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In 1955, after waiting for their third child to be born, the Jang family left their home in communist-ruled Canton, China, for the relative safety of Macau. Macau had been under Portuguese rule since 1887 and the newly established Beijing government was temporarily ignoring the region.
Jenny Gar-Yee Jang was just two months old when her parents, older brother and sister took a boat to Macau carrying everything they owned. The Jang family assumed that Macau would be a brief stop on their way to join the rest of their family in Vancouver, Canada. They never imagined that their wait to be approved for migration would stretch into nine years and see two children born in Macau.
“My grandmother at that time was living in Canada and she talked a lot about (leaving China). How when communists came they stripped everything, all the property. And the entire family, on both my father and mother’s side, immigrated to Canada. We were the only ones left behind. We left China and lived in Macau, waiting to get our immigration papers to Vancouver and it never happened,” said Jenny Ming.
After nine years of waiting for the approval to go to Canada, Jenny’s parents changed their plans and decided to go to San Francisco where it was her aunt (her mother’s sister) who agreed to sponsor the family. “My mother has a sister in San Francisco. And (the INS) had just opened up that you could have your brother or sister immigrate. So my aunt was the one who sponsored us to San Francisco.”
This time the family received their approval in three months.
“Actually the same time we got that, Canada came through. And I remember my father saying, ‘You know what, it’s fate that we should go to the US because we waited this long.’ And you have to remember, we had so much family in Canada. My aunts and uncles and both sets of grandparents were in Canada and we only had one aunt in San Francisco. But my father was determined to come to San Francisco because he felt that it was fate that we’re supposed to be here.”
In 1964, the family settled in Chinatown and Jenny began attending Spring Valley Elementary school on Jackson Street in Nob Hill.
“I was nine years old when I entered the fourth grade. I didn’t speak one word of English. I remember the first day of school. Of course at that time, they didn’t have ESL class yet. I was in the class and didn’t understand anything. My teacher was being very nice so he sat me next to another Chinese girl. Her name was Sylvia Mok and she sat next to me but we spoke different dialects. She spoke Toisan and I spoke Cantonese.”
With much fortitude and a desire to learn, Jenny copied everything Sylvia did, including signing her own school papers as Sylvia Mok.
In China, Jenny’s father had been a printer and her mother a housewife. “They both didn’t speak any English. So my father had to learn a new trade. He found work in Chinatown as a chef. And my mother had always sewn so she worked in a garment factory. At that time we were so young we didn’t understand the hardship. You know, leaving all your friends and family and coming to a foreign country. Not speaking the same language. As I grew older, I realized that’s not an easy thing to do. I have to give a lot of credit to my parents.”
Jenny’s mother was in her mid-30s when she came to the conclusion that she had to learn English and began attending night school while working and raising five children. “And she had never worked before. She thrived in working. One thing about immigrants, we have an incredible ability to see the opportunity and really seize it. I don’t think my parents ever looked back. They knew their decision was the right one.”
“We lived in an apartment that had two bedrooms and there was seven of us. Compared to where we were in Macau it looked like a palace until we realized that people actually had bigger places here. We actually adjusted very well, very easy. My oldest sister had gone to a Catholic school in Macau so she spoke some English. She was really kind of the mother. She took me to the first day of school. Within a year, we moved into a bigger place, another flat in North Beach. So I would say we thrived in San Francisco.”
The Jangs maintained ties with their family in Canada by annual visits to Vancouver. “My grandparents had a farm in Burnaby so we would spend our summers up there. They grew Chinese vegetables. I had lots of cousins so it was great spending time there.”
In North Beach, Jenny had a lot of Chinese friends. “But a lot of them were ABCs (American-born Chinese). I remember I was very proud when people would say they didn’t know I was an immigrant because my English was pretty good at that time. I hung out with all the ABCs versus the FOBs (fresh off the boat). Those things matter to you at that age. Now that’s such a silly thing.”
“We bought our first home in the Richmond district. My mother made me go to Chinese school. I had to take a bus all the way from the Richmond to Chinatown. I went to Cumberland Chinese School, so actually my Cantonese is fairly good.”
