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I was born in Hom Gong Village in Sunwui District (now known as Xinhui) in 1909. My goong [grandfather] and father owned a hemp business in the nearby town of Nam How. The Chans and the Lums were feuding and we were caught in the middle. As a result, our house was burnt down in a fire and we had to escape to jo poh’s [grandmother’s] home in Oy Hoi. We didn’t have much money, just put some bedding and clothes in some large baskets and had some hired hands help us carry them to jo poh’s. I was only four months old and my brother was two.
Then when I was seven, we moved to Hong Kong, where we had a hard life. My father worked at a furniture store and only made a few dollars a day, so we could only afford to rent one room for the four of us. Then came my baby sister. I had to help my mother fetch water, wash clothes, cook meals, and carry the baby. My brother got to go to school and he became a carpenter apprentice at sixteen. They were just starting to educate girls, but my mother would not let me go to school. There was no time and no money. After dinner, I had to help make rattan chairs. Since my mother had bound feet and couldn’t go out, I had to do all the shopping as well. So there was no time to play, hardly any time to sleep.
I lived in Hong Kong until I got married at twenty-one and left for America. A friend of my old man [husband, Harry Wong] who played mah jong with my father introduced us. He [Harry] was a gamsaanhaak [Gold Mountain man] and had a restaurant business in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He said he made $200 a day in America. My father asked me if I wanted to marry him. I thought about how poor we were, sleeping on wooden planks and with hardly enough food to eat. Where we lived I could see the harbor where many of the big ships docked. Every time I heard the tooting of a ship, I would watch all the gamsaanpoh [Gold Mountain women] get off the ship, wearing all their jewelry and followed by their mui nui (slavegirls). I thought Gold Mountain must be a nice place. So I didn’t answer my father. If he told me to go, I would go.
My husband was 50 years old when he returned home to retire. But after two years of living in Gong Moon, he was called back to Fort Wayne by his uncle to help with the restaurant business. By then, his immigration papers had expired and he had to go to Hong Kong to fix the problem. This he did by acquiring the identity and papers of Lee Wai Mun, a 45-year-old merchant who was supposedly traveling to Europe with his 16-year-old daughter Lee Heung and 11-year-old son Lee Sam. After our wedding, I was to go to America with him posed as the daughter, and my cousin Lum Sam, as the son.
We came together on the Tenyo Maru. It took twenty-one days. I wasn’t seasick at all. We ate six times a day—breakfast in our room at six, a second breakfast in the dining room at eight, lunch at twelve, tea at three, dinner at six, and evening snack at nine. We had second-class tickets so we had a private cabin for three and were allowed to go on deck. There were many Chinese, but most of them traveled in steerage.
When we got to San Francisco, they were originally going to interrogate us on the ship. But it was a Saturday, so we had to go to Angel Island. My husband and Sam stayed in the men’s barracks while I stayed in the women’s barracks. We all answered wrong at the immigration hearing. They were very strict then and we had not prepared for the interrogation. They asked all kinds of questions, about the type of stove we used in the village, the tiles on the floor, even how many steps in the stairs. I had lived in Hong Kong all those years and didn’t remember anything about the village. They asked where is the kitchen and your lineage going back generations. How could anyone remember all that?
Because we failed the interrogation, they would not let us land. So we had to appeal the case. I was stuck there from the end of November to the beginning of January the next year. I still remember the Jesus woman [Katharine Maurer] bringing us each a parcel at Christmas: cloth, toothbrush, towel, and candy. There was a woman from Heungshan [District] who had to stay here for three years with her son and daughter. Her husband made the mistake of mentioning his first wife’s name. When she saw the Christmas tree again, she said she had seen it three times. Three times, can you imagine that?
According to Lee Wah Mun’s immigration file (27442/2-4), the father was a bona-fide merchant with $2,000 in gold and a traveler’s visa. He and his son and daughter were tourists in transit to Europe. Six days after they arrived at Angel Island, they were called before a Board of Special Inquiry and each was interrogated twice about their family background and village life. Unfortunately, their answers regarding the father’s merchant status, the mother’s funeral, and their living arrangements in the village did not agree, and they were summarily excluded. The father decided to hire an attorney and appeal the decision to the Secretary of Labor in Washington, D.C. The family stayed locked up on Angel Island for over a month while waiting for a decision on their appeal.
The women’s barracks where I stayed was one big room with three tiers of beds. We only used the bottom two tiers. Young children generally stayed with the mothers and slept in the bottom bed. Everyone got along. There were people from Sunwui, Heungshan, Sunning [districts]. There were very few women then, but every ship always had a few that failed the interrogation. We weren’t allowed visitors, couldn’t talk to anyone or receive any mail or packages directly. They were afraid of coaching notes being sneaked in. The matron called out, “Chow, chow!” when it was time to eat. Every time we went to the big dining hall to eat, a “foreign devil” would stand by the door to watch us, afraid that the [Chinese] kitchen staff might sneak us coaching notes. The kitchen staff was known to hide coaching notes under the plates of food. You would take the note upstairs and read it in the bathroom. Then you would light a match, burn it, and flush it away.
There was a long table with two dishes of food at each end of the table. Do you know what it was? Steamed pork with “golden needles” in a basin, or gai choy [green vegetables] and pork, and soup. People helped themselves to as much food as they wanted. An extra dish like fried ham and eggs cost twenty five cents. Or if you’re lucky, friends might send some canned fish or deli food from San Francisco.
