In the late 1980s, I initiated an oral history project on the Chinese American community in Seattle. The goal was to publish a book of oral histories of seniors, develop an exhibition for the Wing Luke Museum and create an archive of taped interviews, photos and historical documents for future research.
During the course of the project, many interview subjects mentioned the Cathay Post #186, a Seattle-based veteran’s organization affiliated with the American Legion. Many of the interviewees themselves had been veterans and were lifelong members. Others had heard about—or benefited from—the good deeds of the Cathay Post. The group was deeply embedded in the post-War life of the community.
Since its inception in 1945, the Cathay Post has been involved in countless civic projects, including raising money for scholarships to support needy students, blood drives, Christmas and New Year’s parties for Chinatown kids, an annual Memorial Day commemoration, and fundraising drives to support the Kin On Nursing Home and the Wing Luke Museum.
The vets came back after their service to this country and channeled their sense of duty toward betterment of the community. They clearly made their mark, even if most people in the mainstream society didn’t recognize the significance of this work.
During the earlier oral history project, I spoke to Chinatown medic Donnie Chin, who shared my passion for preserving the past. I told him that the Cathay Post kept coming up in my research on the Chinese community. How could I find out more? Donnie—whose uncles were founding members of the group—handed me a black-and-white picture of David “Gobby” Woo, the man who started the organization.
“Go find him,” he said. “He knows everything. I’m not sure if he’s still alive though. You know how it is when you don’t see one of the old-timers for a while.”
I asked my father if he knew David. “Of course,” he said. “We’re related.” That was news to me. David’s father was Woo Gen, one of the Chinese community pioneers who had testified for my grandfather Quay Fong Chew when he had petitioned for entry to the U.S. in 1911. My father explained to me that my grandfather’s older sister had married Gobby’s father. “So we’re shirt-tail relatives,” he said.
My father told me that Gobby lived alone in a house on Beacon Hill, not far from our home. He gave me a phone number and address, and I quickly set up an appointment to go over to his house to talk.
David was a gregarious and warm individual with a sharp wit and clear memory. He explained to me that he started the Cathay Post to help returning World War II vets petition for their wives in China to join them in the United States. He figured that the vets, after serving this country in war, deserved the opportunity to start families here. David also wanted to erect a memorial to honor the young Chinese American men who were killed in combat. Among them was my late uncle Lee Hong Chew, my dad’s younger brother. The granite memorial stands in Hing Hay Park.
Gobby was an aerial gunner pilot involved in a U.S. bombing mission over Germany during War II. He was shot down and survived 27 months of confinement in German prison camps. He spent time in the infamous Stalag 17B, an Austrian camp immortalized in a popular film starring actor William Holden.
I spent many days over at Gobby’s house and taped several formal interviews with him in 1990 and 1991. By that time, he was in failing health, his body weakened after many years of kidney dialysis. I timed my visits for the days when he came back from treatment when he had more energy.
One day, he pulled open his dresser and handed me some objects to donate to the Wing Luke Museum, including old Chinese lottery tickets and two very old Chinese wooden combs from his mother. He said he wanted to contribute something to the preservation of his family’s story.
He also asked me to help him find a shop that could repair his old black Underwood manual typewriter. It was a special keepsake from his time at Stalag 17. He used it to type up “underground news” to help keep up the morale of his fellow prisoners. He brought it back to Seattle with him after he was freed. I went around the city, searching in vain for a place that would be willing to help “Gobby” with the repair. I finally located a typewriter repair shop on Capitol Hill which agreed to take a stab at the job. I left it there for several months. Sadly, David passed away before the typewriter was fixed. When I went to retrieve it, the repair shop had shut down. I never got the typewriter back.
I set out to find out more about my dad’s younger brother, Lee Hong Chew. Uncle Lee was part of the famed 87th Infantry Battalion, sent to Italy to spearhead the Allied offensive to capture key mountain peaks in Italy and end the German resistance during World War II. Uncle Lee was killed in combat on February 20, 1945, gunned down while at the head of his battalion. The story I had been told by other Chinese American veterans is that he singlehandedly attacked a German submachine gun nest. I was told that he was also nominated for a Silver Star medal. He was 23 at the time of his death.
Every Memorial Day since childhood, I had faithfully accompanied my father to Evergreen Washelli Cemetery to pay respects to him.
I never knew Uncle Lee—I was born in 1953—but I grew up always wondering about him. Stacked on two basement shelves in our Beacon Hill home were his school papers, books, letters, yearbooks, slide rule, math compass and camera gear. When I was younger, I didn’t understand why my father still kept these things, especially since he hardly said a word about Uncle Lee, and these belongings just collected more and more dust over the years.
