Connie Young Yu
Great-granddaughter of Lee Wong Sang
Interviewee: Connie Young Yu (Great-granddaughter of Lee Wong Sang)
Interviewer: Barre Fong
Date: March 29, 2013
Location: Los Altos Hills, California
Length of the Interview: 30 minutes, 22 seconds
00:10 Yu: I’m Connie Young-Yu. I was born in LA [Los Angeles], California to John and Mary Young, who are American-born. I lived in a house in Whittier when my father was overseas for World War II; he was in China, Burma, India theater of operations . My earliest memories are of my mother reading his letters from China. He was a captain in the ordinance. He was a liaison officer, and I was very very aware of the war as a- just a toddler.
00:53 Yu: Sister, Janey, three years older. She helped take care of me.
01:00 Yu: My grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Yun-Sun Guang of San Jose, pioneer family, lived with us, so I had- I felt very surrounded by family and history and, you know, people talking about their work and their immigration.
Connie Young-Yu introduces herself. She was born in LA and her father served overseas during WWII. She lived with an older sister, Janey, and her grandparents, and was surrounded by talk of family history.
China; Connie Young-Yu; History; Immigration; John Young(father); LA, Los Angeles; Liaison officer; Mary Young(mother); Mr. Yun-Sun Guang(grandfather); Mrs. Yun-Sun Guang(grandmother); Pioneer family; San Jose; Whittier; Work; World War II, WWII
Chinese American families Family relations Family relationships Immigration Immigration & society World War Two stories
01:27 Yu: My father moved us to San Francisco in 1947 and came back from the war. He really- he was a Stanford graduate in petroleum engineering. He got his undergraduate degree there too. One of the few Chinese, he graduated with a degree in engineering in 1937. And I look at the pictures of his class and some of the events and he was the only Chinese.
02:04 Yu: I heard about him living in the Chinese clubhouse- and that was because Chinese students were not allowed to live in the dorms. And this was after 1919 when a Chinese came to Encina Hall and was thrown out bodily by, you know, some good ol’ boys at Stanford. And then the Chinese in the community raised money to build the Chinese clubhouse. This is important because it’s part of the things that I’ve written about and studied.
Connie Young-Yu’s father attended Stanford University. The Chinese clubhouse was built because Chinese students were not allowed in dorms.
Chinese; Chinese Clubhouse; Chinese community; Chinese students; Dorms; Encina Hall; Engineering degree; Higher education; Integration; John Young(father); San Francisco; Stanford
Diversity in higher education Education Immigrant families–United States–Social conditions–20th century San Francisco School segregation
02:44 Yu: I went to public schools in San Francisco, Washington High. Graduated from Mills College in Oakland in ’63 in English. And I married Dr. Hu Ping, or John Yu, a week after graduation, and he was a Kaiser doctor resident. And then we went to New York where he trained at Sloan Kettering. We were there for three years- so that was my first experience living back East, and I had a very strong feeling that it- there wasn’t this sense of diversity, certainly, and there’s no feeling or recognition of Chinese achievements or anything.
03:42 Yu: So when we came back in ’67, we lived in Santa Clara, and then a year later, my son Marty was born. So we had three children, Jennifer, Jessica, and Marty. And then my brother-in-law from the Philippines got accepted to Stanford and he stayed and lived with us, so we had quite a big household for a young family.
Connie Young-Yu attended college, married Dr. Hu Ping, and moved in New York. She moved back to Santa Clara after three years and started a family.
Attitudes toward Chinese; Chinese achievements; Dr. Hu Ping, John Yu (husband); East; Households; Kaiser; Lack of diversity; Mills College; New York; Oakland; Philippines; San Francisco; San Francisco public schools; Santa Clara; Sloan Kettering; Stanford; Washington High School
Diversity in higher education Diversity in the workforce Public schools San Francisco
04:12 Yu: And during this time, in ’69, was the centennial of the transcontinental railroad. The building of it. The completion- May tenth.
04:20 Yu: And it was just a- I knew about the Chinese Historical Society because my parents were very active. And they were going to go to Promontory Point as representatives of the Chinese Historical Society.
