On Friday afternoon, the Shoong Family Chinese Cultural Center, a non-profit educational institution based in Oakland’s Chinatown, celebrated its 65th anniversary. The center has been providing after-school programs that teach Chinese language skills and culture for children since it was founded in 1953. About 700 students attend classes there now, and the school’s auditorium was full of students, parents and guests who came to the celebration.
The center was founded by Joe Shoong, a philanthropist who realized the need for a Chinese school in Oakland, as well as for cooperation among Chinese community leaders. In his opening address, Jones Wu, the president of the board directors, said that the center was “one of the first Chinese language schools in the entire United States.”
“Over the years, the school promoted and taught tens of thousands of students the Chinese language and culture,” he said.
“Every time I come here, I think about when I was a kid,” said City Councilmember Abel Guillen, during his address as a special guest. Guillen represents District 2, which includes Chinatown. He recalled childhood moments when his friends who used to go to Chinese school in San Francisco complained that they had to go to school on Saturdays. “But I think they all say that they were very glad that they did,” said Guillen. He introduced a saying in Spanish that implies that a bilingual person is more resourceful; the phrase translates as “The person who knows two languages, you serve as two people.”
“How many of you like to come to school and learn Chinese? Will you raise your hand?” asked Sun Kwong Sze, a special projects coordinator at the mayor’s office, who was representing Mayor Libby Schaaf. Hundreds of students raised their hands. On behalf of the mayor, Sze thanked to the center for providing “good cultural diversity programs, like the Chinese school, to teach the Chinese culture to the next generation.”
The center provides language classes in Cantonese and Mandarin for kindergarten through 9th grade students. It also offers classes in Chinese dance and calligraphy. “In here, you can just keep in touch with this culture and language,” said Amy Lee, who sends her 7-year-old son to the program. Lee said that she can speak Cantonese, but doesn’t know how to write any Chinese characters except simple ones. “I knew about the school because I have old friends who came here and they [the center] have been around in Chinatown for a long time,” she said. “I want my kids to learn the language and culture.”
Some parents who came to the celebration attended classes there when they were young. “I went to this school for many years when I was a kid, primarily to learn Cantonese” said Syhone Wong, who now sends his 9-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son to the center. “They focus more on history and calligraphy,” he said. “Those are not normal topics that you learn in your home. Here they focus on writing and performance arts, too.”
His wife, Carma Wong, a Mien-American, said that the center is “very educational” for her kids. “My husband speaks Chinese, but I don’t speak Chinese,” she said. “So, we don’t really speak Chinese at home, but now they [the kids] come here and get to learn Chinese.” She said she is glad that her kids are able to speak with their grandparents in Chinese. “They learn something that their parents want their kids to learn,” she said. “It’s letting them to learn their roots again.”
“My son and daughter come here every weekday,” said Nancy Lau, an immigrant from Guangdong, China, who has a 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter. “If my kids know their own culture, it will good for them when they grow up and work.”
The Shoong Family Chinese Cultural Center divides its school year into a fall semester (from August to December) and a spring semester (from January to June). The tuition fee per semester is $285 for the weekday program and $265 for the weekend program. The center is operated with the tuition funds and the support of the Shoong Foundation.
“One of the things about this Chinese school is that the tuition is really low,” said Sugiarto Loni, vice president of the center’s board. “The reason is that many of them are immigrant parents. They don’t make a lot of money.”
Loni emphasized that the teachers and staffers at the center are very dedicated to the center’s mission of promoting Chinese language and culture to the young people of the Bay Area. “Many people in the East Bay came here to study [when they were young],” he said. “It’s a bridge between you and your history.”