Racism obviously provided barriers to Chinese immigrants like my parents and their peers. Unlike their children and grandchildren, professions and college educations were not available to the immigrants. Nevertheless, my parents were able to achieve the American Dream by operating a laundry, which was considered menial labor!

They found ways to get around the barriers of racism to obtain their goal of achieving economic freedom and the American Dream.

In San Francisco’s Chinese community, before the availability of social services, the Chinese Six Companies provided some aid for new immigrants. It was an example of an ethnic group taking care of its own. (I have heard similar opportunities existed in the Japanese community among gardeners who banded together to help one another!)

Family associations also provided some aid and a place to network and find employment.

When banks would not loan money to individuals without some sort of collateral, the Chinese immigrants found another path.

Above and below: The “bank books” used by my parents.

In the case of my parents, they were members of the Laundryman’s Credit Union. It was not FDIC insured. Only people who were trustworthy were allowed to join. This meant that members had to trust each other and loans were made with a handshake.

The way it worked was that members would buy shares and each week would deposit money based on the amount of shares they owned. I remember every week going up to Chinatown with my dad and later my older brother, Benny, to make a payment.

If a member needed money he would bid to pay a certain interest rate to secure a loan for that week. The money was available from the pool of deposits collected.

One of my classmate’s father was the “banker” in charge. His office was a room in a walk-up in Chinatown. There was usually another guy who served as security. It was like entering a speakeasy in the ’20s.

It was funny because the banker would have stacks of 20-dollar bills, rubber-banded together, which he would place in a shopping bag.

If a member did not need the money, he could just benefit from the interest payments and use it as a savings account.

This method of raising capital allowed hard-working Chinese immigrants to begin buying San Francisco real estate in the late ’60s and early ’70s as restrictions on Asians buying property began to disappear.

Many of my relatives and a few of my friends’ parents began to invest in San Francisco real estate before it became too expensive.

In this way, Chinese immigrants of modest means and low-paying occupations were able to create generational wealth!

As an example, one of my cousins who operated a small laundry began to buy apartment houses in the city. He bought multiple units and used the rent to make his mortgage payments. He now was able to get loans from banks because he had collateral.

At his passing, he was a multi-millionaire and was able to pass quite an estate on to his seven kids.

One of my college roommate’s parents repeated this wealth-building formula. They owned a grocery store in a poor neighborhood. Again, being able to invest in real estate led to my friend inheriting quite a large estate.

In the case of my own family, in 1956 my dad bought income property in a poor neighborhood that provided housing for our family and also rental income. His friends viewed it as a bad investment.

Over the years the neighborhood gentrified and the San Francisco property today is worth quite a bit. When my parents passed, my siblings and I inherited valuable income property that helped finance the college educations of their grandkids.

Although it might have appeared that the American Dream was out of reach for our immigrant parents, they were able to find paths to provide for their kids and created generational wealth for their offspring.

A generation later I worked as a job developer for an employment and training program in Oakland’s Chinatown. This benefited recent boat people who had fled Vietnam in the late 1970s. The pursuit of the American Dream continues among recent immigrants.


Bill Yee is a retired Alhambra High School history teacher. He can be reached at Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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