Great-great-granddaughter of Fong See
Interviewee: Lisa See (Great-great-granddaughter of Fong See)
Interviewed by: Connie Young Yu, Barre Fong
Interview Date: May 12, 2015
Location: Brentwood, California
Length of Interview: 53 minutes, 39 seconds
Lisa See: My name is Lisa See and I’m a writer; I write about the Chinese-American experience. I started writing first about my own Chinese-American family but then I’ve sort of broadened that to write began writing fiction and about the Chinese-American experience and a lot about China as well.
Barre Fong: Tell me about your great-great grandfather.
See: My great-great grandfather was an herbalist in South China. He wasn’t an herbalist like you think of today. He would put down mat and do some acrobatic tricks with his sons. He was more like a–may I say like a snake-oil salesman. They were very very poor. He came over to work on the building of the transcontinental railroad. He was hired as an herbalist. So if you think about that time, there were western doctors here who were treating the white laborers, but the Chinese laborers had no interest in Western medicine. So it was really helpful to the railroad company to have people there who could treat their Chinese laborers with traditional herbs and things like that. It was probably a lot cheaper for them as well. So he was there working on the railroad. I actually don’t know that much about what his day-to-day life was like apart from the fact that I’ve certainly done research in how the number of laborers grew, and what happened when someone died, and what happened when someone got sick, and things like: actually the Chinese laborers tended to stay more healthy than the white laborers because for one thing they boiled their water to make tea. And so they didn’t get things like typhus or water-born diseases. So he really helped with that I believe.
See: Then when the railroad was completed–yeah, after the railroad was completed they dispersed and they went in every direction. Some of them were working on new railroad spurs that went through the southwest, down into the south, north towards Canada, that came down into Los Angeles where I live now. But people also went in different directions to follow different kinds of labor. So they went into agriculture and fishing. Think of the Sacramento Delta, the building of the levies. All of that done by Chinese labor in the same way the railroad had been. Because Sacramento was the closest city to the railroad camps, this was a place where my great-great-grandfather did go. He opened a small herbal shop right in the–not even in regular Chinatown, it was just sort of Chinatown-adjacent. And he kept that shop for many many years, and I was able to find it in the Sacramento archives of business ledgers, things like that. I also looked for him in the old payroll records of the railroad. They kept really interesting records because their records you can see pages where its “China Jim, China Jim, China Jim. China Sam, China Sam, China Sam.”So out of all the thousands of laborers, very few of them were listed with their actual names. And I didn’t look at every single record, but I never found my great-great grandfather.
See: Anyways, he ends up in Sacramento. He opens this herb shop. I’m just gonna say I like to think of this man as one of the original deadbeat dads. You were supposed to work hard, save your money, and send it back home to China. My great-great grandfather, he had a fondness for women and gambling, something that continues in our family even today, and as a result, his wife back in China was so poor she used to carry people on her back from village to village to earn money to support her children. Finally some people took pity on her and lent my great-grandfather, who was only fourteen years old, the money to come to the United States. By that time, his dad was working in Sacramento. He found him, he said, “Dad you’re a bum, go home.” And he did. And my great-grandfather stayed and he did a lot of the jobs we see for immigrants today. He washed dishes in restaurants and he swept up in factories. He worked in fields. By the time he was thirty, still in Sacramento, he had his first business. It was a factory that manufactured crotch-less underwear for brothels. so I could talk a little bit more about that bit I’d like to circle back with a couple other things.
Lisa See writes about the Chinese-American experience. Her great-great grandfather worked on the Transcontinental Railroad as an herbalist treating Chinese workers. He then opened an herbal shop in Sacramento. Because their family was impoverished, her great-grandfather moved to the U.S., and eventually opened an underwear shop for brothels.
Brothels; Chinese laborers; Chinese medicine; Chinese wives; Chinese-American experience; Chinese-American families; Gambling; Great-grandfather; Great-great grandfather; Herbal stores; Herbalists; Immigrant jobs; Lisa See; Payroll records; Prostitution; Railroad spurs; Sacramento Chinatown; Sacramento Delta levies; Transcontinental railroad; Water-born diseases; Writers
Chinese American authors Chinese American businesspeople Chinese Americans–Employment Chinese medicine Railroad workers
See: One thing that my great-great grandfather did when he got to Sacramento and was treating people–some of the kinds of people he would treat were women. There weren’t very many Chinese women here in those days. There was about 1 woman to every 20 men, white or Chinese. The women who were here, some of them were married to people like Crocker or Stanford or Huntington, but the majority were in the world’s oldest profession. And my great-great grandfather did apparently marry, or at least hook up with, a woman. And when he went back to China he took her with him. The story is that once she got back there and met the first wife and saw what life was going to be like in this tiny village called Dim Tao–still there–she swallowed pieces of gold, which poisoned her and she died.
