Sunday, October 11, 2009

In the Wall Street Journal of Thursday, October 8, 2009, there was an article by James M. Berquist on the relocated and redesigned Museum of Chinese in America (ex-Chinatown History Project, ex-Chinatown History Museum, ex-Museum of the Chinese in the Americas); the article was titled "From Chinatown to Everytown"; what was fascinating about the article was that the author tried to detail some of the subtleties of the Chinese-American experience that the museum now acknowledges. This dovetails with what my father was trying to do with the Ellis Island Project and with the early Chinatown History Museum. From the article: "From the early days in the gold fields of California, their circumstances created an unusually insular and defensive ethnic community. Chinese came as sojourners and were expected to return to their homeland. Those who stayed were denied citizenship under the naturalization laws of the time. Their presence raised the ire of white working-class elements, and the result was the first American law to specifically exclude a racial or ethnic group, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The act excluded working-class Chinese, while allowing merchants, teachers and tourists to enter." Well, the reason this statement is important is that "working-class Chinese" were excluded, but other Chinese had an easier time of it, with the ability to bring in their wives, etc. People who were "merchants, teachers and tourists", and that's where you find my great-grandparents.

So this whole "immigrant" story of working on the railroads, or working in laundries or restaurants: i have NO idea what the hell people are talking about, because that wasn't the experience of my family AT ALL! Not my father's family, and not even my mother's family. We weren't working class. I'm sorry. We never were.

When we were looking through the materials that my father had left for the Chinstown History Museum, there was a page from some sort of directory, which showed his grandfather (my gandmother's father) and his uncle (my grandmother's older brother). My great-grandfather had gone to the newly opened New York University, where he got what was the equivalent of an MBA; his son (my great-uncle Fong) had gone to Columbia University (which i hadn't known, but that was my alma mater also). My grandmother's younger brother, Duck, had gone to MIT. My great-aunt Ying had gone out to California, and she went to college out there (i think it was UCLA). My grandmother did not go to college: what happened was that there was the flu epidemic, and my grandmother had gotten sick, and they had to take her out of school, and she was sick for a while, and her parents made her stay home for about a year. (This was something that my grandmother and my father told me.) And her parents were very protective, because they were afraid that she was very sickly. (Of course, my grandmother wasn't just a hearty survivor, she outlived almost everybody, she was 90 when she died.)

But (and this was my father's point) even so, the family faced a great deal of prejudice. Neither of his uncles ever really could find a job: there's the famous story of Uncle Duckie (who graduated third in his class at MIT) being offered a job with the Ford motor company, but when he showed up, they realized that (gasp) he wasn't a white person (his name was "D.K. Tom"), and suddenly the job was filled. That always happened to him, until he wound up getting a job through his father, and worked for a liquor distribution company starting in the late 1930s. And Uncle Fong went to China, to become an executive in a bank in Shanghai.

In my father's account, he writes that his parents' marriage was more or less arranged. Which was true. My grandmother was already 23, and she'd already refused several people. But i had actually asked my grandmother why she decided to accept my grandfather, and she said, "Because he said he wanted to get out of Chinatown." Which he did: for the first ten years of their marriage, my grandfather tried several business ventures where they relocated. But there were many reversals, including several business deals where my grandfather was cheated by his partners (who were white) and they eventually had to come back to Chinatown, where they settled on the fifth floor of 65 Mott Street (with my grandmother's parents living on the second floor of that building). My grandmother had wanted, because she had been so sheltered, a chance to get out of the "unusually insular and defensive ethnic community" of Chinatown. And my grandfather tried to give it to her. But all sorts of circumstances brought them back to Chinatown.

But that decade accounts for the differences in the experiences of my father (who was born in the middle of all those various business ventures) and his younger brother (who was born just before the family finally settled in Chinatown for good).

And i'm reminded of all this, not just because of articles about the Museum of Chinese in America, but because of the death of my uncle, and seeing my cousins this week at the funeral service.


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