04:34 Yu: I always knew about the railroad. I was always very conscious of it because my parents always talked about pioneer Chinese.
04:41 Yu: My father was born in Heinlenville Chinatown in San Jose, which was a fenced-in Chinatown. His father fled the burning of the Market Street Chinatown in 1887 and established a new life in this Heinlenville Chinatown where my dad was born.
05:04 Yu: My father would talk to us about his childhood growing up in San Jose, living in this store where workers would come in, the bachelor Chinese, he said he remembered, old railroad workers coming into his store. My father was born in 1912 and by then these guys who worked in the 1860s on the railroad were pretty elderly. But they came in and would have a cup of tea and hang out and talk to my grandfather who was the district association head and also leader of Sun Yat-sen’s party, so he was very connected to these bachelors who would donate money.
05:47 Yu: They would talk about how they’d be chased around if they left Stanford campus but Stanford would protect them. And so my father always spoke well of Stanford. When it was time for him to go to college, his mother said, “Don’t go to Berkeley, go Stanford.” And it’s only because of this feeling that Stanford was a good place to be, it was a safe place to be.
06:31 Yu: Another thing that my father told me about- and I’ve mentioned it several times in interviews, and it always is cut out because it’s never the kind of thing people wanted to hear. My father said these old men were involved with the district association and every ten years, they would go to areas like the foothills of the Sierras- places where the Chinese camps were- and look for the remains of the Chinese who were killed on the railroad. And they would find them, because there would be a certain marker- this is what my father said- a certain kind of marker, that where they’d look, that area, the Chinese association would have these maps and they would dig and they’d find a bottle with a piece of cloth that said, these are the remains of this kinsman killed working on the railroad. And many camps were buried- I mean, the avalanches covered some camps and the bodies were not found till the spring.
07:22 Yu: Anyway, so this is years, decades later, they would find the bones, bring them back, and pack them in a sealed jar and put them in a box. And my father told me, he saw those boxes, so it must have been that ten-year period, you know, when they came back with these remains. But my father spoke about it very reverently, and always said, “Oh, zhen shi yin gong.” I mean, really tragic, really sad and terrible that these people suffered. And, you know, they were young people, but because of our connection with the village, they will have a burial in their home, and they are not forgotten.
08:06 Yu: I grew up with all these, you know, this kind of feeling a kind of responsibility.
Connie Young-Yu’s parents went to Promontory Point representing the Chinese Historical Society for the 1969 centennial of the transcontinental railroad. Yu recalls her father’s stories of meeting old railroad workers- the “bachelor Chinese”- in Heinlenville Chinatown as a child. The railroad workers would unearth burial sites at old Chinese camps and bury the workers’ remains.
1969; “Bachelor Chinese”; Burial sites; Centennial of transcontinental railroad; Chinese campsites; Chinese Historical Society; Graves; Heinlenville Chinatown, San Jose; Market Street Chinatown; Pioneer Chinese; Promontory Point; Railroad workers; Sierra Nevada foothills; Social responsibility; Stanford; Sun Yat-Sen
Burial customs Chinatown (San Francisco, Calif.)–History. Chinatown (San Jose, Calif.)–Social life and customs Chinese Historical Society Collective memory Cultural memory Promontory Point (Utah : Cape) Railroad workers Railroads and state- California
08:20 Yu: Now when I was at Mills College, my dream was to become a writer, a novelist- fiction, poetry at least, certainly not these stories, of Chinese-America. It was nothing that I grew up being- I mean I didn’t- I was proud of them but it wasn’t something I felt anybody was interested in.
08:43 Yu: Now, in 1969,a few months before the big celebration, I said, you know, I’d really like to write an article, maybe for the Chinese Historical Society, about the railroad- I mean, is there anybody writing it? And my mother said, “No, Phil Choy is very busy with the preparations of going and he’s talked about it, you know, but I think it would be wonderful if you wrote it.”
