Unsung Heroes

by Rev. Norman Fong

May 8, 2019

norman fong

On this 150th Anniversary (May 10th) of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, I hope this time the many unsung Chinese heroes who built the railroad will be better acknowledged. Our ancestors’ contribution to building America has never been fully recognized. The quote by John A. Volpe, Secretary of Transportation in 1969 on the 100th anniversary of the 1st transcontinental railroad in Promontory Summit Utah reads: “Who else but Americans… could chisel through miles of solid granite? This is exactly what infuriated Philip Choi and Thomas Chinn, founders of the Chinese Historical Society when they were dropped from the program in 1969. This year, Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao will speak on May 10th in the exact same location. She knows about the insensitive remarks made 50 years ago and so we all hope this time, they’ll get it right.

chinese railroad workers

There are so many unsung heroes to celebrate during the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! In June 1977, Reps. Frank Horton of New York and Norman Y. Mineta of California introduced a House resolution to proclaim the first ten days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage week. The following month, Senators Daniel K. Inouye and Spark Matsunaga from Hawaii introduced a similar bill in the Senate. Both were passed and on October 5, 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a Joint Resolution designating the annual celebration. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush signed a bill passed by Congress to extend the week-long celebration to a month-long celebration. In 1992, the official designation of May as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month was signed into law. The month of May was chosen to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869. The majority of the workers who laid the tracks were indeed Chinese immigrants and of course, were not allowed in the picture. They are all unsung heroes.


railroad workers

railroad workers

dr ho feng shan
Ho Feng Shan

Today, I’d like to honor a real Chinese unsung hero who was so humble, his own family and the world did know about the thousands of lives he saved until after his death in 1997 in San Francisco – Ho Feng Shan. His daughter Ho Man Li (who lives in San Francisco) discovered and has researched the courageous heroism Ho Feng Shan played in world history during the persecution of Jews in Nazi occupied Europe. Dr. Ho was the Chinese consul general to Vienna from 1938 to 1940 where he issued thousands of visas to the port city of Shanghai, China in order to help persecuted Jews escape certain death at the hands of the Nazis. Dr. Ho did so at great risk to his own life and career.

According to Ho Man Li, the first visa recipient was the late Eric Goldstaub of Toronto, who did go to Shanghai but told Ho Man Li that he first went to 50 foreign consulates in Vienna before getting the 20 visas at the Chinese Consulate. When Eric and his father were arrested by the Gestapo, the visas to Shanghai saved their lives and they were released to go to Shanghai. Most Austrian Jews had never dreamt of going to, much less heard of Shanghai back then. Coincidently, in 1937 the city had fallen into the hands of the Japanese but the Shanghai harbor was wide open with no passport control. As a result, according to Ho Man Li, anyone could land without documents and a huge Jewish population did grow in Shanghai. At another time, according to his daughter, “My father himself faced down the Gestapo at gunpoint to help his Jewish friends, the Rosenbergs”. He provided them with visas and went to their home to see them off to ensure they could leave Vienna safely for Shanghai. What courage!

However, the Chinese ambassador to Berlin and Ho’s direct supervisor, was concerned about Dr. Ho’s issuing of visas to Shanghai as it would damage German-Sino relations. He ordered Dr. Ho to desist, but Ho disobeyed the orders and continued issuing visas. He was later punished for his disobedience with a demerit on his record…

The County of Santa Clara (May 2, 2019) honored Dr. Ho as a Courageous Diplomat and one Holocaust survivor: Lotte Marcus (now 91 years old) told her story of how she was rescued by receiving a visa from Ho Feng Shan. There is a growing deep respect from the Jewish Community all over the world for the courageous Chinese diplomat who really was an unsung hero.

lotte marcus
Lotte Marcus

Originally published in Sing Tao Daily on May 5, 2019

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