Author Lisa See Discusses Chinese-American History

Amy Hirsch

Lisa See concluded the One Book/One Glendale lecture series by discussing her family history and its connection to the Chinese-American immigration experience on Oct. 29 in the auditorium before a large and enthusiastic crowd.

See is the acclaimed author of a number of works of historical fiction. Her most recent book, “Shanghai Girls,” which relates the immigration of two Chinese girls to Los Angeles against many obstacles, was published this spring.

See’s earlier book “On Gold Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family,” a best-seller published in 1995, recounts stories of her ancestors and their immigration to California. This material comprised the main portion of her presentation.

Although See has only a fraction of Chinese ancestry, she spent much time with her traditional Chinese relatives as she grew up. Her non-fiction work is based on detailed interviews with extended family in addition to research on site and through books and archives.

See began her talk describing the immigration of her great-great-grandfather in 1867 from rural China, where he was a poor herbalist. He sought a better living in California, known as “gold mountain.” At first he provided traditional Chinese medicine services to the workers on the transcontinental railroad. After a succession of menial jobs washing dishes, sweeping floors and working in the fields, he was able to establish a successful business making and selling ladies underwear.

According to See, her great-great grandfather was the “original deadbeat dad.”
His advice had been to “work hard, save up your money and send it back to China.” However, he gambled and neglected to send his earnings to his wife and family. His wife was forced to earn a living carrying people from village to village on her back. His son, Fong See, left China at age 14 to join his father in Sacramento in 1871, where he helped build the business.

In 1884, See’s Pennsylvania Dutch great-grandmother, who had come west on the Oregon Trail, ran away to Sacramento and was hired by Fong See to sell “fancy underwear for fancy ladies,” according to See.

They fell in love and wanted to marry.

However, See explained that during that time “in California it was against the law for Caucasians and Chinese to marry. So they went to a lawyer who drew up a contract between two people to form a partnership.”

Also according to See, “It was against the law for Chinese to own property in this state . and at the federal level for Chinese to become naturalized citizens until 1943.” Chinese intermarriage was prohibited in California until 1948.

In describing the treatment of Chinese at the time, See said, “With the completion of the railroads there was a huge influx into the West of white labor and they wanted the jobs, so from 1871 to 1882, Chinese were literally driven out of communities . this became known as ‘The Driving Out’ period.”

See described several incidents during that time. “In Rock Springs Wyoming 25 Chinese were burned to death . off Seattle they were loaded onto rafts and set out to sea to die . outside of Tucson they were strapped to the backs of steers and sent into the desert, again to die.”

See noted that “on Oct. 23, 1871 “we had our first race riot in Los Angeles . 18 Chinese men and boys were killed by an angry mob.”

However, following assurances from the city fathers, Los Angeles was actually seen as a safe haven for Chinese. See’s grandparents then moved down to Los Angeles. They first stayed in the underwear business, then switched into curios and antiques. Success followed, and her grandfather owned five stores and became the first Chinese person in America to own an automobile.

Despite this success, “He couldn’t be legally married to his wife, send his children to regular schools, or buy them a house,” said See. So for a time he took his family to China in order to achieve things that he was not allowed here. He bought factories and built the first Western-style hotel and a mansion in his village, prior to his return.

See also described the scene in Shanghai leading to the 1937 immigration of the “Shanghai Girls” and the difficult circumstances on arriving in the U.S. She described the immigration facility of Angel Island and contrasted it to the more welcoming atmosphere for European immigrants at Ellis Island.

“Angel Island opened for a very different purpose, specifically to keep the Chinese out,” said See. “This had grown out of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the immigration of all Chinese to the U.S. except for merchants, students, diplomats and ministers.”

See explained that after the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906, Chinese birth records were destroyed. Certificates were given to Chinese here who would travel back to China and return with children who became known as “paper sons.”

Interrogations at Angel Island, which opened in 1910, were severe, including hundreds of questions. Often immigrants were detained for weeks or months and might be deported back to China if their responses seemed unsatisfactory. The Angel Island immigration facility was closed in 1943.

In concluding her presentation, See said, “We all have someone in our family who was brave enough, scared enough or crazy enough to leave their home country to come here, and what they had to go through, this immigrant experience, is something that we all share in.”

Following the talk, time was available for questions from the audience, leading to further elaboration of several points of interest, as well as a book-signing.