Marian Leng

Marian Leng. Courtesy of the Chinatown Remembered Project. CHSSC.

“’Yeah, I was there! Haha…I was in the audience!’”

Marian Leng describing how she and her friends attended
Madame Chiang Kai-Shek’s speech at the Hollywood Bowl

Marian Leng was 16 years-old when she, along with her peers, were on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl to hear Madame Chiang Kai-Shek speak. Madame Chiang came to the United States as a spokesman for her husband to appeal for help against the Japanese.[1] She was the wife of the leader of the Nationalist Government of the Republic of China and was admired by many both the Chinese and Americans. Raised as a Christian and educated at Wellesley College, Chiang was an ideal female representative on behalf of the Chinese.[2] Marian Leng was enthusiastic for this influential woman to come visit Los Angeles and give the speech imploring for the Chinese cause. About a decade ago earlier, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law in 1882, suspending Chinese immigration. The tides appeared to be turning.

The 1930’s media stereotype of East Asian women as “Dragon Ladies” portrayed in films as domineering, seductive women conflicted with the actual reality of women such as Marian Leng and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. While there were many negative stereotypes of both the Chinese and Chinese females in the past, Marian Leng and many women like her dispelled this view. Marian Leng’s self perception as a Chinese American was one of patriotism and diligence, impacted by her positive view of non-Asian Americans, the national trend of the Great Depression and the large-scale trend of World War II.


Marian Leng was born in 1927 in Portland, Oregon. She and her family moved to China City in 1939 in the time of the Great Depression. As a Chinese American, Marian Leng identified with both parts of her cultural backgrounds. Born and raised in America, Marian Leng worked hard for her family and accepted both American and Chinese traditions. They celebrated both Chinese and American traditions; she looked forward to American traditions like turkeys for Thanksgivings and Chinese experiences like activities like Mahjong.[3]

As the second generation born in the United States, Leng was rather Americanized but still practiced filial piety. When her family was in Portland, Oregon, her mother was the president of the Chinese Women Club; they were very involved in the community. Leng’s paternal grandfather came in the 1840s to work on the railroad. He met his wife in America and had four children. At three years old, Leng’s father and family left America for Canton to support family back home. However, years later when Leng’s father was a young man, Leng’s grandmother brought two children and him back to America because she valued American education.[4] She wanted her children to have American because it would benefit them; like many immigrants, American education is viewed as highly esteemed. In Portland’s Chinatown, her father worked as an electrician. Both of Leng’s parents were American-born Chinese natives of Oregon. Her parents opened an appliance store right across from the Benevolent Center. Everyone in town knew them because they were in the social hub of the town.

Marian Leng's Parents. Courtesy of Marian Leng Collection. CHSSC.

After her family moved to China City in Los Angeles, she had many responsibilities by working at the different stores they owned, fulfilling her role as a grateful daughter. Their main clientele were tourists; the stores would not close except three times a year for main holidays. At twelve, as an only child she worked “at the coffee shop, and then the larger restaurant, and also [at her father’s] gift shop” Leng’s mother would not let her attend summer camps or go on dates. As with Confucius-stemmed philosophy, she respected her parents and worked on weekends to help the family business. She “could never leave the restaurant” as a youth. Later when Leng became an adult, she allowed her children to be movie extras because “with my children, it was different.”

In 1938, an uncle from Los Angeles invited the family to Los Angeles because of a new business area being opened. The family sold everything and moved to Los Angeles the year later in 1939. Her paternal grandmother wanted to maintain relationships and friendships in Oregon so she did not move with the rest of the family. The uncle who recruited them owned a gift shop—the Golden Lantern next to the temple. It was in a popular location and was often pictured in media. China City “needed new people to come in and open businesses.”[5] In China City, her family was so busy with business that they were not able to contribute to the community as much. Although Leng was aware of existing community organizations, she did not participate in protests in Los Angeles.[6] Her mother’s youngest brother had a gift shop, the “Pagoda Building” but left the store to Leng’s parents to be an engineer for Lockheed Aviation for American War efforts.[7] Compared to Oregon’s Chinese afterschool program, Los Angeles China City did not yet have a firmly established Chinese school yet. Most of her Chinese language skills were acquired when she was in Oregon. Leng was trilingual in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. She was comfortable to speak in Mandarin, even with customers at work—“not realizing I was talking to a Caucasian person” at times.[8] She recalled a lax atmosphere in the restaurant; she didn’t feel discriminated against with her language slips: “It [was] funny. They laughed.”[9] Her parents raised her with both Chinese and American traditions—eating both types of food and engaging in cultural activities like playing Mahjong.

WWII: Marian volunteered at the Chinese Canteen. Started by Dorothy Soo, the Chinese Canteen served United States service men. Courtesy of Marian Leng Collection. CHSSC.

