For more details, visit my Chinese restaurant history blog.
Joan Champ, a Canadian museum historian who helped me track down my relatives that ran a small Chinese cafe in Saskatchewan that I had never met before, shared with me her research on rural hotels in that province. Some were owned by Chinese immigrants who also had cafes in these hotels.
For more details, visit my Chinese restaurant history blog.
Last May I participated in a fund raiser for Foo's Ho Ho Restaurant, a local favorite family style place in Vancouver's old Chinatown. Author Judy Fong Bates, local activist Elwyn Xie, and I, all having had first hand experiences working and growing up in our parents' laundries. spoke about some of our experiences.
One unexpected benefit of this event was that it attracted the interest of Yvonne Gall, a radio documentary producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) in Vancouver. Last fall she came to L. A. to interview me about my book, Chinese Laundries: Tickets to Survival on Gold Mountain and the personal experiences from our family laundry described in my memoir, Southern Fried Rice. We also visited one of the last old time full service Chinese laundries in town, the Sam Sing Laundry, and talked with the third generation owner, Albert Wong. The
documentary, which includes other material, will air on April 18 at 9 p.m.and May 9 at 1 p.m. on CBC Radio and will also be streaming on their website starting May 2.
As more Chinese of the Delta move out of the region or pass away, there is growing interest and concern about creating a lasting tribute to the contributions that the pioneering Chinese grocery store owners and their families made to the economic and cultural climate of the Delta.
Writing "Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton" in 2008 gave me contact with many Delta Chinese still living there as well as with others now residing in Texas, California, and other places across the U. S. Oddly enough, even though I have only been in the Delta for a short visit in 2008, I have been able to facilitate and energize efforts among Delta Chinese to apply for a grant to fund an historical archive or museum under the auspices of Delta State University in Cleveland, Ms. I am pleased to have played a role in this development. In addition, I created a Facebook page to help generate support as well as a web page for Delta Chinese.
I hope that others will participate and contribute photographs, comments, documents, etc. related to the history of the Delta Chinese.
I was fortunate to have nice weather and warm audiences for 3 book talks about Chinese family restaurant history in 4 days in the area where I spent my adolescence and college years after moving from Georgia. It was wonderful to see, and recognize, friends from my youth whom I had not seen for 'half a century,' see newer friends again, and make some new friends. Appropriately, after my Chinatown talk, I dined at a Chinese "soul food" restaurant as a guest of my new friend, local photographer and graphic artist, Leland Wong.
Below are photos showing portions of audiences at my book talks at Him Mark Lai Chinatown Library, S. F. Jan.22, the Main San Francisco Library, Jan. 23, and Berkeley Chinese Community Church, Jan. 25. I was especially pleased to be invited to the Berkeley venue where I have spoken previously about each of my three earlier books on Chinese American history.
At the first talk, noted poet Nellie Wong had planned to recite her restaurant poems that she contributed to the book, but was down with a cold; fortunately, one of her friends stepped in to 'pinch-read' for her. At the second talk, her sister Flo Oy Wong, a noted artist spoke passionately about her experiences growing up and working in their Oakland family restaurant. At the third talk, another contributor to the book who grew up in a Lodi, Ca. Chinese family restaurant, Julie Wong Hornsby, related poignant anecdotes about her experiences,
We had over 50 people attend each of the talks and they gave us a positive reception.
A vivid example of the stress of having to use a false "paper" name for so many years is dramatized in a fine short film, Paper Son, in which Jack Ong portrays an ailing aged Chinese immigrant in his hospital bed telling his children that he now wanted to reclaim his real Chinese name before he dies.
Interestingly, after the film was shown at the Chinese Historical Society of Southern Calif, audience members who had "paper son" family connections were asked to pose for a group photo. About half of the audience, around 40 people proudly agreed to be part of this public record!
I later decided to try to use a simple short survey administered anonymously on the internet via Survey Monkey to a sample of older Chinese asking about their family paper son status, their feelings, etc., about it. So far, I have received very few responses, and even one rather hostile reply, even though responses were anonymous. The family secrecy, fear, and sometimes shame, surrounding the issue makes it a taboo topic even long after the parent, grandparent, or even great grandparent who had a paper son status has passed on.
One person who did reply, and gave me permission to quote her, noted that when she was about 10 yrs old:
..."I answered a knock on the door of my grandmother's house to find a man at the door,,, the man started asklng me questions: who was my grandfather, who was my grandmother, etc. etc.... I recall at the time that my parents were very concerned that I had spoken to this man, and I was told to never tell any strangers any information about our family again. It left me scared for awhile, especially when I saw how worried my parents were at this seemingly innocent conversation.... I do not feel as my Dad does, that it is a shameful part of Chinese American history_ at least. it is not the Chinese Americans that should be ashamed but rather it is the American government that should be ashmed for subjecting entire families to this fear... had they not put so many barriers to coming, there would have been no need to resor to "paper sons,"...