My gap in knowledge was filled by my interviews of Cathay Post members who remembered Uncle Lee as high school buddies. They described his low-key manner and intelligence, his love of photography, his outings to the downtown YMCA to play pool and his swimming trips to Lake Washington. Among those I spoke to were Thomas Lew, Cal Fung, Ray Lew, Bill Sing and Bill Chin.
I began to ask questions of my mother, too. She told me that Uncle Lee’s death had deeply saddened my father for a number of years because the two were so close. His death also devastated my grandmother in China who had high hopes that the youngest of her four sons, the one who had made it to college, would make real the promise of a better life in “Gold Mountain” for the Chew clan. Fearful of the grief that would come over my grandmother, family members didn’t even tell her for years that her beloved son had been killed.
In the basement of my parent’s Beacon Hill home, I found a letter from Uncle Lee to my father, stating that he would soon be going into combat and imploring my father to “take care of the insurance” as soon as possible. The letter was signed “Your loving brother, Lee.” I also found a letter from the Veteran’s Administration, certifying that Lee Hong Chew had applied for $10,000 of insurance, payable in case of death. I also found a letter to a woman in Seattle, someone I presumed to be his girlfriend by the tone and content of the letter. These discoveries broke my heart.
During the Chinese oral history project, I finally summoned the nerve to ask my father more about his younger brother. He didn’t say much. His face filled with a kind of sadness I had never seen before. I felt awful opening this door to his past. My father gave me a few factoids about his brother, directed me to my Uncle Lee’s papers in the basement, and that was it. I never asked him more than a handful of questions about his brother after that.
But how could I not know how my father felt about Uncle Lee? My older brother had been given the middle name “Lee.” I had received the rather obscure middle name “Alpha.” I discovered—after talking to one of Uncle Lee’s school chums—that Alpha was the nickname Uncle Lee had acquired because of a tuft of unruly hair in the back of his head, similar to the cowlick of Alfalfa, the character from The Little Rascals.
The sacrifices of David Woo, Uncle Lee, Donnie Chin’s uncles and the many other Cathay Post veterans not only contributed to this country’s war effort, it also allowed my mother and my aunts to eventually join their husbands in America after repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act. As the Chew clan began to reunify in the U.S. after World War II, my two brothers, my sister and I were born in Seattle, as were a number of my cousins.
The birth of my children’s generation in this country—far from the harsh poverty of rural China, far from the brutal discrimination of the pre-Civil Rights era in the U.S.—was the culmination of a long journey, the final fulfillment of the American dream, made possible, in one sense, by the sacrifice of the Cathay Post veterans.
Today, the remaining Cathay Post veterans from World War II—and the Korean War—are few in number. As that generation passes from the scene, it’s important that we reclaim and embrace this legacy.
This special issue of the International Examiner features excerpts from videotaped interviews conducted over the past year with remaining members of the Cathay Post. The interviews are incorporated into a new video documentary, titled, Cathay Post, American Legion #186: A Legacy of Camaraderie, Community, and Patriotism, which premieres at the Wing Luke Museum on November 12.
Thanks to the following individuals for sharing their memories: Jackson Chan, Bill Chin, Jacob Chin, Susie Chin, William and Dorothy Chin, Ron Choi, Cal Fung, Jeni Fung, Francis Gregory, Lloyd Hara, Bob Harmon, Richard Lew Kay, Tom Lehning, James Leong, Lilyan Leong, Thomas Lew, Frances Locke, Terry Nicholas, Lip Mar, Jack Pang, Milton Wan, and Tek Wong.
Special thanks to the Cathay Post #186 of the American Legion, the City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods, and the Friends of the Cathay Post for their sponsorship and support. Thanks to videographer Tuyen Kim Than for filming the interviews and documenting the Cathay Post over the past year. Thanks to Sue Mar for her assistance with interviews and research. Thanks to Jacqueline Wu for volunteer research. Thanks to Han Eckelberg and Rick Wong for additional help with videography. Thanks to Debbie Louie for transcription and research and to the many other volunteers and contributors. And thanks to Wing Luke Museum for their support of the project and for hosting the showing.
On Saturday, November 12, the Wing Luke Museum will honor veterans. A documentary film titled, ‘Cathay Post #186: A Legacy of Camaraderie, Community, and Patriotism,’ will make its debut. The film was funded in part by the City of Seattle’s Neighborhood Matching Fund and Cathay Post #186. The event happens from 12:00 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. This event is free to the public. For more information, click here.