Her Way

Blazing trails comes naturally to Maeley Tom

By Corky Mau
May 2021

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. It’s a time to acknowledge the contributions of Asian Pacific Islander Americans.

Maeley Tom is a notable member of the Asian Pacific Islander community. She’s lived in Pocket for decades and last year published a memoir, “I’m Not Who You Think I Am: An Asian American Woman’s Political Journey.”

The story takes readers from Tom’s upbringing in San Francisco to her success as the first ethnic minority woman to earn top jobs at the state Capitol. She was chief administrative officer for the state Assembly and chief of staff to the state Senate president.

Her story is fascinating. Tom’s parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s from Guangzhou, China. They were members of a Cantonese opera troupe. Her father, a popular comedian, performed nightly at San Francisco’s Mandarin Theatre while her mother sang in underground clubs.

“Seven days a week, they lived the fast, hard life of entertainers—performing on stage, followed by long hours in the gambling dens of Chinatown,” Tom recalls.

They weren’t ready to care for a young child. Two weeks after she was born, Tom was sent to live with a French-Basque family. “When people learn I was in foster care for almost eight years, I get a sympathetic glance. But those years were among my happiest,” she says.

At age 10, Tom moved to Oakland to live with her mother for the first time. If she thought that meant more mother-daughter time, she was wrong. She spent more time with her friends and their families.

Graduating from Oakland Tech High School, Tom was told by her mother to find a job. There would be no more support. She was 16. She worked her way through San Francisco State and graduated with a social welfare degree.

She met her future husband when she was 15. Ron Tom and his buddies drove from Sacramento to an Oakland dance. The pair had a brief romance, but eventually married other people. By 1969, both were divorced.

They reconnected at a dinner party held by longtime friends Lina Fat and Nanci Jan. Ron and Maeley were married six months later. They celebrated their golden anniversary last year. “Our marriage has endured this long because of patience, skillful negotiation and allowing each other the space to grow and simply be ourselves,” she says.

During her state Capitol career, Tom worked to help the Asian Pacific Islander community find its voice in politics. She had memorable interactions with presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.

Those political experiences weren’t always positive. During the campaign finance scandal of 1996, when the Chinese government allegedly tried to influence American politics, Tom experienced prejudice and discrimination from the national media. With support from family and friends, she rose above it. Her book describes the toll on her professional career and personal life.

The couple isn’t slowing down in retirement. There’s family time and a grandson. Tom is active with local Asian Pacific Islander organizations and belongs to the Committee of 100, a leadership organization of prominent Chinese Americans.

Tom finds time for her favorite hobby—karaoke. She loves jazz and inherited a beautiful voice from her mother. Tom recalls, “Back in the 1960s, I was living in Hawaii. I had a brief gig as the opening act for the late Hawaiian comedian Inny Young who performed in Waikiki clubs.”

She was born with a passion for life and follows that passion in retirement. “If you look at what you have in life, you will always have more. If you look at what you don’t have in life, you’ll never have enough,” Tom says.
Her memoir is available on Amazon and eBay. The journey is far from over.

Corky Mau can be reached at corky.sue50@gmail.com. Submissions are due six weeks prior to the publication month. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.

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