← Main Interviews Page

Wilson Chow

Great-grandson of *Chow Zun Yok*

Interviewee: Wilson Chow (Great-grandson of *Chow Zun Yok*)
Interviewer: Barre Fong
Date: July 5, 2014
Location: Anaheim, California
Duration: 24 minutes, 26 seconds

Self-Introduction / Father's Oral Lore

00:11 Wilson Chow: My name is Wilson Chow. I was born in Hong Kong. And I immigrated to United States with my family in 1990 and -. Now I’m a student. Yeah, I got, go back to school. I’m a nursing student in Glendale Community College in California. I used to be a dental assistant. I work some years in dental office but I change my career now. Since I was young, my father and my mother, they always told us some family stories and this how I get interest in, interest in all these.
00:57 Fong: So what is the, what is the story you remember from your childhood?
01:03 Chow: Wow, there are many. I’ve been written down, actually, I’m writing all this story down, so that I, when I still remember. Because I think my father told me many stories, well, the years, now I still remember some and when I, when I talk to my father again, sometimes he forgot. Yeah. But sometimes he still remember. He’s now 95 years old. Yeah, so. But because throughout the years I have heard a lot and he told us a lot of times the same story repeated repeated so I still remember some. Yes.

Work of Chow Zun Yok (Great-grandfather) in the United States

01:49 Interesting is about my great-grandfather, my great-grandfather actually came to United States more than 100 years ago. I think this, more than 100 and up to now it’s one hundred, fifty, sixty years ago. Yeah. In around 1850s. He came to United States, at first, as a miner, and then he was recruited to build a railroad. And then he returned to China around 1869 or 1870. And he stayed there. He did not come to United States anymore because of the abuse that he, he recognized in when he was in the United States.
02:41 Fong: [inaudible] Chinese Exclusion Act [inaudible] it’s hard to do that.
02:47 Chow: At first, he still wanted to come back and make more money, you know, because at that time, the village, they had a hard time on making their lives, because the farm, the farming was not very good. Because of the water supply was not enough in our village. So he’s, at first, he still wanted to come to the United States again but because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, he thought, it is not, not very good, good moment for him to come again. So he’s stay in village, but later on he pass away.
03:37 Fong: His name, your great-grandfather’s name was?
03:38 Chow: Uh, great-grandfather, *Chow Zhun Yok.*

Description of Ancestral Village

03:43 Fong: And what’s the village?
03:45 Chow: Village is, well my father told me the name is *Hang Au Cun* I don’t even know where is the village. I only know it is in, in Hoiping. Hoiping is a county, a county in Southern Guangdong.
04:01 Fong: That’s right. That’s where I am from
04:03 Chow: The same. Eh? Yes. Southern Guangdong. But, it is a very small village. My father told me that our village, the water supply is like, like end of the water supply. It is like one small river has to provide water for many different villages and sometimes there, there is drought season and the river will dry up. During the dry season, even if they dig the well, there, there’s no water they – they could find. So the water supply is really really limited. So the farmland, farming was not a very good, very good thing over there. So they were very poor. And my father even told me that some of his uncles, he saw those uncles in the village, they work very very hard, in farming. But they pass away because of starvation. When they pass away, they were only like in their fifties. Yeah. And they continuously, some years they could not grow anything that could support their family.

Chow Zun Yok's Age and Marriage Status

05:24 Fong: How old is your grandfather when he came over here?
05:27 Chow: I think?
05:28 Fong: Your great-grandfather.
05:29 Chow: Great-grandfather. I think he was like in either late twenties or early thirties. I think. Because I don’t even know when he was born. I think he was born in maybe early 1820. Yeah.
05:47 Fong: And did he have a wife and a family when he left?
05:50 Chow: No. He was single when he left.
05:53 Fong: And stayed single in America and
05:56 Chow: Yeah. He was single in America and not until he returned to China, then he got married. He returned to China in about 1869 or 1870 and then he got marry. But at that time, he was like 50 years old. He got married when he was 50.
06:16 Fong: This is your father’s father.
06:17 Chow: My father’s grandfather. My great-grandfather.