09:06 Yu: I wrote this story, doing lots of research, and the research that I’ve found- I mean, I did not do oral history. What I did was, I figured I’d go to textbooks, but of course I didn’t have any and history books didn’t, except in some very negative mention of the Chinese workers.
09:30 Yu: I went to Stanford graduate library and bought a pass and went to the archives- went to the, I guess what they would call, the newspaper morgue. At that time, we’re talking ’69, I actually could pick up these big volumes of the Alta California. And I could touch them, they didn’t even say wear white gloves- I was very careful. And there was a person who was so kind, who Xeroxed pages for me.
09:58 Yu: What I found were the reporter’s accounts of the building of the railroad. And also accounts of the Chinese being run out of here, and there, and, you know, incidents of Chinese being robbed and beaten up. And I learned also that Mark Twain worked for the San Francisco Call and wrote a lot about the Chinese. But that was something I did in college. I wrote a paper on Mark Twain and ended up learning about the Chinese. But back to Stanford.
10:31 Yu: I was so impressed- and so excited, actually, to see real quotes. Like there’s a quote of a judge who, on the celebration in Sacramento of the completion of the railroad, he made a toast. He was actually Crocker’s brother. He stood up and he said, “I’d like to make a toast to the forgotten and neglected contingent of builders of the railroad- the Chinese.” And so- I’m paraphrasing- but I was very impressed by that.
11:08 Yu: I also saw the list of people who were at the ceremony- none of the Chinese of course.
11:15 Yu: So I wrote up the article and it appeared May 10th, 1969, on the Sunday edition of the Examiner. So, this paper actually, my mother went and bought maybe 1000 copies. [takes out copy of paper] My father just brought it to a PR person. There it is, “The Golden Spike Unsung Heroes by Connie Young Yu.”
11:47 Yu: My first real publication outside of Chinatown, various booklets there.
11:57 Yu: There’s this great picture of the High Sierras, you know, and the Chinese with their hats working there, and the Chinese tea carrier. AND, it mentions, thanks to my mother, who kept reminding me, that I’m the great-granddaughther of Wong Sang Lee. [gestures to parts of the newspaper].
12:18 Yu: It’s actually Lee Wong Sang, last name first. My mother’s a Lee. A foreman for the Central Pacific Railroad.
12:25 Yu: The reason why this changed my life is that I started writing nonfiction. I started writing stories about Chinese-America and also activist stories because I was involved in the anti-war movement and I just stopped writing fiction. This directed my career as a writer.
Connie Young-Yu wrote an article about the Chinese railroad workers for the centennial of the completion of the railroad in 1969. In her research, she found reports of discrimination and a quote from Edwin B. Crocker that mentions the Chinese during the railroad’s completion ceremony. Yu begins to shift into nonfiction writing.
1969 Centennial of transcontinental railroad; Activist stories; Alta California; Article; “The Golden Spike Unsung Heroes”; Career; Chinatown; Chinese Historical Society; Chinese-America; Connie Young-Yu; Edwin B. Crocker; Examiner; History books; Lee Wong Sang(great-grandfather); Mark Twain; Mills College; Newspaper morgue; Nonfiction; Sacramento; Stanford graduate library; Textbooks
Chinese American journalists Chinese Historical Society Historical research Journalism Railroad stories–Periodicals Stanford University. Archives Stanford University. Libraries & Academic Information Resources Writing, culture, and community practices
12:49 Yu: But the stories that my mother told me about Lee Wong Sang really are haunting to me because I see him as a person, only because, and this goes back to another big historic incident, 1906 earthquake.
13:08 Yu: After working on the railroad as a foreman, and I think he became an agent in ordering food for supplies for Chinese workers on the railroad, and he could speak some English, because I saw his name written in English. Lee. Wong. Sang. His signature in the national archives when he had to testify for all his relatives who were coming back and forth in America.
13:39 Yu: He signed a document saying “yes” this is my daughter-in-law, that is my grandmother, coming to America. 1905. Lee Wong Sang.