These comments illustrate some common sentiments that Chinese Americans have about "paper sons."
You may well imagine the fear generated in this Chinese man even if he was not a "paper son" when stopped by the U. S. Census taker in this photograph probably from about 1930 in N.Y. Chinatown.
My mother filled me in at an early age about our false paper identity, and why the U. S. exclusion of Chinese was patently unfair, and that my father had no choice but to use a paper name. I was conflicted with this knowledge, a little anxious, but knew that the secret had to be kept. I never knew whether the Chinese kids I knew in San Francisco had a similar status or not.... none of them divulged this information nor did I think I should ask them... it was a pact of silence on this topic. Yet, I naively assumed some were, and furthermore, that their parents had told them the truth. Later, I was to discover that I was wrong since I met some Chinese whose parents never divulged that they were in fact 'paper sons'' to their children.... they either didn't trust them to keep the secret, felt shame, or didn't want to burden their children with the knowledge.
This topic is a sensitive one for older Chinese Americans since so many of them had parents, grandparents, and other relatives who entered the U.S. and Canada with this rather shady method. In research for my books, I discovered how widespread the use of this method was employed to gain entry, and one that Chinese rationalized as justifiable since the Chinese was the only ethnic group categorically excluded from entry to the U. S. from 1882-1943 (imposed in 1924 until 1947 in Canada after its earlier Head Tax failed to stem the tide). Many Chinese still fear the topic, having kept this dark secret for decades, with worries about deportation. Consequently, we can never know the full extent to which it was used, how many were detected and deported, and the extent of its harmful effects on those, and their families, who successfully gained entry. Although I am a Jung because that was my father's paper surname, I knew, even as a child, that I was really a Loo, but the situation created some confusion, to say the least. Unlike some Chinese who later 'claimed' their real name, I like many others did not feel the need.
Live audience interactions are the most informative and rewarding experiences for authors, but it is also gratifying to obtain the validation of one's work when major libraries add your work. Harvard, among other universities, has a copy of Southern Fried Rice in its holdings. Today, I learned that the National Library of China in Beijing is the latest place to add Southern Fried Rice... hopefully they, and other Chinese institutions, may add my other Chinese American history books to their holdings. Chinese in China need to know the history of the Chinese who settled in the U. S., Canada, and many other parts of the world.
When I recruited people who grew up in their family laundries to write narratives about their experiences for my book, Chinese Laundries, one reason, of many, that caused reluctance was the feeling that they had nothing worthwhile to say. Yet, there is ample evidence that people often derive considerable benefit reading about other people's experiences, especially if they identify with the narrator's situation..
The other day, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from a young Chinese woman about the positive impact that reading about the lives of children from Chinese laundries had on her.
"I am a daughter of the owners of a 24-hour Chinese laundromat in Queens, NYC. My parents speak little English, which leaves me with the task of doing everything that requires English for the business (e.g. bookkeeping, dealing with belligerent customers and suppliers, etc.), whilst establishing my own career and attending graduate school full-time. To add to this, our only employee for the wash & fold services recently went on a permanent maternity leave. After much practice, I can now fulfill a 45-pound order of laundry in under 2 hours.
When I came across your book at the Museum Of Chinese in America, I was both excited and a bit peeved. Excited that such a historical account on the Chinese-run laundromat business in America actually exists, but a bit annoyed that you had beat me to the punch, as I had been ruminating on writing exactly the same book. Joking aside, thank you for such a treasure. After reading the chapter on "Lives of Chinese Laundry Children", I felt great pride in my unique experiences, and was very happy to have my thoughts and feelings normalized."
This testimonial definitely illustrates the power of personal stories to inspire other people experiencing similar difficult circumstances.
During Q&A following my San Diego book talk about the history of Chinese restaurants, one question led me to describe my childhood experiences of growing up in Macon, Ga. where our family were the sole Chinese at the time. I mentioned how I 'knew' I was Chinese in one sense as I was growing up, but when we moved to S. F. when I was 15, I realized that I was not the same kind of Chinese that lived in and near Chinatown.
A young woman in the audience observed that these comments made her suddenly remember that as a child she did not realize that she was "Chinese' until their family opened a Chinese restaurant. I guess both examples show that environmental factors certainly can outweigh biological ones at many times in influencing one's awareness and definition of ethnic identity.