Alice Fong Yu

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Alice Fong Yu
Alice Fong Yu.jpg
Born (1905-03-02)March 2, 1905
Washington, California
Died December 19, 2000(2000-12-19) (aged 95)
Nationality American
Alma mater San Francisco State University
Occupation Teacher
Known for Square and Circle Club
Spouse(s) Jon Yong Chang Yu

Alice Fong Yu (2 March 1905 - 19 December 2000) was the first Chinese American public school teacher in California, founder of the Square and Circle Club, and a prominent leader in the San Francisco Chinatown community.


Early life[edit]

She was born in the small gold-mining town of Washington in Nevada County, California,[1] on March 2, 1905, to Lonnie Tom and Fong Chow (Suey Chang). Fong Chow was superintendent of a leased mine and also ran a general store for Chinese miners.

Yu remembered being taunted by local children in Washington: "The children weren't nice to us at all. They yelled these obscenities to us each time we would be approaching the school: 'Ching Chong Chinaman sitting on a rail,' and oh, funny sounds, 'eeyauyauyau-yauyau!' - things like that." The oldest of eleven siblings, Yu remembered her parents telling their children not to listen to their "barbarian" classmates.[2] Lonnie and Fong Chow encouraged their children to be proud of both their Chinese heritage and American identity.

In 1916 hydraulic mining was banned in California. Unable to support his family, Fong Chow relocated to Vallejo, California, where he opened The Oriental Market on Georgia Street. The family lived in the five rooms above the store.

Marriage and family[edit]

On December 22, 1940, she married Jon Yong Chang Yu, a writer and journalist who wrote editorials for the Young China newspaper. They had two sons, Alon and Joal.

Career as an educator[edit]

Yu credited her father, a well-educated Chinese nationalist, for encouraging all of his children, including the girls, to seek higher education.[3] In the 1920s, Chinese women were not usually encouraged to get an education or enter a profession. After graduating from high school in 1923, Yu moved to San Francisco to attend the San Francisco State Teachers College. When she had applied in 1922, she was initially denied admission, being informed by the school's president, Dr. Frederic Lister Burk, that she would not be hired for a job anywhere in the country. Yu replied that she intended to move to China to teach English and had no intention of teaching in the United States.[4] She was accepted and graduated in 1926.[5]

Commodore Stockton Elementary School[edit]

The principal of the Commodore Stockton Elementary School (formerly known as the Oriental School) where Yu had done her student teaching informed the College that she would hire Yu as soon as she completed her credentials. The principal had been relieved to have someone on her staff who understood the school's Chinese students and could communicate with their parents.

Upon graduation in 1926, Yu was hired at Commodore Stockton, becoming the first Chinese American school teacher in California.[6] As the only Chinese-speaking teacher, Yu was called upon to counsel, translate, and act in the capacity of clerk, nurse, and social worker. She taught at Commodore Stockton for thirty-four years. Although she was well-qualified, she was never promoted.[7]

Speech therapy[edit]

Yu's youngest son, Joal, was born with cerebral palsy due to complications in childbirth. Seeking to help her son face the challenges of his condition, Yu enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, and took courses in speech therapy. She received her certification in 1957 and was then commissioned to teach speech therapy in schools throughout the San Francisco area. Until her retirement in 1970, Yu served as the speech correction teacher-at large.[8] She began the practice of grouping students with the same speech problem and teaching them together. According to Yu, this method of speech therapy made the children more comfortable – not singled out, not awful... just kids with something they need to learn, can learn.”

Community leader and activist[edit]

In addition to her work in the San Francisco public schools, Yu was a community leader and activist. She was involved with many Chinatown organizations including the Square and Circle Club,[9] Chinese Needlework Guild, the YWCA, and the Lake Tahoe Christian Conference. She also contributed to the Chinese Digest, a progressive Chinese language newspaper founded in 1935.

The Square and Circle Club[edit]

In 1924, seven members of the Chinese Congregational Church founded the Square and Circle Club, the oldest Chinese women's service organization in the United States. The original members were Alice Fong (Yu), Anne Lee (Leong), Ivy Lee (Mah, Jennie Lee, Bessie Wong (Shum), Daisy K. Wong, and Daily L. Wong (Chinn).[10] Yu served as the club's first president.

The club name was borrowed from an old Chinese saying suggested by Professor Fung Gee Shau, Yu's Chinese language tutor. According to Article II of its founding charter, the purpose of The Square and Circle Club was "to develop a spirit of cooperation and service by promoting and fostering philanthropic and community projects and to encourage the fulfillment of the club ideal, 'In deeds be square, in knowledge be all-around.'"

According to Yu, the club was addressing a need in the San Francisco Chinatown community: "So much community service had to be done, and nobody was doing it," Alice says. “we felt that we could bring women together and use our talents, our energy, and be more loving and caring in doing things for the community." Predominantly business and professional women, the Square and Circle Club were very active in community issues. They registered American-born Chinese to vote, lobbied for improved housing and recreational facilities in Chinatown, and raised relief funds to be sent to China. In 1926 a columnist for the Los Angeles Record praised the activities of the Square and Circle Club stating:

Whenever there is a flood in China, or an orphan to look after, or the poor to remember – the Square and Circle Club of twenty-four Chinese girls can always be counted on to carry out its motto of service. There are other clubs and organizations in Chinatown, lots of them, but this handful of girls has led them all in sterling service to the community and to their country. Most young girls band together for social purposes chiefly, but not so the Square and Circle members. They have two projects each year in their program of ministering to the needs of their less fortunate countrymen.

When the Sino-Japanese War broke out in 1937, the Chinese American community organized support for the Chinese through the United China War Relief Association. During the eight-year duration of the war, Chinese Americans raised over $56 million in war relief funds. Having already been leaders in raising funds for famine and flood relief for China, the Square and Circle Club became a leader of the war effort in San Francisco. Members sold bilingual greeting cards, raised money for cotton uniforms, surgical supplies, airplanes, volunteered for the Red Cross, sponsored plays and raffle drawings, participated in parades and protests, and petitioned the United States Congress to declare an embargo against Japan.

The Square and Circle Club became particularly well known for hosting fashion shows to benefit war relief and for leading the boycott against silk stockings. The fashion shows featured Chinese American women modeling traditional Chinese clothing from the Tang dynasty through modern times. According to Yu, the fashion shows “were very popular in those days.” Ticket lines stretched around the block, and “[a]fter each show, we had to let the audience out the back door. As soon as we let one group out, new people were pushing in already – just one show after another.”

The Square and Circle Club also led the boycott against silk stockings in San Francisco's Chinatown. Since 90 percent of the silk in women's hosiery was exported from Japan, participating in the boycott on silk stockings was a direct way women could express their opposition to Japanese aggression in China. Leading the boycott in Chinatown, Square and Circle Club President Yu chided women who did not support the “Non-Silk Movement” stating:

There is an appalling lack of conscience among many Chinatown girls who continue to buy the 'latest shades' in silk stockings to help extend Japan's ability to get more munitions with which to shoot down our helpless brethren across the seas... Silk is the lifeline which connects Japan with credit and resources abroad and Chinese women in America can exert considerable strength toward severing this strong and important link.

Yu was very proud of the Square and Circle Club's contributions to the war effort. “When young people are given a chance, what they can do!” While its influence has waned, the Square and Circle Club continues to function as a women's service organization in San Francisco. Current members honor their predecessors who took pride in their bicultural heritage and served the Chinese American community during a time when very few social or political channels were open to American-born Chinese women.

The Chinese Needlework Guild While she was teaching at Commodore Stockton Elementary School, Yu helped to establish a Chinese chapter of the Needlework Guild, which provided clothing and shoes to needy children in Chinatown. Many of her students' mothers did not speak English well enough to join the Parent-Teacher Association, so she helped them to organize their own group. “We got together to sew and talk about things,” she recalled. “Whenver we found out about an impoverished family, we would help them to get on welfare.”

