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Victor Lim

Great-grandson of Lim Lip Hong

Interviewee: Victor Lim (Great-grandson of Lim Lip Hong)
Interviewer: Connie Young Yu and Barre Fong
Date: March 26, 2013
Location: San Francisco, California
Length of the Interview: 37 minutes, 16 seconds

00:07 Connie Young Yu: Tell me about yourself. Your name.
00:09 Barre Fong: And your name.
00:10 Victor Lim: Yeah. I’m, I’m Victor Lim and I was born in 44 in San Francisco. I’m the descendant – of a [unclear] – of a gold miner, that came in, in the 1850s. So I guess I’m fourth generation. I was raised in El Cerrito and I went to school there. I went to Berkeley and went to optometry school and started a practice in Davis, practiced there for 35 years. And very active in the community, lots of awards, some of good, good representative the Chinese-American community. So –
01:08 Yu: You mentioned that you’re descended from a gold miner. This is which side of the family?
01:15 Lim: This is, it was a Lim. So I’m, I’m my grandfather’s only Lim grandson and he was number one grandson. Number one son from the gold miner. Right.
01:31 Yu: So that was your great-greatfather.
01:33 Lim: Right. Right.
01:34 Yu: Now, how about the side that represents the railroad?
01:38 Lim: That’s he’s, he’s the man. He’s the man. I’m the direct – we’re the direct descendants of the gold miner. He’s a Lim also.
01:50 Yu: He was a gold miner.
01:54 Lim: He actually wasn’t a gold miner. Initially, he came over and he was like 11 or 12 with his uncle. And from what I heard, when I was a youngster, that they were actually on their way to Australia. Now this is something new that the other cousins hadn’t heard – they they have a lot of information but I remember hearing it specifically. Now whether they changed their mind or got blown off course, I don’t know, but I remember hearing as a youngster that they were – they were – initially were going to go to Australia.
02:31 So, then apparently, but this is all secondhand. You know that he, he worked on the Railroad. His uncle did gold mining. I’m sure he helped. But he worked on the Railroad and was back in Minnesota. There were some records of him being in Minnesota. And the interesting thing is he, he didn’t, most Chinese either died – railroad workers and miners – either died or returned to China. That’s just the pattern – they were here to make money.
03:13 He stayed. And the family rumor has always been and I’ve got it confirmed more recently as that, but it’s been in the family for years – of rumor that he probably had an Indian wife and family. And that’s why he stayed and then return to China. So in the 1880s they shipped over a bride for him from China, from Canton. And that’s my – who will be my great-grandmother. Yeah.
03:48 Yu: This is Lim – Lim Lip Hong?
03:51 Lim: Right. Right.
03:54 Yu: Who [unclear].
03:56 Lim: 1855, I believe. Yeah.
04:00 Yu: And he was a young boy, 11 years old?
04:01 Lim: Yeah, right. Came with his uncle. Came with his uncle.
04:05 Yu: So he would have been in his early 20s when he worked on the Transcontinental Railroad.
04:10 Lim: Right, right, right, yeah. And he – but after working on the Railroad, he, he stayed. And the family rumor was and, and I’ve had recently reconfirmed that he might have had a Indian wife and a family with her. And that’s why he stayed. Then in the 1880s, he brought over a Chinese wife and we’re the descendants of that that lady – woman. I say woman not a lady, she was supposed to be a real bitch. *laughter* Just, uh, she mistreated my grandmother. I heard many, many stories about how he mis, she mistreated my grandmother.
05:00 Yu: Was this – were their lives in San Francisco?
05:02 Lim: Right. They lived, uh, they lived in, on a farm in Minnesota Street, which is south of China, in China Basin. So they didn’t live in Chinatown like, like most, most of the Chinese did. They actually lived out on a farm. So, he, Grandpa, actually commuted when he went to Chinatown, the family [unclear], and the kids, in other words, my aunts and uncles all went to school in Chinatown. It was pretty segregated in those days and all the, all the kids, the Chinese kids, went to, I think Commodore Stockton is the name of the school that they went to. Yeah.
05:51 Yu: Did your grandfather talk about his father?
