Louise Larson

Copyright Los Angeles Public Library - Harry Quillen Collection. All Rights Reserved.

Louise Larson, as much as Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, is an important of facet of the Chinatown identity as is made evident through the examination of three broad trends that impacted her socioeconomic status, and more importantly her self-perception: (1) local trends within the Chinatown community, more specifically, the conflicts of Chinese and American culture in Louise Larson’s personal life as a wife and newspaper reporter, (2) national trends, such as the Great Depression, that impacted economic opportunities as a Chinese American, and (3) global trends, such as World War II, that impacted her family life, as well as, her perception of a Chinese American identity.

Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was often perceived as the filial wife, “raising money and lobbying for support of her husband’s government,” but she also disregarded the traditional Confucian role of a domesticated wife by traveling broadly across the United States during the 1930s and 1940s.[1] Similarly, Louise Larson experienced conflicts, trying to appease the filial duties of Chinese culture, while also pursuing her ambitions as a newspaper writer.

Louise Larson was born in America in 1905, as were her five brothers and three sisters. She was raised in a unique household that emphasized education not only for the sons but also the daughters in the family.[2] Filial piety, however, was prevalent in Louise Larson’s family and played a major role in her upbringing. As a child, she learned that though her mother didn’t want to get married, “she knew she had to, because every girl had to get married,” but at the same time, this concept of filial piety always seemed to bend to American customs as Louise Larson’s father even bought her mother presents, illustrating that her father did not act like a “typical Chinese husband.”[3] And similar to the shame Louise Larson’s mother felt due to her bound feet from her younger years, Louise Larson exhibited a similar concern with Chinese cultural norms that detered her socioeconomic success in the United States.[4]

For example, as a child, Louise Larson wanted to be American and did not want to be different from the “normal” Caucasian students, so she chose to not like Chinese food. She confided that she feared being called “Chink.” Louise Larson thus developed a love for American food and even got her parents to hire an African American chef to prepare southern cooking for her family.[5]

Louise Larson’s immersion into American culture, however, did pay off from a socioeconomic perspective as her education allowed her to graduat from USC in 1926 with a degree in English, as well as Journalism.[6] Her first job was with the Los Angeles Record in 1926 where she was the first Chinese American to record on a big daily newspaper. At that time, Louise Larson admitted she had no idea that she could get a job as a reporter, because, as a Chinese American, she felt as if she had no chance.

Yet even through these conflicts, Louise Larson sought to overcome American stereotypes of Chinese Americans. Though she began simply revising a Los Angeles Timesarticle, she worked hard and later began writing stories about the Hall of Justice, the Sheriff’s station, and the DA’s office, courts. Far from following only Chinese-related news stories, which would have paralleled a trend in the Hollywood movie industry where Chinese actors were type-casted, Louise Larson broke the traditional expectations of what a Chinese American can and cannot write about and thus made an impact in the journalism community similar to what Madame Chiang Kai-Shek did for politics.[7]

Though Louise Larson garnered incredible social achievements, much of this success came at the cost of distancing herself from the local Chinatown community. Louise Larson grew up on Pico Street, outside of the boundaries of Chinatown. Her father did not join a family or district association, and Louise Larson also did not join any clubs in Chinatown to explore her Chinese heritage. Yet at same time, Louise Larson continued to make strides outside of her Chinatown community by belonging to USC’s Chinese Student Association, the first of its kind at the university.[8] Another greater deterrent to her immersion in her Chinese heritage was her decision not to formally learn Chinese, which not only created a language barrier between herself and her parents but an entire community, as well.[9]

It was around this time in Louise Larson’s life that Madame Chiang Kai-Shek really grew to prominence within the United States. Madame Chiang Kai-Shek presented a civilized and humane image of a courageous China to the United States as it battled Japanese invasion and Communist subversion.[10] Similarly, Louise Larson was not only able to make a positive impact on America’s perception of Chinese Americans across the nation when she worked as a news reporter in Chicago. As a reporter for the Chicago Times, Louise Larson was “just about the first Chinese known to some of the people.”[12]

Working with Caucasians entirely, Larson became comfortable with liberal writers in Chicago. Undoubtedly due to her fluent English and a highly competent writing skills, Louise Larson was given the best assignments with the newspaper and was able to keep her job during the Depression.[13] Chinese Americans, in general, however, had a harder time during the Great Depression as Caucasians would often receive jobs over them.[14] It can be argued that her writing prowess was necessary to help Larson break the conventional molds of the Chinese American in Chicago, but the pro-American qualities that she possessed, similar to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, undoubtedly played an influential role in her socioeconomic success, as well.

Such pro-American qualities were even further solidified when Louise Larson married a white man in Chicago in 1930. Yet though she was Americanized, Louise Larson maintained chracteristics that were imprinted by her Chinese upbringing. Most notable was the filial piety she inherited from her mother. When her husband became ill, she left her job at the Chicago Times to move back to Los Angeles despite her disappointment in doing so. Larson also faced social persecution as the wife of a Caucasian, as well, as she sought to establish her own identity in the midst of two social structures that were attempting to imprint their definitions of the ideal woman onto her.[15]

Louise Larson’s hiring for the Los Angeles Daily News in 1942 to cover Madame Chiang Kai-Shek’s tour of Los Angeles, then, came at a pivotal time not only for the Chinatown community but for a young Chinese American woman, who was desperately searching for someone, who endured through similar socioeconomic trials. Madame Chiang Kai Shek’s visit to Los Angeles was a big media event, and Louise Larson was granted the opportunity to interview Madame Chiang Kai-Shek at the Ambassador Hotel.

When shaking her hand, she noticed her “beautiful demeanor” and “nice style,” which contradicted the common view that she was finicky. Though it was a newspaper interview, Louise Larson represented a new generation of Chinese Americans inquiring what the United States deemed to be the ideal Chinese American. Louise discussed Madame’s relationship with the Generalissimo, as well as Madame’s amazing speaking abilities, which left a wonderful impression on everyone. Louise Larson felt as if Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was “a number one,” which was a thought that seemed missing not only in Chinatowns across the United States but in the minds of all Chinese Americans.[16]

As a nervous reporter, Louise Larson appeared not only to be challenged by the perception of the ideal women she strived to become in American society but also completely fearful of never being able to achieve the standards a country had imprinted on her and her community in the midst of the largest war this world had ever known, World War II.

Madame Chiang Kai-Shek developed a stellar image with the American public as a symbol of the possibility of a democratic China while fighting for the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act, but Eleanor Roosevelt, disillusioned with her despotic and corrupt practices, later claimed, ”she did not know how to live democracy.”[17] Similarly, Louise Larson played a pivotal role in the war effort of World War II, and though they were applauded for their protection of American democracy, the Chinese Americans were still perceived from a misunderstood perspective.

In 1943, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek concluded her nationwide tour of the United States with a speech at the Los Angeles Hollywood Bowl, with the promise that China and the other United Nations would not permit “aggression to raise its satanic head and threaten man’s greatest heritage: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all peoples.”

During the war, four of Louise Larson’s brothers were drafted and fought for the United States. Not only that, one of her nephews were later drafted, as well.[18] Answering the cry for a united military front, the Chinese American community poured their blood for America only to face the same distrust that Eleanor Roosevelt showed to Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. And thus, during World War II, Louise Larson couldn’t find any work as a writer and had to work for a California Bank in Chinatown, handling the Chinese clientele until the end of the war.[19]

Things began to improve gradually after the war for Louise Larson and her family, however, as her brother was able to buy land and build a home with the help of the GI Bill, which assisted all combat veterans regardless of their ethnicity.[20] From her perspective, Louise Larson believed this slow change for Chinatown and Chinese Americans stemmed from the fact that the Chinese did not “protest loudly.”[21] She explained that there were never any “organized protests,” which left her community largely ignored until the younger, more Americanized, generations of Chinese Americans finally raised their voices through their actions during and around World War II.

Though Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was the catalyst and the climax of the American definition of the Chinese perception, she was not the complete embodiment of the Los Angeles Chinatown identity. From a broader perspective, it is evident that Louise Larson has played as great a role as Madame in forging a Chinese American identity. And in a larger sense, though Louise Larson admitted she needed the inspiration of someone like Madame, it can be just as easily argued that Madame Chiang Kai-Shek needed the support of Chinese Americans and Chinese American communities like LA Chinatown.


[1] Seth Faison, “Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a Power in Husband’s China and Abroad, Dies at 105,” The New York Times, (New York, NY), October 25, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/25/world/madame-chiang-kai-shek-a-power-in-husband-s-china-and-abroad-dies-at-105.html?pagewanted=all.

[2] Louise Larson, interviewed by Jean Wong, Southern California Chinese American Oral History Project (1978-1991), Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, 28 August 1979.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Seth Faison, “Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a Power in Husband’s China and Abroad, Dies at 105,” The New York Times, (New York, NY), October 25, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/25/world/madame-chiang-kai-shek-a-power-in-husband-s-china-and-abroad-dies-at-105.html?pagewanted=all.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Louise Larson, interviewed by Jean Wong, Southern California Chinese American Oral History Project (1978-1991), Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, 28 August 1979.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Seth Faison, “Madame Chiang Kai-shek, a Power in Husband’s China and Abroad, Dies at 105,” The New York Times, (New York, NY), October 25, 2003, http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/25/world/madame-chiang-kai-shek-a-power-in-husband-s-china-and-abroad-dies-at-105.html?pagewanted=all.

[18] Louise Larson, interviewed by Jean Wong, Southern California Chinese American Oral History Project (1978-1991), Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, 28 August 1979.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.