From being dragged to Chinatown to a Chinese American civil rights leader

When Rick Eng was growing up in Monterey Park he vowed he "would never get involved" in the Chinese community because he hated being dragged by his parents to Chinatown for events. Yet, Eng, 52, now sits on the board of the nation’s oldest Chinese-American civil rights organization and helps push for scholarship programs and youth development in the Chinese community.

The transformation happened after Eng started his career at an interior design publication, and became increasingly involved as a volunteer with local social justice and education issues. He was the executive director of the Alhambra Education Foundation for two years, helping the foundation raise money for Alhambra’s youth. He sat down with Alhambra Source at Eng’s Plaza in Monterey Park — a property named for and owned by the Eng family — and told Alhambra Source about why he believes "a few people can spark a revolution."

What is your connection to Alhambra?

I was born November 1960 in Los Angeles at the French Hospital in Chinatown. Apparently that was one of the few hospitals, I was told, that would allow Chinese kids to be born. I don’t know if it’s true, but I just think that that’s where a lot of Chinese people had their kids. I grew up mostly in Monterey Park, going to Brightwood Elementary School, and then Alhambra High School, where I graduated in 1979.

Eng and the Chinese American Citizens Alliance at a U.S. Citizenship practice test clinic.

How did you get involved with social justice organizations?

I kind of evolved into it. When I was growing up, Chinatown was sort of the fulcrum of our parents’ generation. I’m second generation, so often times we were dragged into Chinatown for all these events, family associations, banquets, parades, dances, and there was really nothing for kids to do. I vowed that I would never get involved with the community because as a child I couldn’t stand it.

One could say the epiphany of my involvement with doing anything in the community was during the advent of the AIDS epidemic. At that time no one really knew how to combat it. They knew that there was this tremendous social stigma because it was affecting the gay and lesbian community at the time. You would hear about some of the people you knew who were part of this professional community that were affected, so the stories sort of hit home. And I think that I carried that with me in any other things I start to do from that point with the community.

How did you get involved with the Alhambra Education Foundation? Can you tell us about your work?

Early spring 2010, I was approached by a fellow classmate from Alhambra named Paul Talbot. He mentioned the Alhambra Education Foundation was looking for an executive director. I had always been interested in education; I decided to get involved with the foundation.

It was not a full-time job; it was actually putting in about 24 hours per week. I helped re-do the website, [created] regular communications such as web blasts to keep in contact with our donor audience as well as a lot of the parents, and put together a grant strategy going after grants for some of the programs that we did.

How did the fiscal crisis affect AUSD?

It meant that schools had to figure out creative ways that they could generate revenue. I think a lot of educational foundations got into the role of augmenting school programs and activities by doing fundraising.

I, along with the executive director of the El Segundo Education Foundation, formed this group where we reached out to all the other executive directors of education foundations. We tried to get together periodically to just sit down and talk about our challenges in fundraising and the cuts that were impacting the different school districts. We weren’t competitive so we helped each other out with ideas like what worked and what didn’t.

What are some ways the Alhambra Education Foundation has raised money for the district?

We have a very solid summer school program, which is tuition based and therefore generates a significant portion of the monies that the foundation donates back to the school district. Every year we do a “service to education” awards dinner where individuals, organizations, and businesses are recognized for their contributions in furthering and enhancing the education for students. In March, we do a “Make Money in March” program, which is a school-wide fundraising effort where we get the students' help to raise monies. So we actually met our target, and it did reflect that there is a community concern for education.

How do you think education has changed in Alhambra since you were a student here?

When I was going to school, there were certainly a lot of extra-curricular programs that were available to us because school funding and finance were probably a lot more stable back then. Drivers education, ROP classes, industrial arts, summer school, those were available to use for free. Now I know that these are the things that have already been eliminated or are requiring a tuition, and it is very challenging for some families to be able to offer these types of programs to their children.

I think one thing with AUSD is that they had some visionaries there who saw this coming and prepared for it. So I think AUSD probably did not suffer the serious impacts that affected the other school districts. There have been no closings, as unfortunately you have seen in other school districts where they’ve had to shut down schools and combine classes.

I have seen more involvement among the community, stakeholders, local businesses, parents in particular. There was the traditional parent-teacher associations, but from there it became booster clubs, foundations like the Mark Keppel Alliance rose from the efforts to enhance the quality of education.

What kind of changes would you like to see in the future?

I guess because of my background in art and art history and architecture, I would like to see visual and performing art be reintroduced into the curricula, because I’m beginning to see this well spring of parents who are enrolling their kids in painting classes and music classes and even dancing. I would like to see that supported more strongly in public schools.

