Philip P. Choy (Architect/Historian)
Interviewee: Philip P. Choy, Architect/Historian
Interviewed by: Connie Young Yu
Interview Date: December 16, 2013
Location: San Francisco, California
Length of Interview: 38 minutes, 18 seconds
00:02 Philip P. Choy: My name is Philip P. Choy. I am a native born San Franciscan, 3rd generation.
00:14 Connie Young Yu: With the 100th anniversary of the Golden Spike Celebration?
00:18 Choy: I was involved with the Centennial Golden Spike celebration because I was the president of the Chinese Historical Society. It was a great opportunity after 100 years. We finally got a chance to put the Chinese on the map.
00:44 Yu: First of all, how did the Chinese Historical Society of America, under your leadership, how did they plan to celebrate the centennial? What did they want to do?
00:55 Choy: Well, actually, we have been waiting for this golden moment. I said, most people never knew about the role that the Chinese the Transcontinental. So we planned on putting a plaque at Sacramento – the initiation of the railroad – and then at the terminus, at Promontory Point, a plaque that would commemorate heroic feats that the Chinese made.
00:35 So we petitioned the Chinese Six Companies at that time which still represented the voice of the Chinese of the America. We petitioned them for funds to have these plaques made. So it was successful. And at that time, it only cost us 500 dollars. Can you imagine? Made of bronze.
00:04 The two plaques were made. Each cost us 500 dollars a piece. It was successful when we dedicated at Sacramento, at the celebration there. Subsequently, we took the plaque to Utah, Promontory Point. We were ready to dedicate the second plaque. However, I would have to say that I was rather naive at that time. Because we wrote letters, prior to this, in preparation, asking permission and telling them what we wanted to do. We wanted to be on the main program. We expressed that. However, with all the communication and letters coming back, it kind of convinced us that yes, we recognize the role that Chinese played and we will certainly accommodate this situation. So like I said, as naive as I was, I thought, “Oh, we got our spot on the main program.” I asked for only a few minutes because we know there will be a keynote speaker. But we just asked for a few minutes and weren’t going to take a lot of time.
00:31 But even though with all this positive interchange, when we arrived, we were, of course, escorted to the platform. And when I say we arrived, Thomas Chin, the executive director and myself were the representatives of the Chinese community. So we sat there patiently and thought that we would have a chance to speak, but I didn’t see the plaque there. So I was thinking that something was wrong. And sure enough, by the time, the program was over, we recognized that we were not a part of the main program. And then some person came up to me and said we will now dedicate your plaque. I looked at him quizzically, you know, where at, so he said “follow me,” and took us to the auditorium, which seated, I believe, about 200 people. And by that time, my hair is standing up. I was so irate.
00:55 Especially when Volpe said, “who else but Americans can do this and do that.” Even when he mentioned other nationalities, like the Germans, the British, the Irish, and so on, not a single word in the whole keynote speech was mentioning the Chinese. By that time, I was just, I mean. I almost grabbed the microphone, but it was pulled off. Maybe it is lucky that it didn’t. Because I would have been cussing and screaming and yelling.
00:42 But anyway, we went to the auditorium. Let’s see. The Consul General, I don’t recall his name – he was representing the Taiwan government, not the People’s Republic of China. *inaudible* He was invited. The only other two persons that were there were actually your father and your mother [referring to Connie Young Yu], Col. John Young and his wife Mary Young. So they were the only witness, besides Tom Chin and the Consul General who witnessed what I said.
00:27 Unfortunately, they are not there anymore. I will try to not embellish what I said. I remember very distinctly, “100 years ago, we slighted the Chinese. And now, 100 years later, when we have the chance to make that correction, we fail to do that.”
