Remembering Philip P. Choy: A Historian for All People.

Author:Dong, Lorraine
 
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Being born a third-generation San Franciscan on December 17, 1926, Philip P. Choy [phrase omitted] often joked about how there was a celebration on his seventeenth birthday, not because he was seventeen years old but because the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed on that date. Phil grew up in Chinatown as the fourth of five children, one of ten Chinese students attending Marina Junior High School, one of the naughtiest students in Chinese afternoon school, and a teenager who learned the family's butcher trade. He participated in boys' basketball, becoming leader of the YMCA Blue Eagles basketball team and coaching the YMCA Cherokees. He enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps during high school and was "amused" when told by a White private, "you're not that yellow!" After majoring in engineering at City College of San Francisco, he decided to use his GI Bill to earn a bachelor's degree in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley.

Faced with discrimination while working in an architectural firm, Phil set up his own practice and won awards for his architectural style that integrated Eurocentric and Asian designs. Among them was the 1969 Award of Special Distinction for Superlative Achievement-Total Design for Ming's Restaurant in Palo Alto. His other well-known works were the Chevron Station on Columbus Avenue, a popular Chinatown tourist attraction, and the redesign of the Chinese Tapestry Hall in Oroville. Phil also provided architectural pro bono services for the community, including the remodel of the Chinese for Affirmative Action building on Walter U. Lum Place.

The 1960s and '70s were decades when Chinese Americans demanded their life and history in the United States. Phil filled this void years before Asian American/Ethnic Studies was established as an academic discipline. He did this for a community that needed it more than the academic community. As such, Phil's target audience was primarily the people, not the Ivory Tower. He was the definitive community and people's historian, treading on territories that scholars did not dare or consider.

Phil served on numerous committees and boards that worked to improve the livelihoods of Chinese Americans and to promote awareness of their history: the Angel Island Immigration Station Historical Advisory Committee, the Chinatown Alley Improvement Program, the Chinatown Community Housing Corporation, the Chinatown Neighborhood Improvement Resource Center, the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), the San Francisco Human Rights Commission, the San Francisco Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board, the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society Advisory Committee, the State Historical Resources Commission, and The Association of Chinese Teachers' (TACT) various K-12 publication and filmstrip committees.

With his architectural background and love for Chinese American history, Phil dedicated much of his time to preservation work. It was imperative to keep evidence of the Chinese existence and contributions in the United States. He traveled throughout California to advocate and testify for the preservation of Chinese American towns and structures in the mother lode country and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Valley Delta. He fought tirelessly to keep them from demolition and from being purchased by developers for commercial use. He was also instrumental in obtaining historic status designations for Chinese American landmarks, like the Angel Island Immigration Station and the Julia Morgan-designed YWCA building in San Francisco Chinatown.

An early fascination with the history of the American West led Phil to a relentless search for Chinese American history. He began researching and collecting all kinds of paraphernalia related to the American West but mainly Chinese America. Meticulously, he scanned through old towns and libraries for anything that was Chinese. Sometimes he would persuade friends and relatives to accompany him in the dark of night to rummage through basements, garages, and garbage bins containing discarded items from Chinatown stores and organizations. Phil's collection ranged from simple, ordinary objects like toys and household utensils to refined pieces of high art. Among his eclectic collection were hundreds of newspaper clippings and Chinese images in American popular culture, many of which were bought at flea markets and auctions. Just as significant was his assortment of first edition nineteenth- and twentieth-century books that provided a broad understanding of mainstream White American attitudes toward the Chinese.

It was no secret that Phil contained a wealth of knowledge as an individual and in his collection. Scholars, educators, writers, publishers, and filmmakers from around the world went to him for information, images, and obscure works about Chinese America. Extremely generous, he might lend one-of-a-kind, invaluable items to people whom he had just met. There were times when these items would be lost or never returned. This is not testimony to Phil's naivete, but rather to his profound love for Chinese American history. He was ecstatic whenever he met someone just as interested in Chinese American history as himself, and he would readily open his heart and soul to anyone who shared this common interest.

As Phil began to piece together the history of Chinese America, he developed a deep sense of injustice caused by the country's omission and ignorance of its minorities. Throughout his early life, he personally experienced discrimination as a Chinese American. During basic training in Mississippi, he witnessed firsthand how segregation and discrimination against African Americans worked in the South. One of his favorite songs became "Ol' Man River," a song that had him realize the commonalities between African and Chinese Americans. Eventually Phil found a venue to share his quest for social justice and history--the Chinese Historical Society of America, founded in 1963.

The year 1969 marked several milestones for CI ISA and especially for Phil. Attending the Transcontinental Railroad Centennial at Promontory Point, Utah, in his...

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