What is the Chinese American Citizen’s Alliance and why are you involved in it?

The Chinese American Citizen’s Alliance is the nation’s oldest civil rights and social advocacy organization serving Chinese Americans. We have a very strong educational thrust; we’re big advocates of youth development and education.

I think as you see Chinese Americans as well as any other Asian American groups start to achieve successes in business, education, entertainment, and the political arena, you’re also going to encounter some historical biases, and so sometimes you need these types of organizations to bring awareness. At least they could also become the cohesive forces that would draw on other groups that are facing the same thing. You know if you have greater numbers, it is usually more powerful way to combat this kind of resistance, prejudice, or bigotry.

Why is it important to get involved with the community?

I think it’s important to get involved with anything you have a passion about. It could be with the environment. It could be with helping eradicating a disease. But I really believe you should make volunteerism a lifelong commitment.

I think if you look back in history, a few people can spark a revolution. They can create a movement; they can get something positive done. I think from that respect, I find that to be very rewarding, to be a part of that. Also, it’s comforting to know that humankind is still capable of a lot of compassion.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

8 thoughts on “From being dragged to Chinatown to a Chinese American civil rights leader”

  1. I was born in Alhambra a long time ago and I’ve seen the city change. I continue to give back while simultaneously telling THE TRUTH about what I see. Both the good AND bad.

    You don’t like it? Tough luck. I don’t know what programs you’re involved in but if you’re not giving back – all the dreamy idealistic talk won’t mean a damn thing. I’m on a ground with reality, not with my head in the clouds.

    1. Dude, perhaps its time for a change…there are plenty of retirement homes located in areas free of any multicultural experience…feel free to go at anytime.

  2. I’ll say it again:

    Only someone with ill intent would keep trying to take an upbeat article about a local guy giving back to his community, and turn it into some racist war of words that pits Alhambra’s different ethnicities against each other.

  3. Three dominant groups?

    There’s only two. And if Chinese ever decide to become a cohesive group and care about local government infrastructure in any sort of substantive way (will never happen btw) – there will only be one group that matters in Alhambra.

    Am I really trying to start a war? Are you serious? As if pointing out the very real stereotypes (which are rooted in truth) somehow can create more division than already exists in real life. Do you know how divided this community actually is? All you need to do is walk on Main St. and then walk on Valley Blvd.

    I’m just shedding light on the situation. I guarantee you that deep down, the leadership of Alhambra knows EXACTLY what I mean, although they may not agree with the particular wording. I’m not here to sugar-coat anything.

    I work with kids in the community so I KNOW that these particular stereotypes are not 100% true, but true enough to speak them with confidence.

  4. The amount of racist stereotypes about Latinos, various Asians, and whites being spewed here is astounding.

    But Alhambra, with its cultural and socio-economic diversity, has always been a target for people who just like to start nonsensical fights between the city’s three dominant groups.

    Only someone with ill intent would keep trying to take an upbeat article about a local guy giving back to his community, and turn it into some racist war of words that pits Alhambra’s different ethnicities against each other.

    People like that can keep trying for all I care; by and large, this community is strong and won’t take that bait. Because like it or not, the different groups are all interwoven and have been for decades. Individuals may have disagreements from time to time, but ultimately we are in this together. We are all friends, neighbors, and family. We are individual people, not one-dimensional stereotypes.

  5. Alhambra is a funny city.

    Americanized Latino families care about the community (events, caring about each other), but don’t care enough about the micro picture to keep their kids successful in the classroom.

    Hungry Chinese immigrant families don’t care about the community as a whole but want their kids to go to UCLA and become pharmacists.

    Americanized Chinese/Vietnamese families are somewhere in-between. The families that “come up” move to Arcadia or Rowland Heights and get the heck out of Alhambra.

    There’s a ton of Chinese FOB’s who are here for business and are not stakeholders in the larger community, but have lots of money to spend to stimulate the economy.

    The few whites left are wondering what they’re even fighting for – a region that no longer looks like them.

  6. Hm. There are a lot of Chinese guys who actually care about the community. Chinese gals, too. Can’t comment much about sports cars and hairdos, though. But yeah, it’s great Rick Eng is doing what he’s doing.

  7. Wow, a Chinese guy who actually cares about the community. This is quite rare and he deserves to be commended. Unfortunately the kids will probably look up to someone with a imported sports car and a faux-hawk who smokes dope because he’s got much more “swag” than Mr. Eng.

    That’s the problem with the kids nowadays, they don’t really understand all the work that goes into the infrastructure that provides them opportunities.

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