Location of Chow Zun Yok's Work on the Railroad

06:22 Fong: And so, let’s go back to what you know about him. His experience. He was mining, and then, working on the railroad. Do we have an idea of what he was doing on the railroad?
06:33 Chow: Uh, not very much about the railroad. I know, I know the location that he he was mining. He went to a small town called Gold Hill in Nevada. Yeah. Yeah. Nevada. Over there.
06:53 Fong: Can you still find it on a map?
06:55 Chow: Actually, I visited with my father ten years ago. Yeah, to that town. And over there, there’s another small town called Virginia City. And it is still a tourist place. Yes. Virginia City. And when I arrive at Virginia City, the people there, they told us that there was a Chinatown there but the whole Chinatown was burnt down. And every miner was robbed and some people were murdered and they, so, so the Chinese community, they were like, it became a ruin. Yeah. The Chinese community no longer exist now. And later on, he, he was recruited, I don’t even know how he was recruited but, to build a railroad. According to my family’s oral story, passed down. He, he built a railroad. He said, on the snow mountains, they build a railroad through the rivers, pass through the cliffs, and they build the bridges. Yeah.
08:07 Fong: It’s all the – it sounds like all the hard part. All the mountainous sierras.

Labor Conditions of Chinese Railroad Workers / Saving Money for the Return Trip / Contemporary Money Wiring System

08:13 Chow: And he, he said that during that time, white Americans abused, abuse them. Abused the Chinese worker, the railroad worker.
08:22 Fong: So let’s talk a little bit more about that. What are the stories that he told you?
08:25 Chow: Actually, he did not pass a lot about this, this part of the story but what he told to his family was, if he did not return to China, he would have died in, in United States. I think he was so scared and he making up his mind to save enough money so that he bought a ticket, a single way ticket, back to China. And he make up his mind to save money to support his family. That’s what he did.
09:04 Fong: So is he sending money back, along the way? Do you know?

09:10 Chow: I don’t even know he sent any money at that time. And I think during, during the early 1850s or 60s, I think the there were no wiring system or banking system that can, they can put, uh, money back all the way. But he, he got his savings, all together in a ceramic pot. Yeah. And put all those, all those money. I think it was a common way for, for people, for Chinese people at that time. They, they put something in the pot. The pots, the ceramic pots, usually they can put food or wine or water or whatever they can put in – there are many uses of this pot. And they, he carry, carry the money. Yeah, yeah, actually, all the way back. So I think he did not send the money back but he, when he returned to China, he carry all his money. Those moneys were actually gold dollars. Not paper bills. But the real gold dollars. Yeah.
10:26 Fong: So actually there was an ancient kind of an old way of where they would wire money, which was, uh, you would deposit money at a store and that store would write a letter to China, and another store in China, they would pay that money out.
10:41 Chow: I heard about that from from a very old friend. When, back when I, when I was living in Boston, I met a very old lady. She is now 103 years old. She’s still alive. She’s still very active. And she told me that her grandfather, her grandfather, her own grandfather, she, her grandfather has a such kind of a bank. He did that. Yeah.
11:14 And he became wealthy when he was in China. He had such kind of a bank that, that using like a private bank, they get a message and pay the money in China, and then they receive the message from other parts, not even, not only from United States or other parts of the world, but also other parts of the, of China. So they’re doing some kind of trading. Using that like a private bank.
11:50 Fong: Where was that, your friend, where was she living in [inaudible] 11:53 Chow: She told me that she live in Foshan. Her grandfather. Foshan. There’s another, I think it’s a large town next to Guangzhou, Canton. but I don’t think my great-grandfather were, was using this kind of service.
12:16 Fong: A lot of the records, a lot of the banking happened in San Francisco Chinatown. After the Earthquake, after the fire, all those records were burned. Which is kind of sad. Because that would be [inaudible].
12:28 Chow: I have a picture of the, this kind of a pot. There, if you can see. This is a very common, common container. I saw this when I was in Hong Kong. Yeah. I still remember, my home even had one when we were in Hong Kong.
12:45 Fong: Did you see that in the museum? Or just for sale in the store?
12:47 Chow: Well actually, I, I got this from the online picture. Yeah. But I’m very sure we have one when we were in Hong Kong. We had one.
12:59 Fong: The detail of imagining him –
13:02 Chow: Yeah, and having this. And I, he use this pot, this kind of pot when he was in China to bury the money on the ground. Because there were no banks in the village.
Chow Zun Yok's Life after Returning to China / Family House's History

13:20 Fong: Okay. So maybe let’s go to the village. When he returns from the U.S. to China, what was his life like in the village? Was it wealth that he brought back with him or?
13:30 Chow: Okay, actually, many people when they returned to China, they like to buy some lands or buy some house so that they, their family can have more lands to farm or build a larger house so that the life will be better. But, for my great-grandfather, he, he would rather save more money. He built a small house instead of a large one and he did not buy a lot of farm land, because the land actually, the water supply was still limited, so he figure out that there’s no use to buy more land. Because more lands were – would not be useful. So he, he built a small house and actually that house last for more than 100 years until my, my uncle, when he got married he demolished that house and rebuilt a newer house in 19-, I think, in 1981.
14:37 Fong: It’s still standing now.
14:39 Chow: Yes, yeah. But it is a new house now. I mean from 1981. The old house was demolished.
14:47 Fong: Right, the old house. So I’ve been back to my village and it’s probably very close to where yours is. So, stone walls, wood floor.
14:55 Chow: Yeah, probably, yeah. Yeah. My father and my uncle, they were born and grew up in that old house – when they were little.

Wilson Chow's Childhood in Hong Kong / Distance from Ancestral Village

15:06 Fong: Do you have any interest in going back and seeing it?
15:09 Chow: Of course, I’m interested. But up to now I have never visited my home village. I don’t even know where it is, except on the map. And I saw some, some pictures online but still I don’t even know where, where my village is. Some, sometimes I talk to some people – they’re from Hoiping – but when I talk to them, mention about my home village, they don’t know where it is. I think it is a very small one. Very small one.
15:43 Fong: Just a few families. Living together. With little water. *laughter*
15:44 Chow: Yeah, few. *laughter* ÊNot enough water, of course.
15:51 Fong: So you were born in Hong Kong.
15:52 Chow: Yeah, I was born and raised in Hong Kong. So I, I’m not familiar with my home village. I don’t even speak the dialect. Yeah. [Video edited]

Chow Zun Yok's Travel from Home Village to San Francisco / Overseas Chinese Organizations

16:04 Let me see. There are some more details I can, I can tell. First of all, my great-grandfather, he travel from, from his home village to a river port and then from the river port to Hong Kong, taking a river ferry to Hong Kong. And then he bought a larger ship – there’s a clipper from Hong Kong all the way to United States and he landed in San Francisco. It was in around 1850s. Yeah. And the trip took him 48 days. Yeah.
16:46 Fong: Total?
16:47 Chow: Yeah, total. For – uh – from Hong Kong to San Francisco, 48 days. Yeah. The trip.
16:53 Fong: Not including the river, not including –
16:55 Chow: Not including the river. The river trip, probably, maybe, maybe 2 or 3 days, I think. Yeah.
17:01 Fong: It’s the Pearl River. Is that -?
17:03 Chow: The Pearl River. There are three, three branches of Pearl River. It was the West Branch, yeah, the West Branch, in, from Hoiping to Hong Kong. Yeah. And, he said that he was on the lower cabin, a lower cabin, there were three cabins and he was the lower cabin. The ship, I think, the condition was not very good because, because you know in the 19th century. Not like a cruise ship right now. And 48 days of journey and he landed in San Francisco. I believe when he landed in San Francisco he was with a group of people from, from the nearby villages and they were – there was like a company, like a Chinese organization, we call it Wuigun, or Tonghamwui, they have this kind of tradition that when there’s some new neighbors from China, they, they arrange a place so that they can stay and regain their strength, until they are, they are good enough, strong enough and then they go to work.
18:33 Fong: So, it’s like a family association? Right? The Tong family?
18:38 Chow: Yeah, usually this is somewhere in the Chinatown. Some kind of this Chinese organizations, overseas Chinese organizations. My father told me that these organizations, they are all over the world. In every part of the world, where, wherever Chinese laborers go, those countries, they have this kind of organizations.

Funding the Trip to the United States

19:04 Fong: I wonder if they owed them money afterwards. The idea that they repay that, once you are strong and start working you thereafter have to repay [inaudible] 19:13 Chow: And I also heard that they sign some kind of contract before they bought the ship. Those contract, in Cantonese, we call it *maisankai*. This *maisankai* actually that’s like they are selling themselves like a, they are going to work as slaves. Something like that. And they’re, the contract will include where they, they were going to work and how long they were going to work because they have to pay off their – the fee for the traveling and the fee of the, like, the companies that, they refer them to work, the companies, they need to earn some money from the laborers, so I think that they need to work some years to, to pay back.
20:06 Fong: So that’s, so your -, he probably was not able to save enough money for that ticket, on his own, to go from Hong Kong to U.S. He probably borrowed the money from the family association.
20:19 Chow: Maybe, maybe. Or even when they sign the contract they, the contract will include how after how many years of working they, they would be able to pay back. Because at that time, most people were really poor. If they are rich enough to support themselves, they are rich enough to buy the ticket, I don’t, don’t even think they need to go oversea to work, right? Yeah.
20:47 And even the thing that my great-grandfather, he, he maybe, he were not educated. I mean, the very formal, traditional education. Because at that time usually the – only the rich families could support their sons or daughters to, to study. And the farmers, usually, they were not able to support their children to study. So I think it was really like very common at that time. And of course, if they, if they don’t know how to read or write, they were not able to do a lot of jobs – they were only farmers and the farming was not good. They were poor. They could not support, they could not buy a ticket. I think, this is a common sense. Yes.

Family's Immigration from Their Home Village to Hong Kong / Rise and Fall of Family Fortunes / Conversion to Christianity

21:50 Fong: What do you know, would you know anything about your family’s immigration from the village to Hong Kong?
21:56 Chow: Oh actually it was another story. Um, okay. Let me continue. My, my great-grandfather, when he return, returned to China, he got married and he had a son, my grandfather, and by the time when my grandfather was 14 or 15 years old, my great-grandfather passed away. So that’s the start. Okay. That was the start.
22:28 Because my great-grandfather passed away, my great-grandmother at that time, of course she was poor, and she need to take out the money that my great-grandfather buried on the ground and she took out the pot with all the gold, gold dollars inside. And unfortunately, other villagers at that time robbed my great-grandmother, at the moment when she took out the pot. And, and of course, my family became broke again.
23:06 Uh, because of that, you know, my grandfather was only a teenager at that time and all the family saving was robbed at that time. So he could not support himself. So he went to Guangzhou, it was called Canton at that time, in English, but now the new name is Guangzhou. So that he could try to find a job over there.
23:37 And when he was in Guangzhou, he met a Western missionary, a medical missionary in a church and that missionary, when he heard my grandfather’s story, he invited my grandfather to live inside the church. And he actually [unclear] anything and also offered studying for my grandfather. So my grandfather became a Christian and later on, he also became a church missionary. So, my grandfather and my grandmother, they were missionaries in church. So I was born in a Christian family.

Back to Oral Histories home page

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