← Main Interviews Page

John Long

Great-great-grandson of “Unknown”

Interviewee: John Long (Great-great-grandson of Anon)
Interviewer: Barre Fong
Date: July 5, 2014
Location: Anaheim, California
Length of the Interview: 39 minutes, 11 seconds

00:11 John Long: Hi, my name is John Long and I am a native of Canton – Toishan – China. I came to United States in 1954 and grew up in the inner city of Los Angeles – in the area known as South Central Los Angeles, right outside of USC. And went to school, public school, at Manual Arts High School and Elementary Schools and then ended up graduating for Manual Arts which is near USC. And from Manual Arts, I went to UCLA and got my Bachelor of Science in Economics. And from UCLA, I then went to Harvard Business School and received my MBA from Harvard in 1971.
01:09 And after that, I started work in the real estate industry and started my career at Kaufman & Broad. And I was in the finance department – worked for the president of Kaufman & Broad as his assistant – and then just kind of went up through the ranks at Kaufman & Broad. And in 1978, I rose to be the division president of one of Kaufman & Broad’s divisions in California. And shortly thereafter I left Kaufman & Broad and started my own company called Highridge Partners.
01:48 At the same time I met Marilyn, my wife, and we got married in 1978, so 78 was a pretty momentous year – switched job, switched careers, and then met my wife and we’ve been married since. And I have 3 daughters, all grown up and all having received their college degrees. And three grandchildren – two granddaughters and a grandson who was just born a month ago – so we just came up from from Solana Beach and so we’re on our way back home.
02:31 Barre Fong: So your daughters are all in the LA Area?
02:34 Long: Two of our daughters are in Southern California. And the third daughter is living in New York and she just got her master’s degree from NYU. And so she’ll be looking for a job and we don’t know exactly where she’s going to be living. But hopefully she’ll be close by too.
02:55 Fong: so let’s start going up the generations a little bit. You were here 1954, your parents?
03:03 Long: So my story is probably pretty typical of a lot of immigrant stories. I was the fifth generation, I guess that – that actually of – of males that came to the United States. And the story really began on my mother’s side with my great-great-grandfather. And he came out with a group of people, friends probably or just relatives or people he knew from Toishan which is a big area outside of Canton, Guangzhou, where a lot of laborers came in the mid late-1800s. And so my great-great-grandfather came out as a laborer and worked on the railroads. And through successive generations, his son also came to United States. So like so many Chinese Americans as laborers, they would come to the United States, they would work, they would toil, pay whatever dues they have to pay, save up their money, and go back home, get married, and their wives would stay home with the children until the sons were old enough to then come as the next generation to America.
04:31 And so my great-great-grandfather started that, then my great-grandfather came, and I don’t know that much about him, so that kind of skips a generation, I guess, and then my grandfather also came and by the time my grandfather settled in the United States, he was an herbatologist and – and – so he had already kind of elevated our family from from a labor status to that of being in the medical side, I guess, you could call it that. And then, my father was – came on – a merchant status and so he and his brothers – he came from a large family of brothers – and he and his brothers started number of businesses – grocery business and they also were into farming and restaurants. And so, he, my father, was born in 1916 and came out probably right after the Depression and stayed in the United States.
05:56 And I was born in 1947, right after the War, so like all the successive generations before him, he went back home to China, got married to my mother, and I have – I had one brother who passed away and he’s 10 years older than me and he came to United States in the early fifties – and then I came out to United States when I was relatively young. And that was because of the Communist Revolution and because of the Communist Purge. We escaped from from Toishan when Mao came down and basically shut the ports and started persecuting the capitalists. And so that brought me to the United States.
06:49 And when I came to United States, even though there were five generations of us that that were here, we had really very little money – very little in the way of connections with America. We were still foreigners. My father read English but spoke broken English. And so we’re very much first generation.
07:18 I remember the first time I saw my father was when I was 7 years old and went to see where he lived. And he actually lived in what they call a dollar a day room which was downtown Los Angeles. So even though he was a merchant, he lived in in a one-room not even with a bathroom and it just kind of where he went at night and and then he and his brothers during the day had, as I said, a number of businesses.