05:55 Lim: You know, my grandfather died when I was three. Yeah. So everything I’ve learned is through, not but, basically through my aunts and uncles. I was fortunate that I spent a lot of time with, with my aunts and uncles. I was an only child so I spent a lot of time with, with, every weekend with aunts and uncles and they talked a lot. And our family was such that everything was discussed in front of the kids. There was never a closed-door discussion anything. So I knew all the good and all the bad from them – about the family.
06:38 Yu: You have the oral history of the family.
06:43 Lim: Yeah, yeah. Sylvia and I have probably the most. And, but Andrea has some, but it’s, it’s just a, it’s a different, from a different angle.
06:55 Yu: Did you have a sense of pride in what’s your parents and grandparents -?
06:59 Lim: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. No doubt.
07:01 Yu: Could you describe that – the work they did?
07:03 Lim: Yeah, yeah, my grandfather was quite a, he was quite a person. Quite a significant person. He was, Grandpa Sing was the oldest of the, of the of the boys. He had two older sisters and one of them was pretty famous too. She was a very, his oldest, what, his number two sister and you should, you should get a oral history about that. She was the king, the queen of gambling in San Francisco in the 20s. And then one of her disciples was [Cantonese Name] who was the king of the gamblers in the thirties and forties. Yeah.
07:55 Yu: And these were the children of the railroad worker?
07:59 Lim: Um, yeah, right. Right. The woman. The queen of the gambling. Now the king of the gambling that came, he came later, he wasn’t related. Although a lot of their kids intermarried, he was, he actually came from China when he was 18. That’s [Cantonese Name] You need to do a thing on him. You might not get anything out of the kids though, they’re really mum about.
08:27 Yu: But what kind of work did your grandfather do?
08:31 Lim: Alright. Apparently, you gotta realize, my grandfather, my great-grandfather was and didn’t have kids, at least Chinese kids, for a long time. So he was, so my grandfather, number one son, actually went out and worked from about the time he was 11 or 12. He basically supported the family, from what I’ve heard, from that point on. So that’s why great-grandpa in his later days, you know, he was an old man, and he sat around and smoke dope. *laughter* He was [unclear]. You know, he lived a hard life, so yeah.
09:17 Yu: How did you know about his first family, the Indian family?
09:25 Lim: You know, we just heard rumors that because there was a gap from the time he worked on the Railroad and in the mines. There was a 20 year gap before our great-grandmother came over. Yeah. So it was assumption, assumption substantiated by rumors.
09:53 Yu: And that family was left in Minnesota, or?
09:56 Lim: We don’t know, we don’t know. Yeah. I’ve jokingly talked to – I was a retired optometrist – I’m retired – I have some Indian patients [unclear] once in a while, and I always tell them that story and and jokingly tell them that you could be my cousin.
10:18 So, Grandpa, the number one son, he apparently was a very hard-working guy, very dynamic, was very, very successful in the business world. He apparently was flat wealthy at one time until the Depression came. And Andrea’s mother who was a gorgeous girl she spent a decade in the twenties gallivanting – the term was used – gallivanting – all over Asia on these fancy steamboats and because Grandpa was a wealthy guy. The son, number one son, in other words my dad’s older brother, oldest brother, he spent the decade in in Hollywood trying to make it in, in the, in the movie business. And I’ve seen a picture – actually found it recently – of Uncle Roy in white spats, you know what white spats are, alright, good. And I heard as a youngster, he had, he had a – equivalent of Ferrari is a Stutz Bearcat, which is equivalent of a Ferrari today. So Grandpa had lots of money, yeah.
11:57 So he was in the in the shipping business. What the business he did was he hired because he was American, spoke English, even though he wasn’t educated. He spoke English and he had lots of influential friends in San Francisco. He was able to get contracts with the steamship companies, to hire Chinese crews from China and crew their ships. So all or most of the large steamship companies on the West Coast, in the Pacific, had crews that he provided and of course he made money providing these crews. So Dollar Line, and Pacific Transport, American President Line, they all had crews that were crewed by my grandfather’s people. So the only one I’ve never heard was Matson Line, I don’t know whether – either they wouldn’t, didn’t exist at the time or – yeah. But all the other ones were.
13:17 Yu: Did your grandfather and your uncles, did they talk about discrimination, about how that affected their choice of, the question of where they went?