See: The other thing I wanted to mention is that this is one version of what happened to him. I have great-great uncles who, when I was working on On Gold Mountain, which is the book about my family, different people had different stories about what this man had done after the railroad was completed. One is the version I just told you. Another is that he went north up into Alaska to pan for gold. Now that’s actually after the Alaskan gold rush, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. Another is that he stayed and actually became someone who traveled back and forth. And it’s true that on the partnership papers that Chinese kept, because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, one of the four categories that could be here was merchant. So I found at the National Archive a whole file just on these partnership lists. And for decades, my great-great grandfather stays on that list, with his partnership in the business that’s still here today. So does that mean he was coming back and forth? The thing is I never found any papers for him at the National Archive showing that he had come back and forth. Although there are several different sons, including my great-grandfather who did come back and forth because he was a legitimate merchant. And his brothers also stayed on these partnership lists for many years. Another story is that my great-great grandfather didn’t come alone–that he came with his two eldest sons. One story is one of them died here. See: Another is that they both stayed here. Another is that they too traveled back and forth. I never found their papers either. But they also show up on the partnership list all the way to the 1930s. So they couldn’t possibly have still been living, I don’t think. But they stayed on those lists. So there are things that even today are kind of a mystery to me. But I suppose that’s true in every family.
Lisa See’s great-great grandfather brought a second woman home to Dim Tao, where she committed suicide. There are conflicting family accounts of her great-great grandfather’s experiences. What is known is that he is registered in the National Archive as a merchant, but it is unsure whether he traveled between China and the US.
Alaskan Gold Rush; Chinese Exclusion Act; Chinese merchants; Dim Tao (ancestral village); Great-grandfather; Great-great grandfather; National Archive; On Gold Mountain; Partnership papers; Sacramento; Suicide; Wives; Women
Chinese American families Chinese American families–China–Social conditions Chinese Americans–Legal status, laws, etc.–19th century Chinese-American women–California–History Family history National Archives and Records Administration (U.S.)
See: Well I think one of the reasons people didn’t want to pass on stories is because as time went on, the laws were so brutal and tough, and you had to keep your story straight. You had to have one story and you had to maintain that story. I thought it was really interesting when I did find all of the papers at the National Archive, how much they lined up with the stories that I had been told. But every once in a while there were lies. You could see them and they jumped out and the inspectors caught them too. There was one point when my great-grandfather tried to bring in paper sons. He totally failed because he already had 20 years of documentation that showed he didn’t have any sons in China. They knew it. But there were other things where he had maintained a lie that allowed him to bring in many other people. In the way that he brought in paper merchants, for example. But I think about that–you have this story, and I’m not saying things weren’t tough when Chinese came to work during the Gold Rush, or when they were working on the railroad. But what happens after the railroad is completed, and that huge influx of white labor, and how that changes California so dramatically. And all of that leading eventually to Chinese Exclusion. So if you think of the 49ers, the Gold Rush–but the Chinese were actually 48ers because they could get here so much faster because they could just get here across the ocean. So if you go from 1848-1882, that’s a pretty long time where you have–I’m not saying it wasn’t difficult, I’m not saying there wasn’t plenty of discrimination and hardship, there was–but you didn’t have this one national law that–
Fong: That forces you.
See: Right. And so that law, that one law becomes the law from which everything else comes. All the miscegenation laws, the land laws, the laws that say you–if you’re Chinese you can’t attend a white school, if you’re Chinese and you own a laundry you pay double the amount of taxes than if you’re white and you own a laundry. So all of these laws, everything, comes from this one law. So if you think of that 1882 moment where everything has to kind of freeze into a story. Especially if you’re trying to pass yourself off as a merchant, and somebody who’s going to be questioned every 6 months about their merchant status by the government. All of that gets frozen in a sense. Again, for people who come as paper sons or paper merchants after that, everything still ties to that one moment, 1882. And so I think that’s one reason why it’s not that stories are deliberately covered up necessarily, it’s more that you’ve got to stick to this one story or else there are going to be very severe consequences for you and your family.
Fong: I think those stories needed to be very simple too, right?
Lisa See hypothesizes that the Chinese Exclusion Act forced families to come up with a single, simple story in order to survive harsh immigration laws, which erased many family narratives. She argues that the Chinese Exclusion Act was a distinguishing point, leading to a plethora of new, restrictive laws for Chinese immigrants.