07:50 Fong: So your, let’s go back, so your great-great-grandfather, do you happen to know his name?
07:55 Long: No, I don’t. And that was on my mother’s side.
07:59 Fong: Right.
08:02 Long: Right. So was not even a *Long*, it was a *Hom*.
08:08 Fong: And then so your great-grandfather came here, worked, went back, got married, and had kids, and then did he ever come back or he stayed there?
08:16 Long: No, he came back.
08:17 Fong: Okay, so he did. He went back to start his family.
08:20 Long: Right, to start his family, then came back here. And then when my grandfather was of age, then my grandfather came out, basically following my great-great-grandfather. So my great-grandfather came as a result, and then I think he went back home and I believe he stayed home. And, and, until my grandfather, he was educated in China and came out to United States and practice herbal medicine.
08:54 Fong: That’s an interesting story. I’ve never heard this one before. It’s essentially a leeway. Right? You are just sending sons. [inaudible]. Most of them, most of the descendants, [inaudible] one ancestor comes over and they just settle and incur big this change. Or they go back and sort of never come, and skip the generations. This is interesting. This is five generations of-
09:17 Long: Right. Five. Well, I think there was one generation probably like great-grandfather that kind of skipped, but yeah. But I think because my great-great grandfather was still alive and he was still here, he was able to bring my grandfather here. And so that’s how. And then my grandfather was the one that actually was in United States when the 1906 Earthquake happened. And so, as like so many Chinese that’s when he declared himself to be a citizen. And so successively, we we had a number of Homs that became paper Homs that that he also helped bring to the United States. So we do have a little bit of that kind of connection with with all those different events.
10:06 Fong: And so when you came over were you coming over as a citizen?
10:10 Long: I came over – my – my father, yes, became a citizen. So he was naturalized citizen. And I became naturalized through him. But I have, so I think when I came over to the United States, I was not a citizen. But through – through him being a citizen, I became naturalized. And so, I am a citizen of the United States.
10:36 Fong: Okay, and so what was that like, you are seven? you got here?
10:40 Long: I was six and a half, almost 7.
10:45 Fong: [inaudible].
10:48 Long: No, no. So my father, when we came out, we actually lived with my one of my aunts for about a month. And then we found a house, down in South Central Los Angeles, near USC as I said. And so we lived in that house which was a 2-bedroom house. So my brother was here already. So it was my brother, my mother, myself. And growing up, I have no idea that we had any wealth, and that you can, you know, we had any kind of material belongings, because I came out when I was so young. As a result of actually their hard work and and the money that they saved and the generations of of investing was one of the reasons we were purged and so having wealth actually got taken away at a very very young age made me really understand and appreciate America and the privileges that I had. So growing up in America, growing up in a very urban setting, growing up with minorities in the inner-city, I think helped me appreciate America more and really appreciate the privileges that we all have now.
12:12 Fong: So do you have memories of China? [inaudible].
12:16 Long: Very very little. I think, I think my experience was so traumatic that I think I blocked it all out. And because my mother, before she escaped from the Communist, she had to escape from the Japanese. So my brother was born prior to World War II and during that time the Japanese invaded Southern China and she ran to the hills. So by the time she had to escape with me, I think that that whole – the whole trauma – is something that still, you know, it’s almost like reading a book as opposed to really living through emotionally what it’s like.
12:57 Fong: And your mother never spoke about it?
12:58 Long: No, very very little. It was like that’s why there’s so little of this history that I know. Other than, you know, bits and pieces of saying “well, this is how,” you know, through questioning her, is when she would volunteer these little tidbits.
13:14 Fong: Is she still alive?
13:16 Long: No, my mother passed away 20 years ago. She was 80. And my dad lived to be 95 and he passed away 15 years ago, 14 years ago.
13:30 Fong: That’s a pretty good [inaudible].
13:31 Long: Yeah. It was really good age. My father’s side has a real run of longevity.
13:37 Fong: And how about your father’s history?
13:40 Long: My father’s, my grandfather was a professor. And I think on his side, I don’t know exactly the history, because I think he came out as a merchant, on one of the merchant status, through, I believe, my uncle, my great-uncle. But they, they were not part of the railroad lineage.
