THROUGH THE FIRE: “The Debt of the Heart” – Susie Ling and the Importance of the Oral



With the beleaguered successes of the San Francisco State Strike and the UC Berkeley Third World Liberation Front strike of 1968-69, ethnic studies made its way into American academia. Faced with the task of filling the gaping holes in United States history, where white settlers suppressed their crimes of aggression and oppression of generations and multitudes of people of color, ethnic studies gained a foothold in the established university community.

At the heart of ethnic studies are the oral histories of people of color who lived through the oppressive regimes of the past (and present). Oral tradition is the precious material that informs our stories in the Americas.

Susie Ling, a 1984 graduate of UCLA’s Asian American Studies MA program, embodies the best traditions of ethnic studies. His oral histories serve our communities, often showing the interracial friendships between communities of color. As an Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at Pasadena City College, she enriches our local communities by bringing back local stories that are not well known.

Ling’s master’s thesis was the groundbreaking “Mountain Movers: Asian American Women’s Movement in Los Angeles,” as it captured the voices of women in the movement and their struggles against male chauvinism within the Asian movement of the 1970s. Movers” laid bare the inner workings and frustrations of women in the Movement, too often relegated to secretarial or “non-leadership” roles.

In my email interview with Susie, she described her process of interviewing 30 people for this project: “It was done with tapes and an electric (not electronic) typewriter. It took me less than a year because I loved every minute of it. …I interviewed about half a dozen men, which was very, very helpful. I entered into a pattern: I heard the interview, I listened to it again while transcribing, then I retyped. I lived through the interview for a few days.

Yosh Kuromiya and Susie Ling in Monrovia in 2016. (Photo by Irene Kuromiya)

Susie hasn’t stopped and has done over 200 oral histories to date. She said: “Ever since I was a child, I loved to hear stories and my family told good ones. … My skills are knowledge of US history and being a very fast transcriber. … I realized that I had a super power as a transcriptionist.

When I asked Susie how her oral histories affected her teaching, she wrote, “Every time I tell a REAL story in class, kids get a boost. They love my stories, and I love my stories… The story is about REAL people. As about 90% of my students are working class people of color, the stories of those who came before them empower them. … The Manongs did it, the Isseis did it, yesterday’s immigrants, women, African Americans…”

Professor Ling has been a recognized force as Pasadena Star News the article (02/04/2021) titles its impact: “College course in Asian American history sparked insight, rapport that lasts for years: The personal stories of a Pasadena professor City College and its ideas for the Asian American history course have proven unforgettable and vital years after the course ended.

Susie thanks her sabbaticals for the time she spent on her oral history projects. “I thought of looking into the Asian American history of the San Gabriel Valley [SGV] – thinking that there was little and that I would finish this “look” in about two weeks. WAS I HURT! I found the Niseis! I didn’t know JA had roots in SGV!!!! Bacon Sakatani was one of my first interviewees and he said to me, “Boy, you’re like a hakujin.’ (I didn’t know what a ofuro was.) In one of my last interviews, I offered something to Yosh Kuromiya’s wife, and she said, “You’re like a Japanese American.” Have I ever been touched. It was in the 1990s. I loved the Niseis. I learned so much from them and enjoyed them so much. And I’m forever grateful that I caught them before they died too.

Rafu readers may be familiar with Susie’s article “The Marshalls from J-Flats” (2/20/2020). While interviewing 93-year-old Barbara Jean Marshall Williams, we learn that J-Flats was originally homesteaded to her grandparents, the Albrights, in 1892. They were an interracial black/white couple. Barbara’s parents received a power of attorney from their Japanese American neighbors to protect their property and bank accounts while incarcerated during World War II. An extended version can be found here:

Here are some highlights of what Susie documented:

• “Thank You Carr Family” (published in The Rafu (11/21/2014): A white father and son, both real estate agents, broke racial pacts for Japanese, African Americans and Jews to buy homes in the San Rafael Hills.

• Joan Takayama-Ogawa: Her father’s neighbors were Jackie Robinson’s parents. The Robinsons took care of the Takayama family estate during the war and taught his father how to cook Louisiana greens and pork rinds. Her father, Hideo, was the same age as Mac Robinson (Jackie’s brother), and Shig (Hideo’s brother) was the same age as Jackie. Shig played football with Jackie at Pasadena Junior College.

• “Monrovia Superstar: Architect Robert Kennard”, published in the Monrovia Weekly (07/02/2019): Susie recounts how Robert Kennard’s family coped with segregated schools in Monrovia (some until 1970). Kennard was inducted into the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows for Excellence in 1986. Susie’s paper was based on Jerome Robinson’s USC School of Architecture master’s thesis, “An Odyssey in B- Flat: Rediscovering the Life and Times of Master Architect Robert A. Kennard” – available at the Monrovia Historical Museum

• The complete list of San Gabriel Valley Nisei whom Susie has interviewed: Sadako Ebihara Mayeda, Edgar Fukutaki, Chiye Hashimoto Taniguchi, Ted Sakio Hashimoto, Chiye Hayashi Watanabe, Reiko Kato Yoshihashi, Shigeru Kawai, Mitsuo Kunihiro, Yoshito Kuromiya, Jimmy Yukio Makino , Elsie Shizuko Morita, Uyematsu Osajima, Kikuye Betty Nitake Murata, Shos Nomura, Ben T. Okura, Helen Sakata Nakagawa, Harumi “Bacon” Sakatani, Fujiko Sakiyama Ishizu, Sam Shimoguchi, Rose Kiyoko Shoda Nishio, Yoshimaro Sogioka, Keizo Ted Tajima, Joan Takayama-Ogawa, Esther Takei Nishio, Paul Hiroshi Tsuneishi and Tokuji Yoshihashi.

• Mayor Bob Bartlett, the first African-American member of Monrovia City Council (1974) and mayor (1988-2001). Susie writes, “I was able to interview Mayor Bob Bartlett before he died. He was so eager to share his story and that of his parents. He called me several times from his hospital bed to make sure I would follow through with the project. Mary, it was my honor. These are stories that needed to be told. Bob Bartlett passed away on October 11, 2015.

• Since 2003, Susie has been one of the editors of the Eraser Saan Diary (published by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California). Susie writes: “…One of the presidents (of the CHSSC)…sent me to visit these old Chinese grocers; I liked it. Other presidents have sent me on other assignments – bankers, lawyers, Hanford…” His current plan for **Saan Gum** interviews LGBTQ Chinese Americans. “This Chinese LGBTQ issue is my first time interviewing mostly people younger than me. … Our communities still stigmatize the gay and lesbian experience. I struggled to learn, but we can’t lose this story .

Susie’s oral histories are a labor of love: “Sometimes someone wanted to hire me; I said no. For me, it has to be done freely and then gifted. I know it is not possible for others. … In Tagalog, there is a sentence: put the loob or “debt of the heart”. We owe it to the generations that preceded us. I feel the need to pay off some of this debt.

Susie was born in Taiwan, raised in the Philippines and currently lives in the San Gabriel Valley. You can find Susie online at: Mary Uyematsu Kao is the retired publications coordinator of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She published her photography book “Rockin’ the Boat: Flashbacks of the 1970s Asian Movement” in June 2020. Comments and feedback are welcome at: uyematsu


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