Chinese Exclusion Act; Chinese laundries; Family stories; Gold Rush; Immigration papers; Miscegenation laws; National Archive; Paper merchants; Paper sons
Chinese Americans–Legal status, laws, etc.–19th century Family history
Fong: And those stories needed to be very similar, they needed to be basic. *inaudible* Three brothers, the same story over and over. Have you been back to the village?
Fong: When was that?
See: I went there in 1989 or 88, somewhere in there. And it was so interesting because–can I tell two stories? So when I was growing up, my grandparents, my great aunts and uncles, they all had this very particular kinds of gardens, filled with bamboo and cymbidium and *inaudible* trees. Very lush and tropical, but also filled with a lot of junk. Used electrical conduit that my grandfather had found by the side of the road. Old motors that he’d picked up somewhere. Those big empty soy sauce tins. All that stuff. And I just loved it, I loved those places. To me that’s how everybody lived. Then I went to kindergarten. And I started going to houses that had lawns and roses and I thought, “Man, those people are weird.” Then I got a little older and I realized it wasn’t that those people are weird, it was that my family was a little different. I think it was 1988, pretty late, I had a day trip from Hong Kong up to Guang Zhou. I was on the train and it was my first trip into China. The moment we crossed the border, looking outside the window, built up right next to the tracks, were the houses of the poorest of the poor. They had these little courtyards you could see down into. Those were the courtyards I’d grown up with. Very lush, very tropical, certainly kumquat tree in a pot or two, extra bicycles wheels and the laundry and some used electrical conduits–all that stuff. I realized at that point it had been over a hundred years since my great-great grandfather had come over to work on the railroad. And yet with all the changes–some of us no longer look Chinese, some of us no longer spoke Chinese, some of us were completely professionals when my great-grandfather and my great-great grandfather were illiterate–all of those changes, despite everything, at heart we were still South China peasants. That had to do not only with the visual aesthetic, but that sense of austerity and you never know when something’s going to come in handy. You have to keep everything because you never know when it’s going to come in handy.
Fong: I love that story.
When visiting China, Lisa See noticed that her own family’s gardens resembled the courtyard gardens of the South China peasantry. She speaks to the preservation of social values and a “sense of austerity” that lasted through generations in the US.
Chinese-American gardens; Dim Tao (ancestral village); South China peasants; South Chinese gardens
See: And then the other one was–so that was the first trip. Just a year later was when I decided to write On Gold Mountain. And I went and I talked to my great-uncles and they kept saying to me, “You need to know the right set of tire tracks through the fields to get to the village.” And I just kept thinking, I’m an intrepid reporter, I can go anywhere. But they were right: I did need to know the right set of tire tracks to go through the fields. When we got there, and I still have family living in Fo Shan, where my great-grandfather later–when he became wealthier in 1919–he had gone.
See: This is a digression. In 1919 my great-grandfather went back to China. By this time he was a pretty wealthy man. He was the first Chinese in America to own an automobile, at that point he had five shops, he had his white wife, he had five children, he was very successful considering what he had to work with. Very successful for that time. He started doing things in Dim Tao, the village but also the city nearby, Fo Shan, that he couldn’t have here. He built the first western-style hotel in Fo Shan–the Fat Sun Grand Hotel. He bought a factory that made fireworks, another factory for basketware, another factory for ceramics. In his home village, a village back then about 300 people, today about 300 people, he built the house for his wife, his American wife, that he couldn’t have here. And I think of it kind of like Star Trek. If you think 1919 Los Angeles, what would have been the idea, a kind of Spanish-style house in Hancock Park. It’s like Star Trek: they beamed something up, sent it across the ocean and dropped it in this village. But still done by all Chinese architects, and so it’s this kind of interesting mix of this vaguely Spanish, 1920s California Chinese house.
Fong: So the plan, the blueprint *inaudible*–
See: I’m gonna guess there was a plan somewhere.
Fong: Not an American-style plan.
See: No. I don’t know about that. I know it was a Chinese architect, but they must have had these ideas in their mind, that they were telling him what they wanted. It has lots of arches and things like–it has this very Spanish look except it’s a Chinese house. And when I went it was so interesting because people kept referring to the house as the Lo Fan–the White Ghost House because of my great-grandmother who lived there. Anyways there was one point–it was originally a two-story house with this pavilion on the roof. I remember being up on the pavilion and I have these cousins who are pointing out things to me. Cousins I’d never met, pointing out: there’s the road your great-grandfather built, there are houses he built for people who lived in this village, that’s the school that he built. Here [the U.S.] my great-grandfather was known as being iron-fisted, he would never part with his money. He was very controlling. He left his children here each a dollar. He wasn’t—yeah, like that. But there, in his home village that he’d left when he was 14, he still put everything there. And that was when I actually saw him as a three-dimensional person. And his connection to that village and–by the time, in the 1930s he retired and he moved there with his then third wife and the second family (lots of children)–they all moved there and they were gonna live there forever. At that point he was in his 90s. He would sit up on his balcony and listen to Enrico Caruso on his phonograph and he thought he was gonna stay there forever. Then the Japanese invaded and they came here. Nobody went back to that house until the late 1970s.
After becoming successful in the US, Lisa See’s great-grandfather moved his family to China, built a curious Spanish-style house, and engaged in philanthropy in his village.
Chinese businessmen; Dim Tao (ancestral village); Family stories; Fat Sun Grand Hotel; Fo Shan; Great-grandfather; Great-grandfather’s third wife; Japanese invasion; Lo Fan/ White Ghost House (great-grandfather’s house in China); On Gold Mountain; philanthropy
Chinese American businesspeople–California Chinese architecture Chinese women novelists
Fong: Wow. So did you–you never met your great-grandfather?
See: He died when I was two. But his wife, the third wife, she only died–she lived to be 95–and he lived to be 100. He was in his 60s when he married her, she was only 16. So when she came here in 1921, and then she didn’t die until, I’m gonna say 10 years ago. She lived to be 95. She was so much younger. So I knew her my entire life and then all of the children in that family were quite a bit younger than my grandfather and his brothers and sisters, but they were the same age as my father. When my father was growing up, his playmates were his aunts and uncles who were all roughly the same age of that second family.
Fong: Generations shifting down. That’s interesting. Can we shift for a second back to you. What was your educational background? What got you interested in writing and what led you to writing about your family?
See: My mother’s a writer. My father’s side of the family is the Chinese side. My father is an anthropologist. My mother and my mother’s father are writers. I feel that I’m a blend of the two of them. And I–you know, it’s funny. When I was in college, I think I took one Chinese–I think it was actually very specifically a Chinese history course. I didn’t have a lot of interest in mainland China per se. But as a little girl I spent a lot of time in our family store. I lived with my mother–my parents were divorced when I was 3. My mom and dad were very young when they had me. So because of that I spent a lot of time with my grandparents, after the divorce. My mind would feel like I was there for a week, or two weeks. and they had this sort of routine. They got up, they went to work in our family store in Chinatown. They were working with my grandfather’s brothers. The three of the brothers and one sister still all working together, the same store that my great-great grandfather had started. That had started out as an herb shop, then my great-grandfather took it over, gradually becomes–first becomes crotch-less underwear, then curios, and finally by 1901 it’s antiques. And here in Los Angeles. and so that antique business is still there today.
See: But when I was growing up, it was three of the four brothers and one sister still all working together every single day. This was a big store–it was in what was the last remaining building of the tourist attraction called China City. China City had been one of the very first southern California tourist attractions. It was developed by Christine Sterling who had developed Alvera Street. Right across the street was China City. Alvera street was supposed to be this authentic Mexican marketplace. Not very authentic but still a lot of fun to go to. Still, even today. Across the street is China City, supposed to be this authentic Chinese city. It’s one square block surrounded by a miniature Great Wall, and inside it was built from the leftover sets from the filming of the Good Wrath. Not terribly authentic, but it did have a certain kind of charm. My great-grandfather’s brother had a shop there. It had a fire after the first year, they rebuilt it, a fire ten years later, and then that was that. There was one building that remained. It was pretty big. It had a kind of central hallway, and on the sides were these little rooms: what had once been the shops of China City. They have the little Chinese architectural elements to them.
