Kitty Wong Okamura
Great-granddaughter of Lim Lip Hong
Interviewee: Kitty Wong Okamura (Great-granddaughter of Lim Lip Hong)
Interviewer: Connie Young Yu and Barre Fong
Date: March 7, 2013
Location: San Francisco, California
Length of the Interview: 27 minutes, 32 seconds
00:55 My father was an architect, rather well known here in the Bay Area. And when my grandmother was in a nursing home, the last few years of her life, from age 95 forward, he would engage her in conversation and stimulate her memories by writing a journal and drawing pictures of the old house and talking about her siblings. And he did a little story about every single one of the people in this family.
01:32 And he started out with Grandpa Sing, Lim Tai Grandpa, born August 30th 1879. And Lim Tai, was Grandpa’s name. He came from the Hoping Area in Guangdong Province near Canton. The village was Lai Ji Cun – question mark. He must have come over as a teenager like most of the early Chinese immigrants around 1880. Mother remembers him as being a laborer when he arrived, later he worked in the slaughterhouse near Hunter’s Point. He worked the night shift. So mother used to take him his lunch pail in the middle of the night. She recalls he was almost gored by a cow on her way back from the slaughterhouse one night. To this date she’s afraid of cows. And it goes on and on and on. And he’s just has some wonderful stories about, about every single member of this family. And, I don’t know, you want to pick a person?
02:41 Connie Young Yu: Well, I just wanted to ask about your father, of the fact that he was an architect. And was he interested in the railroad? Did he make the connection between his life and you know the ancestors who worked on the railroad?
02:58 Okamura: He was very interested in the whole family history. His father died six months before my father was actually born. So he had this this ongoing fascination with where he is from and who his relatives were. Primarily more about the father because he had the mother and her family all surrounding him. And so, mother’s family became, all the men in that family became his surrogate father, and those uncles were very very important to him. And of course, all these uncles were the sons of great-grandpa, the first person who came here.
03:43 And I’m not so sure, I don’t, I don’t remember too much about about the railroad per se. I remember about a little later, because after grandpa, great-grandpa did come over and did work with the railroad. He subsequently ended up working in mining camps once the railroad was completed. A lot of these Chinese laborers found more work because the gold rush. The mining camps like in Deadwood. And I think it’s fascinating to find out that Great-grandpa Lim was in Deadwood and my, my great-grandpa Wong was also in Deadwood. And I wonder if they knew each other. You know, I don’t think my father put that together. And it would be, it, it’s certainly very compelling to me, to, to be going through all this right now, to, to further research this. Because we don’t really know that much about him. We’re pretty far down the line. All of us were born here. My grandmother was born here, you know, all of, they had all their – grandpa, great-grandpa, and Grandma Mary, did have all their children here. And so we’re very lucky.
05:03 Yu: It was the actually through these interviews that your father talking to his mother that we have any of this oral history. And then, some of the drawings?
05:16 Okamura: Yes. We got the drawings of the neighborhood, the houses, and houses they – at one point, several points actually, they would go back to China for a visit. And I think you’ll find from, from your further interviews about more members of this family, who did go back to, did go to China, and kind of help China build themselves into this century. And there is histories which are also very, very fascinating.
05:51 Yu: [unclear].
07:53 Okamura: I need to be – I stand corrected on his birthday, on Great-Grandpa’s birthday. He was born in 1851. The notes I am reading from is the date that this was written. So –
08:07 Yu: The important thing is what you’ve learned from your father.
08:13 Okamura: I’m learning more from Aunt Renee than I’ve learned from my father.
08:17 Yu: You have the notebook that – [unclear] talk about that? Maybe you could talk about that. Because, I think it’s very important that the seven children of this railroad worker, if you would talk about the seven children, born of this former railroad worker Lim.
08:39 Okamura: Okay. So father was writing about – having –
08:42 Yu: [unclear].
08:45 Okamura: He’s rolling now?
08:49 Okay. To continue, about Lim Tai and Grandma being afraid of cows, Uncle Sing, who was – some of these, okay hold on, let me figure this out – okay, this is on Potrero Hill. And Uncle Sing and Uncle Bob were working in the butchery industry and they would take discards from, from the butcher, you know, the innards that nobody else was interested in, but the Chinese used in their daily cooking. And he would take these down, into town, to sell in Chinatown. And father remembers the house, he recalls it in the, in the twenties, 1920s, was a small shack with a corrugated tin roof. He remembers a two ways stair and a porch which surrounded the house. You entered a large room which included a large wood burning stove. Says he can only remember being given lard sandwiches made from bacon fat, so delicious, haven’t had one since.
10:13 Later on, a three-story house was built to the west of the old shack. Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle Sing, Uncle Wah, all lived in it. It was 1234 Minnesota Street. And Uncle Wing built his pink circle house later. Franklin Ferry Building. You could take the 29 streetcar and traveled all along 3rd Street, all the way to 23rd, across from the American Can Company. It took 45 minutes. The area was called Potrero Hill. Today it’s called Butchertown. Or not Butchertown, what is it –
10:51 Yu: Dogpatch?
