My ancestors, the Wongs, from the village of Gan Tang in the township of Taishan, Guandong Province, had a long history of sending many of their male offspring abroad to make their living. Some went to Singapore, some went to Malaysia and the Philippines, and the daring ones went to America to work on railroads. Since Taishan was principally a farming community, it was not possible to sustain all the young men if they all opted to stay. By tradition, the oldest son inherited the family plot of land and the younger ones left to look for work, either in the capital city of Guangzhou or abroad.
Much has been written about the lives of the immigrants who came to Gold Mountain and their hardships and contributions in general, but very little of my own family's history was ever recorded, as far as I know. One can only surmise that in the olden days, people felt that sufferings and deprivations were best forgotten.
When I was very young, Grandmother told me stories from time to time about her life in the village, raising her family of three while Grandfather was away in America. She spoke only the Taishan dialect, and since I had never been to our home village, this dialect made little sense to me. Some of what I learned about my roots came from the records of my father's immigration interrogations while he was detained on Angel Island from June 1 to August 4 of 1915, upon his arrival in America. Later, after he landed in San Francisco, he also recorded all the statements that Grand Uncle Sai Jick had made to the Immigration Service during his question-and-answer sessions.
Through the years, I learned from my father that his and Grand Uncle's recorded statements contained falsehoods, in keeping with the papers that Great-Grandfather Wong Hui Ting had "bought" for his two sons, Grandfather Sai Ping and Grand Uncle Sai Jick, to enable them to join him in America. Great-Grandfather had been the first to arrive in America. He had worked as a clerk in a grocery store in Southern California. After a few years, he had saved enough money to buy two fake papers belonging to two distinct and totally unrelated families. In the end, father and sons all worked in Los Angeles, all denying knowledge of one another.
It was never made clear to me why Grandfather did not sponsor Father. I do know that Grand Uncle Sai Jick's paper was for a married man with a family. As a result, Grand Uncle Sai Jick petitioned for Father, as his supposed second son, to come to America at age nineteen and afterward, his own son, Nea Yue, as well.
Father studied and worked in the Los Angeles area for a while, doing housework for an American lady in exchange for his board and room. Later on he moved north to Stockton, finding work among his countrymen. He operated a watch repair/pawn shop business on Washington Street in Stockton's small Chinatown, where he met and married my mother, Sue Mark, in 1927. Two years later, I was born.
MY EARLY CHILDHOOD
The year 1929, the year of my birth, marked the beginning of the American--and eventually, global--depression. By 1931, the American economy was still mired in high unemployment and my father's watch repair business suffered the same fate as many others. There were many letters from China urging my parents to go home to visit Father's parents. Times being as hard as they were in Stockton's small Chinatown, my father consented to his mother's pleadings, for by that time he had been in America for sixteen years. Within six months after we arrived in Guangzhou, Mother was stricken with typhoid fever and succumbed. I was only two years old.
Grandfather married his first wife, my own grandmother, when he was a young man in the village. She was from a family of humble circumstances in a nearby village. Her mother had bound her feet just days before her wedding, and they hurt so much that she took off the cloth binding after she was married. Her explanation was that she had to remove them to plant rice while standing ankle-deep in muddy water. Because of her affinity for the water buffalo used in tilling the land, she abstained from eating beef for life.
Two sons and a daughter were born to the couple before Grandfather left the Old Country to earn his living in California. Singlehandedly, Grandmother raised their three children in her husband's absence. She cultivated the fields, tended the livestock, and wove her own cloth on winter nights after the harvest was in. She used the 20 taels of silver that Grandfather sent from America to buy salt, buy oil for the lamp, and pay tuition to the village schoolmaster. Grandmother was to make do all her life with the barest of life's essentials. She had little education, as was usual for that time, but she was well equipped to survive a hard life on the farm. She had simple tastes and infinite compassion.