13:30 Lim: They talked about some discrimination on a personal level but apparently Grandpa didn’t – my Grandpa must have been, must have experienced discrimination but one of his – like, one of his best friends apparently was a US senator from California, Hiram Johnson. And I looked it up – Hiram Johnson was elected in 1916. So apparently they were good friends and I remember my dad telling me that the property on the Minnesota Street was actually in Senator Johnson’s name. Because, you know, there were limitations on what we could buy. So the farm that they had was, was in – that’s what I heard. Now we haven’t got a chance to look it up in the records but we probably should sometime.
14:28 Yu: So your family -?
14:45 Lim: Another person that we, he mentioned that was good friends of his was a guy named Harry Bridges. Harry Bridges was the, in the founder of the Longshoremen’s Union. So, of course, my grandfather worked on the on the waterfront, yeah. So, I tell you, kind of –
15:11 I’ll just jump around. My uncle, my Auntie Fan’s husband, Norman Lee. He worked on the, he worked for State Steamship Company as a freight agent. And he just loved my grandfather. So two-thirds of what I heard about my grandfather came actually from his son-in-law. Some from my dad, some of them by Uncle Kwong, but a lot of it from his son-in-law. Apparently, my grandfather got him into the business – the steamship business.
15:52 So kind of neat thing is, when I’m a young – 8, 10, 12 years old – every time a new ship would come in, Uncle Norman would take me down to the ship and we would have lunch with a captain or something like that. And twice, I remember these most specifically, when we’re out on the piers, we bump into some old guys and Uncle Norm would of course know them because he’s been working on the waterfront for 30 years in the South. And he’d say, “oh, this is, this is Victor. This is Lin Sing’s son.” Oh, “Grandson.” And I remember there always were these positive comments, but one, one guy specifically said “Your grandfather was the finest person I have ever known in my life.” This – a white guy to say that – you know, it’s kind of has a big impact on a kid, you know, 10 year old kid.
17:03 Yu: Back to your life. So you have a great sense of pride in your own – it must have affected your own life.
17:07 Lim: Pardon? Oh gosh yeah. Oh gosh yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Oh yeah, yeah. My grandfather and my dad were pretty neat guys and my uncles – they were just – they weren’t just regular old folks. They were big time. Yeah. Yeah.
17:28 I’m going to bring up something. This was earlier now. It’ll relate to something around – just after the, after the Earthquake. When I was a kid about 13 or 14 on visiting Uncle Roy. the oldest son. He lived in, he lived in Sacramento. And there was this scroll. It was actually built into the wall. He had actually cut a hole in the wall – indentation – with a light above it that shone on this scroll. And my Uncle Roy told me that this was your grandfather’s – this is a knighthood by, from the Emperor of China, dealing with the deed, the knight, your grandfather and since you’re number one, only Lim grandson, this was going to be your document someday.
18:35 And unfortunately, a couple years later, his house completely burned to the ground along with my scroll. So I just remember it. And years later, I always thought, well, it probably wasn’t a knighthood – it was probably a commendation. It was about things he did – saving a lot of people. It was described as saving a lot of people and raising a lot of money after the Earthquake. Because remember, they lived out of Chinatown. So they would bring a horse and buggy and haul hundreds of Chinese out of the the burning Chinatown and in, into the, back to the farm on Minnesota Street.
19:23 So anyway, about couple years ago, we were just going through family photographs. And I found this picture and it’s the scroll. It’s not the scroll, it’s a picture of the scroll. So I had it blown up and I couldn’t, I can’t read it, but we took her to one of – a friend of mine who is a – I call an Asian scholar – and one, and another person that was a judge in town here. Some – Judge Julie Tang, and who who was raised in Hong Kong, and you know, very educated. Those people went crazy. They, she kept saying, “unban” “unban” “wow!” “unban,” which I didn’t know what unban was but it turns out this is the level that he was, that he was awarded, was the highest level you can have, outside of the few people that lived inside of the Imperial Palace. There is 9 levels. The six through nine were stationed inside the Imperial Palace. And the highest people, the highest award outside the palace was, was what my grandfather was. So one person described it as equivalent of like, the head of a, a province, a state the size of California or a province like Canton Province. So anyway, we’re, we’re kind of starting to research that. May be trying to get, find out in China, where they have records on it. And apparently, the person that presented it to him, his name is on the scroll also, and he, he wasn’t an ambassador. He was apparently as high as a Secretary of State. It wasn’t a regular, you, like Chinese ambassador to US. He was higher than that. He was a big time.
