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Monday, August 13, 2007

Vallejo’s Chinese Community - Part Three: WWII and Beyond

James E. Kern

World War Two brought tremendous growth and activity to Vallejo and Mare Island, and presented new opportunities to the city’s Chinese-Americans as well. The wartime economy allowed Chinese-Americans to move into a wider field of business, no longer restricted to what many considered traditional Chinese occupations. Chinese-Americans joined the thousands of defense workers supporting the war effort through employment at Mare Island and other local shipyards. Nationwide, many women were joining the ranks of defense workers including, in the Bay Area, many Chinese-American women.

To honor the contributions of Chinese-Americans to the war effort Mare Island selected a Chinese-American woman to christen the destroyer escort HMS Foley (later renamed USS Harold C. Thomas) when it was launched on December 18, 1942. The sponsor, Mrs. Emme Yam, was a helper electrician in Mare Island’s Shop 51, and her husband, Fred Yam, also worked at Mare Island. Mrs. Yam’s matron of honor at the launching was Lily Ching, a helper machinist. Both Mrs. Yam and Mrs. Ching received the honor of sponsoring the ship through a vote by their 200 fellow Chinese-American shipyard workers. The launching party included several other Chinese-American shipyard employees and the principal address was delivered by Chinese Consul General Dr. Chih-Tsing Feng.

Another Chinese-American defense worker at Mare Island during WWII was Maggie Gee, who worked as a draughtswoman. Despite her long work hours in support of the war effort, Maggie and two other young women from Mare Island decided to spend their spare time learning to fly. After completing her aviation training in Nevada and returning to Mare Island, Maggie Gee was called up by the Army Air Corps, where she became one of only two Chinese-American women to serve in the WASPs. For the duration of the war she flew military supply transports throughout the country.

After the war, Vallejo’s Chinese-American community underwent both physical and social changes. By this time, many of Vallejo’s Chinese residents were second, third, or even fourth generation descendants, and were more thoroughly assimilated into the community at large. In addition, the vast post-war urban redevelopment project that resulted in the demolition of 26 square blocks of old downtown Vallejo displaced the last of the families and businesses from the city’s traditional Chinese neighborhoods.

Preserving the Chinese community’s cohesiveness and heritage, however, was still an important goal in post-WWII Vallejo. In 1949 the Vallejo Chinese Community Center was organized. This group later evolved into the Vallejo-Napa Chinese Club. There was also a Chinese congregation at Vallejo’s First Baptist Church at this time. The Vallejo Chinese Community Center supported the community by sponsoring traditional festivals and other cultural events, awarding scholarships, raising funds for charitable causes, and providing a venue for social activities.

Over the years successive waves of immigration have changed the character of Vallejo’s Chinese-American community. Throughout all of these changes, however, Vallejoans of Chinese heritage have provided important contributions to the development of the city. Today these contributions continue to enrich the community and to add to the diversity of Solano County’s largest city.