14:04 Fong: And they came to LA? [inaudible].
14:06 They came to San Francisco first. And then, and then they move their way down to Los Angeles.
14:13 Fong: Curious. We don’t know if your great-grandfather working on the railroad and I wonder how the Los Angeles connection [inaudible].
14:23 Long: I believe, when my grandfather came, he came to Los Angeles. So, some, somewhere between my great-great-grandfather and my grandfather, as I said, I think I believe that my great-grandfather was in in China at that time. And so my grandfather probably came out, could have been as a friend, could have been as, you know, somebody, relative of ours that would take him in, and so but he died at a relatively young age. So we never really got much of, much history about him other than we know that he was in Los Angeles, we know that he had an herb store in Chinatown. And so he practiced there. And he brought a lot of, a lot of people over. So being, I think, semi-educated he was able to work the system
15:20 Fong: [inaudible].
15:21 Long: Right, right. and so I think there was a quite a few Homs that came in. So every time, you know. So my mother, as an example, was never declared as his child. Because he would always declare having a son whenever he went back to China and so so then the sons of different people would become his paper son. And, and my mother, I think, came out as a result my father, actually, being a citizen.
16:02 My brother, was as I said, 10 years older than me, and he and I, I would say have very very different backgrounds and very different personalities and styles. So he was very much still of the old school and he spoke broken English. He went to LA Polytechnic High School, he got a high school degree but never went to college. And then he followed my father’s footsteps and he actually had a grocery store with my father. And lived a very, what I call, traditional Chinese life.
16:45 And I, on the other hand, coming 10 years later, I think, grew up and really became acclimated. I think it was one of my goals to just acclimate myself and immerse myself in American culture. And so, my, my childhood was really being with a group of mostly black people – that was the neighborhood we grew up in – very little interaction with Chinese people, as it turned out. And the Chinese people that I did interact with was through church but that that was a very small segment, a slice of my life, and and the rest of my life I think was dedicated to really assimilating and integrating into the United States. And so, I think, even as I was growing up, my my brother and I just kind of have two different paths all together.
17:45 And, it wasn’t really until I met Marilyn – and it’s an interesting story because Marilyn was was born in Salinas, California. And so she was was a native Chinese-American, but she has retained a lot more Chinese culture than I. She can speak Chinese, she can read Chinese, when we go to China now, everybody thinks that I’m the one that was born in America and then she’s the one born in China.
18:19 And and I think it was because of our marriage that I started slowly reconnecting – at that time I was 30 and and I really would not have – if I sat here in front of this camera then, I would have known nothing. And and so so I think I became an example I guess about American success story – succeeded in in the American mainstream, in the America business and all of my business dealings were with primarily Americans.
18:54 And not until about 10 years ago that then my personal journey about wanting to find out more about Chinese history, Chinese heritage really come about. And so, about five, six years ago, Marilyn and I started a U.S.-China Business and Law Institute at UC Irvine. And so we go back to China two times a year, now on average, connecting back with the the academia because I’ve done quite a few things in academics over the years and tying then, the the history of China through academics and through business and business law.
19:43 Fong: That’s the topic [inaudible] the interview we had yesterday. He was essentially, we were talking about Chinese exploration. And how the Chinese weren’t in for conquering new lands but they were interested in bartering. That was the whole thing, right? They were here, we know they were here before Europeans, North America and South America, there’s evidence of them in Africa. It was not to conquer these people, it was to find out what they had to trade.
20:10 Long: Right. No, I think the Chinese are incredibly, you know, history show, incredibly resourceful. And they are, as merchants and as business people, they’re, they’re incredibly astute. I mean, they just have an innate way of being able to understand how trade works. And you go to Indonesia, you go to Thailand, almost any region of Asia and you’ll see that integrated in those communities are Chinese. And many of them have changed their name to, to assimilate to the culture, but by and large, they’re – it’s just kind of a natural – and I think, as I look back, I think some of that DNA probably, you know, it came over to me.