13:53 Yu: My great-grandfather, Lee Wong Sang, has a store “Wong Sang Wo.” He had three sons working there, and my grandfather who was the second son, Lee Yuk Suy, he was the one who married Jung Hing, and she had bound feet, and during the earthquake, she had just given birth to a baby girl (mother’s older sister). She was a month old on that day -she was going to have a red eggs and ginger party- the earthquake hit and my grandfather, he realized he just had to get the papers from another store -they had another branch of his store on Sacramento Street.
14:52 Yu: He had to run there to get all the papers. His birth certificate -no one was going to believe a Chinese was born in 1878 in San Francisco. They all said that, you know.
15:07 Yu: He had his father take care of his wife and baby, so as the story goes, Lee Wong Sang gets his daughter-in-law and baby into a wagon and he realizes she’s a nursing mom and she has to have water. So he finds some water from a kettle and he got it for her and said, “Please drink this, you must have this water.”
15:35 Yu: And my grandmother remembered his kindness.
15:46 Yu: He was very nice to women. He only had one wife and when he was very young, after building the railroad, he made sure he sent for her. I think they were sweethearts in China with kids.
16:03 Yu: The other story that I know about him was that when he was working on the railroad, he had accumulated making a dollar-a-day a gold-piece that he carried around for luck, a twenty-dollar gold piece and he carried it -my mother said -wrapped around in one of these belts. One night he went to the latrine and he lost the gold piece. And she said, he cried for a month. So these are vivid stories and I’m sure it’s true, but it tells something about the person and how hard their life was. But also the fact that they would tell their story to their son.
Lee Wong Sang learned some English, and signed his name to testify for his relatives moving to the U.S. Connie Young-Yu recounts anecdotes about Lee Wong Sang’s encounter with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, his treatment of women, and his financial condition.
1906 San Francisco earthquake; Agent; Ancestry; Birth certificate; Bound feet; Foreman; Jung Hing(grandmother); Lee Wong Sang(great-grandfather); Lee Yuk Sak(grandfather); Paperwork; Stories; Treatment of women; Wong Sang Wo
Families- Social aspects Families- Social conditions Family life Family relationships Family structure Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, Calif., 1906 Immigrants- Legal status Immigration to the United States Relationships, Family
16:48 Yu: I think that’s all I know about him other than the archives where he gives testimony, and uhm, the fact that he did go back to China to build a house.
17:01 Yu: Now, one thing that my mother did emphasize was that you know, being a railroad worker -people didn’t go around bragging. However, the money they made was a lot more than other laborers. They would send home part of their fortune. And she said, you know, our Taishan village is one of those railroad villages.
17:27 Yu: I went back in ’91 and ’94, and she said look at the house with the hexagon windows. Your grandfather -this is the son of the railroad worker -helped design that and so they had pride in their village and they knew what they did.
17:44 Yu: And I have a picture of my great grandmother, the wife of Lee Wong Sang. And she’s wearing an imperial robe with one of those Mandarin squares with a crane. The crane is the highest rank for the civil service.
18:02 Yu: I asked my mother, “Wow, what’s she doing with this imperial robe?” And my mother said, “My grandfather bought it for her.”
18:13 Yu: So at the end of the Qing Dynasty, people would buy the robes and they could be like village officials wearing these. So he probably had one too.
18:21 Yu: My great-grandfather died in the 1920s. He died when he was around 60 in the 1920s. He was in China. He went back.
18:45 Yu: My great-grandfather, it turns out, looking at the immigration papers, made a couple trips back and forth, because he was involved with business, and because he was a merchant. And his son, of course, traveled back and forth.
19:02 Interviewer: So even though he died in China, he sent his kids to the United States?
19:06 Yu: Yes
Lee Wong Sang returned to China, built a house, and traveled between China and the U.S. He lived in Taishan Village towards the end of the Qing Dynasty. He died in China, but sent his children to the U.S.
