‘Ging Hawk’ Women Gather After 50 Years

"Going Hawk" members (l. to r.) Katherine Chann, Helen Eng, Marcella Dear, Norma Chu, with writer and moderator Ava Chin at the Museum of Chinese in America on Sept. 25 (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

“Ging Hawk” members (l. to r.) Katherine Chann, Helen Eng, Marcella Dear, Norma Chu, with writer and moderator Ava Chin at the Museum of Chinese in America on Sept. 25 (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

“If I bumped into her on the street, I wouldn’t recognize her. We are both old,” said 87-year-old Katherine Chann about 91-year-old Helen Eng, whom she hadn’t seen in half a century until they sat side by side at a reunion hosted by the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) on Sept. 25. “This reunion is a happy occasion but it also stirs up sadness. Many people are no longer around.”

Chann and Eng were both members of the Ging Hawk Club, a social group active in New York from the 1930s to the 1960s for Chinese women in college, a rare breed at that time. Joining the two at the reunion were Marcella Dear and Norma Chu, two other Ging Hawk women who are both in their 90s.

Starting as a YWCA-affiliated women’s club founded by social worker Theodora Chan, Ging Hawk had only about five or six women from Chinatown as its members in the beginning. It then expanded to maintain 25 to 30 members annually in its heyday. Other than organizing cultural and social activities, Ging Hawk also played an active role during World War II by raising money to help China and the U.S. fight against the Japanese. [Ging Hawk means “striving for knowledge.”]

One and a half years ago, MOCA commissioned Shirley Mow, a retired educational administrator who once worked as associate dean of University College at Pace University, to interview the Ging Hawk women for its oral history program. Mow, a Ging Hawk member herself in the group’s later years, found the documents of 130 club members in the archives of MOCA, but only 30 or so are still alive today.

The four that gathered together, two of whom traveled from Connecticut and Washington D.C. for the reunion, shared their memories about the extraordinary women in an extraordinary era. They said it was not a right for Chinese women to go to college at that time, but a matter of luck.

“Chinese parents at that time wouldn’t encourage girls to go to college. But when the war began, our brothers all went to the army. Otherwise, our families would not have allowed us to go to college,” said Eng, who got her bachelor’s degree from Hunter College in the 1940s and then went on to graduate school at University of California, Berkeley.

At a Ging Hawk gathering (Photo courtesy of Museum of Chinese in America)

At a Ging Hawk gathering (Photo courtesy of Museum of Chinese in America)

Indeed, many Ging Hawk women are alumni of Hunter, which was a women’s college until the 1950s and was basically free. But it was not easy to gain admission. “It was free so it was very appealing to girls from Chinatown. But you had to pass very strict entrance exams,” said Chann.

In other schools, female Chinese students were even rarer. Dear, who studied international trading at New York University in the 1940s, said the business school at NYU only had two to three Chinese women at the time. But she said she had not suffered from any discrimination as a Chinese woman because many of the male students were discharged veterans who were used to coexisting with people from other racial groups.

“I think the reason we went to college was not because our parents wanted us to but because of the fire in our own guts,” said Chu. Born in an immigrant family from Toyshan in Montreal, Canada, Chu lost her mother when she was in the 10th grade, and was then considered marriageable. “At that time, you were an old maid when you were 19. Someone came to my home and told my father ‘let me get her off your hands.’ My father declined,” said Chu. After finishing college in Canada, Chu went to Columbia University for graduate school.

Even at a time when traditional Chinese culture held that a good girl should be uneducated, it was not a problem for the Ging Hawk members to get a date. “The Thanksgiving gala Ging Hawk hosted annually always attracted a lot of boys from the Ivy Leagues. They were there to make sure they dated all the girls,” said Dear. “At that time, we were thought to be very outgoing girls.”

What did Ging Hawk mean in the lives of the Chinese women then? “For me, it was a good feeling to find a group of people who shared my lifestyle. It’s like young people today forwarding one another emails with the subject ’23 ways to know you are a Chinese-American kid,’” said Eng.

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