Grandfather took a second wife on one of his many trips back to China. Two more sons and one daughter were born. Second Grandmother came from the Swatow boat people of northeast Guangdong Province. She was a woman of very refined features and a certain "city air." The taking of this second wife signaled the attainment of success on Gold Mountain. Since Grandfather passed away when 1 was only three years of age, I have only a vague memory of him.
In the 1920s, Grandfather returned to Guangzhou in his old age with modest savings. He bought a large piece of land on the south bank of the Pearl River, and on it he built a house large enough to accommodate both wives and their requisite domestics. Adjoining the main house was a building best described as an early-model two-story quadruplex, which contained living quarters for each of his four sons and their families.
The earliest memories of my childhood were of fun and frolic with my extended family of cousins and young servants in Grandfather's house after the death of my mother and while I was under Grandmother's supervision. Grandfather's family compound was enclosed by a brick wall. Next to the wrought iron front gate was a bronze plaque inscribed with the Chinese characters "Ping Lou," the Residence of Wong Sai Ping. There were two wells; both were badly polluted, good enough only for washing and cleaning, but I remember lowering watermelons in wicker baskets into those wells to cool in the summer. Buckets of water for cooking and drinking had to be brought in daily by the water boy.
All day long, peddlers selling chickens, ducks, and produce came to the door. The cobbler, the cane worker, and other service men also made their rounds. I have special fond memories of the young country girl coming by to sell silkworms and mulberry leaves to us children. A flower girl came on her regular rounds to supply the house with freshly picked flowers for the altar table that honored our ancestors and guardian spirits. Each morning at the appointed time, an elderly woman came to brush and comb Second Grandmother's hair, which was fashioned into an elaborate bun at the nape of her neck. The house hummed with activities and the running and chasing of grandchildren. Thus I spent three blissful years under the doting care of my grandmother in a house that was full of love and fun.
Father remarried when I was five--three years after the death of my mother. I have only vague recollections of the events of that day. It was a very large and elaborate affair. Several gentlemen wearing red ribbons on their lapels stood on an elevated platform at the front of a very large hall and officiated at the ceremony. My stepmother, wearing a white dress with a long, long train, walked down the aisle ever so slowly to the tune of Mendelssohn's Wedding March. I was told to hold my head down and not look up all through the exchange of vows, in compliance with the Chinese superstition that to do so would jeopardize the union. I thought it took forever. I remember vividly how my neck ached!
This momentous event brought to an abrupt end my carefree life under the doting supervision of my grandmother. I was made to understand that henceforth I was to obey my new mother, whom I was to call Mama, to the letter. There were to be daily lessons of learning Chinese characters written on papers with two-inch squares, and there were tasks I was expected to perform. What a rude awakening!
Grandmother had been very lenient because I had no mother. I had had the run of her part of the house and the domestics. I got up when I chose and ate whatever and whenever I pleased. To this day, I remember the tantrums I threw to get my way. In retrospect, I must have been quite a spoiled brat.
Wisely my father moved his family, his new bride, and his five-year-old daughter to Hong Kong to start a new life, away from the internal and domestic politics of coping with two mothers, two brothers with wives and children, and an unmarried sister and brother who still lived at the family compound. Without any sympathetic allies to turn to, slowly, bit by bit, I went through the painful process of becoming a child of decorum and discipline.
It would be less than honest to say that life with my stepmother was without friction or conflict. Indeed, there were many times I wished things were different and circumstances could be changed.
I can still recall one particular incident that clearly illustrated my frustration and jealousy. It happened very shortly after my sister Helen was born. Mama was nursing, and every night she would pull the baby's crib next to the bed where she and my father slept. One evening I simply pulled my bed next to my parents', leaving Helen's by the wall. Mine was allowed to stay. Mama had gotten the message!
With the passing of years, I learned to accept Mama's authority and the steady increase of the size of the family. Many horror stories have been told in children's storybooks about the cruelty of stepmothers. I had the good fortune to have one who accepted me as one of her own, without reservation. Suffice it to say, I owe Mama an...