Gary Tom’s voice marks him as a native Georgian.
A “y’all” rolls off his tongue as easy as pie. He says “thang” instead of thing and “sir” and “ma’am” just like most people of his generation who grew up in Augusta.
Those who don’t know Tom, however, can be taken aback by a soft east-Georgia drawl coming from a face whose features might be more familiar in Hong Kong than in Hephzibah.
“I get that a lot,” said Tom, 58. “I visit relatives in San Francisco and crack people up when they hear me.”
That’s because Tom counts himself among Augusta’s well-established ethnic-Chinese community, the oldest such community in the Southeast.
“I was born here in Augusta and lived here all my life, except for going off to college for a few years,” he said. “My father’s family moved here in 1927.”
Now Tom’s voice and his family’s story will be preserved for future generations to hear.
Tom is one of about 50 Augustans of Chinese descent who are taking part on an oral history project that intends to capture their family stories while there are those around who can still recall how it happened, said Ray Rufo, president of Augusta’s Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, which is behind the project.
The project is nearing completion, said Rufo, a retired dentist. Rufo and his wife, Kathy Rufo, have been interviewing members of the Chinese community and collecting family photos, all of which will be compiled on DVDs to be distributed to association members, he said.
Several DVDs will be placed for public use at the Augusta Library. A special ceremony and historical exhibit is scheduled to open May 12 in the library’s main auditorium.
The exhibit, designed by Tom’s nephew, Travis Tom, celebrates the Chinese community’s history in Augusta, and received an award from the Georgia Historical Records Advisory Board in October.
The Oral History Project and the related exhibit were funded in part by a grant from the Georgia Humanities Council and the National Endowment for the Humanities, Rufo said.
Although Augusta had Chinese residents as far back as 1873, when workers came here to deepen the Augusta Canal, Tom’s family was one of many who came to Augusta to open grocery stores after the turn of the century.
Tom said most of the Chinese groceries were established in Augusta’s black neighborhoods. The number steadily increased until the late 1960s he said.
“There were opportunities there,” said Tom. “Just little, bitty mom-and-pop grocery stores. That’s what I grew up in. My mom and dad’s store was at 11th and Laney Walker across from Immaculate Conception Church.”
Tom recalls that almost all his Chinese friends and relatives were in the grocery business. After work and on weekends they would gather at the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association on Walker Street, to share food, play games and discuss business.
“We used to come down here every weekend,” he said. “We had a special bond, we were tight.”