'That's Where I Grew Up': The Wuhan Natives Organizing Aid From The Bay

13 min
Supplies being delivered to Wuhan United Hospital. (Courtesy of Wuhan United)

Tom Gong started organizing volunteers in the Bay Area less than a day after Wuhan was put on lockdown on Jan. 23 for the coronavirus. That’s because thousands of college graduates from Wuhan, like Tom, work in the Bay Area. And many of those expats still have family there.

"Wuhan has a strong link with the Silicon Valley," said Gong, who has been living in San Jose for 14 years. "Of the two major universities there, Huazhong University of Science and Technology and Wuhan University, [we] have 6,000 alumni who call Silicon Valley home."

Tom hopes the group he’s formed, Wuhan United, does more than help send medical supplies to Wuhan.  He hopes it can educate more people, including younger generations of Chinese and Chinese Americans, about the city where he was born and raised.

The Bay’s Devin Katayama talked with Tom Gong about growing up in Wuhan, and the city's connections to the Bay Area.

DK: Did you like growing up there? 

TG: Yes. I mean, life definitely is much harder in my time. You know, it's hot in summer. There [was] no air conditioning, actually. There's no electric fans. But the people there is very kind, you know, friendly to each other. It's my hometown, you know. That's where I grew up. Actually when I was in college, I swim across East Lake. It took me three hours. Two years ago, I did that again.

DK: I also know that a lot of Chinese cities have changed really quickly over the years. Is that true for Wuhan too?

TG: Yes. Wuhan right now has more than 200 miles of subways, going to 350 miles in the next four years. It actually has been an industrial center in China in the past 150 years — has complete industrial system like heavy machinery, steel, ship making.

Now it has booming high tech. It's called 'Optics Valley' in China, we actually look [to] Silicon Valley as an inspiration model. It has a booming semiconductor, smart car, internet, cell phone industry. It's one of the top technology centers in China.

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DK: So now you've been living in San Jose for 14 years. You have a wife and kids here. And there are also thousands of people in Silicon Valley who went to school in Wuhan. How did you first learn about the coronavirus outbreak that basically started in your home city? 

TG: I read from news and I have my brother and my wife's family that working a hospital in China as well. So we're talking to them on a regular basis.

I came back from Wuhan in mid-December. Nobody was prepared to imagine it's going to grow this big. You know, including me, I thought it could be controlled and contained. But obviously, it didn't. I mean, the most serious thing that happened is on January 23rd, that really changed the whole thing. The city got locked down. I understand from that day, this thing's really serious.

Volunteers with Wuhan United. (Courtesy of Wuhan United)

DK: So how did you go from hearing about the coronavirus and talking with family to deciding how you wanted to help? 

We have a WeChat group, a chat group within our alumni. So we immediately feel we need to do something because we knew there's a huge shortage of personal protection gear for medical staff. So we shout it out: we need to get some supplies to Wuhan.

So at least 2,000 people [are] on the WeChat group from one university. They are all Bay Area engineers. The first day it's like five, six people. I think after one week we have more than 30 people. And then we started daily evening meetings, started 10:00 p.m. to 12:00 [a.m]. We had daily Zoom video conference discussing what we should do.

Then I thought about Direct Relief, which I work with while I was working at Google for the earthquake relief. I knew they are great organization. So I I called them on Thursday. We established the formal cooperation Friday to deal with this coronavirus.

DK: Does this work help you feel less worried about what's going on there? 

Actually, sometimes it makes me worry more, because people ask for help, a lot of hospital ask for help, but our capability is very limited. A lot of times we are frustrated.

I think this is the opportunity, for example, even for my kids, or even like Chinese Americans, like younger generations — I think it's opportunity for them to connect to China. Also opportunity for broader audience. That's why we established Wuhan United to go beyond alumni, to reach out to the general public so they can understand more about Wuhan, understand more about China actually, to help and appreciate the situation.