See: In our family store as you came in, this was the room for bronzes, the art room, ceramics, offices, and a workroom in the back, and over here in the way back storage areas, and then a room for textiles, scrolls, jewelry, and then over here, just inside the front door, was a whole other room which we call the back of the store even though it was at the front. At the end of the day my great aunts and great uncles and grandparents would sit around and they’d have some kind of brown liquor. I don’t know what it was, I was just a little kid. And sometimes Cha Shu sandwiches. And sometimes for lunch they’d bring dim sum, but mostly Cha Su sandwiches–but anyway, they’d have a drink, and they would tell these stories. And they’d tell these stories about my great-grandfather, and they’d tell these adventures the sons had had in the 20s and what it was like going to China in 1919. My grandfather always talked about how he was 14 when he went to China for the first time–same age as when his father left China. And that his story was that they traveled in such a wealthy way that his feet never touched the ground the whole time he was there. I don’t think that’s really true–but it’s a good story. They had all these stories about building the house, and how my great grandfather wanted there to be all the modern conveniences so they figured out a way to have indoor plumbing. How my great-grandfather used to sell tickets to see his stuffed mermaid, and if you wanted to spend some time we could go in the storage room and find it. All these things that were really–I don’t want to say romantic, because they weren’t necessarily joyful or even romantic, but they had a kind of very evocative feeling to me that really, I feel like, tied me to that past. And also to just spend these days surrounded by this stuff, you know, that had a very particular smell to it, and a very particular feel to it. One of the things they had brought over was a big marriage bed, you know–exactly. This one was for a very wealthy couple. It had two antirooms. One for the maid to sleep. One for lights, and one actual bed, and all these beautiful carvings. That was our playhouse. So this was a really–it really meant a lot to me, and even the whole building. I didn’t know it was the last of China City, I was just a kid. It had this feeling like you were in another place, and I can remember walking with my grandparents and some days it’s hard to imagine any more and it would be really hot and humid and Los Angeles. But it would get very hot and humid, and they would say, I feel like we’re in China. So there was this whole sort of–again, romance is the word that comes to me.
The great-grandfather’s third wife was significantly younger than him, and there was a generational divide between the second and third wives. Lisa See recounts her beginnings as a writer. As a child, See remembers spending a lot of time in the family antiquities store, surrounded by culture and stories of China.
Alvera Street; China City; Chinese writers; Christine Sterling; Family stores; Family stories; Father; Great-grandfather’s third wife; Inherited culture; Los Angeles Chinatown; Mother; Romance
Chinatown (Los Angeles, Calif.) Chinese American business enterprises Chinese American families Chinese Americans–Social life and customs Chinese women novelists Family history Historical memory
See: And I wasn’t the only one–there were a lot of people who approached the family to write a book or a magazine article or even a film script. Really for about a hundred years they all said no. I think there were two reasons for that. On the one hand, they had some really incredible aria. It’s like “Oh, we can’t participate in your project. I’m sorry.” And on the other I think they had a lot of shame and embarrassment. Because a lot of what the family had done was either borderline illegal or full illegal. My great-grandfather always had two wives. At the same time. He always had two. They may have done a little smuggling. Maybe. I wouldn’t want to say, but they may have. [laughs] Bringing in stuff, not properly paying the duties, things like that. They also–they would go into villages and say, “We like your temple. We’ll buy it.” They’d go into villages and just–one of the things my great-grandfather would do is buy everything in pawn shops. Everything from little needle cases to street vendor carts, just really valuable stuff but a lot of it was duck baskets, things like that, which they rented as movie props. So all that stuff was there, and like I said, this was something that many people over the years had asked the family, would they participate in a story. And always they said no. And now it’s gotta be, like, 25 years ago, Ruthanne Lum Mccunn contacted me and said she wanted to include our family in a book she was doing on prominent Chinese-American families. So I called my great aunt and as always, as usual she said, we don’t participate. And then two years later that book came out, right on the eve of my great-aunt’s 80th birthday. And Roxy had sent me a copy of the book, and I gave it to my aunt at the banquet. And the next day her daughter called me, my cousin called, and said, “My mom realizes she made a mistake. Why don’t you come over. She has some stories she wants to tell you.” That first day I learned some things I’d never learned before. I’d always known my great-grandfather had two wives. In fact he had four. She mentioned kind of in passing a kidnapping–I’d never heard of the kidnapping. It took another two years to get the story of the kidnapping.
See: My great-aunt Cissy died very suddenly three months later. At the funeral, which was a big traditional Chinese funeral–big banquet, and people started coming up to me and saying, we know auntie Cissy was talking to you. Why don’t you come over, we’ll tell you some stories too. And I sometimes wonder–it sounds kind of morbid–what would have happened if she hadn’t died? Because there had been that imposed secrecy for 100 or more years at that point. We don’t talk about it, we don’t talk about it. And because she had started talking to me, it was like it opened the door a little wedge. And I think they were doing it to honor her. That doesn’t mean everybody wanted to talk to me. There were some people in the family who were still scared. One of the relatives–I thought of him as an uncle but he was actually a paper son. He just–I’d call, I’d make an appointment to come see him and he’d cancel. I’d do it again and he’d cancel. Finally he sent word through one of the other relatives that he doesn’t want to do it. He’s afraid he’ll be caught and he’ll be sent back. And even though all those years had passed it didn’t take away the fear that he’d be sent back. I do think something that happens–that people hold onto these secrets for so long.
Lisa See recounts that her family had been hesitant to make their stories public, partially out of shame of past illegal activity. Her great aunt Cissy began to tell her stories, and after she passed away more family members opened up. Others were more hesitant to share due to immigration status-based fears.
Cissy (great aunt); Family stories; Great-grandfather; Immigration; Kidnapping; Paper sons; Polygamy; Ruthanne Lum Mccunn; Smuggling
Chinese American families in literature Chinese Americans–Legal status, laws, etc.–19th century Chinese women novelists Family history
See: I remember when I was working on Dreams of Joy, which takes place in the confession era of 1957, and in that program they were asking people who had come here illegally as paper sons to step forward, confess, and in exchange they’d get their citizenship. It was one of the early amnesty programs. If they’d called it an amnesty program it might have been a little more successful. But it was 1957, so in the small print was that you had to rat out people. You rat out your friends, neighbors, your own relatives. If you do that, if you say “By the way, I think he’s a communist,” of course you get your citizenship. So this was a time that rips apart families and businesses and communities. Anyways, I went out and tried to find people. One of them was a man in his eighties–a doctor, retired–who I interviewed and his brother was originally going to be there. But then his brother just said, I can’t do it. I’m not going to do it. I just talked to the one doctor and he tells me this whole story. And in the end it wasn’t that dramatic. They didn’t rat out anybody, they just went in together, two brothers. They wanted to have the same last name, to get everything set in the court, to get their citizenship. But what he said to me at the end was, “I’ve never told my children, I’ve never told my grandchildren, what I told you just now. Because we aren’t dead yet so we aren’t safe yet.” And I think that fear, from these decades of secrets, is something that weighs very heavily on a certain generation. That they know really that they’re safe, but there’s that part that is just, has been passed down. Especially if you’ve been here a long time, especially if you’ve been here since the time of the railroad. Because you knew you had to keep secrets, you knew you had to keep the story straight. And you couldn’t deviate, and you couldn’t–there was no way to fight back. So you kept this story, and you kept this secret, and that’s a very heavy burden over time.
See: I think it can also be a very heavy burden in families. There was one young man who wrote me from my website. He’d been writing to me very regularly. He really liked On Gold Mountain. He would write to me–I don’t know. These are just sort of, I like your work, oh thank you. No I really like it, oh thank you. And one day he wrote to me, and he said, you know, my grandparents and my aunts and uncles have always treated my father differently than everybody else, and they treated me very differently. That’s always hurt our feelings, but I never understood it. They’ve always treated my dad and me differently. And I wrote back, thinking, oh I wonder if your father is a paper son. So totally by coincidence, I’m on book tour, and four days later I’m doing an event in Santa Cruz. And this young guy comes up, pale, just pale. And it was this guy. He said, you were right. His father was a paper son. And they’d all kept it a secret. So all of when he was young. So they’d kept it a secret from him, and he said to me, my grandparents aren’t my grandparents. My aunts and uncles aren’t my aunts and uncles. My cousins aren’t my cousins. He just felt completely adrift. And I think that’s what happened sometimes when you have these secrets and then they come out.
See: And then you have other families where it’s like–like in my family where you have Uncle Peter. He wasn’t really an uncle. He wasn’t even a Fong. He was an Ang. So people would always sort of talk about that at Thanksgiving. Oh, you’re family, but you’re not really family. You’re not really a Fong, you’re just an Ang. They had these–different families did it differently. You could have it be very open, or you could keep it a dark, dark secret that has these repercussions that play out over the generations. I do get a lot of emails from people who come to events who will say with–it depends on the book–but On Gold Mountain. I think particularly Shanghai Girls, which is a novel. They will say they understand things about their own family that they didn’t understand before. Because now their father is gone or now their grandparents are gone and they can’t go back and retrace that. They can’t–there’s no way to go back, But the pieces I’ve written about sort of fall into place for them, because it’s such a common story. It’s really a common story. And that–also, that the secret also prevents you from becoming totally American too. Because it’s so isolating. And you have to keep this secret from everyone.
See: Another thing in my family–I remember interviewing my cousins. One of my grandfather’s brothers, he really separated from the family. He was half and half. He lived a very white life, he was a very successful businessman, he had a house in Beverly Hills. And when I interviewed his daughters, they both separately said to me, you know, our dad always said to us, never ever tell anyone exactly what you are. Never tell them what you are because we’ll have to leave our house, you’ll leave your school. We’ll lose everything. So they kept that, as a dark, dark secret, that they were half-Chinese.
