Interview with Sandy Lydon
July 6, 2022
Edited by Dr. Phuong Nguyen
Sandy Lydon taught Asian American history at Cabrillo College from the early 1970s until his retirement a few years ago. He is the author of two important local histories, Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay (1985, Capitola Book Co.) and The Japanese in the Monterey Bay Region: A Brief History (1997, Capitola Book Co.). I had the privilege of speaking with him by phone on February 24, 2022. We talked about his teaching experience during the early years of Ethnic Studies and his involvement with local Asian communities. Here is an excerpt of our two-hour conversation.
What was it like being one of the first to teach Asian American history in the local area?
I got to Cabrillo [College] in 1968. In my spare time, once I got my balance, I was probing around local and regional history. And discovered that yes indeed there was a Chinese story here that wasn’t being told, so I started. That’s the challenge. I’ve often referred to myself as a restoring historian. I’m trying to restore what really happened. The winners write the history. And that’s just the way it was. The historical associations were just the descendants of the pioneers who owned the houses on the hill and owned all the big companies. And they saw their job as telling their families’ histories. And there were no Chinese residents even here to be in the historical societies, much less be welcomed in them. My job was to be a little bit ornery and so it was 1970 or 71, and there was no model, no such thing as Asian American history in the curriculum. I think Cabrillo was the third community college in the state to offer Asian American history courses. I think San Francisco City was the first. Pasadena City was the second. And I didn’t even know that at the time. I just set it up and it seemed like an obvious thing to do.
How did you put together the historical material at that time?
I did it simply by doing the work and showing them the respect that I had for stories and telling them stuff they didn’t know. I had a stack of historic photographs that I would bring to all my interviews. A lot of these older [Chinese and Japanese] people that I was interviewing had never seen these photographs of their families.
How was it like being a white guy teaching Ethnic Studies?
A group of Chinese Red Guards from the city [of San Francisco] came down one evening. Most of the time I was teaching in the evening because I was shooting for adults as well as 18-year olds. I didn’t know they were coming. They come in and they’re sitting in the back. They‘re wearing their berets, in full uniform. Alex Hing was one of them, whom I got to know a bit. So it’s like I’ve got my regular class and I’ve got this viewing party sitting in the back. They didn’t say anything to me in the beginning. But I suspected someone told them there’s this white guy in Aptos who’s teaching Chinese American history. Go check him out. See what he’s doing. So I didn’t change anything. I didn’t do anything different. I was numb with fear. During the break, one of them came up and said, “Not bad. Keep it up.” So I got my ticket punched. But I was scared shitless.
What do you enjoy most about teaching?
One time I was talking about going over California marriage laws and how the Manongs, the Filipino [male immigrants from the 1930s], oftentimes developed relationships with Caucasian women. Of course California finds out what they’re doing and makes it illegal. As I was telling this story, there was a Filipina in the class and the next week she comes back and says, “My parents never got married.” She was inspired to ask her parents. She did the math, did the dates and everything. And they couldn’t have gotten married here. And they didn’t run off to New Mexico. They never bothered to get married. But to start that conversation is such a joy because it’s very real and immediate. That was something I could see and experience, whereas most of the time it is not that way. One of my former students became the poet laureate of the Filipino community—Jeff Tagami—who passed away in the past couple of years. He and his wife were sitting in the back of my Asian American history class, and were inspired to go into the city [of San Francisco] and ended up in the Kearny Street Writer’s Project. He became a poet and wrote some really good stuff. I don’t know if you know the book he did, but put it on your list. It's a small paperback called October Light. And it’s powerful stuff. He helped illuminate the story of the young farmworker that was killed in 1930 and the riot in Watsonville, Fermin Tobera. And to be able to watch that because he had no clue before he took my class. That’s part of the joy of doing this.
What other memories are you proud of?
In 2002, the Santa Cruz Watsonville JACL (Japanese American Citizens League) ordered a reenactment…of…the 60th anniversary of the Japanese community leaving Watsonville to go to camp. To go to jail. We organized and because the streets were basically the same, there were still a couple of buildings that were the same, we decided to actually have Japanese Americans play the roles of some of the people in their 70s and 80s, walk down the street, get on a bus, the same street. We got a vintage bus from the 1940s, we set it all up. We knew who the bad guys were, but we also knew and heard there were some people [during the 1940s] outside the Japanese community who stood up and said out loud that this is wrong. We had about six months to do this. We went out and sent students out into the community and found the stories of the people who did the right thing, said the right thing, and in many cases they were deceased by then. But we found their descendents, and we honored them. You model the behavior you want is basically the theme. You want people to have the courage to do this, even if it’s 60 years late, you say right on, good job, that’s the one thing I’ve concluded in my 60-plus years of doing this. It can’t all be negative because in almost every instance there are people who risk their careers and some instances risk their lives to do the right thing. That’s one of the things that I’m very proud of, that reenactment. I was the master of ceremony. When we had grandstands set up, there were hundreds and hundreds of people in attendance. And as the people walked down the street and they stopped at the vet building where they had to check in in 1942, and they went to this bus that was waiting at the end, there were older Japanese in those grandstands who were weeping. That event was so amazing. And it happened that Mas Hashimoto who is the grand old guy of the JACL in Watsonville, and was a former high school teacher at Watsonville High, it seemed like every permit we needed there were former students of his, and the doors just opened. We got police coverage, we checked off all the boxes, got it done, and other Japanese communities have come to Watsonville to interview us to find out how we did this; how do you stage an incredibly painful and embarrassing moment in the history of a community like that; how would they let you do that? And nobody as far as we know has ever been able to do it in any community besides Watsonville. And perhaps it says something about the community and its maturation and its willingness to confront [injustice], but…also…celebrate the good people in the community who stood up, so we took some of the pain, some of the edge off of it by finding and celebrating people who did the right thing. That’s one of my favorites.