San Diego Political Legend Tom Hom Talks About 'Bumpy Road' To American Dream
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Politician, business man, and civic leader Tom Hom has lived a long life and has a long memory into the history of San Diego. He served as San Diego's first minority city Council member back in the 1960s and is still the only have Asian American to have served on the Council. Tom Hom has written a memoir about his life and career, and in the process he gives us all insight into how San Diego developed into the city it is today. Tom Hom's book is called Rabbit on a Bumpy Road: a Story of Courage and Endurance. Welcome to the program, thank you for coming in. TOM HOM: Thank you Maureen, happy to be here. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now you were born in the year of the rabbit, 1927. Tell us about San Diego's Chinatown back in those days. TOM HOM: Well in 1927 Chinatown composed about four blocks right next to gaslamp. And that was called, the gaslamp was basically known as the stingray district. Chinatown was right next to it. Chinatown was composed of four square blocks and next to Chinatown was Japan town, and there was a small section across called Filipino town. Chinatown was basically self-contained and I was born and raised there in 1927. We grew up speaking Chinese only, basically. That was our home. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Were the streets paved? Did they have wooden blocks on the streets? What did it look like? TOM HOM: Some of the streets were paved and there were some unpaved streets and some of the sidewalk had plank walks, and wooden plank walks. And most of the housing was built on single-story wooden buildings, but there were a couple two stories and we lived in a two-story building, with stores underneath and upstairs were apartments. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You mentioned that you spoke Chinese when you were a little boy. What was it like starting school not knowing how to speak English? TOM HOM: At that point all of the kids who went to school, we went to the Lincoln school, that was located at 12th and E street. It is called Park Boulevard today. We learned English by immersion. We did not have English as a second language. That was how we learned much. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of your first words was candy? TOM HOM: Yes, my first word was candy to the point that I got hurt on the playground during recess. That was my first day in school in kindergarten and as I cried the teacher try to stop me and not until she was in her apron, she brought out a piece of candy and said candy as she offered it to me, and repeated it, candy, that was my first English word. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What was it like act when you were growing up in the 30s? What was it like to be Chinese-American in San Diego? Were you aware of prejudice towards you and your family? TOM HOM: We had our own world that we lived in and we matriculated in Chinatown. Once in a while we left Chinatown to go uptown where my mother would go to the department stores to buy clothing and so forth. We would come back to Chinatown. Our food was basically Chinese food, and growing up we lived a life that was carefree. In Chinatown we had a lot of relatives, we went in and out of different houses and we were treated as part of extended family. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So a world inside of itself. TOM HOM: That is right. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You write in your book that your father was the biggest influence in your life. What did he instill in you that you think led to your success? TOM HOM: Well, my dad had twelve children. Nine boys and three girls. Basically, he had one rule. With other children, we had to have dinner together. That was one time where we could sit down and talk about our activity for the day. Some of our thoughts, and ideas, and so forth that we would share. Along the line he always would preach philosophy, and the correctness of life and so forth. One of the things he always told the boys, always be a gentleman always be a gentleman and people will respect you for what you are and who you are. And your character. He always said to be a gentleman. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So these were lessons at the dinner table? TOM HOM: Yes, that is right. And another big lesson, we got into public life and when I was about twelve when we're delivering vegetables I was with my dad when this little truck broke down at the corner of G and fifth Avenue, and at the southwest corner was the old City Hall building. As we waited for a mechanic to come he pointed out that building and said Tom, here in America the laws that come out of there is dependent on voters that they put in there. That is the kind of laws that come out. That kind of impressed me. So my dad, from the old country, broken English, he always felt perhaps as a recent immigrant outside looking in. He probably thought maybe one time next generation we could be inside looking out. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And you were, in the 1960s you ran for the San Diego city Council becoming the first Asian-American and the first nonwhite person to serve on the Council. Do you feel at that time that your victory was at least in part a victory for the Asian-American community? TOM HOM: You know, I was highly influenced by a retired Admiral, he was a big war hero in World War II and he told me I had every opportunity to run for public office if I wanted to come independent how much I wanted it and the things that I can bring forth to help the community and so he was a big influence on my life. That is how I got involved. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, did you see yourself as a pioneer for Asian Americans in San Diego? TOM HOM: I did. The admiral did say Tom, I want you to know in the history of San Diego no minority has ever been elected to public office and you can be the first. You will be good for the city and the city will be good for you. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That was your motivation. TOM HOM: Yes. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What do you see as your greatest contribution to San Diego during your time on the Council? TOM HOM: I served on the task forced committee as the chair to build the QUALCOMM Stadium, that was called the San Diego Stadium then, to be called the Jack Murphy Stadium later, and today QUALCOMM Stadium. I led the task force on that and also restructured the financial system to build the stadium without a tax base on the general public. That was our challenge and I was chairman of that program. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And now they are thinking of a new stadium. TOM HOM: Yes, yes they are. It is still the question, the taxpayers are concerned. They can build it but they have to be innovative and come up with the program. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Can you tell them how you did it? TOM HOM: Well, basically we had a vote with the people, there were two questions in the ballot. One, if we build a new stadium are you willing to put that on a tax base? They said no, overwhelmingly no. The other question was if we can build it without a tax base are you in favor? The response was overwhelming, 80% in favor. Our challenge than was to find the way to do it. And basically, it goes right back down to my philosophy, if there is a problem, you need to pinpoint the problem. Unless you know exactly what the problem is, then you can work towards a solution. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I also want to mention that you were instrumental in preserving what we now call the gaslamp quarter, making sure that those buildings weren't just done away with as the city progressed and became more of a modern San Diego. TOM HOM: Yes, that was at the stage where people were quite concerned with the fifth Avenue area especially below Broadway. It has become somewhat shoddy, they called it the SOB area, south of Broadway. There were a lot of adult stores, and let's say night ladies, and gentleman would not be down there unless he was in hanky-panky business, and go go places. The upper fifth Avenue was not as bad right where Broadway is, it happened at that time when I left the city Council, the government, there was a building, and storage building built in 1883, it has been restructured a couple of times. It was a fine building, three stories. That was up for sale by the Security Pacific Bank. Being an old family of the area and we walks the streets 100 times, I even sold newspapers there and the price was reasonable, the bank wanted to get rid of it so we bought it. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And it became fundamental, that new revised gaslamp district. I want to ask you, the city Council recently read through the boundaries as you know, the city Council districts. Now district 6 encompasses a large portion of San Diego's Asian population. Many people believe this election we will see an Asian-American candidate come out of district 6. First of all, are you endorsing anyone in the election? TOM HOM: Yes I am, I am endorsing one person whom I have known for about twenty-five years and yes I have endorsed her. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What is that name? TOM HOM: Mitzie Lee. She did a fine job when she was on the school board and now she is running for city Council. Incidentally there are other good candidates as well, but Mitzie I think will do an excellent job. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Our political world now is much more focused on diversity and making sure all minority communities are represented. And I think it was basically when you were on the city Council, the main idea was assimilation, everybody should be the same. Now we sort of embrace diversity. What you think that adds to political life? TOM HOM: I think even the time when my dad was here, families of half a dozen to a dozen were not too uncommon. Families today are two children. With the change of that structure, the issue changes as well. As far as a district composed basically of Asian-Americans, that is fine. But the crux of it is that they need to serve basically the overall city of San Diego. What is good for San Diego after all, we have structures and transportation issues, getting people from here and there. We have issues with the water and sewer program, police protection, fire protection, all of these things are in general, it is not encompassing just one area. Asian-American fine, whoever is elected in that district needs a broad view that is best for all of San Diego and yet understand the needs of the district. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This year you turned eighty-seven years old I believe. TOM HOM: Yes. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In your book you say people remarked about your good health and vitality and you include a recipe in the book, the health tonic that you take twice a day. Can you tell us about that? TOM HOM: It is very common, the things that you find at a grocery store. Basically I have a glass of water and I dissolve a spoonful of honey and then I put a spoonful of apple cider vinegar and a mix that and drink that twice a day, and it keeps me going pretty well. I still play golf. I still am very active, I take tai chi twice a week and I am in several organizations. I keep busy. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As alert as you are, and as wonderful as the memories are in this book, you did need to go back. You told us you went back to your diaries that you started to keep back in 1957. I'm wondering, as you read back to the Tom Hom in 1957, did you recognize that man as you read those diaries from fifty years ago? TOM HOM: Periodically I do go back to the diary and it rings back memories that triggers a lot of things that aren't even in the diary. Yes, it has a lot of memories and I could read back to the war period where World War II started. When Pearl Harbor was announced, my age as well, yes it triggers a lot of memories. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Along the line of your book one reviewer cause you a living legend in San Diego, what does it feel like to be referred to like that? TOM HOM: Funny thing, I never looked upon myself as a living legend to I think of people like George Marston and people like that, Alonzo Horton, and so forth, those are really living legends in San Diego. For me at this stage to try to compare myself with them, I am very humble, to accept that, what they say, but it is hard for me to say I could measure up to them. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: For people who want to meet Tom Hom living legend or not, next Thursday evening May 29, Tom Hom will attend the official launch of his book rabbit on a bumpy road, that will be at the San Diego History Center in Balboa Park. Tom, thank you very much. TOM HOM: Thank you Maureen.
A politician, businessman and civic leader, Tom Hom has a long history serving San Diego.
He was elected as San Diego's first minority city councilman in the 1960s and is still the only Asian-American to have served on the council. However, that may change this year. The new City Council boundaries in District 6 encompass a large portion of San Diego's Asian population. Many people believe there will be an Asian-American candidate elected from that district this year.
Hom turned 87 this year, and he said people often remark about his good health and vitality. In his memoir, "Rabbit on a Bumpy Road: A Story of Courage and Endurance," he even includes a recipe for a health tonic he takes twice a day: a teaspoon of honey and two teaspoons of apple cider vinegar.
"I've been taking this since I was 35, and I still do it today," he said.