We stayed mostly in the breezeway while watching the younger ones play ball outside. There were musical instruments, bird-watching, sewing, and lots of things to do. The Jesus woman was willing to go shopping for us. I had her buy me some material so I could do some sewing by hand. Time passed quickly. We had three meals every day. Then we would wait to hear when we would be landed. There were always people arriving and leaving. Those who answered right could go to the city; those who answered wrong couldn’t. Some stayed years, like the woman who said she had seen the Christmas tree three times. During the time we were there, there was a woman who got deported. That was considered very sad because so much money had already been spent.
On December 31, 1928, the family was admitted into the country for six months under a departure bond costing each $500. According to a letter in their immigration file dated January 9, 1930, “the aliens had disappeared leaving no trace.” According to Helen Hong Wong, the couple took a train to Chicago, stayed there for a week, and then went to live in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Her husband took back his real name—Harry Wong, soon after they were landed. Her American name—Helen, was given to her by her daughters when she applied to become a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1956.
There were very few Chinese in Fort Wayne then, just two restaurants and two laundries run by bachelors. I was the only Chinese woman. There was no one for me to socialize with and I felt lonely as a result. We lived upstairs above the Cozy Inn Restaurant, which served both Chinese and American cuisine. Almost as soon as I arrived, I put on an apron and went down to help–peeled potatoes, cut vegetables, washed the rice, helped with the dishes, everything. I was young then and didn’t feel it was hard work. When I had free time I took my daughter [Lillian], who was a year old, with me and went browsing in the dime store. No one bothered me. Fort Wayne had an open marketplace on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. So at night, I would go there and walk around. After I had the second daughter [Nellie], I didn’t go out as much.
When we first arrived, the restaurant business wasn’t bad. We made $200 during the lunch hour alone. But came 1930 and things got difficult. People had no jobs and no money to spend. Then we made only $2 during lunch time. A year later, we closed the restaurant because we couldn’t pay the rent. We moved to Chicago for a year. The federal government was giving out corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, and bread to needy families, but my old man was afraid to go stand in line. Instead, he went to Chinatown and borrowed money from the gamblers. A 100-pound bag of rice only cost 80 cents, but we could hardly afford even that.
We rented a flat with six rooms for $19. But there was no electricity, even when my son [William] was born, because we couldn’t afford it. We could only afford one bushel of coal for the week. During the winter the windows were all frosty and we closed all the doors and stayed in one room by the open furnace. We wore multiple layers of clothes and I wrapped the two girls in blankets. It got to be 40 degrees in the house. A year later, a friend opened a laundry and we moved to Anderson, Indiana, to work for him. That’s how we got into the laundry business.
We lived above his laundry in two rooms. Our fourth child, Betsy, was born in Anderson. I helped out with the wash, pressing, and ironing. It was hard work, long hours. We did everything ourselves. We worked Monday through Saturday, even Sunday if we didn’t finish on time. Or I would clean house on Sunday. We did this for four years. Then his nephew came from Hong Kong and caused trouble, so we left and went to Kokomo, Indiana, to open our own laundry.
Kokomo was a small town about 100 miles away. We lived on the premises again. Business was so so. We started making $20 a week and that grew to a $100 a week. It was still hard work from morning to night, washing and ironing 100 shirts a day. If we got behind, no Sunday off, nor time to sleep. I helped at the front when someone came to pick up laundry. Even though I couldn’t read, I knew how to find the package by number. There was no time for anything else, only time to go get my hair cut. Again, we did this for four years. Then their father died. It was wartime and there was no one available to hire. I couldn’t do it alone, so we moved to Chicago to live and work for his [Harry’s] granduncle.
I worked at his store, the Dong Kee Bakery. I only made $20 a month working over ten hours a day. After work, I had to do all the cooking and housework, but the kids helped out. I stayed there for about eight years, from 1944 to 1952. It wasn’t a better or a worse job, just a matter of having enough to eat and a place to live. There wasn’t anything to put in the bank. But whenever I could, I would send money to my family in Hong Kong.
I left the bakery to go work for Nabisco cookies, folding boxes and packing cookies. An Italian neighbor introduced me to the job. I was the second Chinese woman to be hired. Everyone was good to me, called me, “Mama, Mama.” They asked me why I never complained to the union. There really was no reason to. I took the bus to the west side at 5:10 a.m. in the winter; 5:30 a.m. in the summer. I had to take three buses. I worked until 3:15 p.m. It was only 75 cents an hour when I started, but the white employers always provide you with better working conditions -raises, insurance, vacation benefits. By the time I got home and had dinner, I was tired and went straight to bed. I did this for twenty-nine years. When I retired in 1977, they threw me a big party.
Life has been better for me in America, but I must admit that my Gold Mountain dream was not fulfilled. Instead of becoming a rich gamsaanpoh, I ended up working like a slave. When I came in 1928, things were cheap. String beans were 2 cents a pound; pork chops were 25 cents for three pounds. But no one had any money to spend and there was no food in the house. We didn’t know any better at the time, only that we saw these gamsaanpoh with all this jewelry, fine clothes, and mui nui. So we assumed life was easy in Gold Mountain. But there was no gold to be picked up. Instead, we all had to work hard.
An earlier version of this story was published in Judy Yung, Gordon Chang, and Him Mark Lai, Chinese American Voices: From the Gold Rush to the Present (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), pp. 157-164.
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