20:59 And so, kind of, I remember when I first went to UCLA, I think my parents because they just really didn’t understand business as a profession – they understood being a doctor, being a lawyer and so, they encouraged me to go to UCLA and be an engineer. And it was just a total disconnect. It was the worst thing that could have happened to me. And somehow, you know, I was able to kind of sort my life out and then major in economics. And as a result of that, came into business. And then so, a lot of the things that I saw my dad and the way that I am, kind of natural Instincts. He was a, he was a naturally good business person.
21:48 And, and I think, as, as we start to look at, you know, our Institute, into things that we do, in business and business law, there’s, there’s this whole bridge between the self-made entrepreneurs like my dad and then the what I call more educated formalized business people which then came from, probably more from the North. They were better-educated, Taiwan, Hong Kong and how those, all kind of, cross over and relate to each other is, is a pretty fascinating story into itself.
22:27 Fong: It sounds a lot like what you are talking about, your grandfather kinda understood the system, so that’s kind of how I see education creates, if you have ability to understand the system, right, businesses compounded [inaudible].
22:48 Long: Yeah, I think, education, for our generation, certainly add some some structure and scalability to it. So America has been a great place where, where businesses can actually expand and thrive. And in some respects, China and the United States are learning from each other in that sense. Because as you said, the Chinese, I think, innately have the sense of understanding how, how the business community works. And indeed, the kind of the ecosystem of of commerce. And the American system of being able to to forge partnerships, and have corporations, and be able to think globally, have really allowed America to, to thrive in, in terms of scale, that China is just starting to come and learn some of the adaptive ideas that that America has always had. So, I think the two countries really are learning to respect each other more and and I think that’s very very encouraging.
24:03 Fong: Is that how you got involved in the C100 group? Through [inaudible]?
24:07 Long: I did. And it was during this journey that we started the U.S.-China Business and Law Institute, that I was introduced to the C100 [Committee of 100]. And again, it, it’s kind of interesting, because I started – my wife and I – Marilyn and I – started the, the U.S. Business, U.S.-China Business and Law, with, with the idea that one, we wanted, we wanted it to be bilateral, but even when we started, I think, going back to those five six years, I saw more from an American point of view. And I still, when I, when I used to go to China, you know, I would always say, “I’m really an American. I don’t speak Chinese. I don’t act like a Chinese person, so you just have to allow me to to make my American, you know, mistakes, and my, you know, my error, the kind of directness.” And Americans, generally can become pretty, pretty forceful and get to the point. That kind of thing. And I think, over the years, I’ve learned to really appreciate the Chinese culture, taking your time, getting to know each other a little more. And I’m still in business, and I have to say that I’ve taken some of the things that I’ve learned in the last 5-6 years and brought back, you know, to our business practice here, and I think it’s it’s actually helped quite a bit.
25:40 Fong: What are the main things you brought back?
25:44 Long: I think, what, what I have an understanding now more is to see the other person as a person, first and foremost. And, in American business, traditionally, when I graduated, you know, from, from Harvard, people were just a piece of the puzzle, but the pills, the puzzle was, was definitely more business principles, you know, relationships that, that were more geared towards how do you get a product done, how do you launch something, how do you make it more efficient. Much more transactional. And I would say the first 25, 30 years of my business career were based on that. It was a transactionally-based perspective. So we look at projects and we look at the opportunities based on what the market supply and demand, all the kind of quantitative, and not so much on the qualitative, and certainly not emphasizing at all, the relationship between people. And then, so the important thing was to get the project done, get it done on time, get the right project, get it to to to a point of economic value, and transition it. You know, those type of things.
27:14 Whereas today, I think, we look much more at the quality of the people, behind the business. And, and so we’re investing, I would say today, as much in people, as we are in the business that the people operated.
27:34 Fong: Couple of things on my mind. Where in China are you going for these academic [inaudible]?
27:41 Long: We’ve gone both northern and southern China. So, Hong Kong, Taiwan, greater China, that’s how we would define it. Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, and we’re partnering with universities and all of those major cities to help to promote the programs that we, we have.
