On July 23, Taiwan’s Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission (OCAC) formally opened the Culture Center of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in San Francisco to the public. The new facility located at 739 Commercial Street is a welcome replacement for the Stockton Street center that served the overseas Chinese community until its closure in January 2006.
A history of service
As the founding of the Republic of China (ROC) came about in part as a result of the financial donations made by overseas Chinese communities, the ROC government has always placed a great importance on maintaining strong links with its overseas supporters. In fact, Sun Yat-sen, the founding father of the republic stressed that, “The overseas Chinese are the ‘Mother of the Revolution’.” Therefore, the existence of the OCAC is a fundamental part of the country’s national policies. Indeed, the OCAC’s pledge to protect and assist the economic development of the overseas Chinese is enshrined in the ROC Constitution.
The OCAC selects one hundred eighty (180) leaders from the overseas compatriot communities around the world to serve as OCAC commissioners. Their duties are to gauge the feelings of the overseas population and to serve as a bridge between the ROC government and their overseas communities. Also, related laws provide the overseas compatriots with the right to vote in Taiwan and reserve a certain number of seats for overseas legislators according to the proportion of votes in the legislative election.
The OCAC was created in October 1926 and was formally established in April 1932 by the government and relocated to Taiwan in 1949. In 2006, its English name was changed from “Overseas Chinese” to “Overseas Compatriot,” but its purpose remains to provide services to overseas Chinese (hua chiao) communities. It would be difficult to find another country that dedicates a staff of about 350 towards serving the needs of its overseas compatriots.
There are two distinct groups of overseas compatriots – the early emigrants (traditionally from China) and newcomers (mostly Taiwanese emigrants). They may have different backgrounds, but they are all served by the OCAC as long as they recognize and support the ROC government in Taiwan.
In the Bay Area, most of the traditional overseas Chinese communities live in San Francisco. Their families moved to the US mainly from Guangdong Province during the late Qing Dynasty and they predominately speak Cantonese. However, the new emigrants from Taiwan mostly settled in the South Bay. Many of them came to the US to study for advanced degrees starting in the 1960s, while others were attracted by the hi-tech opportunities and community in Silicon Valley. These newer emigrants mainly speak Mandarin or Taiwanese.
In March 1985, the OCAC established its first overseas center in San Francisco. Given Sun Yat-sen’s connection to the Bay Area and the support he received to establish the Republic of China one hundred years ago, it is perhaps not surprising that San Francisco was the location for the OCAC’s first center in the United States. Today, the OCAC has 17 centers around the world.
The new center
According to Abraham Li, the director of the newly reopened Culture Center in San Francisco, when Chinese people immigrated to the United States, they still consider themselves Chinese. Li illustrates this by saying, “Even when they go overseas, they still think of their homeland and want to be buried there. It is quite special. In this, they are unlike other immigrant groups.” Li moved to San Francisco about a year ago and has worked in centers in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, before assuming his position here.
“Chinese Culture is very family-oriented. Even if you are an ABC (American-born Chinese), you are still Chinese. Parents view their kids as Chinese rather than American.” Given this mentality, there are about a thousand thriving Chinese language schools in the United States that the Culture Center supports through its eleven centers throughout the country.
Even located in a quiet alley, the San Francisco center has received a steady flow of traffic since it opened a month ago. “What we do is very important and comprehensive,” said Li “We provide Chinese newspapers and other publications, have a library, and offer meeting and activity rooms to our users. Importantly, we train teachers and provide textbooks to students learning Chinese.” Due to its location in downtown San Francisco, the area’s rent makes it prohibitive to have a larger facility.
Gradually, the center will build a range of tailored programs as it welcomes more customers to make use of the center’s facilities. Right now, Li is considering turning the basement room into a computer center offering IT classes and internet access. Since the bulk of the center’s users are older Cantonese-speaking male retirees who visit mainly during weekdays, Li is careful to consider programs that will meet the needs of the center’s demographic.
The Culture Center in Sunnyvale
An hour’s drive from Chinatown is the Culture Center in Sunnyvale. Located in suburbia, the 10,000 square-foot center is significantly bigger with a parking lot and a range of meeting rooms. In Sunnyvale, many of the center’s users work during the week so the center comes alive on weekends with BBQs, classes, dances, performances and parties. The Sunnyvale center receives so much foot traffic that its users have lobbied OCAC for a larger facility, better able to host performers from Taiwan and locally.
This month, the search for a new space began in earnest with an open bidding process for real estate agents from San Mateo, Santa Clara and Alameda Counties. The OCAC has allocated US$5 million for the purchase of a new property and another US$2 million to renovate the space so it can accommodate more meeting rooms, an expanded library, a conference area, media center, large hall for banquets and conventions as well as an 800-seat auditorium. The new space needs to be at least double the size of the current center, but no more than triple its existing size.
Overseeing the search is the new director of the Sunnyvale center, Roy Yuan-rong Leu, who arrived earlier this month. Leu is no stranger to the Bay Area, having worked in the Sunnyvale center from 2002-2005, before returning to Taiwan for three years. Prior to his assignment here, he worked in the New York City center.
When asked why the two centers were so noticeably different in size, Leu explained that San Francisco has had Chinese associations for a long time. These associations own plenty of property at various locations. When they want to have a meeting or convention, they don’t need to find a place. Instead, the San Francisco patrons need information and contacts. “In comparison, we serve new immigrants who don’t have associations. They don’t have their own space or a building…That’s why new immigrants need a place to meet.” Other than that, the services offered are the same, which is to serve as a liaison in fostering strong bonds between the compatriots here and the Republic of China, according to Leu.
The Culture Centers do this by providing services and programs to invite overseas Chinese to return home, invest in Taiwan and offer activities to help keep them connected. Their activities include Chinese schools, costume lending, library services, facility rental, teacher training and a host of social activities. For the younger generation of ABCs, this includes sponsoring Chinese language classes and camps in the United States and in Taiwan.
Among one of the Culture Center’s popular programs aimed at young adults is the Expatriate Youth Taiwan Summer Camp, which is organized and subsidized by the OCAC. The month-long camp combines educational classes, field trips and an island-wide tour of Taiwan. It is a great bargain for young people (aged 16-27) who wish to experience something new, explore the island and learn about their cultural roots.
According to the OCAC, there are about 35 million ethnic Chinese people living overseas (excluding Hong Kong and Macau), with about five million of them residing in the United States and Canada. The San Francisco Bay Area is home to approximately 700,000 of them. For more information about OCAC programs, please visit their website: www.ocac.gov.tw. The San Francisco Center is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9am to 5pm, and the Sunnyvale Center is open Tuesday to Sunday, 9:30am to 5:30pm.