00:57 And I said very clearly to the Chairman, whose name was Goodfellow, some Thomas Goodfellow. I said, “you people of high places can’t see what is going on today below you. What I was referring to, right at that time, if you remember 1969, after all the strikes and the riots – Los Angeles – the Burning of Watts. See you can’t see what’s happening and this is why the nation is in such a condition. And slighting the Chinese. Well, he stood up after that. He offered to apologize, to shake my hand. And I said, you don’t shake my hand, I am only one person. You go back out there and apologize to the whole nation. Even before that, the Governor of Utah and the Senator of Utah made their apologies and so on. But it was Goodfellow who offered to shake my hand and apologize. That really made me mad. Don’t apologize to me. Go outside and apologize to the whole nation. But that’s sort of the short story.
Phil Choy was the President of the Chinese Historical Society at the time of the Centennial Golden Spike celebration. The society planned to dedicate two plaques to the Chinese railroad workers, one at Sacramento and the other at Promontory Point. At the golden spike ceremony, Phil Choy was not put on the main program and few were present to witness his dedication of the plaque.
1969 riots; Centennial Golden Spike Celebration; Chinese representation; Chinese Six Companies; Colonel John Young (Connie Young Yu’s father); Commemorative plaques; Consul General (Taiwan); Keynote speech; Los Angeles; Mary Young (Connie Young Yu’s mother); Philip P. Choy; President of Chinese Historical Society; Promontory Point; Sacramento; Senator John Volpe (Secretary of Transportation); Thomas Chin (executive director of Chinese Historical Society); Thomas Goodfellow (chairman of the National Gold Spike Centennial Commission); Transcontinental Railroad; Watts riots
Chinese American- History. Chinese Historical Society of America. Chinese Six Companies. Promontory Point (Utah: Cape).
00:38 Yu: I do remember my parents came back from the trip saying. Phil was so angry. What he said was just so vivid and so right on. Could you talk about the Promontory Point Ceremony of May 10, 1969 and describe Senator John Volpe and who he was?
00:01 Choy: Well, Volpe was the keynote speaker of the centennial. He was the Secretary of Transportation. Obviously he didn’t do his homework – like all politicians, somebody else would write the speech for him. So, he became the scapegoat, you might say. Of course, the community, after the incident, asked for his apology and even asked for President Nixon’s apology. To me, it’s all over – water over the bridge – it’s done. Our mission – we failed our mission to put the Chinese back on the map. So, I didn’t participate in any of the news conferences thereafter in demanding an apology. I just kind of gave up and felt that I had failed in my mission.
00:10 Yu: Actually you succeeded, because the publicity nationwide of Volpe’s huge mistake. Everybody heard about it. It got more publicity for the Chinese. Because what Volpe said was, “Who else but Americans could drill ten tunnels in the mountains, thirty feet deep in the snow. And who else but Chinese could lay ten miles of track in one day. And who else but the Chinese could blast through the Sierras. So it was very specific–these were tasks the Chinese did. So the fact that he didn’t know Chinese couldn’t be citizens.
00:53 Choy: Well, I guess you are right in that sense. In retrospect, actually, it did more to single out the fact thereafter. Today, everybody knows, if they don’t know much about Chinese American history, they at least know that the Chinese were involved in major tasks. We don’t recognize how enormous that task was, and the significance of that task. Furthermore, we talk about building the railroad and connecting the east and the west and caused, promoted the expansion of the west. That’s one thing.
00:41 But we fail to recognize that one of the impetus of the building of the railroad was to establish a port on the Pacific coast and have communication, transpacific communication, with China – to trade with China. That was one of the major impetus that we have failed to recognize today.
John Volpe, Secretary of Transportation, gave a keynote speech that attributed Chinese achievements on the Transcontinental Railroad to Americans. Phil felt that he had failed to increase Chinese recognition, but his criticism of Volpe’s mistake increased publicity nationwide for the Chinese. A little-recognized benefit of the Transcontinental Railroad was a facilitation of increased trade with China.
Expansion of the west; Centennial Golden Spike Celebration; Chinese railroad workers; Chinese-American history; May 10, 1969; Phil Choy; President Richard Nixon; Promontory Point; Senator John Volpe (Secretary of Transportation); Summit Tunnels; Ten Mile Day; Trade with China
Chinese American–History Promontory Point (Utah : Cape) Volpe, John
00:14 Yu: Back to the ceremony on May 10th, was it outdoors and was there a large crowd? Could you describe what it was like?
