Jackie Bong Wright

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Asian Americans History Project in Fairfax County

By Jackie Bong-Wright

Looking Back

After retiring last year from the government, Cora Foley, over-achiever and activist, didn’t sit still. She designed a new proposal to capture and tell the history of Asian-Americans who have made Fairfax County their home. These residents, numbering 160,000, or 15.9% of the Fairfax population, have been since 1990 the county’s largest minority. Telling their stories “will provide information on how, why and when different Asian-American groups came to the U.S. and to Fairfax County, where they have settled and what their experiences and contributions have been to the community,” Cora declared.
Herself a resident of Burke for 27 years, Cora made a great match in inviting Braddock District Supervisor Sharon Bulova to be the lead sponsor of the venture. In fact, Bulova had already been involved in a similar undertaking. In 2005, she engaged a task force in a year-long history project called “A Look at Braddock,” which presented the oral histories of 50 residents documenting growth and change in their area.
These memoirs later became a book, “Braddock’s True Gold.” It was said that “residents shaped the changes in their lives, their memories shape the history of their communities.” The project has developed a web site in partnership with George Mason University. This will serve as a model for the Asian American project.
The project also has the support of the Fairfax County History Commission, according to Cora. The Commission “wrote to high school social studies teachers asking them to encourage their students to earn community service hours by participating in the project.”
In January of this year, Cora was appointed by Fairfax County Chairman Gerry Connolly to serve as a Board Member of the Fairfax County History Museum Subcommittee.

Events for Next Two Years

The kick-off of the Fairfax County Asian American History Project (FCAAHP) in January introduced the project to the community and encouraged volunteers to participate. Cora called upon Asian-Americans in Fairfax County to be involved in researching, recording, and writing their life experiences and contributions.
After an Orientation for Volunteers, Cora drafted her team leaders. Hank Chao is to do video documentaries; Ted Gong to head the Chinese American team; Vy Nguyen to develop a website for Vietnamese Americans; Cora herself to create a website for Filipino Americans; Terry Sam to take photos, and Linda Yao to handle publicity.
In mid-May, APA Heritage Month was celebrated with a potluck dinner at Kings Park Library, where Cora announced that oral history interviews, including first, second and third-generation Asian-Americans, will be conducted from 2008 to 2010.
At that meeting, Ted Gong told the audience that there were six “cohorts” needing story tellers. These included the early Cantonese laborers from the Exclusion and Expulsion years, the Mandarin diplomats and scholars, and the Hong Kong and Taiwan businessmen of the early sixties and seventies. Later, he said, the American-born Chinese (ABC), shaped by the Exclusion Laws at the period of their grandparents, drove their parents into protective Chinatowns. This group and their children, having bought into the American Dream, arrived in Fairfax County, motivated by federal government employment. They constituted the largest of the Asian American groups followed by the Pilipino Americans.
There were four major emigrations of Filipinos, according to Cora’s website. The first lasted from the 16th century to the Spanish-American War in 1898. The second wave, the pensionados (Filipino students), sponsored by the U.S. government, came from 1903 to 1910. The sakados (Filipino plantation workers) arrived in Hawaii. Finally, the U.S. Navy recruited Filipinos as stewards and mess boys, and accepted up to 6,000 Pinoys (Filipinos) in the Naval Insular Force by WWI.
The third wave was triggered by WWII when President Roosevelt called members of the Philippine Commonwealth Army to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces and Filipino women came under the War Bride Act of 1945. By 1970, there were close to 17,000 Filipinos in the U.S. Navy. The last wave began in 1965 and responded to America’s need for professionals, especially doctors, nurses and engineers.
As for Vy Nguyen, the Vietnamese website is in the works. It will include much information from the first wave of government officials who fled Communist Vietnam in 1975, as well as the second wave refugee boat people, of the 1980s. Finally, it will include the Vietnamese-born Americans of the 21st century.
The event ended with Mary Lipsey demonstrating oral history interview techniques to some 40 attendees. Questions centered on patriotism (for Asians working in the military and national security), education (for teachers and students), care giving (for doctors and nurses), entrepreneurship (for business owners and managers), community action (for candidates and association leaders), public servants (for USG or international organization employees), as well as sports, the arts and religion.
It should be noted that, on the national scene, considerable contributions in the public and private sectors were made by well-known Asian Americans from S.I. Hayakawa to An Wang of Wang Laboratories to Jerry Yang of Yahoo! to Steve Chen and Jawed Karim, co-creators of YouTube.
In sports, Sammy Lee became the first Asian American to earn an Olympic Gold Medal (diving), Michelle Kwan (figure skating), Dat Nguyen (NFL middle linebacker), and Michel Chang, a top-ranked tennis player, all became stars.
Ana May Wong, Bruce Lee, Haing Ngor were well-known movie actors. In literature, Maxine Hong Kingston won the national Book Critics Circle Award for her memoir Woman Warrior. Naomi Hirahara won a 2007 Edgar Award for Snakeskin Shamisen.
By May 2010, the first book on Fairfax County Asian Americans will be published and the Fairfax County Asian American History Web will carry articles, maps, videos, and photos. Cora is confident that the FCAAHP will then be an accomplished success.