27:59 Fong: In those trips, have you gone back to your village>
28:02 Long: We did, but not as a result of, of the Institute. We took our three girls back to the village, I would say, maybe ten years ago. And I think it was quite an eye-opener for all of us, including, including my children and and certainly Marilyn and I. And it was interesting because the people that greeted us, I would say, I, if I met them, I would have met them when I was five and I certainly don’t remember them. But they just all came out, you know, like a big crowd. They just came, all rushing to us, taking us back to our house and you know so we, we got to see the house that I grew up in and they were showing me, you know, and counting to me all the stories – that I don’t know are true or not – that they were telling me how they used to play with me and all of that. But yeah, it was good, it was quite, quite touching.
28:58 Fong: Do you know the name of the village?
28:60 Long: It was, Toishan *Namcheung*, it was *Namcheung* Village in Toishan. And so, it was Guangzhou, Toishan, *Namcheung*.
29:11 Fong: That’s where we’re basically from.
29:12 Long: Oh, you are too.
29:13 Fong: [inaudible] yeah.
29:14 Long: At *Namcheung*? No.
29:15 Fong: Toiqing.
29:17 Long: Okay, okay.
29:18 Fong: Then I went back when I was a teenager. My grandpa took me back, it was [inaudible] appreciation.
29:20 Long: Aha.
29:26 Long: Yeah, and the village was still kind of still there. I don’t know. Yeah, I don’t know. Marissa has been there but yeah, oh you got to go, I mean it’s like, it’s like, it’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime things.
29:32 Fong: [Overlapping conversation] Stone walls, [inaudible].
29:38 Long: Right.
29:41 Long: Yeah. I remember our house still had that stove, that was fire, you know, the wood stove and it was well-preserved.
29:51 Fong: [inaudible].
29:53 Long: Well somebody occupied it, until about, I think, 20 years ago. Yeah, one of our distant relatives who lived to be a 100 – a great-aunt. And then after that, the house became empty.
30:06 Fong: So what I understand is that the pattern that this village has is building new houses around the outside, and preserve the old ones for migrant workers. For farming, harvesting, rent those houses to the migrants and then the families will live in the big – the newer house outside of that.
30:26 Well, one of the, one of the things that would be interesting, because, you know, we obviously have no use for the house now. And it’s there. And if somehow it could be preserved, I don’t know if there’s any kind of projects that, that you know of, that goes, goes around preserving –
30:45 Fong: They did it for Shanghai [inaudible]. They basically considered it a heritage area [inaudible].
30:52 Long: Yeah, we’ve seen that. Yeah. But I don’t think in Guangzhou. Yeah. Yeah. If you come across anything like that, it might be interesting.
31:01 Fong: [inaudible].
31:02 Long: Well, I think they’ll do something like that. Yeah, yeah. But the Chinese, the southern Chinese are so – they’re so different – they’re, they’re very, much more, you know, merchant, I guess, than academic. And so when you talk about the villages that are preserved in Shanghai, it, it’s a really different scale.
31:21 Fong: [inaudible].
31:27 Long: Charging, yeah, for the migrant workers.
31:31 Fong: And so my last curiosity is, you graduated from a Manual Arts high school? I am just curious [inaudible].
31:38 That’s a public high school. Yeah. It just happened to be – the name of it was called Manual Arts. And I think it was before, before the school was founded – that area had a lot of farmers, and then, and then the farmers, I think, went to be educated and some kind of manual labor technology. But one of the governors went there, Goodwin Knight, Jimmy Doolittle, the pilot, went there. So there was a number of, of pretty influential people. There was a [inaudible] famous football player, called John or Ned that also went there and then he went to USC. And over the time, you know, it came from that kind of Upper Crust to then becoming urbanized, and when I went, as I said, it was ninety percent black. Today is ninety percent Latino.
32:42 Fong: Who are the [inaudible].
32:47 Long: Then they kind of migrated out. And they dispersed.
32:52 Fong: Anything else [inaudible].
32:57 Long: No, this is fun. I mean, I get to reminisce.
33:01 Fong: Oh, it’s great. The whole idea that, you know, the father going back, sending the sons, it’s something very different from we have ever heard. I’ve never actually heard [inaudible].