Fortune; Immigration papers; Imperial robes; Laborers; Merchant.; Qing Dynasty; Qing Dynasty fashion; Railroad villages; Railroad workers; Taishan village; Wages
China- Emigration and immigration- History China- History- Ch?ing dynasty, 1644-1912 China- History- Manchu dynasty, 1644-1912 Immigrant labor Immigrant workers Migrant labor (Foreign workers) Migrant workers (Foreign workers)
19:19 Yu: My father went to Stanford, and my husband went to Stanford Medical School. He came from the Philippines, went to Stanford Medical School, and my eldest daughter Jennifer went to Stanford, and we were very very proud when she got in. And she was the first woman to receive a fencing scholarship and I thought that was a wonderful thing because from the various background that we’ve had, with my grandmother, Lee, having bound feet and not going out of the house except with escorts, and my other grandmother who wasn’t allowed to vote because she was an alien and the exclusion law wasn’t appealed until ’43.
So I just felt–I’m very conscious of these successes being a triumph, as Chinese.
20:42 Yu: I’ve always thought about the incredible irony of all this. I really have. And again–the wonderful success. It’s a positive thing, this irony, because there’s a Chinese Clubhouse where the Chinese couldn’t live in the dorm and here’s my daughter going to Stanford and living in the dorm and senior year going to live in Ujamaa house, which was an African-American dorm. You know, how’s that? And the first dorm she was in was gorgeous, and they built Governor’s Corner, another new dorm, so for her sophomore year she was in that. And I remember being very proud following her when she carried her fencing gear up to her new dorm. There was a couple of guys at the foot of the stairs–and my reaction when I see white guys, teenage young guys, you know, I just know what they’re thinking when they see Chinese. But that’s just my reaction, that’s from my generation, growing up in the ’50s. So she’s walking up very confidently and one of the boys asks if he can pull out one of her foils. So he pulls out this sword [gestures] and he goes, “This is cool. Are you any good?” And she goes, “Yes I am” [pantomimes taking sword] and took it from him. And I just thought, that’s cool, that’s the new generation.
Connie Young-Yu’s oldest daughter, Jennifer, attends Stanford on a fencing scholarship. Yu is proud of the progress that women in her family have made, and recounts the story of Jennifer moving into the dorm with her fencing gear.
Alien; “The new generation”; Bound feet; Chinese clubhouse; Empowerment of women; Exclusion laws; Higher Education; Illegal immigrants; Jennifer(daughter); Philippines; Progress; Stanford; Ujamaa; Undocumented immigrants; Women; Women in college
Chinese American women–Conduct of life Chinese-American women–California–History Diversity in higher education Illegal immigrants Social progress Stanford University
22:07 Yu: Jennifer was very aware of what her grandparents were doing with this railroad, and all this history with the Chinese–because she came with me to the banquet events. But when she was very tiny–she would not remember this–I got a call saying that -this was a couple days before the train reached Promontory Point -I got a call saying turn on your TV at noontime, there’s going to be a local special about San Franciscans going to Promontory Point and your folks may be on it.
22:45 Yu: I turned it on, and there on the train were my mother and father and they’re smiling. And Jennifer took one look and said, “Can they see us?” She was just so stunned and I just told her about what they’re doing.
23:16 Yu: That trip and that whole event was so important in our lives -certainly for my parents, because it was like the fulfillment of a dream -to go there, to represent the Chinese for the Chinese Historical Society at Promontory Point where, you know, a hundred years ago, the Chinese were really excluded after all their labors.
23:51 Yu: Phil Choy, also representing the Chinese Historical Society as president was almost totally ignored. And then the keynote speaker was John Volpi, secretary of transportation -this is for the May 10th ceremony -and my parents and Phil Choy were all sitting there. And this secretary Volpi had this incredible rhetoric saying “Who but Americans could have built rails through the Sierras, who but the Americans could have built ten miles of track in one day.”
24:29 Yu: And of course, they were not Americans, they were the Chinese. And Phil Choy was really angry and afterwards when he was to present a plaque, there was no one there to listen. Everyone had left and so he said, “I didn’t come all the way to dedicate this plaque to myself. I came to represent the Chinese of America,” you know, and so, this was covered very widely in the newspaper. Front page in the Chronicle. More press came out of it -The Forgotten Men of the Golden Spike.
25:11 Yu: From this oversight, we Chinese got a bigger story. Again, the great irony.
