and take on if I have to talk about this, that one story, that would be what I've learned about myself.

Roy: Talking about poverty, and it's very interesting. My father was one of nine children, and his father was a wood-finisher. And a number of years ago, it wasn't too recently, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, one of my cousins said — or my sister said — 'You know, we and another one of my father's brothers, our father and one of his brothers were the poorest Torkingtons.' And she had been talking with the daughter of my uncle, the other uncle who was the other poor Torkington, so I talked to that cousin once. And I said, 'You know, I never thought of that.' Although I did remember that my father would be out of work at Thanksgiving, and one of his sisters would bring a turkey and stuff for Thanksgiving dinner over for us, but it didn't occur to me.

I went to Yale on a scholarship, but it was very expensive to go to Yale. And I said to my cousin, 'That never occurred to me.' And she said, 'Well, Roy, you're a guy. I'm a girl, and when you wear the same two dresses to school every other day, you realize that there's a problem there.' And the strange thing was, was that it never — I had friends, yeah, their parents had more money than we did, but it never occurred to me to make the comparison within the family and say, of the nine, my father and this other uncle were the two poorest ones. I mean, it never occurred to me. It took me over 60 years to find that out. It was a strange feeling when that cousin said that to me.

Peggy: Again, I've learned something. I mean, I found your story — you know talking about the two communities and poverty, and of course, that's where the Civil Rights Movement — I think Martin Luther King and a lot of others were going towards Green Power [meaning economic power]. That was becoming more of an issue. The poverty and the closed off — especially in the rural south, really in rural American anywhere, but in particular in the rural south, the Black community — like I talked about in Waverly, how they were just so closed off, and there were no options.

And part of it was poverty. Nobody had a car. I mean, so getting out, and of course nowadays, I mean, there are all kinds of ways to expand your world, but at that time, there wasn't. And Chinatown is — I worked for years at San Francisco General [hospital] in the emergency department, and there were many people who would come in who had never seen a Western doctor. You know, it really is a very enclosed community. So that is interesting. Powerful. Yeah. Could you explain that to your parents or to your family at all? Did they understand? Did you attempt to talk to them?

Marion: No. No. I'm just glad that I came back alive, and I didn't have to explain anything. [General laughter]

Bruce: Or not been arrested and explained that.

Marion: Exactly. That too. But I could've been many times, but somehow I didn't have to deal with that.

Roy: Well, I'm interested in language. Did you and your siblings speak English or Chinese to each other? Cantonese?

Marion: Cantonese came first.

Roy: Cantonese. But do you now speak Cantonese with your siblings? Or do you speak English?

Marion: English.

Roy: English. And when did you stop speaking Cantonese with your siblings?

Marion: Usually when school starts, because this is American schools, English schools.

Roy: Yeah. I have a friend, a woman who was raised in Chinatown, as you were, by immigrant parents. And I asked her when she and her brother stopped speaking Cantonese, or Toisanese actually. They were speaking Toisanese to each other and began speaking English. And she couldn't remember. She really didn't know it had happened.

Marion: I think because gradually the more English you listen to in school, that takes over.

Roy: Bigger vocabulary.

Marion: And you can say something secret in front of your parents just by speaking English. [General laughter] That happens a lot.

Bruce: Very handy.

Marion: Yes, very handy. Right in front of everybody you can say something. And we were laughing, and my parents said, '[something in Chinese].' 'Nothing, Mom.' [General laughter]


Peggy: I want to end on a positive note, because there's so much to regret politically right now. But one of the things that I took away from my summer in the South, and other times too, was the tremendous courage and humanity of very, very poor people that were trapped. And yeah, that was very powerful. Very powerful.

Bob: I agree.

Marion: Yeah, I thank you for saying that, because it took me many years of speaking and being more conscious. I realized kids keep asking us speakers, 'Who were your heroes?' And it's easy to say, 'Name one person, name a second person, name a third person.' But I realize now that personally, the person I know that I lived with every day for two summers is my hero.

I mean, she's the one. I don't know Martin Luther King. I mean, I've been in the same marches, but you know, kids want to say, 'Did you see Martin Luther King?' 'Yeah, in the distance.' 'Oh good, I'm gonna go home and tell my family.' And I realized, that's not it. That's not it. Let's get rid of the drama and look at the basics, and the basics were Mrs. Sims who I lived with for two summers who was willing to take me in despite the fact that her life is at risk. Who talks about that, you know?

When I come home at 11 or 12 midnight after a meeting, she's the one that had to wake up. There's nobody else. Every morning, she gave me a bowl of grits, and after the 50th grit-day, I had to say, 'Mrs. Sims, I love you, but I can't take any more grits.' [General laughter.] Every single morning. And you know, I have something Chinese that's similar to this; it's called jook.

Male: Congee.

Marion: Congee, jook, yeah. But even at home, I don't have it every single morning. But it was her devotion. You know, I was a complete stranger, and she just took me in. I said, 'You want to take me in and risk all that?' So she was really my hero. So it just takes, what you're saying Peggy, is just a different take on everything. I mean, we just saw it from the ground up, and we just don't sometimes know how to really realize what an impact it has, the whole Movement has on each of us, personally. And it's a huge movement, and we didn't know how to relate to it.


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