From Pool Halls to Building Workers' Organizations: Lessons for Today's Activists
by Warren Mar
This article was printed in Asian Americans: The Movement and the Moment and is reprinted with the permission of the author.
I was born in 1953 in San Francisco and raised in the heart of Chinatown. Growing up at that time and place, I had the Asian Movement descend on me rather than my going out in search of it. I was part of the baby boomer generation, but in the Chinese American context we also became the first large generation of American-born Chinese. In the late 50s and early 60s, my primary school years, American-born Chinese kids actually outnumbered immigrants in all my classes. I went to the public schools around Chinatown. This was prior to school busing, and due to housing segregation the majority of my classmates were Chinese. This was my experience until I entered San Francisco State College in 1971.
My upbringing was typical for my generation. However, one of the things that made my family unique was that there were ten kids. This was big even for a Chinese family in the 60s. My parents were garment workers, my father having been one since he was 12; he was considered a very skilled worker. He did the first patterns or samples for the major companies, and upon approval of his work they would put in the order and he would teach the other workers the pattern. For most of my life at home he was a working foreman at the largest contract shop in Chinatown. It had over a hundred machines. My older sisters would eventually all work there. My brothers and I played there and we did very minimal work, like unraveling the garments that had been sewn incorrectly. My mother was also a garment worker trained by my father. She converted our garage into a small shop that subcontracted with my father's shop.
Segregation and Poverty
In the year of my birth, 1953, my parents, with 6 kids in tow, bought their first home and moved out of the Ping Yuen Housing Projects built for the returning Chinese GIs and their war brides. They did not move far. We were one block into North Beach (the Italian neighborhood), separated from Chinatown's official border only by the strip joints on Broadway. My family was the second Chinese intrusion into that old Italian block. My parents worked 12-hour days, six to seven days a week. However, my family was not poor by Chinatown standards because some of my friends had much less than us. Visiting an apartment of a school friend, I remember seeing his younger siblings sleeping on bedding thrown over discarded wooden crates from Chinatown warehouses. They wore the same clothes everyday, and it wasn't until I visited other homes that I realized these were the only jackets, pants or pairs of sneakers they owned. Although we resented it at the time, the fact that my parents were garment workers and contractors meant they made much of our clothes and we were well dressed in the latest factory rejects.
Growing up in Chinatown was as protective as it was restrictive. We lived only two blocks away from the projects my parents had moved from. The corridors, stairwells and the apartment and rooftops around Chinatown were my playgrounds. All of the kids would go down to the American Legion for our Christmas toys, and on Chinese New Years the family association would have free food and give out toys again. This was before President Johnson declared the "War on Poverty." Back then, there was no recognition of poverty in Chinatown.
Adolescence: Angry Young Men
In the mid-60s when I was in junior high school, I began frequenting pool halls around Chinatown and the one block of what was once Manilatown. I also hung out in Italian pool halls in North Beach. By the time I reached high school, it had become primarily Chinese. My home away from home became pool halls like the Lucky M, the Ballerina, Johnnie's, Jack's and Mike's. Junior high is my most vivid memory of my education -maybe because it was the last time I attended school regularly. In the pool halls after school hours -and, eventually, even during -I learned new lessons about the world from Filipino pool hustlers, Chinese gamblers, Italian bookies, retired seaman and, most of all, from my young friends from the streets. I also began to work a procession of part-time jobs when I got my Social Security card at 14, mostly restaurant, warehouse and clerical work. I spent more time in poolrooms than in school or at home.
What the Movement Was to Me
I resisted the movement in the beginning, especially its theoretical trappings that I could not relate to at all. One of the friends that I had gotten busted with actually was recruited into the Red Guard for a brief period. He was too crazy, even for them. Being teenagers, I think we were too undisciplined to adhere to any political ideology. However, I also hung out with people from the movement, or rather they began to hang out in the same pool halls I frequented. During high school I began to see myself as a revolutionary nationalist. I think I naturally evolved to this position because my involvement with most white people was negative. I saw all agents of the government- policeman, school officials, juvenile court -as the enemy. I was happy that the U.S. was losing in Vietnam and felt that it was racist to only care about our soldiers and not about all the Vietnamese we were killing. I thought the government's refusal to recognize China was based on the fact that the Chinese Communists refused to be dominated and colonized, which had happened to many of the countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
I saw my first Red Book when I was about 14 or 15 but felt it was too difficult to read. Periodically I would read the Panther paper, Red Guard paper or the Berkeley Barb. I actually liked their cartoons better than the text. I remember bringing the Panther paper to my high school civics class and arguing with the teacher about imperialism. The whole class was disrupted, and she cried. It was empowering. I attended some of the big anti-war rallies in San Francisco. I did these mostly as an individual. On the negative side, I was doing drugs as were most of my friends. We also sold them to some folks in the movement along with guns. So we had a connection with them in these ways, too.
In 1969, when I was a junior in high school, I was elected chair of the Chinatown North Beach Youth Council. This was one of the defining points of my life because it put political decision making as a central focus in my life. At around this time the youth movement in Chinatown was reaching a crescendo. Fueled by the immigration of families from Hong Kong and with the American born baby boomers of my generation hitting our teen years, "a youth problem' was finally recognized in our community. We also saw the beginning of youth funding as apart of the War on Poverty following the Watts Riot in Los Angeles. The reason Chinatown got so much attention around this time was because of street gangs. Most of the early groups were predominantly American-born. It wasn't until the 70s that immigrant gangs started outnumbering the native born. We didn't realize it at the time, but some really bad gang wars were just on the horizon.
From Reform to Revolution
When I was 19, I moved out of my parents' home and got my first full-time union job at the phone company. I worked full-time and tried to keep up with classes at SF State, but as time went on I started taking less and less classes and finally took a break in 1973. Pacific Bell also had their union contract expire that year, and I starred getting involved in some of the union contract fights. I Wor Kuen also had some members working at the phone company, and they started talking to me about how they looked at the contract. Other left groups were also involved, including the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) which was also trying to work on me because I went to some union meetings. There weren't many people of color in those meetings, and all the Asians stood out like a sore thumb although there were a lot of Asian workers in the company at that time, especially women. Some of us starred attacking the union leadership because we thought their contract proposal was a sell-out, and their response taught me something about the hierarchy in unions. The union business agents would physically threaten us when we leafleted our co-workers in front of Pacific Bell to vote down the contract.
This was also the same year that there was a wildcat strike (a strike without union sanction) against Pacific Bell in San Francisco. Two IWK members that worked among the operators actually were able to shutdown their buildings. I wasn't able to do the same, which probably saved my job because everyone involved in that wildcat got fired. I think between 25 -30 percent of the workers walked out for some period of time. Contrast that to today when the labor movement is trying to rejuvenate militancy; when they had the opportunity in the late 60s and early 70s, they did their best to kill it. My involvement in this fight tied me to the Asian left in another arena: the workplace.
My involvement in this labor fight also drew me closer to IWK on the national question because I got into a big fight with the PLP folks. First, they were very critical of China and Mao, while I identified with China in a nationalist way, if not as a Marxist. Second, the main people in power in the union at that time Communications Workers of America (CWA) 9410 were a bunch of old white guys. We called them TUBS (trade union bureaucrats), and they represented mostly the skilled male tradesman in the company. Also they tended to be fat. (Local 9410 would change after the strike when members elected a progressive woman president from the rising number of clerical workers.) PLP did not draw a distinction in the union between those in power and the white workers that supported them and the vast majority of underrepresented women and minority workers. Meanwhile, IWK was willing to take on the TUBS.