33:18 Long: Oh really, oh that happens quite a bit. Yeah, yeah. All generations of how that came about is, yeah.
33:26 Fong: So between you and your brother – did your brother come ten years earlier or did he come with you?
33:29 Long: He came, he came, I would say, maybe six, seven years earlier. Because he was older. See, he was, so if I came, if I came when I was 7, he was, he might have come when he was like 13 or 14.
33:48 Fong: So he had more time in China in the sense that [inaudible].
33:49 Long: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, so when he came, he really came to help my – that was the next generation of male. So he was going to help my dad and, you know, and take, you know, work with whatever business they were working in.
34:03 Fong: Yeah, I’m just curious about that. Was there a defining moment for you when you decided that you’ll be more American and he decided that he’ll be [inaudible].
34:10 Long: No, I think, we, because we’re ten years apart, and he was probably working, and busy working, we didn’t have a lot of, what you would call, bonding time.
34:19 And I was just thrown into the community. And I remember, my, in my first two weeks of, of going to school, public school, I was thrown out of school, because literally, I have no preparation, there were no Chinese, went into this urban area with these kids, and so they would be taunting me. I was very thin. I think I was like 37 lbs, I was under 40 lbs. So it’s like, you know, like stick and they would make fun of me, chase me around.
35:01 And but, I, I think, in the desire to acclimate, I picked up, you know, words, but I never realized that they were the swear words. So they were, and so, I was in school, and the teacher wrote me a note and said take it home to your, your father. And I thought that, wow, you know, here I am, just pretty good, you know, get a note and go home. And my father was a very kind, very gentle person. It was one of two times that he would ever hit me. But I remember, he saw the note and then he just like – bam – slapped me. And it was because he had to go to school and see the principal, because it was, I was acting out that much. And so, so, of course, I didn’t know any better.
35:59 And so, I learned, I learned quickly, but it’s, yeah, it’s those moments that kind of define you. And you either kinda get with the program or you, you probably get left behind. And so, I think somehow, I got on with the program, and that became, you know, kind of my journey in America.
36:20 Fong: That’s a great story.
36:21 Long: Yeah it is. It is kinda funny. I tell my kids that, and they laugh.
36:26 Fong: Is it after that first year that the community became more accepting of you as a neighbor?
36:32 Long: Yeah, I really, I got accepted very well. And I’d learned, my, my first, what I could call business proposition, was I learned that if you, if you back down and you act afraid of those people, or, or any fear, you know, with enemies, they, they’ll continue to do, to attack you. And so, some, somewhere in the first two or three years, I, I realized that, you know, I had to be one of them and I had to be, in a way stronger, than them.
37:14 And so, when it got to junior high school, I used to, they would come and ask me questions about math. Because I was pretty good at math. And they would ask me, you know, how to solve math problems which was easy, you know, algebra, whatever it was. And, and so I said to myself, I said, if I just help them because they intimidated me, I said, that’s not going to work.
37:43 And how I got that intuition, I don’t know, because it was certainly, wasn’t from my father, wasn’t through talking to him or my brother. But, so, I would say, “okay, I’ll help you but I want to charge you a quarter. You have to pay me a quarter.” And so, believe it or not, by charging them a quarter, I earned their respect and, and so, it, it was one of those again moments in life. So I learn a lot about just how you know how, how to navigate through life.
38:14 Even to today, when I take my kids to, to different countries, I would always take them on subways, take them into areas that they wouldn’t necessarily go, only because I said, if you, if you really can figure out how to navigate through life, with regular people in common situations, you’re going to be much more equipped. So, so, as a result, all our three girls are very well-traveled. They don’t have any fear of of traveling.
38:45 And, and I think that, that probably is a result of me growing up in the neighborhood. And Marilyn too, you know, Marilyn grew up in Salinas and she had to, you know, overcome many, many obstacles and a lot of discrimination, and so, somehow, between the two of us, I think we we’ve been able to assimilate.
39:08 Fong: Not bitter, that’s important, right?
39:10 Long: No, there’s no bitterness at all. No, I think we’re blessed. I mean we’re truly two of the most blessed people.

Back to Oral Histories home page

All materials on these pages © Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford.