The drums began pounding at 2 p.m. A crowd of more than 1,500 people was gathered in front of El Cerrito’s city hall to mark a grand day in the city’s history.
It was opening day for the Chung Mei Home for Chinese Boys, said to be the only such orphanage in the United States.
The year was 1935, and the 68 “Chung Mei boys” who were moving into the home, dressed in khaki uniforms, were soon marching with military precision towards their home, one mile away. They were accompanied by marching units from the Ming Quong Home for Chinese Girls in Oakland, and by drummers from several Chinese-American American Legion Posts.
Also there was Miss Donaldina Cameron, founder of Ming Quong, that “indomitable veteran social worker and soldier of God.” Present too was Charles Shepherd, who so described Miss Cameron, and considered her his mentor.
Shepherd, an Englishman who’d done missionary work in China, was the founder of Chung Mei. He had been “called” to the task after seeing dozens of hungry, abandoned Chinese boys in San Franciso’s Chinatown.
The boys, he wrote in a memoir about the home, were “orphans, half-orphans, foundlings and children from broken homes.” No other orphanage would take in “children of color or Asiatic races,” according to an account from the time. Racism against Asians was virulent.
“They need a father,” Shepherd wrote.
Instead, many of the boys recall, they got a captain.
Shepherd, a man with a dry, at times wicked sense of humor, ran the home “like a military school,” says Phil Chan, who lived there from age 9 to 15, between 1946 and 1952.
Shepherd was called “Captain.” A Chung Mei graduate (and the first to go on to the University of California), Eddie Tong, was second in command, “Lieutenant.”
“Everything was by the bell,” Chan remembers. Bells rang when it was time to study, time to sleep, time to get up, and time to eat.
“You obeyed the captain,” he says. “You obeyed the lieutenant.”
On May 4, at 7 p.m., Chan will be back at the school to discuss its history and what it was like to live there, as part of a put on by the El Cerrito Historical Society and co-sponsored by , which owns the former orphanage and operates it as a private school, and by the city’s Human Relations Commission. Chan's friend, Wing Soohoo, will also reminisce about life at the home.
The program will include a tour of the historic building and several adjoining historic structures, which have been marvelously preserved by Windrush School. Visitors will be able to see an original Chinese-style mural, Chinese-style woodwork, bas-reliefs of dragons, cloud-patterned walls, and original bathtubs, sinks, and more.
Chung Mei, which Shepherd founded in 1923, originally occupied a ramshackle home at the western end of Ashby Avenue, in a section of Berkeley set aside, he wrote, for “obnoxious and odor-producing factories.”
It was hard to buy property at all in Berkeley. Many neighborhoods did not want Chinese.
Shepherd cobbled together funds for the school from the Baptist Home Mission Society, the Bay Cities Baptist University, and from hundreds of people in the Chinese-American community. But the school was never flush.
In Berkeley, the boys themselves had to raise funds both for operations and capital improvements. They logged eucalyptus trees in the hills, selling the wood. In the summer they picked berries in Sonoma. And throughout the year they ran what Shepherd bragged, accurately no doubt, was “the first Chinese black-faced minstrel troupe in the history of civilization,” “The Celebrated Chung Mei Minstrels.”
Some dissenting Christian observers believed the troupe’s performances were “wicked,” he wrote. But their first two performances in San Francisco raised an impressive $679.50 and soon they were touring the state. They also performed in churches, where they stuck to “sacred musical dramas.”
El Cerrito appealed to Shepherd because land was affordable; they also considered two other farm communities, San Pablo and Walnut Creek. The 5½-acre hillside in El Cerrito had been a dairy farm.
To raise money for the El Cerrito home, among other strategies, the boys staged “It Happened in Zandovia,” “an original musical comedy romance.” The characters included Gen. Zachariah Zipple and Pvt. Zippo.
“There was not a thing growing on our barren hillside on the day we moved up here,” Shepherd wrote, “but in the course of three years it has been made to rejoice and bloom as a rose, until it has become a veritable beauty spot in the community.”
Students went to public schools in El Cerrito or Richmond, and took lessons in the Chinese language at their home. They went to the First Baptist Church every Sunday in Berkeley, and had their own chapel at Chung Mei.
“It is so situated,” Shepherd wrote, “that, when the seasons permit, by turning our faces to the right we can see from its windows the evening sun sinking below the horizon, over by the Golden Gate.”
Shepherd described the home’s El Cerrito setting as an almost earthly paradise. The Chung Mei home was surrounded by empty fields, “the ever-present hills, dales and wide-open spaces calling to every Chung Mei boy who loves to hike.”
“It is no wonder,” he wrote, “that the Chung Mei boys are a notoriously healthy set.”
The boys could “roam at pleasure,” he wrote – as long as they returned for their next meal or next “duty.”
“All the boys had a job to do every day,” Wing Soohoo, who entered the orphanage in 1943, told a reporter in 1992. “I started with a bucket, picking up papers in the grounds.”
The older boys also looked after the younger ones, Chan says. “We were like babysitters.”
Chan, who attended El Cerrito High while living at Chung Mei, says the boys were indeed free to roam – but needed to get permission first. They also went swimming in the pool at Camp Herms, the nearby Boy Scouts camp.
Chung Mei boys became part of the larger El Cerrito community, playing on school teams and making friends with kids from school. But, Chan remembers, it bothered him that he never brought an outsider to the home.
“It was a place that you lived, but you did not invite people to,” he says.
He also remembers scraping by without money. Unless a boy got money from his parents, he had none. That meant never going to the Cerrito Theater, and it meant walking to the Plunge in Point Richmond — four and three-quarters miles each way — because he didn’t have the bus fare. Chan never ate in a restaurant.
For entertainment, the boys would listen to Cal football on the radio. There were Christmas and holiday parties, and once a year a dance with girls from Ming Quong.
Chan was at the home when the boys helped raise money to build the gym. They ran a paper drive, Lieutenant Eddie driving the truck while the boys picked up newspapers donated by homeowners in Richmond and El Cerrito. The school sold the paper to the many florists in the area.
Also helping out was Bob Hope, who donated 10 percent of the receipts from a Bay Area tour to the “nationally known Chung Mei home in El Cerrito,” a local paper reported.
The school closed in 1954, in part because anti-Chinese racism had lessened so there was no need for an exclusively Chinese orphanage.
“Today, the Chinese living in our midst have become so much an integral part of our society that these children are welcomed in most child care institutions,” Marvin D. Jones, the board’s chairman, stated.
The home was later a Baptist college and a preparatory school. Windrush arrived in 1987. It was purely coincidental that the name of the school, which was founded in 1976, related to the dragons painted above the front door. They are wind dragons, says Jean Witzke, an artist, architectural historian, and an administrator at the school, who will lead a walking tour of the historic site during the May 4 program.
Perhaps the coincidence helps explain why the school has taken such care of the orphanage’s historical features. When it was time to expand in 2007, one of the school’s goals, a consultant for a historical report said, was “retaining the historical setting and character of the campus and its architecture.”
The consultant, LSA Associates, determined that the school forms a district that would be “eligible for listing” on the state’s historic register.
Windrush even held a reunion for Chung Mei boys a few years back. Many enjoy visiting their old home, though their memories are touched with sadness.
Wing Soohoo remembered how a relative brought him to the home. “I was left there. I was abandoned. That’s how I got introduced to the place.”
Chan and his younger brother Paul were brought to the home after his parents divorced. “It was not our choice,” Chan says. “It was our parents’ choice for us to be put in the home.” Living in an orphanage, he says, is not the same as living with your family.
“They tried to make it as normal as possible, within the limits of it being an institution.”