By MARY UYEMATSU KAO
With the embattled successes of the San Francisco State Strike and the UC Berkeley Third World Liberation Front Strike in 1968-1969, ethnic studies forged its way into U.S. academia. Faced with the task of filling in the gaping holes in U.S. history, where white settlers deleted their crimes of aggression and oppression of generations and multitudes of people of color — ethnic studies gained a small foothold in the established academic community.
At the heart of ethnic studies is the oral histories of people of color who lived through the oppressive regimes of the past (and present). Oral tradition is the precious stuff that lights up our histories in the Americas.
Susie Ling, a 1984 graduate of the Masters Program in Asian American Studies at UCLA, embodies the best traditions of ethnic studies. Her oral histories serve our communities, often showing the cross-racial friendships among communities of color. As an associate professor of history and Asian American studies at Pasadena City College, she enriches our local communities by giving back local histories that are not well known.
Ling’s MA thesis was the groundbreaking “Mountain Movers: Asian American Women’s Movement in Los Angeles,” as it captured the voices of Movement women and their struggles with male chauvinism within the 1970s Asian Movement. “Mountain Movers” laid bare the inner workings and frustrations faced by Movement women, who were too often relegated to secretarial or “non-leadership” roles.
In my email interview with Susie, she described her process interviewing 30 people for this project: “This was done with cassettes and an electric (not electronic) typewriter. It took me less than a year because I loved every minute of it. … I did interview about half a dozen men, which was very very helpful. I got into a pattern: I heard the interview, I re-hear it again while transcribing, and then I re-typed. I lived the interview for a few days.”
Susie didn’t stop, and has done over 200 oral histories to date. She reflected: “Ever since I was a child, I loved hearing stories and my family told some good ones. … My skills are knowledge of U.S. history and being a very fast transcriber. … I realized I had a superpower as a transcriber.”
When I asked Susie how her oral histories affect her teaching, she writes: “Every time I tell a REAL story in the classroom, the young people perk up. They love my stories, and I love my stories … History is about REAL people. As about 90% of my students are working-class people of color, the stories of those before them give them power. … The manongs did it, the Isseis did it, yesterday’s immigrants, the women, the African Americans…”
Professor Ling has been a recognized force as this Pasadena Star News article (4/2/2021) headlines her impact: “College class on History of Asian Americans sparked insight, rapport that endures for years: Personal stories from a Pasadena City College professor along with her Asian American history course insights have proved unforgettable and vital years after class concluded.”
Susie thanks her sabbaticals for the time to do her oral history projects. “I thought to look into the Asian American history of San Gabriel Valley [SGV] — thinking there was little and I would finish this ‘look’ in about two weeks. WAS I WRONG! I found the Niseis! I didn’t know JAs had roots in SGV!!!! Bacon Sakatani was one of my first interviewees and he said, ‘Boy, you are just like a hakujin.’ (I didn’t know what an ofuro was.) In one of my last interviews, I gifted Yosh Kuromiya’s wife something, and she said ‘You are just like a Japanese American.’ WAS I EVER TOUCHED. This was in the 1990s. I loved the Niseis. I learned so much from them and valued them so much. And I’m eternally grateful that I caught them before they too passed on.”
Rafu readers might be familiar with Susie’s article “The Marshalls from J-Flats” (2/20/2020). Interviewing 93-year-old Barbara Jean Marshall Williams, we learn that J-Flats was originally homesteaded by her grandparents, the Albrights, in 1892. They were a black/white interracial couple. Barbara’s parents were given power of attorney by their Japanese American neighbors to protect their property and bank assets while they were incarcerated during World War II. An expanded version can be found here: https://eastwindezine.com/the-marshalls-from-j-flats/
These are a few highlights of what Susie has documented:
• “Thank You Carr Family” (published in The Rafu (11/21/2014): A white father and son, who were both real estate agents, broke racial covenants for Japanese, African Americans, and Jews to buy homes in the San Rafael hills.
• Joan Takayama-Ogawa: Her father’s neighbors were Jackie Robinson’s parents. The Robinsons took care of the Takayama family’s property during the war, and taught her father how to cook Louisiana greens and pork rinds. Her father, Hideo, was the same age as Mac Robinson (Jackie’s brother), and Shig (Hideo’s brother) was the same age as Jackie. Shig played football with Jackie at Pasadena Junior College.
• “Monrovia Superstar: Architect Robert Kennard,” published in the Monrovia Weekly (2/7/2019): Susie recounts how Robert Kennard’s family faced the segregated schools in Monrovia (some up until 1970). Kennard was inducted into the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows for excellence in 1986. Susie’s article was based on Jerome Robinson’s USC School of Architecture MA thesis, “An Odyssey in B-Flat: Rediscovering the Life and Times of Master Architect Robert A. Kennard” — available at the Monrovia Historical Museum. https://susieling.wordpress.com/2020/01/19/monrovia-superstar-architect-robert-kennard/
• The full list of San Gabriel Valley Nisei that Susie has interviewed: Sadako Ebihara Mayeda, Edgar Fukutaki, Chiye Hashimoto Taniguchi, Ted Sakio Hashimoto, Chiye Hayashi Watanabe, Reiko Kato Yoshihashi, Shigeru Kawai, Mitsuo Kunihiro, Yoshito Kuromiya, Jimmy Yukio Makino, Elsie Shizuko Morita, Uyematsu Osajima, Kikuye Betty Nitake Murata, Shos Nomura, Ben T. Okura, Helen Sakata Nakagawa, Harumi “Bacon” Sakatani, Fujiko Sakiyama Ishizu, Sam Shimoguchi, Rose Kiyoko Shoda Nishio, Yoshimaro Sogioka, Keizo Ted Tajima, Joan Takayama-Ogawa, Esther Takei Nishio, Paul Hiroshi Tsuneishi, and Tokuji Yoshihashi.
• Mayor Bob Bartlett, the first African American Monrovia City Council member (1974) and mayor (1988-2001). Susie writes: “I got to interview Mayor Bob Bartlett before he died. He so wanted to share his history and the history of his parents. He called me from his hospital bed many times to make sure I would follow through with the project. Mary, it was my honor. These were stories that had to be told.” Bob Bartlett died on Oct. 11, 2015.
• Since 2003, Susie has been one of the editors of the Gum Saan Journal (published by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California). Susie writes: “…One of the presidents (of CHSSC) … sent me to visit these old Chinese grocers; I loved it. Other presidents sent me out on other assignments — bankers, lawyers, Hanford …” Her current project for **Gum Saan** is interviewing LGBTQ Chinese Americans. “This Chinese LGBTQ issue is the first time I’m primarily interviewing folks younger than me. … Our communities still puts stigma on the gay and lesbian experience. I’ve been struggling to learn, but we can’t lose this history.”
Susie’s oral histories are a labor of love: “A couple of times, somebody wanted to hire me; I said no. For me, it must be freely done and then gifted. I know this is not possible for others. … In Tagalog, there is a phrase: utaang ng loob or ‘debt of the heart.’ We owe the generations before us. I feel the need to pay some of this debt.”
Susie was born in Taiwan, raised in the Philippines, and currently lives in the San Gabriel Valley. You can find Susie online at: susieling.wordpress.com Mary Uyematsu Kao is a retired publications coordinator of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She published her photography book “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. Comments and feedback are welcome at: uyematsu