10:52 Okamura: Dogpatch. Right. From the streetcar, a 23, the numbers 23 streetcar next to the car barn you can walk on board on a boardwalk along Tubbs Cordage. Tubbs Cordage is still there. A red washed fence passed a State Bank where the old car barns were. Then you veered to the left along a private Gravel Road that serve the Yeast Company. I remember a white sign that reminded me that the road was private. You walked past the large flat area filled with sticky thistle plants, agapanthus. Somebody was always calling them weeds. It also had a carbon smell. The soil is cracked. Great adobe. Sort of blanched environment. We stayed away from it most of the time, because it just looked sticky and forlorn and grey. Lots of grey, grey, grand dust. But this was visiting Grandma and it was an exciting activity. And he just goes on and on about that. He drew pictures and, you know –
11:53 Yu: Just talk about visiting Grandma?
11:55 Okamura: Hm hmm. Yeah. And these – the Fleischmann Yeast Company, that was the yeast company. And Grandma was born in that shack, in the back of the house up there. So –
12:11 Yu: And what about your great-grandfather? Was there anything in the stories in the oral history that your father?
12:22 Okamura: Not as, not as much in those stories, because my father never knew him. He remembers his grandmother more clearly. I don’t know.
12:37 Yu: Did she have, did she have bound feet? I just think that –
12:45 Okamura: She walked across, she got, she was almost arrested trying to walk across Bay Bridge when it was built. So I don’t think her feet were bound. She won’t be able to -. She did walk across the Golden Gate Bridge when it opened. She would walk. She was trying to get to Oakland to visit the family there who had moved there after the 1906 Fire.
13:16 Just to clarify, we are talking about the wife?
13:19 Great-grandma Mary.
13:20 So she was a worker too? Like your father? I mean like your great-grandfather?
13:25 Let me read it to you about Grandma Mary. This was a lot – Grandma Lim, also known as China Mary, also known as aapo. “I thought Grandma came to the United States with Grandpa, but not so. She came over here with a family. She was a servant girl given to this family. Her father was a pulse doctor. She met grandpa in San Francisco, lived a long way from Chinatown because Grandpa worked in the slaughterhouses near Army Street. Ma was born there too, the Potrero District. You took the” – and he goes on and on about how to get there – “and Grandma” – he’s talking about his grandma – “was always dressed in black with a headband and her gold and jade bracelet.
14:16 She got up early and tended her chickens. We used to follow her while she checked the egg-laying, placing glass eggs in their nests. She sold the eggs to the streetcar conductors who came down the hill near the American Can Company, past the Muny Barn on the corner of Minnesota and 3rd and 23rd. She was known as China Mary. She used to count for the customers, “one, two, three, four, five, size, seven, egh” on and on in broken Chinese. “One dozen eggs.” The most cheerful warm human – humorous person. So daring. She spoke Pidgin English fluently.
14:56 Got around everywhere. She got halfway across the Bay Bridge before it opened and the cops brought her back. She walked across the Golden Gate Bridge opening day. She always came across by ferry to visit us. We lived in Oakland then. What a gal.
15:09 She went back to China with us in 1922. I remember when we docked at Hong Kong, a con man tried to attach himself to us by faking he was a relative, and called Grandma Lin aapo, aapo. Grandma saw through him and started beating him with her umbrella. Then we went to Canton, we stayed with Uncle Art, Auntie Renee’s father for a few days, and came back to Doon San to stay. [unclear sentence with Cantonese bits]” Where he revisited in 1978, when he was, they were finally allowing people to go back and visit China. So, you know, a lot of memories in these pages.
15:51 Yu: Something about the village thing? Something about the village of Lim – of Lim Lip Hong? So your father went back with this grandmother in 1929, to, to the village of his ancestors?
16:11 Okamura: I’m pretty sure, yeah. Yeah. We’re not sure if it was those ancestors or – it must have been, huh? Grandma Lim. It’s not clear. It’s not clear. Does anybody else know any stories? Oh, we are not doing this en masse, alright.
16:40 It goes on and on. Most, most of this is about Grandma, mostly.
16:50 Yu: Well, I wanted to ask, now she’s, she was called China Mary in San Francisco. Which meant that she as in an area where there weren’t very many Chinese.
17:00 Okamura: Probably so.
17:02 Yu: Because white people referred to her that.
17:04 Okamura: Called her China Mary, just because she was -. Apparently, she was very personable. And you know, did speak some English and sold her eggs to the people in the street. Streetcar conductors, stuff like that. You know. Wonderful stories. Anyway, I’m going to provide – I’m going to get you a copy of this. This, it’s really kinda fun to read.
