Harvey Dong (PhD, UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies) teaches AAS20B: Contemporary Asian American Community Issues and AAS 121: Chinese American History. A veteran of the student strike that catalyzed the development of the Ethnic Studies Department and the Asian American Studies program at Berkeley, Dr. Dong studies the history of social movements and activism in Asian American communities and grassroots movements for social change. He is interested in the pioneers of early Asian American history. He contributed an essay on the 1974 Jung Sai Garment Workers Strike in San Francisco Chinatown to Ten Years That Shook the City of San Francisco 1968-1978, ed. Chris Carlsson, which was published this year.
INTERVIEW WITH HARVEY DONG
Third World Liberation, from 1969 to Today: An interview with HARVEY DONG
August 26, 2009
Harvey Dong teaches Ethnic Studies courses as a lecturer at UC Berkeley, bringing his perspective as an alumnus twice over. Initially he took part in the 1969 Third World Liberation Front, a student movement to establish Ethnic Studies. Once Ethnic Studies was established, Dong taught some of the department’s first communities issues courses based on extensive fieldwork carried out in San Francisco Manilatown and Chinatown, while also active in struggles to save the International Hotel in Manilatown and to protect Asian immigrant labor rights.
In addition, Dong helped found the first Asian American bookstore in the United States (called Everybody’s Books); the Asian American Community Center; and Wei Min She, an Asian American anti-imperialist organization in San Francisco. Twenty-five years after the initial strike for Ethnic Studies, Dong returned as a PhD student in 1994. Since earning his PhD, Dong has lectured part time at UC Berkeley, and has continued to co-manage the bookstore he bought in 1996, Eastwind Books in Berkeley. In 2009, Dong helped to release the seminal book Stand Up: An Archive Collection of the Bay Area Asian American Movement, 1968-1974. He also participated in 40th anniversary celebrations of the founding of the department of Ethnic Studies in March 2009. During these events, Dong met doctoral student Julie Thi Underhill, and she later invited him to reflect upon his own experiences as student, instructor, archivist, and activist in Ethnic Studies and in the Bay Area. For their August 2009 discussion, they met at Eastwind Books.
JTU: What are your recollections of the Third World Liberation Front strike to establish the Ethnic Studies department in 1969, and to what extent were you involved?
I was active in the different social movements of that time [a]nd the Third World Liberation Front strike was a continuation of that. I was in the Stop the Draft Week in 1967 and 1968, and that connected with the Black Panther’s Free Huey movement. When the strike happened, everything seemed to continue as part of that original flow. Except that one big difference is the fact that Asian Americans had a prominent role in the strike and other Third World groups. Whereas in the other movements, it seemed like the participation was mainly led by the New Left organizations, which were primarily white dominated. And we had alliances with African American organizations. So there were big differences in terms of the leadership—the emerging leadership—of the different Third World organizations. And out of that, I guess the term Third World took on a new life, because you could say that new relationships were established, from people working and struggling together and communicating with each other. You could say that this whole Third World ideology emerged, and that was connected with everything else going on in the world at the time—all these revolutionary movements in Asia and Africa and Latin America. It all felt like there was an interconnection with what we were trying to achieve.
After the strike many of us wanted to continue our efforts and that’s when there was another phase in terms of the building of ethnic studies programs. … I wanted to investigate how to further the efforts and demands of the strike. I had taken up these work-study positions and volunteer positions in San Francisco Chinatown and Manilatown. So during the day I would be working at this organization, Self Help for the Elderly, to study the issues of elderly folks in single-resident occupied housing. … This was after the strike. And off of that, going back into Asian American studies and ethnic studies, I saw that it was really important to inject community consciousness and community connection to all the courses. The other thing that we were involved with after the strike was the opening of a bookstore, the first Asian American bookstore in the United States. And we called it Everybody’s Bookstore. …[I]n the summer of 1969, we were trying to brainstorm over what type of institution would really help, as far as bringing consciousness to people in the community. … So we asked who had fifty dollars to contribute. About ten people volunteered—so we raised five hundred dollars and we used that as seed money to open a small bookstore in San Francisco Manilatown, Chinatown. So that was the first Asian American bookstore in this country, that was again initiated by UC Berkeley alumni—students at that time. And that bookstore lasted about eight years I think, quite a while.
And then we opened a field office. We felt that this department of Asian American Studies should be a department that actually has a reach in the community, and in order to have a reach in the community, it should have a physical space there. So we actually had a classroom in Manilatown, San Francisco. Classes were held—say a community issues class or a class on health care problems in the Asian community in San Francisco. They would actually meet on Kearny Street. We’d bus students into the community and we held class there and students would take part in different projects that were going on. So that’s something you could say was unique in that period. And the African American students had something similar. Same with the Chicano and Native American students, because we had an official Asian American Studies office—it’s called Asian American Studies Field Office—that was something that was pretty unique.
JTU: When did you return to the department, as a student?
I returned, I think, in ’94. It took five years. (Laughs.) … I finished the program and then I began to teach as a grad student. Carlos [Munoz] retires and his social movement class was kind of in limbo. So I actually taught it the year after he retired, as a grad student lecturer. And then I taught a similar class at UC Davis in 2002, a social movements course. So since I graduated, I’ve been a lecturer, part-time, in UC.
JTU: When did Eastwind Books, in Berkeley, open up? Were you involved from the beginning and what is your role here?
Well, this bookstore actually began in 1982. … [I]t was around 1996, my wife and I were customers at this bookstore. My wife, Bea, had gone back to school and finished her undergraduate degree in Ethnic Studies literature. So we would frequent Eastwind Books, and we found out the bookstore was going to close because a Hong Kong corporation had bought Eastwind, and they were going to close the Berkeley store because it was not profitable. So out of hearing that bit of information, we said, Oh that would be a big loss. So the owner of Eastwind asked if we’d be interested on continuing it.
JTU: What was your inspiration for compiling Stand Up: An Archive of the Collection of the Bay Area Asian-American Movement, 1968-1974? How long of a process was that, and what did it involve for you?
Stand Up is a collaborative effort in terms of many people who were active in Asian Pacific Activism, the Asian Community Center, and Third World Liberation Front strike. They contributed things that they had in their personal archives—their collections, in terms of buttons, pictures, old articles. And also a number of people contributed reflections of that period. So the idea was to actually have something visual with some essays in it that would present a glimpse of what that period is about. One question is the value of something like that. And it still goes back to the fact that a lot of the gains that we have today—in terms of Ethnic Studies, Asian American Studies, all these different community organizations and institutions established, Asian Health Services, and stuff—all came from that earlier period when these things did not really exist and they had to be struggled for. So Stand Up tries to bring that understanding out there.
JTU: There’s so much community work that’s been done by people in Ethnic Studies. It’d be nice to have a greater awareness of it. In a way the 40th anniversary has been a good commemorative event for that. In March 2009 there were panels, with the Asian Pacific Islander Issues conference at the same time. That was so cool, hearing Yuri Kochiyama mentioning Ethnic Studies in her keynote talk.
JTU: I’m hoping this conversation reminds us to further recognize our collective wealth of experience here. As far as the specialness of our department, we have something really unique that other departments here don’t have, and not to memorialize and historicize it would be a shame—if we looked at our department, looked at its rich history, looked at the founding of the discipline, without telling a human story about it. The living history is still occurring, those reflections from ’69 are still valid, and it’s not just something in the past. The Bay Area, during even during the last few hundred years, has drawn many communities that have settled into rich cultures here. And you’ve really jumped out for me as someone integral not only to those communities but to the founding and continuation of our department. So thank you.