Lana Cheung



Living in China

I was raised by my mother, in a single-parent home. Despite having only met my father three times in my life, I had a great, loving relationship with my dad. I have known him to be a conservative, educated, patriot with strong ideals who dedicated himself to his country and countrymen. My mother grew up in the countryside, while uneducated, she was brilliant, adaptive, embraced change and all things modern. After WWII, China was chaotic and its people poor. My mother wanted to flee the country in order to provide us with a better and more stable life. My father on the other hand, felt that communism gave the country hope. He felt that it was his duty to help rebuild China, especially when China was in need. My family was split. This marks the end of my first meeting with my dad.

When I was a child, my mother—ever so bold, moved me from GuanZhou to Macau by illegally claiming a Macau resident to be my official mother. After living in Macau for a short while, I was reunited with my mother in Hong Kong. As I child, “love” to me meant sacrifice. My mother gave up a life with her husband for her daughter. My father gave up a life with his family for the love for his country.

Growing up in Hong Kong

My mother has always pushed me toward education. She insisted that I learn English even when it wasn’t popular to do so in Hong Kong. She had these three rules.

  1. Don’t be afraid of hard work and taking on more responsibilities.
  2. Don’t get caught in gossip and negativity; see the good in people.
  3. Never stop learning.

I used to think that the first rule was just a scheme just to get me to do more chores. As the only one literate in my home, my duties included the daily reading of the newspaper to my mom. I was also in charge of all the correspondence with my dad. I loved receiving letters from him and I love writing to him. I would write him about all my problems and in turn, he guided me through life from my mailbox. Although, my father was never beside me, I felt like was always by my side. I developed a love for reading. I read everything, newspaper, poetry, fiction and non-fiction. My world was filled with fantastic stories and romance. “Love” to me meant bliss. My mother’s love for my father was obvious in the daily dose of praise for him. My parents’ love for me was obvious in their care. I felt capable and was full of passion. I even went to visit my father for my sixth-grade graduation. By then, he had a new family.

After my high-school graduation I saw my dad in China for the third and final time. During that visit, I noticed that something had changed. He aged. Although we never spoke about it, I sensed a sadness in him. Perhaps he felt that his dream for a better China was unrealized. Perhaps he wondered what life would be like if he stayed with my mother and I.

In the year I became 23, my father died in March of that year. In July, my elder son was born. In September, my mother died. I noticed that I started a habit of holding on to people. I held on to the arms of my friends. I held on to the hands of my child.

Living in an orphanage

A few years later, I started working as a counselor at an orphanage called St. Christopher’s Home. For the next seven years, I lived in the orphanage and spent every minute of every day surrounded by children. I was living among other young counselors that were full of love, compassion and hope. The children were full of innocence and joy. I considered the orphanage my family. Through them, I grew stronger, wiser and once more full of love. I regained my passion and learned to use it to help others. I felt empowered as I remember my mother’s third rule. I went back to school and even learned to ride a bike.

Moving to America

In my 30’s, I immigrated to the US. I reunited with my husband but had to move away from the family I had in the orphanage. While I felt isolated, was friendless and unemployed, I also remembered my mother’s second rule. I stayed positive and hopeful. A year later, I started working with a union named ILGWU and continued to work there for the next 30 years. The union, my colleagues, union members, and community leaders became my friends, then they became my second family.

I am lucky to have such people in my life; each providing invaluable influence. I continue to apply my mother’s rules in my life. I find it rewarding to work hard and have responsibilities. I find joy and goodness in daily life. I continue to learn. The union has given me a chance to learn a great deal, such as building organizations, developing leadership, learning about the election process, spirit of democracy, labors’ rights, and multi-cultural nature of America. In 2006, the union partnered me with the NY State Senator election campaign. For the past decade, I got to work with the State Senator and helped served Chinatown community.

Like many immigrants, I am not wealthy. However, I am rich in life. I get to help others, I have a strong bond with the community I help serve and I have a wonderful family. My grandchildren like to say “Love is in the air”. It’s true that love has always been around me. Just as I feel my father’s love even though he’s not in my life. Just as I feel my mother’s love through her rules and guidance long after her passing. Just as I feel my friends’ love as they nurture me. I see my parents love through me. I see my love through my children. I see my children’s love in my grandchildren. Despite the ups and downs in my life, love has always been in the air.

Rocky Chin


“You arrived on July 4th –  standing up!” That was how mother described my birth in 1947.  My breech-birth arrival was cause for celebration.  That it happened to fall on Independence Day, accompanied by fireworks in the Nation’s capital, was in sharp contrast to what my parents had endured in war-torn China just a few years before my birth.  My parents had left America in the late 1930s serving as civilian professionals in China.  Their first-born son perished in the harsh conditions of Chonqing, a city ravaged by perpetual bombing by Japanese fighter planes.

I was told the story of my parents’ escape from Chongqing over the Himalayas as a child. I did not understand how our family came to settle in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky, but  I appreciated the fact that my parents were forthright in sharing their early history in China with us as children.  Knowing one’s roots is critical to finding your voice.

My father’s parents were born in Toisan, a rural part of Southern China.  His father ventured across the Pacific at the age of 14.  Before finally settling in Worcester, Massachusetts – he had crossed the Pacific four times! My father and all but one of his siblings was born in America.  Their family was a curiosity in Worcester since my grandmother had bound feet and insisted on wearing Chinese garb.  My grandfather, however, embraced American customs, insisting on cooking Turkey with all the fixins for their Thanksgiving Meal.