Young Women's Christian Association[edit]

According to Yu, there was no conflict between Chinese Confucianism and Western Christianity. She argued that “the old teachings contained all the virtues of the new and that only those who were unfamiliar with the heritage of China's wisdom failed to see that.” As the YWCA's first house mother, Yu ran a Friday breakfast club and started a Bible class for Sunday School teachers. She also participated and facilitated activities to help second-generation women acclimate to life in the United States, including language classes, social dinners, sports, and group discussions on topics such as race prejudice, Chinese culture, current events, marriage, and parenting.

Lake Tahoe Chinese Young People's Christian Conference[edit]

In 1933, Alice Fong Yu, Ira Lee, and Edwar Lee organized the first Lake Tahoe Chinese Young People's Christian Conference. Second-generation Chinese from all over California came to the conference to discuss social issues and politics affecting the Chinese American community. It also served as a place for Chinese American youth of different church denominations to gather outside of their respective Chinatowns. The success of this first conference led to an annual conference that met through the 1960s. The Chinese Young People's Forum, an interdenominational offshoot of the conference led by Yu, met at the Donalinda Cameron House to discuss issues affecting the San Francisco Chinatown community.[11]

Yu's legacy[edit]

In 1996 San Francisco's Chinese immersion school was named Alice Fong Yu Alternative School in Yu's honor.[12]

At the San Francisco Jazz Festival in October 2007, composer and jazz pianist Jon Jang performed the world premiere of "Unbound Chinatown: A Musical Tribute to Alice Fong Yu.”[13] Jang called the piece a "musical portrait" of Yu's experience as an activist in the late-1930s.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ "Bay briefs". The Berkeley Daily Planet. December 26, 2000. Retrieved November 13, 2009. 
  2. ^ Yung, Judy (1995). Unbound feet: a social history of Chinese women in San Francisco. University of California Press. pp. 207–208. ISBN 978-0-520-08867-2. 
  3. ^ Yung, Judy (1995). Unbound feet: a social history of Chinese women in San Francisco. University of California Press. p. 131. ISBN 978-0-520-08867-2. 
  4. ^ Seller, Maxine (1994). Immigrant women. SUNY Press. p. 301. ISBN 978-0-7914-1903-8. 
  5. ^ Eliassen, Meredith (2007). San Francisco State University. Arcadia Publishing. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-7385-5566-9. 
  6. ^ Bloom, Barbara Lee (2002). The Chinese-Americans. Lucent Books. p. 71. ISBN 978-1-56006-751-1. 
  7. ^ Yung, Judy (1995). Unbound feet: a social history of Chinese women in San Francisco. University of California Press. p. 141. ISBN 978-0-520-08867-2. 
  8. ^ Higgins, Ardis O. (1975). Windows on women. Halls of Ivy Press. p. 68. ISBN 978-0-912256-08-5. 
  9. ^ Chinn, Thomas W. (1989). Bridging the Pacific: San Francisco Chinatown and its people. Chinese Historical Society of America. p. 236. ISBN 978-0-9614198-3-7. 
  10. ^ Lowe, Alice (January 1, 2007). "The emergence of Chinese American women". Chinese America: History and Perspectives. Chinese Historical Society of America. ISSN 1051-7642. Retrieved November 13, 2009. 
  11. ^ Yung, Judy (1995). Unbound feet: a social history of Chinese women in San Francisco. University of California Press. pp. 208–209. ISBN 978-0-520-08867-2. 
  12. ^ "S. F. Chinese School Named for Alice Yu". San Jose Mercury News. January 29, 1996. Retrieved November 13, 2009. 
  13. ^ Hamlin, Jesse (October 16, 2007). "Marcus Shelby marries lyrical life of Harriet Tubman with jazz". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved November 13, 2009.