Saturday, May 31, 2014

My Grandparents Didn't Make History, But They Made Me

It's been almost a year since my Grandma Louie died. She was my favorite grandparent, and the last of all of them to go. Since they're all gone now, I'd been wanting to write some things down about their lives before I forgot them. They don't have Wikipedia entries or defunct Facebook accounts, and they don't come up in any Google searches. The only signs of themselves that they've left are embedded in their descendants' memories. So I wanted to encode my memories of them in text before they disappeared, and what better time to do it than the last day of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month?


My paternal grandparents were from Taishan, and had an arranged marriage, as was tradition in rural southern China at the time. My grandma's education ended after the second grade, but my grandpa went to college and law school, practiced law, and eventually became a judge. They were married as teenagers, and the wide educational gap between them, not to mention the arranged marriage, was an issue from time to time. In her 60s, my grandma would often joke about divorcing my grandpa.

Grandparents Louie & me on a trip to San Francisco
Seeking a better life, they immigrated to Hong Kong in the early 1950s with 3 small kids, including my dad. They lived in Sham Shui Po, and my grandpa worked as a teacher. While in Hong Kong, my grandparents had 2 more kids. There would've been 2 others had one not died in childbirth and another as an infant. In 1967, shortly after U.S. immigration restrictions were relaxed, my grandparents immigrated with all 5 of their children to New York City.

Much of my grandpa's family, including his own father, had immigrated to Toronto a generation before. The first of these settlers opened a laundromat and planted roots in Canada, but my great-grandfather eventually went back to Asia and retired in Hong Kong.

My grandparents came to New York because my grandma's siblings (including a brother-in-law who fought as an American soldier in World War II) had immigrated to Brooklyn and Queens many years prior. My great aunts and uncles lived in Rockaway (one of them ran a laundromat there!), Bay Ridge, and Marine Park, and my grandparents settled in Kensington, Brooklyn, where I spent most of my own childhood and adolescence.

My grandparents joined the Soo Yuen Benevolent Association, a community organization based on family surnames that was founded in 1846 in China, and first established in the U.S. in 1880 in San Francisco. My grandpa would eventually become the longest-serving president of the New York chapter. The language barrier made his legal and teaching experience moot, so through his new friends at Soo Yuen, he got a job selling tickets at a movie theater in Chinatown that played a mix of regular and pornographic Chinese films--I'm still trying to confirm which theater, but I'm pretty sure it was this one, which the Chinese knew as Hua Du (华都) Cinema. My parents would leave me and my sisters there for grandpa to babysit us while they shopped for groceries. I snuck a peek at the screen sometimes, and my grandpa caught me once and yelled at me, but even as a kid, I knew that his anger came from shame. Most of the time, my sisters and I just stayed in the lobby eating popcorn and candy, trying to dodge the rats that scurried about. Grandpa would wear a 3-piece tweed suit and a driving cap to work. He smoked Marlboros and drank Johnny Walker Red (in moderation), and lived till his mid-80s.

Grandma Louie & me
My grandma worked as a seamstress in a sweatshop on East Broadway. She was a member of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU). During the summers when I was little, she'd bring me with her to help cut threads. I remember there were very short lunch and bathroom breaks, and a lot of yelling from the bosses. This was probably where I learned my first lessons about hardship and injustice.

I think part of why Grandma Louie was my favorite was because I was her favorite, but for a completely unfair and patriarchal reason: I was the oldest child of her oldest son, and the Chinese are all about sons! Of the 12 cousins in my generation, counting both my mom's & dad's sides, there is only one boy, and he was the second-to-last to be born. If the stats weren't in our favor, I don't think we girls would've become as strong-willed as we are.



Like my father, my mother was also born in southern China, but in a different part (Zhongshan), and to parents who actually married for love. They only ended up having 2 kids, a boy and a girl, as 2 others died in childbirth. When Grandma Sah was pregnant with my mom in the late 1940s, my grandpa went overseas to try to make his fortune, as Chinese men at that time were wont to do. He landed in the Dominican Republic, where he worked odd jobs, mostly in restaurants, and sent some money home to China. He ended up staying there for 18 years, and apparently fathered a half-Dominican daughter. So I have an aunt out there somewhere in the world that I've never met (Auntie, if you're reading this, please contact me!).

Chinese plantation workers in Hawaii
My great-grandfather had also done a stint overseas, working in the watercress fields in Hawaii alongside many other immigrants, Chinese and otherwise. He returned to China with enough money to build a big house for his extended family, including my mom. But eventually, the Communists took over this house and made it a regional office, confining my mom's whole family--her grandparents, mother, older brother, and several aunts and uncles--to live in the kitchen.

She Saihua with her dragon head cane

When my mom was 4, her mother was hit by a bus and killed while riding her bicycle home from a women's association meeting. She represented her village in the association, which fought for women's rights in China. Growing up, my mom and her relatives would always talk about how we were descended from a powerful woman general during the Song Dynasty named She Saihua (佘賽花) a.k.a. She Taijun. According to Wikipedia, "Trusting her loyalty and judgment, Emperor Taizong made her the commander-in-chief and awarded her a Dragon Head Cane, a symbol of the emperor, for absolute control of the male-dominated army."

When my mom was 6, her aunt carried her on a boat to Hong Kong while another aunt swam there (!) to escape Communist China. My mom didn't meet her own father until she was 18, when they both immigrated to Hawaii in 1966.

It was in Hawaii that my parents first met. My dad opted to enroll at the University of Hawaii at Manoa rather than be drafted to fight in Vietnam. To put himself through school, he worked New York hours (5-6 hours ahead of Hawaii) as a teletypist sending buy & sell orders to stock exchange floors, first for Walston & Co., then Dean Witter, then Bishop Trust. My mom also went to UH Manoa, majoring in studio art, while earning her tuition by packing pineapples on an assembly line at the Dole Cannery. My parents met while dancing at their college's ballroom dance club.

I attribute my love of dancing to them, and my passion for social justice for women, immigrants, people of color, the working class, and the otherwise disenfranchised to all of my ancestors.

Happy Asian Pacific American Heritage Month!