If my father was told stories of his parents lives in China, he never shared them with us.  His first visit to China came shortly after he lost both of his parents to illness. It was 1937, and he arrived shortly before the infamous Japanese siege of Nanking, China.

My Mother grew up in Beijing, China. She was an official’s daughter. Not wealthy, but certainly more privileged than most Chinese.  Her father would escape Chinese Exclusion Laws because of his diplomatic status.  All of his children would attend American and British schools.  Years after my maternal grandfather passed away, his wife’s immigration status would be questioned by authories – despite her many years in America.  Unable to pass the citizenship English test, she was threatened with deportation, and forced to move to Canada where she lived out her last days with her oldest son.

Like many Asians in American, we are often asked: “Where do you come from?”

I am proud of my Chinese heritage and also proud of the fortuitous circumstances of being born on July 4th in Washington DC.  But the question “Where are you From” often sadly reflects a perception that we Asians in America are not “American”, that we are foreigners.  So if I answer: “I was born in Washington & I grew up in Kentucky”,  the questioner would persist in asking:  “Where are you really from?”

This question spurred me to delve even deeper into understanding my own family’s history, to understand America’s racist immigration laws which have shaped our lives but also the lives of every American.   Our family experienced segregation “American apartheid-style” explicitly during one road trip.  As we stopped by gas stations, the signs left nothing to the imagination:  “Colored Only” and “Whites Only” signs.  Having someone tell you which bathroom to go to is an experience even a young person will never forget.

In college, I chose to be a Freshman Counselor.  This meant rejecting “rushing” for a fraternity.  My father had been a harsh critique of fraternities.  I would end up having my own views published by the Alumni Magazine – and the backlash I received from the mostly white alumni was itself an education in how deeply seated racism is in America.  In graduate school, I discovered a small but active Asians American student movement. It was exciting! We founded the first Asian American Student Association, published the first Asian American Studies Journal (“Amerasia Journal”) and created and taught the first course on Asian American Studies.

By the time I entered law school, I knew I wanted to pursue a career as a civil rights or legal services attorney. Standing up for civil and human rights seemed to be a perfect life career.  I was lucky to have found a job where I would get paid for enforcing policies, laws and initiatives that I felt addressed issues of social justice and fighting inequality.  I continued to also maintain my out-side activism, since civil rights agencies are invariably always under-funded by governments.

I took a brief respite from working at the City’s Commission on Human Rights in 2001.  I was among 7 candidates running for city council in Manhattan’s District 1 -an incredible experience even though I did not win.  As a candidate, I was able to speak out about issues that I felt passionate about: affordable housing, workers rights, disability and civil rights issues, equal opportunity.  I was also able to do a lot more “soul-searching” than ever, and learned to better appreciate the relationships I had with my family and friends. The Primary -on September 11th – was obviously horrifically disrupted.  But I eventually landed a position at the State civil rights agency as Director of the Office of Equal Opportunity & Diversity, where I was able to address the importance of promoting the human rights laws amongst more New Yorkers by translating agency materials into many different languages.

For young people, it’s important to understand not only their own family’s history, but the history and struggles of diverse peoples in America to overcome oppression, racism and other forms of discrimination.

Marian Thom


Marian-ThomMarian Thom is an early Chinatown union activist, and a bilingual paraprofessional (para) who worked on reading and other programs in NYC public schools in Chinatown for 36 years.  She has motivated and defended students and fellow employees alike during a long career devoted to her community.  She helped to organize the paras into the United Federation of Teachers, and has been active in the union since 1970.

Her influence in both the schools and in the labor movement is wide ranging:  in 1990 she helped to found the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, serving as a national officer and national board member for some years.  She was the NY Chapter President of APALA for years, and was also active in the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

As a school para, she showed those (often rambunctious) middle school kids a lot of “tough love,” making sure they did not skip school and behaved properly in class, and worked closely with their families.  She served the local Boy Scout/Cub Scout troop for 41 years (starting with her two sons), and was on the Board of Directors of Confucius Plaza housing for 15 years.  She continues to chair the UFT’s Asian American Heritage Committee, as she has for 24 years.


Theresa Chan


Born in China and educated in Hong Kong, Teresa Chan immigrated to America in 1968. Her first job in NYC was as an accountant at Beekman Hospital, where she interpreted medical and billing matters for Chinese patients. Eight years later, as the secretary to the managing director of the Chinese-American Planning Council, Teresa befriended social workers in the office next to hers and learned about government benefits and programs available to struggling new immigrants. She shared this information wherever she discovered that someone needed help.

When the Garment Industry Day Care Center was founded in 1983, Chan worked as the administrative assistant, and she was often the first and last person that colleagues, parents, children, and visitors saw each day. In addition to managing the books, she became the reliable friend and mentor who advised frazzled new parents on coping with sick or misbehaving kids, styled the hair of the girls after nap time (many of whom looked to her in preparing for their high school proms), inspired children to return as teenage interns, and persuaded young teaching assistants to complete their college educations.

Officially, Teresa retired in 2012. But she continues her outreach efforts as a volunteer at the New York Presbyterian Hospital and elsewhere. Whenever there is an election, Teresa and her husband can be found at a polling station registering, translating, and assisting in the voting process.

Married into the Chan family, Teresa joined the Oak Tin Association, which represents members with the surnames of Chan, Chin, or Chen. Traditionally, the leaders and elders were exclusively male, but together with Council Member Margaret Chin Teresa established its first Women’s Committee. This breakthrough accomplishment is now celebrating its 14th year.

Chan’s commitment has influenced her daughters’ contributions to education and government, and it can be seen in every smiling face she greets in her daily walks throughout Chinatown