arrival story yvonne chan with students2.jpg

Yvonne Chan: 19 Days on a Boat from Hong Kong; A Lifetime of Making a Difference in L.A.

Each week, Jeremy Rosenberg (@LosJeremy) asks, "How did you - or your family before you -- wind up living in Los Angeles?"

Today, we hear from Yvonne Chan, school principal at Vaughn Next Century Learning Center in Pacoima:

CHAPTER ONE

"In 1962, I was seventeen-years-old.

"My mother and I had left China in 1956 for Hong Kong; we left my father behind. This was during a very difficult time. China a few years earlier had seen the establishment of the Communist government.

"In Hong Kong, my mother worked as a domestic servant for some wealthy family and I lived in a convent, American Sisters. That's where my opportunity to come to California came from.

"Catholic Charities organized our departure. I came with 105 girls in a big, big boat. We set sail August 1, 1962. We took nineteen days crossing the Pacific. Our final port-of-call was San Francisco. The sea was rough.

"On the fourth or fifth day, we stopped in Yokohama, Japan. Many of us on the boat, myself included, were born during World War II. It was pretty rough times because China was occupied by Japan for eight years and eight months, and there was a great deal of atrocity.

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"My only sister died during that time, and many, many other girls also died due to whatever circumstances -- including rape and disease. My mother would always tell me stories about Japanese occupation.

"So we arrived in the port, me, age seventeen, seeing this little country, and having been told all our history together has always been negative. Yet they treated us nice -- they fed us, they took us around a little bit. It was mind-opening -- seventeen years of ill will dissipated once we landed in Yokohama.

"When we left there, the sailing continued to be rough. Next, we stopped in Honolulu. I still had the $100 U.S. that I left Hong Kong with. That amount, or less, is what most of the girls on the boat had with them.

"In Honolulu, I was just dying to see hula dance and go to a luau. Some of us decided -- unfortunately -- 'What the heck, let's splurge a little bit!'

"We thought a luau could be $5 or $6, but we were taken. They charged us like $35. Boy, that's a lot of money at that time. So all of us are now back on the boat with only $65 U.S.

"Many of us did have something else of value. We were carrying what we called some Chinese herbs that were not allowed to be sold back in the `60s [or now] -- such as snake's bladder, rhinoceros horn, and some kind of ginseng special roots.

"I was lucky that in San Francisco, a wealthy Chinese family was waiting for my basket of goods. They picked me up and gave me $300.

"But let me back up a few days before I tell you how I eventually wound up living where I wanted to, in Los Angeles, not San Francisco or Fresno or anywhere else.

Yvonne Chan, at the building of PandaLand, a program in Pacoima for preschoolers. Photo courtesy Yvonne Chan

CHAPTER TWO

"On August 15, 1962, I turned eighteen-years-old. I was emancipated on the Pacific. Then on the morning of August 20, everybody told us to get up, to go look at the Golden Gate Bridge. But we did not know it would be so foggy! We landed ashore without seeing the Golden Gate.

"But when we arrived in San Francisco, we knew we had arrived at Gold Mountain. We were here under that wonderful, liberal, creative and nurturing idea of our late President, John F. Kennedy.

"We foresaw for ourselves, of course, a trip out of China into Hong Kong, then Hong Kong into the United States, ending up in Hollywood.

"We foresaw Beverly Hills. Wilshire Boulevard. And Disneyland.

"Our minds said, 'Wow, you are telling me that Los Angeles, City of Angels, that actually has this Fantasy Land, Exploration Land, Tomorrow Land where people spin in cups? Why would people spin in cups? Are they seeing something that we don't see?

"With thoughts like these in our heads, some of us from the boat decided not to head for where we were supposed to go. Places such as Montana, Idaho and Arkansas.

"So my girl friend, June, and I decided to head south and really come see the City of Angels.

"The two of us got on a Greyhound bus. Unfortunately, we did not get very far.

"Someone had told us that when we see a Chinese sign, just get off because you can find a job there. Whether it is in a Chinese market, or a little restaurant, or laundry -- what have you. Just get off and go ask for work. We did have a one-year, temporary student visa through Catholic Charities.