21:36 Anyway, that’s, so this is, that’s the grandpa that became very wealthy and did the shipping business. So he was a significant human being. Certainly significant in our community, so. Got some notes on what – the businesses he did. Oh, you ever eat at Far East Cafe? His family – he and his friends started that. They started the Lim Association, you know the tong, so Grandpa Lim, started, was one of the founders of that.
22:23 Now, all this, all this wealth came to an end when the Depression came, because he was, he, the steamship companies – there was no commerce at that point. So a lot of the steamship companies went bankrupt. And these ships were parked all over the Pacific. People would just, captains would, the companies bankrupt, they just parked them and the crews had to fend for themselves. And the, the family story is that he had actually used the family savings and the money that the family had to ship all these workers, these – that were all over the Pacific, back to Canton province. In the Chinese culture, it was mainly because he made that promise, because if they died, it’s very important for Chinese people to return, be returned and buried in their home, in there, in the back of their home. So this is a different situation but he felt he owed them to return them back to Canton. So he bank- basically, he bankrupted the families by sending, by honoring his promise to them, to send them home.
23:50 So anyway. he was very poor after that. But he did a lot of businesses. Kind of struggling, because he had still a bunch of kids to put in college. And so, he was in the, he would go to the butchers, he was, the intestines, he would sell to Chinatown. He had a, and I’m, I’m looking into this one. My dad had worked in Clear Lake. Then, they had a large – like a 60 foot boat – in Clear Lake, which they used to net, soongyue, which is hardhead or blackfish, not black bass. The ones we saw in the, in these storefronts in Chinatown? In the old days, they only had one fish. It was these Blackfish, becuase they are very hardy and they are freshwater. Now, the stores have saltwater tanks and they have tilapia at all these other fish and crab and things, but in those, in the old days, it had this soongyue. So he had a contract with the state of California to net the soongyue, out of Clear Lake. And my dad would work it up in the summer with Mom, with my Uncle Kwong, work in the summer, helping net these fish. So, he was in a lot of businesses too. Struggling to get by in the depression. So my best friend is a retired former fish, Head of Fish and Game, so he stared to look into this contract he had with the, with my grandpa.
26:09 My dad, Alan, was born in 1918. And he went to Berkeley and was a civil engineer. And he graduated, just as the War, just as the War started. He’d gone to ROTC and learned to fly. Oh, that’s another interesting thing. I suspect he wanted to fly, learned to fly, because his Uncle, our family, there’s a Uncle Art which is, I think is sei suk, which is the – anyway, he was, Uncle Art was, learned to fly from the Wright brothers. And he actually went back to China became the head of Chiang Kai Shek’s Air Force. So he was, was kind of one of the examples for my dad, so he, my dad wanted to be a pilot.
27:13 So he graduated, just, just as the War started. So a lot of Chinese didn’t volunteer. A lot of families. I think Grandpa didn’t want he or, or his brother Kwong to volunteer but they, they, you know, they are Good Ole American boys at this point. They, they wanted to go. So my dad signed up to be, to go to Flight School. And but there was a regulation that you had to be white. There was no, no, the non-whites were not allowed to be pilots. So he just checked it he was white. And he was a great candidate – just graduated from engineering school from Berkeley, he was ROTC, already knew how to fly. So he got in. And, so he went through. And then, he was about to be sent overseas, this is early in the War, and most of, most of his unit were killed. So fortunately, he didn’t want to go, he wanted to go, but they had shipped him off to be a – to train pilots from, from China. They sent Chinese cadets to Arizona to be trained. It’s interesting because those cadets were the ones that his Uncle Art, he was the boss, he was their boss. So he would, so he spent the war training Chinese cadets in, in Arizona.
29:04 So, years later, not, not to confirm what he had said, but I just came across some of these old things that he, he kept. And a couple years ago I was looking through this, this yearbook of all the of his graduating classes of pilots at the end of 42. And there’s a couple hundred pictures in there and names and pictures – one Chinese guy, one non-white person. There weren’t even Eastern Europeans. They were all British, French, German ancestry people. There weren’t any Hispanic names in there, there weren’t any Polish names, no Jewish names. I show it to you sometime. It is really WASP and plus one Chinese guy, Lim. So anyway, he wasn’t, he wasn’t exaggerating when he said he, he was the only guy. So he was probably, because of his lying on his application, the only, the first Chinese pilot in the American Air Force.