17:30 Yu: The fact that she came over – she was born in China, she came over for the family as a servant, so she had large feet. And she was a worker. And your great-grandfather met her and married her. Do you have anything about that? They were married in San Francisco?
18:00 Okamura: Trying to tie it into anything. Before my father, something I haven’t really given that much thought to.
18:06 Yu: In your life though.
18:07 Okamura: Yeah, yeah.
18:11 Yu: And obviously it affected your father and, and, that was in his sub-consciousness, about his root, [unclear]. That he’s passing on to you. So if you could talk about that – you holding the stories – and what did you do? What were the motivations in your career? Obviously you have quite a career also.
18:37 Okamura: Well, my father, having grown up without his own father was really the darling of the family. The women all doted on him. The uncles embraced him and tried to include him. And he has some very sweet memories of, of uncles and being envious of his cousins and how he wished their father was his father. And so he was a very tender person, my father. He was very sensitive and growing up in it in a relatively feminine household, he didn’t have the paternal support. And he was the youngest of four children, my grandmother never remarried, never had anymore children.
19:36 And in their particular culture, it was very, very important for everybody to have an education. And it was unusual in those days for everybody to have to have a college education. His family made sure one child went to Stanford, another one went to UCLA, the girl went to Mills, and my father went to UC.
19:59 And he could draw, and he did have a sensibility and he studied architecture and became an architect. And a contemporary architect, which may have been unusual in those times as well. I remember doing drive-bys with him in Berkeley to go count how many houses had flat roofs because there was some objection being made. So we had, so I spent a lot of time with my father. And probably got my creative side more pushed forward then. Because I ended up going to art school and became a graphic designer and eventually had a business that sold well-designed, pretty things. So I certainly appreciate that.
20:51 And it’s, I didn’t grow up in a Chinese environment per se. We didn’t live anywhere near Chinatown. I discovered other Chinese people when I went to junior high school because it encomp-, encompassed Chinatown. It was a whole new world. It was wonderful. Oh, boy, people like me. And people say, “You went to grade school in Oakland. There certainly were Chinese people there.” I said, “Yeah, but we’re all related.” You know, so it didn’t, I didn’t think my cousin was anything special other than she was my cousin, not that she was Chinese. So it all comes back around.
21:34 And in, after my career, I had a couple or three marriages, and finally ended up marrying – I married an Asian the first time and married an Asian the last time, and it’s like coming home. It’s so much more comfortable. It’s easy. There is a certain cultural built-in being that just makes things – you don’t have to talk about what your backgrounds are. This is just certain lovely peacefulness of not having to, to explain yourself all the time.
22:13 When you were growing up, did you have a sense of pride of being Chinese?
22:19 I didn’t know I was Chinese. I didn’t know I was special. I know now.
22:30 And how about the the roots? The fact that your father was doing all this research and then the roots of your lineage in America – of the railroad, labor –
22:45 It’s very, very, very impressive. We come from some very sturdy stock having been traced. My father did a family tree. In my grandmother’s basement, they found a book that mentioned the village we were from, and my father took it upon himself to – in the Chinese tradition, take after you die, take you back to your village – if it’s just your name or your papers, I’m not sure precisely what it is – but he took it upon himself that when China opened to, to visitors in the late 70s that he took his father back there to the village. And I’m not going to look it up in here but I think there’s a little story in here about getting there. And a cousin had been to this Village before and brought the little book that, that where everybody’s birth dates are, are recording.
23:54 Johnny, could you bring me that – it’s written on that.
24:09 This is the Wong family tree. And the Lims are in here somewhere. He, in 1978, armed with a rare map of Toisan County, the name of a remote cousin, and a copy of this chart, father started from Canton, in a taxi sanctioned by the PRC, journey through miles and miles of incredibly beautiful rice patties and cross Three Rivers, pass through countless helmets with fortress towers and by some miracle found his cousin in virtually on a remote country, [village name in Cantonese] Village in near that [county name in Cantonese] area, a 150 miles southwest of Canton and Guangdong Province. And he took the photograph of his father to adorn in the place of honor in the ancestral home from which he left in 1876 for Port Townsend in North America when he was 15 years old. This is my father’s father who married my grandmother. Isn’t that charming? It just -. There’s a lot in here. And we all have copies of this. I helped him take that to the typesetter. It didn’t – it had to go in a big van because it was really big.
25:53 What year was that?
25:57 Um, 1982.
26:02 So you must have had a great sense of pride.
26:05 Really. Really. And this starts in, the first generation, the birth date was 1125. So they had been recording this family history. I was asked recently, I said, “okay, who’s going to update it?” Because it’s – a lot has happened since 1982, it’s 20 years ago.
26:30 So this is the paper record that the Chinese keep. Of course in America, there’s another paper trail.
26:39 All about immigration. Do you have some of those papers?
26:41 I’m not sure. Yeah, I think, there’s been a lot, a lot of study going on here. A lot of my cousins are, have really done a great job.
All materials on these pages © Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford.