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After arriving at Angel Island in 1940 from China, Edna Ow married Tom Gong and settled in California’s Central Valley and worked with her husband in the chicken ranching and grocery business. Linda Gong, the youngest of four children, paints a loving portrait of a generous and hardworking woman, her mother.
My mom, Edna Ow, came from China in 1940 and ended up staying on Angel Island for the weekend because when family members went to get her, they forgot to bring her birth certificate. She never really talked about the conditions or her stay at Angel Island, but she was one of the lucky ones to get out only in a couple of days. Edna was actually born in San Francisco in 1922, but the hard times and the promise of mountains of gold was not what her laundry worker father found when he came to San Francisco. He proceeded to pack up his family and return to China with his wife and family in 1927. She had only seen her husband-to-be in a picture, but she had been living with her in-laws for the past year until her voyage back to the U.S. Her husband had only seen her in pictures and upon seeing his bride when she got off the boat, he made the comment “You are not too bad, a little short, but at least you aren’t crippled.”
Edna followed her husband Tom from Fresno to Salinas, to Santa Cruz and then to Watsonville as he worked in the grocery business and then chicken ranching. She worked alongside him as he took care of the chickens and eventually he changed careers to open a grocery store with friends. Mom always talked about cooking meals in a kitchen space above the store for all the workers. I am sure that is where she practiced her great cooking skills. Mom lost her first child due to pneumonia, but was able to have 4 total, 2 boys and 2 girls.
While raising her children and while Dad was off to work at the grocery store, mom would join the other Chinese ladies in the community and do the agricultural work like picking string beans, peeling boiling onions and peeling and bunching green onions. As the financial situation improved, she was able to become a full time homemaker. She took some evening English classes and even took driver education. She was able to get her driver’s license and became the chauffeur for the kids.
Mom’s hobbies were her beautiful garden, knitting and cooking. Her garden, filled with peonies, poppies, azaleas and rhododendrons, was recognized by the City of Watsonville as one the best in the city! Her hands were so fast and confident as she knit heirloom sweaters for all the family and even knit sweaters for others if they bought the yarn. She didn’t even need a pattern! She would look at a sweater that someone might be wearing and go home and figure it out on her own! If she wasn’t happy with the way a sweater might turn out, she would take it all apart and wind back the yarn in a big ball and just start over. She was proud of her work and would also teach others how to knit if they showed interest in learning how.
A great cook of Chinese food, she also learned some American favorites like fried chicken from Southern neighbors who lived next door. She learned how to bake a cake from scratch—those strawberry cakes with whip cream were a birthday favorite. She loved to learn new recipes many of which are long gone from any cookbook. Like shrimp chips, those Styrofoam like chips that you buy in packages already made now a days. I remember mom and a friend mixing the dough, rolling it into a cylinder shape and slicing them paper thin to let them dry, then finally deep frying them. Mom had a great influence on all her children becoming somewhat “foodies.”
When her husband retired, they would both go fishing together almost daily. On the weekends, they would go to San Francisco to the family association to socialize and take care of business. She loved to have the entire family together to visit and have family dinners. Mom passed away in 2005, a year after her beloved husband Tom.
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