The photo above, which my family donated to the MOCA Archives, depicts my grandfather and other Asian American service men on leave from active duty during their service in World War II.
My grandfather, pictured front and center, is listed as Tommy Chin. A paper son, he entered the United States as a teenager under the name Sing G. Tom. He later enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, touring the coast of Gibraltar, Japan, and other parts overseas. Under the G.I. Bill, he received his accounting degree from what is now known as New York University and, quite some years afterwards, was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, officially adopting the American name of Tom Y.M. Chen. Over the next fifty or so years, my grandfather’s life became interwoven with the emergence of New York City’s Chinatown, serving as head of the Chan Family Association and as one of the founding Board members of Confucius Plaza.
Much about the photo is unknown to me – where exactly it was taken, why they were all gathered there, whose hand penned the caption, what they were all laughing at. My grandfather and my grandmother had not yet met in the restaurant where he worked while attending school. My father and his siblings had not yet attended NYU, nor had my sister, nor my cousin. I had not yet traveled to China to heung ha, to visit his home village – one of the ancestral taproots to my family tree.
All I know is that in 1943, my grandfather was 22 and about to start a life-long relationship with this country. Anchored in New York, his life was one of many individual radii that extended and overlapped with one another, creating a place and a community where none had existed before.
Marissa W. Chen