00:23 Choy: Actually at the reenactment of the Centennial, *inaudible* There were about 20,000 people in attendance. It must have been that many. Well, it was mainly a political stunt. It wasn’t very serious. In fact, the reenactment of the driving of the spike of course was taking place. That was when our ceremony for the dedication of the plaque to the Chinese was scheduled simultaneously. It kinda shows that we were not a major part of the ceremony, but sort of a sideline.
00:31 Yu: So where is the plaque now? What happened to it?
00:36 Choy: The plaque is now placed at Promontory Point, with a number of plaques. Some railroad engineering society and a number of other plaques. All placed outside. But I think it should be singled out, standing out by itself. It wasn’t some adjunct of railroad-building. Actually, it was a major, major feat.
00:20 Yu: Was there any photographic display involving the Chinese? Was there anything acknowledging the Chinese that people could walk by and see?
00:30 Choy: I haven’t been back to Promontory Point. Only a second time. That was maybe 10-15 years ago. I would say that the Chinese – I didn’t notice anything prominent about the Chinese role. There may be, but it escaped my eyes at that time.
00:04 Yu: Well, the article that caused the big stir, and yuo know, brought the attention to the public and your role was in the Chronicle on May 12th, 1969. It was reported by Dale Champion who must have been there. The title was “The Forgotten Men of the Golden Spike” and he described sitting in angry silence at the rear of the bunting of the platform, where Phil Choy, chairman of the Chinese Historical Society, and his colleague Thomas Chin, founder and director of the Society. It mainly focused on your reaction, so I think that was very important.
00:54 Choy: Well I think that reaction is somewhat underplayed because I was short of cussing at those people, I wasn’t very…I was beside myself. I would say that people know me, I’m not a character.
00:22 Barre Fong: How hard was it to raise that money, the thousand dollars, for the plaque? Was that difficult?
00:29 Choy: Raising the money was not difficult. Because it came from the Chinese Six Companies, which was supposed to be representing the community anyway. So everybody sort of contributed. And I thought at that time that even the six people at the Six Companies recognize, or even knew of the Transcontinental Railroad. Well the timing was right to bring this up because this was the Civil Rights riots taking place right at that time. So it fitted right into the picture. Yet, the politicians didn’t see that. They were totally naive.
00:29 Yu: They couldn’t make the connection.
00:39 Choy: On the Sacramento incident, actually, the Chinese Historical Society was asked to review some of the preliminary plans. I remember the architect of the Railroad Museum, at that early period, showed us a plan of the museum, what they planned to do. I forget the name of the architect. And I wish we had saved the plans because the initial sketches of the museum was the entryway that showed Promontory Point, with the Big Four all carved out onto the mountains, just like Mt. Rushmore, replicating that. And I said, “wow, we come in here.” And way below them, a few figures of Chinese workers and I commented on that. I said, “where are the Chinese? You made them almost invisible. You should take the Big Four out of there and put the four Chinese up on the mountain.” I guess my comments weren’t taken very well. The whole point is that, it was still celebrating the Big Four. They had a big part in it. There is nothing to say to deny that. But the whole point is, who were responsible of doing all that dirty work? Yet they continue to underplay the role, and the presence of the Chinese. It’s not just relating to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad and all that. It’s not just relating to American history. It’s related to all the – in the course of building American history, there were other people involved in the millions in the building of the nations, but all we can see is the names of politicians and so on. And that’s where our problems were in the Civil Rights period: the negligence of the minorities who were participants and victims of American history.
00:51 Yu: The ceremony where the Chinese were forgotten became emblematic of this problem and also an opportunity.
00:02 Choy: Absolutely, they blew it.
