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
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
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
|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!