Jenny eventually entered San Jose State University , and where she earned a B.A. in clothing merchandising and a minor in marketing in 1978.
In 1979 she married Mitchell Ming. And seven years later, the Ming family had grown to five with a daughter and a set of twins, a boy and a girl. In 1986, Jenny was recruited by the San Francisco-based Gap Corporation and began a flourishing career in the clothing retail business. Three years later she became a vice president in Activewear and later was charged with overseeing the launch of new start up called Old Navy.
Jenny was part of the executive team that launched Old Navy, Old Navy opened its doors to a successful launch in 1994. In 1999 Jenny was named president of Old Navy, overseeing 850 stores. That same year, Business Week magazine named her one of the year’s Top 25 Managers. In 2004 and 2005 Fortune Magazine included her in their “50 Most Powerful Women in American Business” issue.
So long ago, when Jenny’s parents carried her from Canton, China, to Macau their goal was to establish a better life for their children in a place where they could thrive. Fate brought them to San Francisco. And, as Jenny said, her parents never looked back.
Yet, for Jenny, remembering where she came from is crucially important. And although they grew up in well-to-do Hillsborough, her children know their family roots and history.
“I brought them to Chinatown and showed them where I used to live – to make sure they have an appreciation for it. Back in Macau, we visited the house that I grew up in; it was in a little alley. They couldn’t even imagine it because it’s so different from everything that they’ve experienced. My husband is from Hong Kong so every year we would take them back to Hong Kong. They’ve been doing this since they were one years old. We’ve been continuously doing this for 25 years. I wanted to make sure that they don’t lose their roots. And they are very proud to be Chinese.”
The proof of her success is reflected in an experience she had with her oldest daughter, who was attending Belmont Notre Dame high school at the time. They were attending a mother-daughter luncheon when Jenny commented on the lack of Asians in the room.
“I said ‘Kristin, I thought there were more Asians in this school.’ She said, ‘Mom, Asians don’t always like to do these mother-daughter things. I said, ‘That’s totally not true.’ She said, “Mom, you’re a little bit more Caucasian/white this way. You’re not very Chinese.’ I said, ‘I’m very Chinese.’ And she said, ‘Just because you speak fluent Chinese, that doesn’t make you Chinese.’ She said, ‘Your thinking is very American.’ So she was saying to me that I wasn’t as Chinese as I should be. I took it to heart. Gosh, I think I’m very Chinese. Then I realized, just like a typical immigrant we feel that we want to assimilate so well that we actually become more American. I grew up with a mom who’s very Chinese. So I was going to be this cool hip mom who’s not so Chinese. I’m going to be very understanding. I’m going to be more American. And my daughter says, I actually want you to be more Chinese. So, my daughter who’s actually ABC, taught me to be more Chinese.
“I’m one of those people who never looked at (being an immigrant) as a roadblock. Most people are always surprised that I’m an immigrant. I’m very much proud to be an immigrant. And I really truly think that this country gives you limitless opportunity. I always say that I’m very fortunate that I’m in San Francisco, which is very diverse. So I never felt like an outsider. But I think that generations before us didn’t have the same opportunity. I think there were so many more roadblocks and that there were much heavier emphasis on prejudices.
“I do feel that what made America great is truly the diversity. If we didn’t have immigrants, it wouldn’t be the same country. Having diverse people and diverse views, that’s what makes bigger thinking. Innovative ideas. The diversity actually brings out the best in us and I think without immigrants we would be very one-dimensional. When they were really talking about cutting down immigrants and talking about making it harder for foreign students to stay and to grow their career and their lives here it’s something I really felt strongly about. This country grew the way it did is because of the diversity of immigrants. This is our home. Our heritage is Chinese but this is our home and both are important to us. So I think for me, the last 10 to 15 years, I finally settled into who I am. And I actually really like having both…being a Chinese and being an American. And I actually used to tell my kids this. We get to pick the best of both worlds. And we get to celebrate both. Literally, I take that to heart.
Eva Martinez is a freelance writer and editor based in San Francisco, California. This story is based on an interview of Jenny Ming by Eddie Wong.
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