Arthur Tom.

Author:Wong, William

In the process, I learned about Emma Hoo Tom, one of two Oakland Chinese Americans who made history when she and Clara Lee became the first women of their race to register to vote in the United States. They did that in 1911 in Oakland. I then learned that Emma Hoo Tom's oldest son, Arthur Tom, was still living in Oakland, a retired state worker in his early nineties.

Searching for photos to illustrate Oakland Chinatown's 150-year-plus history triggered a deeper curiosity about some prominent figures such as Emma Hoo Tom. That's when I decided to start an oral-history project (http://www to interview Oakland Chinese Americans who are direct links to important pioneers who have already passed from the scene. Since it was impossible to hear directly the life stories of those pioneers, the next best thing was to interview their children. Arthur Tom was a natural subject for my new project.

On August 24, 2004, I interviewed Arthur Tom, who made history in California too, by being the first ethnic Chinese employee of the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). He passed away on March 2, 2006. This is a condensed excerpt of that interview.--WW


I was born in Oakland, California, on July 24, 1912, the first child of three. I lived in the building on Eighth and Harrison Streets, right in Chinatown.

The building is the CACA (Chinese American Citizens Alliance) building now. The CACA was formerly known as Native Sons of the Golden State. My father was one of the original members, along with Thomas C. Lew, Frank Yick, and Jue Yut, and Jew Geng. They were the ones who tried to get Chinese to vote, one of the first Chinese organizations for Chinese Americans.

My father was Tom Lung. We were of the Tom family. My mother was Emma Tom. My father was born in 1884, my mother in 1889, both in San Francisco. Their parents were from China. My father's family is from Hoi Ping [Guangdong Province]. I don't know where my mother's family came from.

I had a sister, Margaret, and a brother, Edward. Ed passed away in 2002; my sister passed away in 2003. We were each two years apart.

My parents had a laundry and cleaning agency on Eighth Street, 311, 313. We lived in the back of the store. We did not do the laundry there. We were merely an agent picking up for a laundry. You leave laundry there and we send it out, and you come back and pick it up.


My mother passed away in 1928. She was always at the store. She was very helpful to people who came in. The store had a little room that people came to play mah-jongg. A lot of single men came in, and my mother cooked and sewed for them. She helped out in any way she could. She also taught Sunday school at a church on Fifth Street. She was a grand lady.

I have no idea why my mother decided to register to vote, other than the fact that my father was with the Native Sons of the Golden State. Dr. Charles Lee was also very active. All registered Chinese voters went to them to find out who to vote for. They were friends of a few judges at that time.

I wasn't born yet when she registered to vote. I found out about it from news articles, after my parents had passed away. My parents never mentioned it. When Lester Lee's mother [Clara Lee] turned 106, there was an article in the paper about her, and this incident was brought forth.


The people I grew up with were the Chan family, on Eighth Street. The father was the minister of the Chinese Methodist Church and the boys were Freeman, Edwin, George, and Edward. They had quite a few sisters.


Harry Chin's family owned a store next door. The church was downstairs and the Chan family lived upstairs. The person across the street, on the corner, was Frank Yick, a contractor. The son was Robert Yick, who eventually moved to San Francisco and opened the company that made all the Chinese kitchens.

On Ninth Street was the Fung family. They were electricians and contractors. One of the fellows I went to school with was Paul Fung, who became a well-known doctor in San Francisco. He started the Buddhist Church in San Francisco.

There weren't too many businesses on Harrison Street. It was a quiet little street. We used to play mostly on Harrison Street because there was little or no traffic. The park at Seventh and Harrison was an open park. We didn't play much ball in Lincoln Square.

Other friends were all along Sixth and Seventh Streets. Further down on Eighth Street was the Wong family, Worley Wong, the well-known architect. We were very close friends. Worley, Jenny, and I went to school together. Jenny, the sister, eventually married Dr. Lester Lee. Their family was one of the most well-to-do families at the time.

We had a ball team, the Chinese C-9. That came before the Wa Sung baseball team. There was also the Young Chinese Athletic Club. I belonged to the C-9 when it started. I never belonged to Wa Sung.

I played baseball and basketball. Young Chinese had a good basketball team. The biggest team we ever played was Lo Wah from Los Angeles, and we beat them. There were Chinese teams from elsewhere too.

The Chinese school was called Lai Hon Som, a private school on Harrison Street. You had to pay a monthly...

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