Lisa See recounts her time with the Dreams of Joy amnesty program, where families still carried the fear of being caught for being a paper son, or undocumented. Some of her novels allowed other Chinese-American immigrants to understand their families better. She speaks to the isolating nature of cultural secrets, including secrets about immigration status or ethnic identity.
Amnesty programs; Communists; Confession era; Dreams of Joy; Half-Chinese families; On Gold Mountain; Paper sons; Shanghai Girls; Uncle Peter; Undocumented immigration
Chinese American families Chinese American families–Fiction Chinese women novelists Family history Mixed race families Undocumented aliens
Fong: So for you, when you looked in the mirror, what did you see and did you–
See; No, but I thought I was Chinese. I didn’t–I guess I must not have really looked in the mirror in the way you’re supposed to look in the mirror. What I did–I looked around me. Again, I lived with my mother. But I spent so much time with the family. And my mother’s family was very small. When I was little, maybe ten people. When I was little, my father’s side of the family, probably 400. The two brothers who were here, they each had 12 children–they each had a lot of children–there were a lot of people when I was little. So they had really big weddings, funerals, one-month birthday parties. So what–when I often say to students and classes is, how do we identify ourselves? We identify ourselves by the people we see around us. They’re the real mirror. They’re the ones who tell us who we are. When I was little and I looked around me, what I saw was Chinese faces, what I experienced was Chinese traditions, Chinese culture. So it didn’t really occur to me that I was different. If I had looked properly in the mirror I would have seen I was different. But I didn’t. I don’t know why. I think partly it’s because my grandmother, who was married to this Chinese man, had red hair. I thought of her as the most Chinese person I knew. Because she had completely sort of lived that culture by marrying–that was against the law. And my great-grandmother two, you know–it was against the law. So my great-grandparents went to a lawyer to be married. They formed a partnership. All of the people in that generation went to Mexico to get married.
See: So I think the women who did that–and mostly it was women who did that–they were really, they were deliberately separating themselves from the larger American culture. But in another way they’re completely cut off–because they can’t just live in a neighborhood, they have to live in Chinatown. So it works both ways. One is they’re adopting, but another is they’re being pushed out. So those women, I think, just completely became really good Chinese wives and mothers-in-law. They had nothing else they could do.
Fong: *inaudible* that you were separate in yourself–
See: Well, I don’t know. I only know my own family. My great-grandmother was an orphan. My grandmother was kind of an orphan by circumstance. Her parents were itinerant workers. From the time she was 6 she was–they’d put a little piece of paper on her, sending her: going to Waterville, Washington. Going to Los Angeles. And they’d stick her on the train and she’d go and stay with different relatives. So from the time she was six. Then she came to Los Angeles permanently when she was 17 to take care of an aunt who was dying of TB. And then my mother was also sort of orphaned by circumstance, pushed out of the house when she was 17 completely on her own. So I think because they had no affiliation, they weren’t really giving up anything because they didn’t have anything.
Fong: And they came into this huge family.
See: They got to go into this huge family.
Fong: I think there’s–Americans are grasping for culture a lot. They come back from Brazil and they’re like, decorating Brazilian everywhere, Brazilian food. Everyone’s trying to grab onto something. That’s the country. Interesting.
Lisa See describes how she felt Chinese because she was immersed in her family’s culture. She also describes the experiences of women in the family–her grandma, great-grandma, and mother–who married into a Chinese family as a white woman.
American culture; Chinese culture; Family; Grandmother; Great-grandparents; Mixed-race families; Mother; Orphans
Chinese Americans–Ethnic identity Miscegenation–California–Los Angeles Mixed race families Mixed race people
Fong: Maybe you could talk a little bit about this big picture legacy of your family’s contributions to the west and what you think the legacy of your great-great grandfather would be, if you could put it into a paragraph.
See: Well first I want to talk about the legacy in general of the Chinese in the west because the people like my great-great grandfather, and my great-grandfather, and all of those men primarily were so responsible for building the infrastructure of the west that still matters today. You know, the railroads, the Sacramento Delta. And all those levies still there, that’s still the richest agricultural land that’s usable in the country. All of the different kinds of industries people went into and how they did have this kind of ripple-down effect in how they changed. How, for example, people ate. Westerners didn’t eat shrimp, they didn’t eat abalone. The idea of fresh seafood or different kinds of seafood here in Los Angeles. But in other places in the west, a different way of looking at agriculture as getting fruits and vegetables into people’s hands. Here in Los Angeles we had this big vegetable peddler market. And all the fruits and vegetables for many years were delivered horse and cart by Chinese fruit and vegetable peddlers who would go door to door and sell stuff. And it seems like market-table is something new. No, it’s been here a long time, and it’s been in California a long time. So I think there are things we don’t even see that are part of our legacy, are part of this legacy. And I often think if you take a family trip and you’re just driving around in the west, and you’ll pass something like China curve, China lake, China bend, China hill–all of these places where there were Chinese who worked there, who made that railroad spur around the corner, who built that bridge over the river. That infrastructure, it’s there because they did it. And that’s something that was–it’s invisible because we don’t know who did it, but it’s something some of us use every single day.