The reenactment of the driving of the last spike was scheduled at the same time as Phil Choy’s dedication of the plaque, and the Chinese are still underrepresented at Promontory Point. The article “The Forgotten Men of the Golden Spike”, published in the Chronicle, shed light on the way the Chinese were largely ignored at the Promontory Point ceremony. Phil talks about the way that the work of minorities are underrepresented in a history that focuses too much on political figures.
The Forgotten Men of the Golden Spike; Big Four; Centennial Golden Spike Celebration; Chinese Historical Society; Chinese Six Companies; Civil Rights movement; Civil Rights riots; Commemorative plaques; Dale Champion; Driving the golden spike; Minorities; Phil Choy; Promontory Point; Railroad Engineer Society; The Chronicle; Thomas Chin(executive director of Chinese Historical Society); Transcontinental Railroad
Chinese American journalist Chinese American–History Chinese Six Companies Civil rights–1860-1870 Minorities and journalism–United States Minorities and museums Promontory Point (Utah : Cape) Race riots–1960-1970
00:09 Fong: I know we wanted to talk about the ceremony. But you’re a third generation Californian or San Franciscan? Could you trace back through what you know of your earliest ancestors?
00:31 Choy: I’m a third generation San Franciscan on my grandfather, grandmother’s side, both grandfather and grandmother was here in San Francisco. I am not sure whether they were here before or after the Exclusion Act. I suspect that before the Exclusion Act, they were already here.
00:03 Yu: What kind of work did your ancestors do when they came to America?
00:12 Choy: My grandfather was a houseboy in Oroville to a doctor. Subsequently, he continued to work in different merchandise stores. By 1913, he opened a butcher market – western style – in Sacramento.
00:42 Yu: You’re an architect, but we know you as a historian – a prominent Chinese American historian. Briefly, how did this come about? When you were working as an architect, you were interested in Chinese history?
00:00 Choy: Well I’ve always been interested, actually, in the history of the West. As a young kid, I watched, what was called at that time, cowboy movies. Even before John Wayne, there were Tom Nixon and Ken Raynor and Buck Jones and all that. That’s way before the John Wayne’s era. I was enamored with the West. Just like everybody else was. And used to go, when I had the time, at an older age anyway, to visit all these places where events took place and followed the Western trail and so on. But in doing so, I saw a lot of Chinese artifacts, like every little bottle you see were labeled opium bottles. That kind of thing. Every pipe, every Chinese pipe you see in the museums, was labeled opium pipes. I said, they don’t look like that. It can’t be. That sort of piqued my interest.
00:38 So I started to take more interest in it, and did a little bit of reading. A lot more reading. But the readings, you never see much about the Chinese, except very negative things. So that’s kind of how I got started, in Chinese American history, by doing a lot of research myself. And when I heard the Historical Society was founded, I said, “oh, I am going to learn more. So I joined the Historical Society.” And subsequently became President, and at that time was right when the centennial was taking place. And I said, “aha, here we go, we have the chance to put the Chinese on a map.”
00:36 Yu: I wanted to ask about your archaeology work, because you’ve actually worked on railroad sites where the Chinese were. You found …?
00:48 Choy: No. I’ve not actually worked on excavation sites of railroad camps. It’s just that I got involved or interested in researching the subject, mainly because archaeologists have asked me to identify certain items and so on. And as I read reports of the archaeologists on their works, some of them doesn’t seem to be quite right. Anyway. I decided whenever I have a chance, whenever I visited China, I would start asking and try to see if I can find a little bit more information.
00:44 Originally, when people asked me about the items, I thought “what was so exciting about it?” Because these were items we use daily, in our own lives, when we were growing up. So I said, “what’s so unusual?” For archaeologists at that time, it was exciting, because they never recognized that Chinese were all over California. Just talk about San Jose. They didn’t know that there were Chinatown in San Jose. But we grew up knowing that there was. Then the redevelopment came in and wiped all the Chinatowns out. Even the newer immigrants didn’t recognize – let’s say, those in the Silicon Valley area and so on – when they began to discover Chinese artifacts and so on. Most of the newcomers don’t recognize that Chinese have been here, during the Gold Rush period.
00:58 We are a part of the building of California. We have been reduced to a bunch of foreigners. Even to this day, we are considered foreigners. Knowing history helps us recognize that the Chinese were actually a part of California’s beginnings.
00:28 Yu: You’re continuously writing about the Chinese in California?
00:36 Choy: I have been slowing down a bit. It’s still quite interesting – every facet of it. It’s just there are a lot of other people who carry it on and I have slowed down.
00:56 Yu: But you did a very recent presentation of the Chinese in San Francisco.
00:03 Choy: This was on the 150th anniversary of the Embarcadero. And again, we talk about the Embarcadero. In the celebration, we talk very little of the presence of the Chinese. We talk about labor and all that, which is valid.
00:32 But in the beginning of the bay, the port, it had to do with the relationship between China and the United States. People don’t recognize that the reason why the nation was interested in the Pacific coast was to establish a port to trade with China. And not only that but the items for trade were the furs of the sea otter. Boston merchants were sailing along the Pacific to gather the fur and trade with China. That’s how the ports along the California coast developed. The interest in the port. San Francisco was once profusely full of sea otters, right in the bay here, and ships were coming in to the port to gather the fur, go across the Pacific and trade with China. This is not known as we celebrate the 150th year of the Embarcadero.
00:15 Yu: Another anniversary for the teaching. Teaching about the Chinese railroad.
Phil Choy’s grandparents lived and worked in San Francisco, probably before the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act. For Phil, a childhood interest in the west evolved into an interest in Chinese-American history as his research led him to mostly negative portrayals of the Chinese presence. He has helped archaeologists identify Chinese artifacts and gave a speech about the Chinese in the 150th anniversary of the Embarcadero. He feels that much of the history of Chinese presence in California, as well as the history of U.S. trade relations with China, has been erased.
Archaeology; Butcher markets; Chinese artifacts; Chinese Exclusion Act; Chinese Historical Society; Chinese railroad camps; Cowboy movies; Excavation sites; Foreigners; Gold Rush; Houseboys; Merchant stores; Opium; Sacramento; San Francisco; San Jose Chinatown; Silicon Valley; The “West”; Third-generation immigrant; Western trail
Archaeology Chinese American journalists Chinese American–History Chinese Americans–Employment–California Chinese Historical Society Family history Sea otter hunting Sea otter skin industry–California–History Trade
00:22 Fong: So you mentioned the beginnings of the CHSA during the Civil Rights Movement. I am kind of wondering, how old were you at that time and what it was like for you as a Chinese American, in San Francisco?
00:36 My own story was, I remember my grandfather telling us that he tried to buy a home in the Richmond district. *inaudible* I think it was in 1961, 1962 and people will just take the signs down when he came to the door, “oh no, it’s sold already.” I am kind of wondering what it was like for you in the 60s, what your life was like?
00:56 Choy: Well, I think in the 60s, of course, we were just beginning to feel the benefits of the Civil Rights, except for one thing. Housing was still a basic problem. I would not be able to buy a house right here, in Russian hill.
00:22 I remember when Sarah and I got married. We were looking for a place around, outside of Chinatown area to find a place to live. We are up in, near Nob Hill. Here’s a place to rent. We walk in there, and the management says, “oh, I’m sorry. We just rented it.” “Okay,” we walk away. Next day, we come back, the sign is back again already.
00:05 My favorite phrase was that after World War II, everything for the Chinese improved because of the manpower shortage. We were able to find employment in every industry. One of my very first jobs, in high school, I was working in the waterfront as a longshoreman. I was paid even more, I was making more money than my father was making. So things were improving, looked very positive. Things have finally turned at changed.
00:55 But after the war, when you start to move in, there’s still the real estate governance that said: “no color. We are not going to sell to you” People of our generation and generation before that were still facing that discrimination until Truman passed the Civil Rights Act that you can’t discriminate and so on, and there are penalties for it.
00:31 Well, North Beach was unusual in the sense that it was different. Because the Chinese were able to move in. But we have forgotten that the Italians in North Beach were also immigrants and they, after the war, were able to achieve the upward mobility. They also were looking for the American Dream. They were also looking for the car and the garage and the backyard garden and the single home. So they moved. They were able to move to Millbrae. I think that’s where a lot of them moved in. So who’s gonna buy the homes, right next to Chinatown? So then the Chinese were able to move in and were able to buy the homes.
00:34 The Italians, of course, were able to buy home at that time, let’s say, for 10,000 dollars. They could sell their homes to the Chinese for 24 or 25,000, two units, the average price was about 24,000. So these were flats and units they bought for maybe 4 or 5,000. Of course, you look back on it, I think the Chinese made up because these buildings are millions of dollars now. *laughter* So we got the last laugh anyways.
00:26 Yu: You know, I think that we covered the railroad part. We can always go back to that history but that’s for another time.
00:34 Fong: Anything else you have on your mind about the railroad?
00:40 Yu: Anything about the building? Have you been to Cape Horn? Did you make any pilgrimages? A little more?
00:49 Choy: I haven’t been back for quite some time for seeing what has developed.
00:58 Yu: But the railroad was fascinating to you. Right? The railroad was very important and fascinating to you.
00:04 Choy: Again, the railroad was the pivotal point in making the Chinese known in participation of the American history. Yes, I think that at that moment – unfortunately, I felt that I failed my charge, so to speak. But, that was the grand – the great moment to take advantage of.
00:45 Fong: So we are coming up on 150 years soon, so maybe there’s another moment for the CHSA to shine.
00:51 Choy: Well, they better not make that mistake again. I don’t think. It would be impossible to make that mistake.
00:01 Yu: But you can bring out the points. You can do another presentation.
00:08 Choy: 150th? I ain’t gonna be around. (Laughter)
00:13 Yu: Well, it’s certainly, for the hiring of the Chinese–that’s next year. 2015.
00:27 Fong: And now we have Stanford alongside. That will help a lot, I think.
00:32 Yu: And Stanford has to make up for another thing, for the 100th anniversary of the railroad. The whole celebration was about the golden spike and Leland Stanford. Not one mention about the Chinese and the fact that his fortune was made on the backs of Chinese workers.
00:54 Oh, I do have a question. Do you know about the history of the Chinese working at Stanford on the farm?
00:03 Choy: No, I don’t know much about the farm workers but obviously, the Stanford—on one hand, while he was mouthing anti-Chinese rhetoric and so on, he was hiring all the Chinese on the farm.
00:22 Yu: And for certainty(??).
00:24 Choy: And, you know, at the mansion, when he was governor, he had Chinese servants and cooks and everything else. So it’s some of the unknown parts of history.
00:48 Yu: Is there anything—
00:49 Fong: Yep.
00:50 Yu: I think we got—
00:50 Choy: —important part of the program. Um-hm.
00:56 Yu: The Chinese—they didn’t think of the Chinese as being any part of society to—you know, that they didn’t care about offending people
00:04 Fong: I think what’s happening in the—
Both Barre Fong’s father and Phil Choy faced housing discrimination when they tried to rent or buy houses in San Francisco. World War II made it easier for the Chinese to find jobs, but it was still difficult to find housing until President Truman passed the Civil Rights Act. When Italian immigrants moved out of North Beach, many Chinese moved into those homes which are now worth millions of dollars. The 150th anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad is approaching. The history of Chinese workers is also tied to Leland Stanford, who profited from the railroad and hired Chinese servants.
150th anniversary of Transcontinental Railroad; American Dream; Chinese Historical Society; Civil Rights Act; Civil Rights movement; Employment; Housing prices; Italian immigrants; Leland Stanford; Milbrae; Nob Hill; North Beach; President Truman; Richmond; Russian Hill; San Francisco; San Francisco Chinatown; Stanford University; Upward mobility; World War II
American dream Civil Rights Act of 1964 (United States) Discrimination against Chinese Americans Housing, Discrimination in Housing–Effect of inflation on–United States Stanford, Leland, 1824-1893