30:20 So, and his brother Kwong was was a flight surgeon. So he was a physician, graduated from San Francisco. And actually, Sylvia can talk about him. Yeah. But he was, was quite a guy too.
30:35 Yu: What was the career that your father had?
30:38 Lim: He was a civil engineer afterward. Yeah. So, he worked for the Army and the Navy. He was a very aggressive, in his, in order to get anywhere in government, you have to switch jobs and he switched quite a few times. And he, he, he did very very well. At the last project he was in charge of before he retired, he was head of what they call the MX Project, which was like a two billion dollar project to design the missile silos to, that the Russians couldn’t destroy. So he was telling me how friends – people he knew from engineering school thirty years before – were calling him up, “Remember me, Alan?” because there was so much money involved. Yeah. So, then when he, he retired, he went back and got a master’s in public administration because all the people under him all had Master’s. But when he graduated in engineering school in the forties nobody went on to higher degrees. Everybody just got a Bachelor’s. He liked it so much. He ended up going for PhD and got his PhD, a joint one from Golden Gate and, and, and, and the University of California. And he was 74 years old.
32:13 Yu: And you were his only child?
32:17 Lim: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
32:19 Yu: And your mother? What-? Her name?
32:21 Lim: My mother is a local grocery, San Francisco girl. Lily, Lily Chow. And apparently, she was – my dad was very handsome. The whole family, as my aunts and my uncles were, very good looking. But, we were talking to, we were trying to identify some pictures with some – by showing them to some old, old people that were in their generation. And this one friend of a, the matter of fact is, he lives in this building, his brother lives in this building. He went ape when he saw this picture. I mean he went crazy. “That’s Lily Chow!” And you could tell, apparently, it was all over his face – he had a crush on her. So, anyway, she, she raised me. She was, we were raised – I was – my dad chose to, to build a house in El Cerrito which was an all-white town at that time. And I, I never had any problem with racism but he had lots before and even, even when we moved i, he was, he was the only non-white person, family, in El Cerrito. They petitioned to keep him out. But he said, “the hell with them.” He moved in any way. They became his best friends. So yeah.
33:57 Yu: And your own family? Just a few words about your life?
34:00 Lim: I was, we, we moved to the Davis when I graduate from optometry school looking for an area that had good schools. So the college – count – towns always have good schools. And my wife and I had two boys, they did, they done fine. They did well in school. And my wife and I were in literally every activity in Davis. We were citizens of the year – in a 50,000 town, so it’s not a big deal, but it’s big deal in a little fish bowl. And I got lots of awards, besides that one. So we worked hard.
35:04 Oh, so one story about my dad is that, well, all the Chinese kids all over San Francisco – most of them lived in Chinatown, went to Commodore Stockton. And apparently, there was a local school very close by, but it was basically Russian families that live in Potrero Hill. And so, he got his, his sister May, to take him over there and enroll him. They didn’t want to but he insisted. So he went to school with, without any Chinese, other Chinese kids there. And unfortunately, he developed a great disdain for Russian people because he had to fight with these Russian guys everyday of the week.
35:58 Yeah. And when he was a pilot, one of the – later in the War, you’ve heard this Lend-Lease program – so he was ferrying a bomber, I think up to Alaska to give to a Russian commander, a Russian pilot, for him to take back to Russia. And the Russians, Russian pilot refused to take it from my dad because he was Chinese. If you don’t think after fighting with these Russian kids for 10 years, he wasn’t pissed. So he made him. Otherwise he was going to fly that plane back to the United States, but anyway.
36:42 One other, one other story about my, my uncle, the flight, the flight surgeon was stationed in, I believe, North Carolina for short period of time. And we, my dad found out that, well, they found out that, Auntie Yun, Kwong’s wife, had gotten, contracted tuberculosis. You know, back in those days it was like a serious case of AIDS. Nobody survived those. She amazingly was that 5% that did survive. But so, he, he was stationed of course in Arizona with the – and he borrowed a B-17 and flew it back to North Carolina, picked up Uncle Kwong, flew him back to the Bay Area to see his wife, and then flew him back into North Carolina and then back to Arizona. So he borrowed a B-17.

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