See: I think for my own family, well I think for all families, actually, that we wouldn’t be here today and enjoying the lives that we’re enjoying today if not for the hard work and the sacrifice and the suffering that came before us. We were literally riding on their shoulders. They’re the ones who lifted us up to this place. I see in my own family, my great-great grandfather: illiterate. My great-grandfather: illiterate. My grandfather and his brothers and sisters who went through high school–they didn’t go to college. My father goes to college. And that’s a pattern that you see over and over again with families, whether they’re old pioneer families or even new families. This sense of how education can help to transform you, and can transform your family.
See: I think along the way some things get lost, you know. Here in Los Angeles Chinatown, it’s really more of a ghost town because the younger generation, they have gone on to college. They’ve become doctors and lawyers and dentists and artists and dancers and photographers. They do all of these other things. They don’t need to work in the curio shop, in the cafe. So many old businesses that had been around for so long, closing. And I can see, even for our family story–it’s just a matter of time, you know, it’s just a matter of time. And here something is started in 1874, and went through various things but it still is the same family-owned business. One of the oldest in the state. And so that’s gonna disappear at some point, because the younger generation doesn’t want toÉ And again, I just feel that maybe my great-grandfather didn’t have a huge personal lasting presence. I don’t think these families, none of them rose to be Rockefellers or Kennedys or Carnegies. But what they did is what allowed more people to come, more people to get an education, more people to have success, more people to find a life and to have people like your own daughter, who might just look at it all very differently. Just look at it so differently. Where you can still honor the past and honor your culture and honor the traditions–and yet you’re still very much within this larger American world.
Lisa discusses the legacy of Chinese immigrants on the infrastructure, cuisine, and culture of the western US. She also discusses the impact of pioneer immigrants on their descendants’ opportunities, and the loss of cultural spaces and stores in Chinatowns when younger generations move away.
Chinese food; Chinese workers; Disappearance of family businesses; Family legacy; Gentrification; Great-great grandfather; Infrastructure; Los Angeles Chinatown; Pioneer families; Vegetable markets; Vegetable peddlers
Chinese American families Chinese Americans–Education Chinese Americans–Employment–California Chinese Americans–Food–History Gentrification–Social aspects
Fong: But we hear your story–
See: Well I’ve worked on these different kinds of projects, so one of them was I did an exhibit on the history of the Chinese in America at what was then called the Audrey Museum of Western Heritage. It’s now called the Audrey National Center. That exhibit was the largest exhibit that’s ever been done on the history of the Chinese in America. We used my family as the through line. That exhibit traveled to the Smithsonian. When you put on an exhibit like that, you need to raise a lot of money. So for about two years, we were bringing in people–wealthy Chinese people–to come in and help us. And they would come in and they’d say–they’d look at all the pictures, they’d look at the artifacts–and they’d say, you know, Chinese-American history didn’t start until 1965. And that’s a real division point where before that time, it’s mostly Cantonese, mostly uneducated, mostly poor. And then after 1965, it’s mostly Mandarin-speakers, mostly educated, mostly have money to begin with. Those are people who are arriving here with having watched American television, who had maybe gone, studied English. Even if they’d been in a small village they’d probably studied English. So they’re arriving in a completely different way. First stop does not need to be Chinatown. They can live wherever they want, they can send their kids to live wherever they want. But that’s the big dividing point, that 1965 moment. For those–this is just my opinion–but for those people to think that their success, and the ease that they can come here, isn’t on the backs of people who came before, I think that’s misguided, because it couldn’t have happened without the people who came before.
Lisa See describes raising money from wealthy Chinese donors for her family’s museum exhibit. She argues that the Chinese immigrants that came after 1965 were largely able to bypass poverty and inequality because of the struggles of previous generations of immigrants.
1965 Immigration Act; Audrey Museum of Western Heritage/Audrey National Center; Chinese-American exhibits; Smithsonian; Wealthy Chinese sponsors
Chinese American–History Museum exhibits–Social aspects
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