Bonnie Lew, Assembly District 13’s 2014 Woman of the Year

Monday, March 10, 2014

Stocktonian Bonnie Lew was honored Monday afternoon on the floor of the California State Assembly as the 13th Assembly District’s 2014 Woman of the Year.

Born in San Francisco in 1946, Bonnie moved to the Mississippi Delta with her parents when she was eight years old. There, her family opened a grocery store in an African-American neighborhood in Clarksdale. The family lived behind their store, serving those who were not welcome to shop in the supermarkets on the “white” side of town. Navigating between two worlds, Bonnie’s time was spent in school or working in the grocery store. Her one outlet was her weekly trip to the city library, so it is not surprising that she became a librarian. 

After college, Bonnie returned to California and took a job at the Stockton-San Joaquin County Public Library. She married Stockton native Bobby Lew and began a life of community service.  At the start of her career, the California State Library was administering international language grants to local libraries. Stockton applied for European, Chinese and Japanese grants as a way of drawing first-generation patrons to the libraries. The local Chinese community had just begun to celebrate a citywide Chinese New Year; Bonnie set up a booth at the festival and was successful in introducing more Chinese speakers and their children to the library. 

In 1975, after Saigon fell, Vietnamese families moved into the Stockton area, many of them ethnic Vietnamese-Chinese. When Bonnie heard these new arrivals speaking Cantonese, she befriended them and began to search for Vietnamese language materials to augment her store of books in Chinese. As successive waves of Asian immigrants came to town, Bonnie searched far and wide for printed materials in each native language. She was able to work successfully with leaders in Stockton’s immigrant communities to help the families assimilate. Bonnie is very proud that she made our libraries a safe and happy place for so many immigrant children, just as the Clarksdale library was for her as she was growing up in rural Mississippi.

When Bonnie was asked to join the board of Jene Wah, she agreed without hesitation. A social service organization, Jene Wah was established by three prominent Chinese businessmen in Stockton to help seasonal and retired Chinese service workers navigate the government and social services offered in the community. These elderly people came to the United States as young men and women to work in industries – canneries, packing sheds and restaurants – requiring only limited English-language skills. Today Jene Wah is a thriving non-profit that serves hot lunches five days a week to dozens of people, offers citizenship and English classes, and provides tax preparation and other services. Bonnie has chaired the board for more than seven years and is committed to helping these Chinese seniors live happy and productive lives. 

Bonnie’s other volunteer activities include membership in the Chinese Cultural Society of Stockton (Citizen of the Year), Stockton Chinese Folk Dance Troupe, Asian American Repertory Theater, Rio Calaveras Elementary School Media Center Planning Committee, Leadership Stockton, and Stockton SERTOMA (Service to Mankind award).