Backstage Pass with Lia Chang

Lia Chang: Celebrating my mom – AN ACTIVE VISION: BEVERLY UMEHARA…LABOR ACTIVIST…1945-1999

(l-r) Bev Umehara with daughters Tami Chang, Karina Umehara, Lia Chang and Marissa Chang-Flores in San Francisco c1998.

(l-r) Bev Umehara with daughters Tami Chang, Karina Umehara, Lia Chang and Marissa Chang-Flores in San Francisco c1998.

updated 10/4/15

It’s been sixteen years since my mother died and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t miss her. I wrote this article shortly after her death, highlighting her achievements as an Asian American Union Activist.

Fun in the sun with mom and sister Tami in Lake Tahoe in 1970. Photo by Russell Chang

Fun in the sun with mom and sister Tami in Lake Tahoe in 1970. Photo by Russell Chang

When the paramedics brought my mother to UC-California Medical Center on October 2 with a brain aneurysm, the doctors said she wouldn’t make it through the night. They didn’t know my mother. She hung on while my sister Tami and I rushed from New York to the hospital, and we were able to hold her hands when she finally slipped away.  That was our mom, Beverly Umehara, a women warrior holding court even in the last hours of her 53 years of life.

Beverly Chang and Russell Chang, my mom and dad at the prom in San Francisco. circa 1963

Beverly Chang and Russell Chang, my mom and dad at the prom in San Francisco. circa 1963

My mother was a remarkable woman with an indomitable spirit and movie star looks. A social butterfly, she was the embodiment of energy, warmth, and vitality. Born in San Francisco on December 18, 1945, Bev (as her friends and family called her) was the eldest daughter of Nancy Chang, a beautician and Harry Kai Chong Chang, a merchant seaman. She grew up very poor in the vibrant SF Chinatown community.

My mom with her parents Nancy Chang and Harry Kai Chong Chang.

My mom with her parents Nancy Chang and Harry Kai Chong Chang.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about her career was that calling came relatively late in life, at 47, when she made a sudden transformation from a humble, hardworking secretary and mother of four, into a labor activist, a respected union leader, and a role model for rank-and-file workers, women of color, and for all Asian Pacific Americans.

I was fortunate enough to sit down with my mother in 1998, to hear her share the roots of her activist drive: “In 1992, as a secretary and assistant to the head of the California Labor Federation, I attended a reception announcing the formation of the first organization of Asian American trade unionists, the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO,” she said. “There was a steering committee composed of over 40 Asian Americans of different unions from all over the United States, some rank-and-file,  and some in leadership positions within their unions.  APALA’s emerging mission was to increase the number of Asian American leaders in the labor movement, to advance the rights of immigrants, and to help Asian Pacific Americans who were trying to organize into unions and gain a voice in the workplace. I didn’t know anything like this existed and was impressed.  I had waited over 20 years for direction like this; I knew I had to be at APALA’s Founding Convention in Washington, D.C.”

Against all odds she made her way to that convention.  She described how enthralling it was for her to be with so many Asian American union activists, like steering committee chair Katie Quan, a leading organizer of garment workers; Kent Wong, a brilliant young labor activist at UCLA; Guy Fujimura, Secretary-Treasurer of the powerful International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local in Hawaii; and Gloria Caoile, a leading Filipina activist and assistant to the head of AFSCME, a million-member union of government workers.

Bev returned to SF committed to APALA’s agenda, and helped establish the San Francisco chapter of APALA where she was elected Chapter Secretary. She told me her knees were knocking when she made her first speech to the California Workers Assistant Program, but her passion drove her on, pushing her to continue to take on leadership roles.

In 1995, she was elected to APALA’s National Executive Board, and was appointed as president of the San Francisco Chapter.  As president, she led the San Francisco Chapter of APALA in forming lasting community-labor coalitions that worked against anti-labor, anti-affirmative action and anti-immigrant ballot initiatives on the  California ballot.  Under her leadership, the chapter recruited new Asian Pacific American union organizers, assisted workers seeking to form unions, participated in local community struggles, and engaged in non-partisan voter registration and “get out the vote” efforts.

Her colleagues on the National Executive Board were aware of Bev’s powerful work, and her evolution as a leader.  At the APALA national convention in August, 1999, she was  awarded the ART Takei Leadership Award, named after the pioneering Nisei activist who first became a union organizer in the 1950’s after learning about injustice in the internment camps.

As she stepped up to the podium to accept the award, she held the audience spellbound as she spoke from the heart saying, “I believe that I am currently living the vision.  While growing up as a third-generation Chinese American, Chinese daughters were not taught to have vision. This award is proof that progress has been made.  Not only am I a woman but I am an Asian American woman activist, and proud of it!”

Chatting with U.S. Representative Patsy Mink at the end of the evening, the congresswoman told my mother she should run for office; that she had what it took to be a true leader.  I believe that Congresswoman Mink was right: whatever the future would have held for my mother, it would have been bright.  And it would have involved workers, especially immigrants, who are exploited in the workplace.  I have lost my mother but she enriched so many lives that the Asian American community and the labor movement lost one of its leading voices and spirits.

(Originally published in the March, 2000 edition of A Magazine.)

Lia Chang

Lia Chang

Lia Chang is an award-winning filmmaker, a Best Actress nominee, a photographer, and an award-winning multi-platform journalist. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman and Hide and Seek. She is profiled in FebOne1960.com Blog, Jade Magazine and Playbill.com.

Other articles about André De Shields:
Two-Time Tony nominee André De Shields, Tony Winner Lillias White, ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK’s Lori Tan Chinn, Stephanie Powers, Georgia Engel & More Will Lead Broadway-Bound Musical GOTTA DANCE in Chicago
Photos and Video: Behind the Scenes with THE WIZ’s André De Shields at The Wiz is 40 at #Summerstage30 
Video: André De Shields sings Smile in CONFESSIONS OF A P.I.M.P. in Victory Gardens’ 2015 IGNITION Festival of New Plays
Video: André De Shields sings Street Corner Symphony and Mary Mack in CONFESSIONS OF A P.I.M.P. in Victory Gardens’ 2015 IGNITION Festival of New Plays
Photo and Video Preview: Two-time Tony nominee André De Shields Kicks Off Victory Gardens’ 2015 Ignition Festival of New Plays with CONFESSIONS OF A P.I.M.P
Two-time Tony nominee André De Shields, GREY’S ANATOMY star Sandra Oh, Kimberly Lawson, Donica Lynn, Tony Mhoon, Doug Peck, Robert Reddrick, Anjali Bhimani and More set for 2015 IGNITION Festival of New Plays at Victory Gardens Theater, July 16-19
Victory Gardens Theater’s IGNITION Festival of New Plays features new works by Two-time Tony nominee André De Shields, Julia Cho, Minita Gandhi, Basil Kreimendahl, José Rivera, Madhuri Shekar and A. Zell Williams, July 16-19 
tcgcircle.org THE GRAND ILLUSION by ANDRÉ DE SHIELDS in FOX FELLOWSHIPS
Conversations with the Divine with Owais Ahmed, Baize Buzan, Kathryn Cesarz, Kamal Hans, Brian Grey, Donica Lynn, Patrese McClain and Miranda Zola at Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater
Photos: André De Shields, Michael Shannon, Rajiv Joseph, Christine Sherrill, Doug Peck, Alexis J. Rogers, Karen Ziemba and More Celebrate 2013 Jeff Equity Awards
Click here for more articles on André De Shields.

Other Articles:
AsAmNews.com: Creating an Asian American presence on Wikipedia, one WikiAPA Edit-a-thon at a time
AsAmNews.com: Jaygee Macapugay set for Broadway Debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s School of Rock-The Musical
AsAmNews.com: The King and I’s Special Performance Benefits The Actors Fund
Playbill.com: Hugs, Laughs and Photobombs By Tony Winners! Go Backstage at the Special Actors Fund Performance of The King and I
Broadwayworld.com: Photo Flash: Phylicia Rashad, Andre De Shields & More Original Cast Members from THE WIZ Reunite in Central Park!
BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA Cast Reunion featured in BLACK BELT MAGAZINE August/September 2015
Drumhead Magazine: Living Colour Drummer Will Calhoun, Photos by Lia Chang
AsAmNews.com: Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Ruby Yang talks about her new film, My Voice, My Life
AsAmNews.com: Actor Tzi Ma Rides ‘Hell On Wheels’ to New Heights
AsAmNews.com: What’s Next for Sesame Street’s Alan Muraoka, Director of Critically Acclaimed The Report
AsAmNews.com: Sesame Street’s Alan Muraoka Directs New Off Broadway Drama THE REPORT
Broadwayworld.com: Photo Flash: First Look at THE REPORT as Part of FringeNYC
AsAmNews.com: Arthur Dong’s Forbidden City, USA: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1970 wins American Book Award
AsAmNews.com: Future Looks Bright for Asian American Cinema
Playbill.com: Retweet! BroadwayGirlNYC’s Picks For Most Useful Theatre Women on Social Media
AsAmNews.com:Playing Hide And Seek With Actress Lia Chang
AsAmNews.com: The King and I’s Jose Llana, Ruthie Ann Miles and Betsy Morgan Perform Concert in the Park 
AsAmNews.com: AAPI Heritage Month: My Grandmother’s Detention on Angel Island
Crafting a Career

Click here for the Lia Chang Articles Archive and here for the Lia Chang Photography Website.
All text, graphics, articles & photographs: © 2000-2015 Lia Chang Multimedia. All rights reserved. All materials contained on this site are protected by United States copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast without the prior written permission of Lia Chang. You may not alter or remove any trademark, copyright or other notice from copies of the content. For permission, please contact Lia at liachangpr@gmail.com

 

One comment on “Lia Chang: Celebrating my mom – AN ACTIVE VISION: BEVERLY UMEHARA…LABOR ACTIVIST…1945-1999

  1. Jenny Lee - Ho
    October 5, 2008

    Bev was the most beautiful, fun, generous cousin and best friend.
    I looked up to Bev growing up. I thought she was gorgeous and so very smart. She helped me with one of my first speeches during Junior High School and taught me the lastest dances, along with cousin Pauline.
    I miss Bev and I shall always, always love her.
    Bless Bev who is home and smiling with us all.
    Love,
    Jenny

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s