Connie Young-Yu’s parents attend the ceremony at Promontory Point during the 1969 centennial of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. During the ceremony, Secretary of Transportation John Volpi paints the railroad as an American success, and Phil Choy, a representative of the Chinese Historical Society, presents a plaque to a diminished crowd.
1969 Centennial of transcontinental railroad; “The Forgotten Men of the Golden Spike”; Chinese Historical Society; Jennifer (daughter); John Volpi, Secretary of Transportation; Phil Choy; Promontory Point; Ten Mile Day; The Chronicle
Chinese American journalists Chinese American–History Chinese Historical Society Minorities- United States- History Promontory Point (Utah : Cape)
25:22 Interviewer: Can you talk about archeology a little bit?
25:28 Yu: I’ve been involved with the excavation of the Chinatown in San Jose, where my grandfather had a store
25:38 Yu: One of the archaeologists that I’ve been working with, Rebecca Allen, invited me to go to look at some digs at Donner Pass. And she said, we’d just like you to come to be a day consultant and tell us what you think, from your experience of looking at Chinese artifacts and your experience of the culture
26:04 Yu: Drove up to Truckee
26:20 Yu: Area owned by the Department of Forestry
26:25 Yu: Campsite was on a windy bluff, rugged; proposal -to be developed into a ski resort
26:39 Yu: Chinese campfire was excavated by the forestry service and the archaeologists
26:59 Yu: Winter of ’66, ’67 -one of the most brutal winters in which a lot of camps were covered by avalanches
27:19 Yu: Camp covered as if it had been used a few decades earlier, and there were broken pieces of porcelain -looked like celadon or porcelain in old Chinatown restaurants -very traditional patterns and style
27:44 Yu: I realized, my goodness, they ate out of rice bowls; they didn’t eat out of tin plates
27:50 Yu: Then I thought about the avalanches, and I did relate that to what my father was talking about with the recovery of bones from the Sierras and sent back to China. And it to me was a very visceral experience being at that campsite -it was a very windy day, not snowy, but to think of the Chinese there working in a very desolate place, spectacular scenery, but desolate
28:22 Yu: They had to haul in their own supplies and then to work under those conditions, and to think that they’d be tunneling, tunneling, you know, during the snowstorms
28:35 Interviewer: What did they end up doing with that site?
28:39 Yu: The wonderful outcome of archaeology, the way it is today, and its influence is that the Department of Forestry is not selling this piece of land. It is not going to be developed. It is going to remain part of the forest. And it will possibly be developed into an area like a historic park.
29:05 Interviewer: Do you know what the place is called?
29:08 Yu: Campsite near Donner Pass, and then you could see, walking down toward the road, you can see what is called the Chinese Wall and it’s just a huge, huge stone wall near a trestle. And another thing is, for this visit to the site, I carried a book with me that I found at an antique store and it’s called The California Visitor (1878) in which it describes a railroad car full of supplies.
29:55 Yu: They were building railroads certainly after the transcontinental railroad and it talked about what a railroad car would have in its store. It was like a store -it would have vermicelli, dried mushroom, dried fish, and rice, and I could just picture it -this car coming in unloading and then going back and that was how the Chinese got their supplies. They did not eat meat and potatoes as one would guess.
30:29 Yu: Also, it had a drawing of Donner Lake and trestle, and I held it up -I had to in a position where you can see in the background the real lake, and it was drawn to scale.
Connie Young-Yu becomes involved in the excavation of a Chinese campsite at Donner Pass, which reveals details of the workers’ supplies and diet. The campsite was set to be developed into a ski resort, but is now being preserved by the Department of Forestry.
Archaeology; Avalanches; Chinese campsites; Chinese Wall; Department of Forestry; Donner Pass; Excavation; Food and diet; Historic parks; Railroad cars; Rebecca Allen; San Jose Chinatown; Snowstorms; The California Visitor; Truckee; Winters of 1966, 1967
Archaeology–California Campsites Chinatown (San Jose, Calif.) Diet Donner Pass (Calif.)–History
All materials on these pages © Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford.