Drs. Chuang and Lee: Transnational Brothers in the Chinese Diaspora

 “學而時習之,不亦說乎? 有朋自遠方來,不亦樂乎?
Is it not pleasant to learn with a constant perseverance?
Is it not delightful to have friends coming from distant quarters? -Confucius

During the Spring Festival, a friend from distant quarters arrived bearing gifts for museum and staff, and he was also prepared with a list of everything he would like to share and discuss. Dr. Lee 大夫 had several useful donations and interesting ideas, but the most poignant part of the conversation was when he pointed out how recent newsletter articles by our director, Dr. Chuang 莊博士, about his childhood in war-torn China and his creative problem-solving in the museum’s early days inspired a remarkable sense of affinity despite his very different background as a second generation Chinese American who grew up in a New York City Chinatown laundry.

With a subtle New York accent, Dr. Lee recalled  how he initially had felt Dr. Chuang exuded the refined aura of the Chinese gentleman scholar, a far cry from his own experience growing up on welfare as the child of poor immigrants. And it’s common knowledge that Chinese immigrants to the U.S. in the second half of the twentieth century were predominately upper class and well-educated Mandarin speakers as opposed to the initial wave of immigrants made up of Cantonese speakers from the impoverished countryside of southern China. But reading about Dr. Chuang’s boyhood experiences, moving from Nanjing 南京, to Changsha 長沙, to Chongqing 重慶, to Kunming 昆明, cowering in ditches as Japanese bombs rained down, and at one point losing all his luggage, including his coat and shoes, in a chaotic train station full of refugees made him realize that they had both led lives of deprivation at one time. 

Dr. Lee observed commonalities that went beyond the fact of shared suffering in the other article about how the museum became recognized as one of the top ten in San Diego without the benefit of a full-time, professionally trained staff or anyone with education or experience in the museum business. (The gracious Dr. Lee even proclaimed it the best Chinese/Chinatown museum he has seen outside China). In the article, Dr. Chuang recalls many unexpected obstacles and unusual solutions like refinishing donated display cabinets by hand, paying garbage men $20 to lend a hand with a huge crate, or installing flag stones to protect koi fish from a marauding heron. In these episodes, Dr. Lee recognized and identified with the sort of hands-on dedication and resourcefulness typical of those who have had to make do with meager resources.

A combination of economic struggles and Confucian values led both culturally and artistically minded men to pursue advanced degrees in science and engineering at the behest of their families. The somewhat suspect nature of psychiatry in the eyes of the traditional Chinese parents is a subject for another day, but both men recognize the sacrifice their parents made for the sake of their present careers and status. Indeed, the roots of Chinese culture run deep. And both men share surnames with ancient Daoist sages; Laozi was surnamed Lee (Li ) and Zhuangzi was surnamed Chuang (Zhuang ).

The good doctor even told us that museum newsletters are like “letters from home.” In this sense, Chinatown anywhere could be home, and all overseas Chinese are one big family. Of course, anyone familiar with San Diego’s Chinatown knows that it is a faaaaaaar cry from New York or San Francisco. But the recollection of a community that has long since dispersed, of rundown buildings that have long ago fallen to redevelopment, in many ways captures the quintessential transient aura of Chinatown. Just as one would not and cannot turn back the clock to the bound feet and imperial despots of old China, one hopes we will never return to the days when Chinese and other Asian immigrants were deprived of basic rights and secluded into crowded ghettos and unsavory red-light districts. One can never step into the same river twice, but one can and should gaze thoughtfully upstream and ponder the river’s source.

Our museum may be physically located in San Diego’s historic Chinatown, but it is by no means solely dedicated to preserving our local community’s history. Of course preserving and sharing our unique history is essential to our mission, but like other Chinatown-based museums, our community and the experience we preserve is innately transnational. The shared plight of families fleeing the chaos of dynastic decline or foreign invasion, the struggle to survive in a new and unwelcoming nation, and the common values that enable perseverance in spite of adversity serve to unite communities of fellow sufferers, regardless of separations wrought by space, time, language, and class.  

To read Dr. Chuang's articles, see "My Childhood" in the Summer 2010.3 issue and "How We Achieved Top Ten in San Diego" in the Fall 2009.4 issue. Both are available on the museum web site here.  


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