"It turned out that the first Chinese signs we saw were on Highway 99. So we got off in what turned out to be outside of Fresno. We did not know the language that well. We were totally immersed into agricultural culture and Latino culture. So Spanish almost because my first second language -- I became relatively fluent. June and I lived there in Fresno, we worked in the fields and in the restaurants. We made the best out of it -- we didn't cry about not being in L.A.

"A year later, with some savings, we headed north. Now we definitely arrived in the City of Angels! And where did we go? East L.A., of course. We stayed in a little apartment on Brooklyn [now Cesar Chavez]. I went to East L.A. College and studied Spanish, French and English.

"We rode the blue cable car to Chinatown and we worked there as waitresses, hostesses, all the odd jobs. Even without work permits -- ours had expired -- ethnic work opportunities abounded. I had four jobs at one point. I worked in Chinatown as a restaurant hostess in a place called General Lee's. I would help the waiters and cooks who were just very lonesome learn how to communicate -- I'd translate their letters for them.

"There was also a whole gambling scene in Chinatown. We took jobs serving tea on the midnight gambler special buses to Vegas. We also worked in Paramount Studios as extra. In those days they had all those Wild Wild West and Bonanza type shows where they would have, you know, Chinese-looking people with long fingernails. Like I said, we did every job we could.

Yvonne Chan, in an undated headshot. Photo courtesy Yvonne Chan
CHAPTER THREE

"I graduated from college. I wanted to be in the FBI or the CIA. I went into education.

"My first break in teaching came because I was a language major. The school district assigned me to teach students with autism, because those students needed language development. By 1976, I became one of Los Angeles Unified's well-trained specialists.

"Then -- although I do not believe in it -- I worked with the District to move the busing plan form Central City out into the Valley, into Chinatown, into the Dodger Stadium area, all those places.

"Soon I saw that the way of reforming school big time is to launch the charter school movement.

"I became the very first one in the nation to convert a failing school. This was as the principal here at Vaughn Next Century Leaning Center, in Pacoima, City of Los Angeles. I've been here ever since.

"Everyone knows that I do whatever it takes for school reform. At Sylmar Elementary, where I was once Principal, we launched the first after school program -- this is now called L.A.'s Best.

"Over the years, I've met with every single Los Angeles mayor since Tom Bradley. I engage in civics. I work with senators and caucuses. Lo and behold, I became a member of the California State Board of Education. Arnold Schwarzenegger appointed me and he came and visited my school three times while he was governor.

"Los Angeles has to be globally competent. It's been fifty years since I arrived in the City of Angels. It's back to the future for me at this point in my life. Now, many Chinese students come and study in Pacoima. They're the richest kids in China. But they choose to study alongside my African-American kids and my Latino kids who are the poor of the poorest. While they learn English, I teach them in Chinese.

"Principals from Beijing and Shanghai come over here to do shadowing programs-in-residence. I take teachers to China. A few months ago, I took 121 teachers, all for free. And in March, I'm taking the third group of our high school students to visit China.

Yvonne Chan, in an undated headshot. Photo courtesy Yvonne Chan

"So here it is. I left China as a very poor peasant kid. I left China because of the war. I left China because of the poverty. I came here alone -- although I was eventually able to bring my mother here. I found my dream and I'm going full circle taking my students and my teachers back.

"It's a miracle that after fifty years, I managed to create a 'Tomorrow Land and Fantasy Land' in Pacoima where my school graduates 90% to college -- with 10% to UCLA with full scholarships. That's while 97% of our students are eligible for federal free / reduced meals and 72% are English learners.

"So at the end, we'll say, yup, the City of Angels definitely embraced me, nurtured me, taught me and I am proud that they made an angel out of me!"

-- Yvonne Chan
(as told to Jeremy Rosenberg)

Do you or someone you know have a great Los Angeles Arrival Story to share? If so, then contact Jeremy Rosenberg via: arrivalstory AT gmail DOT com. Also contact or follow Rosenberg on Twitter @LosJeremy

Top photo: Yvonne Chan with students. Photo courtesy Yvonne Chan

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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