Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association
Imagine coming to a strange land, not knowing a soul, not knowing where to go, not speaking the language. Such was the case in the mid-1800s, when thousands of Chinese immigrated to America, mostly men, with little to no resources. This was when family associations formed, based on Chinese regional districts, dialect, or last names. These support entities were based after China’s huiguen system of group organization with official meeting halls for Chinese who worked in remote cities and needed food, shelter, and employment.
In Chinatown, several associations banded together to create the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) for mutual aid and protection. This united front, made up of Chinese merchants and businessmen, arose out of a need for immigrant Chinese to be organized for socio, economic, and political reasons. CCBA was officially recognized as an organization in 1882 and incorporated by 1901.
At the beginning, the group provided a myriad of services. It helped the brotherhood find jobs and housing. Sometimes operating like a magisterial courthouse, it settled disputes among the various Chinatown family associations. The CCBA would protect the economic interests of members with financial resources and advice. When the elderly wanted to return to China, the CCBA paid for their steamship passage. It helped to set up the Tung Wah Chinese dispensary within Chinatown to tend to the sick. For many years, it served as the de facto governing board over the Chinese community.
As the CCBA grew in power, it became the single voice representing the Chinese during the years of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The CCBA was needed for successive decades when racism worsened with added layers of discriminatory state and local ordinances. It served as a liaison between the Chinese community and the outside world, and it hired its own white attorney for representation in court. Over the years the CCBA filed hundreds of court cases on behalf of the Chinese. It also started a Chinese language school and offered legal support for overseas Chinese workers with no recourse in other countries.
CCBA is also known as the Chinese Six Companies, but the companies are not businesses. Each company or benevolent association represents a set of clans or regional affiliations. These include the Hoy Sun Ning Yung, Hop Wo, Kong Chow, Yeong Wo, Sam Yup, Yan Wo, and later the Sue Hing (which makes it seven, but it kept the same name). Within the highly-organized structure, the all-male governing board rotates the presidency every two months with the title going to a different benevolent association for fairness.
According to long-time member Thomas Ng, the CCBA represents over 50,000 Chinese in the combined memberships of the seven companies. This society is mainly comprised of retirees and elderly, and business is conducted in Cantonese. Whether their American-born offspring will participate and continue leadership is unknown. While over 200 family associations are headquartered in Chinatown, the CCBA is the largest and still welds power and a political voice. It holds regular meetings to discuss matters such as charity funding and legislative issues that can potentially impact the Chinese community. In recent years, it successfully gathered thousands of local signatures to ban local marijuana dispensaries from operating in Chinatown and also demanded improved crosswalks to ensure the safety of its senior citizens.
Mr. Ng, 86, continues to serve in the CCBA as a director. He walks a block from his home to the meeting hall which hosts monthly business meetings. “We get donations for disasters and look for ways to help out,” he says. “We usually talk about how we can serve the community, and that is why I am here. I enjoy it.”
In San Francisco, the CCBA’s three-story world headquarters is found on 843 Stockton Street. It is the most distinctive building on the avenue painted in green, yellow, and red (Chinese lucky colors) with stone lions and pagoda rooftops. No tours are given inside this palatial hall, and entrance is strictly limited to members and approved visitors.