Leng’s upbringing and environment promoted opportunities for patriotism in contrast to Madame Chiang’s desire for democracy for Communist China. Leng helped in the war efforts during World War II by volunteering a few hours on the weekends at the Chinese Canteen.[10]As a young woman who participated in war efforts, Leng aided in creating the positive perception of both Chinese and Chinese females of the time.

The Great Depression impacted Leng’s life. Leng’s family was not greatly affected by the Depression, because they were still able to earn income in the tourist area involving stable places like food and Chinese gifts. She recalls times in Oregon when her mother bothered her father to demand for owed pay for electrical work that he did for people’s houses, but her father would say that those customers did not even have money. The Depression contributed to Leng’s family moving to California after an invitation from an uncle about the new business opportunities. Leng was so “busy with the business” and unable to really be involved with community events.[11] She worked everyday.[12]

Courtesy of Marian Leng Collection. CHSSC.

Leng attended a school where about 1% was Asian the majority were comprised of Latinos and Whites. She did not have any impression of racism at school; there was “no problem, not that [she could] remember.”[13] However, because she was young and within the school system immersed with her group of friends, she may not have noticed prejudice that did exist. In junior high school, gangs existed, but she mostly avoided them. After her junior high graduation, she recalled celebrating with her Latino/Chicano and Jewish friends. In high school, she was the only Chinese besides one Chinese boy, and the Asian population consisted of more Japanese Americans. There were very few Asians at Hollenback Jr. High where Leng attended school. As an Asian American minority, Leng did not experience racial tensions at school: “I got along with everybody and everybody got along with me. No, it was very…very friendly, I would say”.[14]

In her pre-teen years, the evacuation and relocation of the ethnic Japanese occurred in 1942. She did not know why her Japanese friends were missing from school: “It was a shock for me, when I found out I lost my friends.”[15] Marian did not feel any prejudice from her parents’ generation with her having Japanese friends. Her parents allowed her to have friends of different races. However, her parents “didn’t really like the Japanese people in Japan, [specifically] the military people” (brackets mine). Leng would consider herself more uninfluenced by racist thinking than her parents because she was the next generation born the in United States and because of the atmosphere provided by her school. Her parents may have had negative inclinations towards the Japanese that were never fully verbalized. It was “not discussed, business is business” where “you just do your own thing” and controversial topics are not really talked about over a meal.[16]

Courtesy of Marian Leng Collection. CHSSC.

Leng’s mother was easily mistaken for Japanese because she was short.[17] There was an instance in which she was elbowed to the back of the elevator. Later, Chinese Americans wore buttons that had the American and Chinese flags and said: “I’m a Chinese American” to combat the problem.[18] By wearing the button, Leng’s mother was subscribing to racial discrimination even though she was not conspicuously racist. It was not a colorblind society as Leng presented it to be based on her schooling experience. Her parents must have subtly influenced her.

Leng’s youngest uncle left his business in China City to work for Lockheed. As a Chinese American he served alongside Whites for America. Leng’s married a soldier from China who defended democracy, was anti-communism, and supportive of Chiang Kai-shek’s government. Leng played a supportive role in the war effort; she supported her husband who was a bombadier on behalf of China. Leng’s husband was involved in the Second Sino-Japanese War. He was one of the officers from China that Chiang Kai Shek sent to the United States after Madame Chiang’s tour around the United States. As a bombardier, Leng’s husband was actually being saved by Chiang Kai-shek to be used to “bomb the Communist in Xi’an.”[19]

At the Hollywood Bowl that Leng attended, Madame Chiang spoke of the painful memories of six years of war regarding the lack of resources and the devastation of victims of the war.” Her Hollywood Bowl Speech also included vivid imagery and description of the Rape of Nanking.[20] Local, national and global instances created the atmosphere in which Madame Chiang Kai-Shek was welcomed. Leng was young, but rooted for democracy. After all, it was the type of government she had grown up in.

[1] Tony Karon, “Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, 1898-2003,” Time, Oct. 24, 2003,,8599,526008,00.html (accessed November 23, 2010).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Marian Leng, interviewed by William Gow, Chinatown Remembered Project, Chinese Historical Society of Southern California, 16 March 2008.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Heidi Li, “Marian Leng: A China City Love Story,” Chinatown Remembered Project, 2008, (accessed Nov. 23, 2010).
[11] Marian Leng, Chinatown Remembered Project, 2008.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Annie Luong, “Esther Lee Johnson: Movie Extra,” Chinatown Remembered Project, 2008, (accessed Nov. 23, 2010).
[19] Ibid.
[20] Laura Li, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek: China’s Eternal First Lady (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 2006), 224-225.