EL CERRITO -- Wing Soohoo, Vincent Gong and Steve Lai lived in the iconic building at 1800 Elm St. when it was the Chung Mei Home for Chinese Boys.

The building was recently declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, making it El Cerrito's first building to receive such a designation.

Charles Shepherd, who founded Chung Mei in Berkeley in 1923, and the boys who lived there, raised the money to buy land in El Cerrito and build the structure with its Asian embellishments. The building housed the home from its opening in 1935 until 1954.

Before he founded Chung Mei in Berkeley in 1923, Shepherd, a deeply religious man, had done missionary work in China and was known to the 75 boys who lived at the home at any given time as "the captain."

Steve Lai walks the grounds of the Chung Mei Home in El Cerrito, Calif. on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. Lai lived in the iconic building at 1800 Elm St. in El
Steve Lai walks the grounds of the Chung Mei Home in El Cerrito, Calif. on Monday, Nov. 18, 2013. Lai lived in the iconic building at 1800 Elm St. in El Cerrito when it was the Chung Mei Home for Chinese Boys. The building has been declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, making it El Cerrito's first building that has received such a designation. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)

The boys lived in dormitory rooms that housed about 20 children. The rooms were supervised by female "housemothers," who lived in small apartments adjacent to the rooms.

The younger boys attended Stege Elementary School in Richmond during those years, walking more than a mile each way to the campus at 4949 Cypress Ave. and moved on to secondary schools as they got older. Boys living in the home during the 1950s attended Portola Junior High School and El Cerrito High School.

On Sundays, the boys were bused to services at the First Baptist Church on Channing Way in Berkeley.

Appraising the home from the perspective of time, both Soohoo, a Foster City resident, and Gong, of Las Vegas, Nev., have fond memories overall of the home and especially of Shepherd.

Soohoo, 77, said that, although he hated the home while he lived there from 1943 to 1949, he now regards Shepherd as the man who gave him the guidance and strength to deal with the daunting obstacles he had to overcome to survive and find happiness in life.

Soohoo said he was born in China and was smuggled into the United States as a child.

Although his mother was his father's second wife, he was sent to live with the father's first wife and her family who regarded him as an unwanted burden.

He said his relatives "dumped" him at the home, and he stayed there until his stepmother took him back.

Soohoo said the relatives still had no love for him so he walked out as a teenager and found ways to support himself at odd jobs until he found a career as a warehouse worker for United Airlines.

Now retired, Soohoo said the lessons he learned from Shepherd sustained him through periods of homelessness and desperation in his early years.

"Dr. Shepherd was a big influence in my life," Soohoo said. "He taught me to never give up and keep trying and I did."

Gong, 84, said he was placed at the home by the San Francisco welfare department after his father died, leaving him an orphan.

He said he was 12 when he entered the home in 1941 and 18 when he left in 1947.

Gong said Shepherd was "a tall, stern father figure" who truly loved the boys at the school.

He said many of the Chung Mei boys who entered military service during World War II listed him as their next of kin.

"One time we saw him crying his eyes out in the main hall after he received a telegram saying that one of his boys had been killed in action," Gong said.

"He was a very capable individual, a terrific speaker," Gong said of Shepherd. "Had he chosen another career, he would have been a very wealthy man."

Gong joined the army himself after leaving the home and later earned a degree from Health Engineering College in San Francisco.

He worked for many years as an engineer with Reynolds Electric Engineering Co. in Nevada before retiring.

Gong said he named one of his daughters Margaret after Margaret Thomsen, the housemother to the younger boys, and one of his sons Robert Charles after Shepherd.

Lai, 73, has sharply different feelings about Chung Mei and Shepherd in particular from his residence there from 1945 to 1951.

A Pinole resident, Lai said his parents placed him and his older brother Ron in the home because they were busy running a grocery store in Oakland and didn't have time to take care of them.

"My folks were very money oriented," he said. "They didn't want to put up with children crying and needing attention."

It wasn't a luxurious or nurturing existence, Lai said.

"The food was lousy," he said. "(Shepherd) was a disciplinarian, and the only time he communicated with you was when he wanted to spank you."

Lai does have positive memories of Thomsen, who became a surrogate parent to a certain extent.

"I remember her taking me and Ron in her arms and holding us affectionately," he said.

By 1951, the elder Lais had purchased a house in Berkeley and were able to take their sons back. Lai said he served a stint in the Air Force and held a variety of jobs before beginning a 30-year career in Oakland with the U.S. Postal Service.

Although 62 years have passed since he left the home, a lot of bitter memories remain.

"The home made me less human," Lai said. "We had good shelter and a nice home there, but no mother, no father, no one to relate to."

The building saw a variety of other uses in the years after the Chung Mei home closed, most recently as the site of the Windrush School, a private elementary and middle school that closed last year.

It was purchased a year ago by Steve and Susan Chamberlin, principals of the Chamberlin Family Foundation, a philanthropic organization dedicated to improving public education.

The Chamberlins plan to lease it to Summit Public Schools, a charter school operator that has received approval this month from the Contra Costa County Office of Education to open a secondary school next year.