In the late 1940s, history in the making would bring Qupi Sum and his eleven-year-old brother to America in 1952. The Chinese Communists had taken over China in 1949 after helping America’s World War II ally, the Nationalist Chinese, to drive out the Japanese in 1945. As the Communists under Mao Tse Tung strengthened their hold, the father sent tickets for both boys to come to San Francisco. Their mother chose to escape to the nearby island of Macao, then a Portuguese possession, not wishing to live in America permanently with the man with whom she had been forced into an arranged marriage years before.
Their father paid for the boys’ passage to San Francisco where they lived with their father in a “cheap” hotel in Chinatown. Wan Qupi Sum was enrolled in the Washington Irving school for older student immigrants for “Americanization training.” “Language, good manners, customs” weren’t the only things Qupi Sum learned. He also was given a new first name! One day, the American woman teacher announced to the new students that they would be given American names to be used from now on. She pointed at one student after another and called out a name: “Ronald,” “John,” “Michael,” “Margaret,” “Jane,” “Scott.” Just like that, Wan Qupi Sum became the Scott Wan we know today.
Asked how he felt about being assigned an American name with no chance to refuse or even change it, he says he was fine with it because he wanted to come to here to live.
“After the second World War, America was the ideal country. Everybody all over the world wanted to come here,” Scott notes. American soldiers in China and Japan after the war would attract large groups of children to receive chocolate candies while the adults were given cigarettes, he recalls. Even the movies were wonderful. He mentions Tarzan and Esther Williams films in particular as a 16- year-old at the time would. He had even joined a Boy Scout troop in his home village of Done Yar, on the Pearl River in South China, not far from Macao.
After the Americanization school he was enrolled in Galileo High School from which he graduated in 1957. He and his brother were on their own as his father had died of heart trouble in 1956. Scott worked in a Chinese laundry to pay for lodging and food for his brother and himself. At some point before he died, Scott’s father had “paid a lawyer a great deal of money to help” his sons to become citizens.
In 1959, Scott joined the United States Army. He feels he was at a crossroad in his life and that joining the Army was “a good decision… I learned how to get along with my fellow man.” He also perfected his English and is proud to have been named “Soldier of the Week” during basic training at Fort Ord. From there, he was sent to Quartermaster School to learn how to manage supplies and food protection. When he finished training, he became a supply clerk.
Being posted to 1960 South Carolina was interesting. The Army was finally integrated but the South was not. At rest stops, the white soldiers would yell at Scott to come with them to the white bathroom while the black soldiers would call for him to come with them to theirs. Scott, who had learned to be tactful, would wave them both off and go behind a tree.
He became the company banker by loaning soldiers money after they had cashed their paycheck and spent it all the same day and evening in town. The interest was sizeable, but he got all the money back including the interest.
Scott ran into some racism directed at him. He was walking down a street in Petersburg, Virginia one day when a man walking by pointed at his uniform and said rudely, “Hey, what are you doing in that!
He also met other soldiers from foreign countries who, like himself, were in the Army. “I made wonderful friends,” he recalls. O’Keefe was an Irishman with an Irish accent. Scott ‘stepped in it” one day by saying conversationally, “I saw many people like you, Englishman.” O’Keefe bristled and replied sternly several times “DON’T call me English. I’m IRISH!!!” Scott learned a lesson and they both found a friend. Other soldiers from foreign countries include a Dutchman and an Englishman. One day three new soldiers came into the camp. Scott looked at them with excitement because they were Chinese……or so he thought. It turns out they were Eskimos from Alaska.
His Army service was shortened when it was discovered that he had a heart murmur in 1960. He was given a medical discharge and returned to San Francisco.
How does he feel about his Army experience? “I was brought up before and during World War II. I was proud to be on the American side.” He remains very positive and proud about being an American citizen and the opportunities it gave him and his brother. After leaving the Army he enrolled in a polytechnical school to learn electronics at just the right time – the early 1960s. But that’s another story.
Written by Harriett Burt, Carlton Senior Living Pleasant Hill-Martinez Resident