A great-grandfather’s journey to the Gold Mountain
A white woman and a Chinese man in a forbidden love.
A successful business venture in the underwear industry.
And a deadbeat great-great-grandfather.
Lisa See, author of “Flower Net” (Harper Collins, 1995) and “Interior” (Harper Collins, 1997), spoke about these family events and others to a capacity crowd in Kreider Hall on Feb. 28. Her book,
“On Gold Mountain: The One Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family” (St. Martin’s Press, 1995), chronicles the last 100 years of See’s family
“On Gold Mountain” is a collection of five years’ worth of interviews See conducted with at least 100 members of her family, both Caucasian and Chinese, that allowed her to piece together her family’s past. It tells the story of how her great-grandfather Fong See emigrated from China to the place known as “Gold Mountain” (the U.S.), how he married a white woman, and of his rise to become one of the most prominent Chinese in the country.
In interviews with her family, See learned that getting them to talk about the past is difficult. The excuse that she heard most from her family was that it was boring to talk about the past. However, See was on to them. Some parts of the past are just too painful to discuss.
For example, the way her family immigrated to the U.S. was sometimes, “all-out illegal,” said See.
“They had a lot of shame and embarrassment about things that had happened,” said See.
This was the case for at least 100 years. It wasn’t until 13 years ago that a friend wanted to include See’s family in a book she was writing about prominent Chinese American families in that would send See on a quest back in time.
See contacted her great-aunt to whom she explained the project. She refused See’s invitation to talk
“We don’t participate in things like that,” her great-aunt said.
See, therefore, didn’t think much of it after that. It wasn’t until the book came out two years later on the eve of her great-aunt’s 80th birthday that this woman realized that she had made a mistake in refusing to talk. The day after, See received a call from her great-aunt’s daughter with an invitation.
On the day of her visit, she learned things about her family that she had never heard before. She learned about things she thought she had understood, only to find otherwise, as in learning that her grandfather had not had two wives – he had had four.
When See’s great-aunt died suddenly three months later, See was approached by various members of her family who had heard of the nature of their conversations. At the funeral, which was attended by 400 members of See’s family, she was invited to hear even more stories of her family’s past.
Thus began a five-year odyssey of interviews with friends, family, and business associates, of travels to the towns and villages in China where her grandmother, great-grandmother and great-grandfather were born, visits to the National Archives and hunting in relatives’ attics, closets and garages.
In the first interviews with her family, See learned that her great-grandfather Fong See was not the first person from her family to come to the U.S. from China; rather, it was her great-great-grandfather who first came to work on the Transcontinental Railroad as an herbalist.
And, according to See, he was a deadbeat.
“My great-great-grandfather had a fondness for women and gambling,” said See. “As a result, he didn’t send money home.”
According to See, the wife that her great-great-grandfather left behind was so poor that to make money, she would carry people on her back from village to village. She did this until people took pity on her and sent money to her son, Fong See to bring her to Sacramento Fong See located his father in Sacramento, telling him to go home, that “he was a bum,” said See.
Fong See held a number of odd jobs throughout the years: he worked the fields, he swept factory floors and he washed dishes in restaurants. However, by the mid-1880s, when Fong See was 30 years old, he started his first successful business, a factory that made crotchless underwear for brothels.
Amusing as it may be to some, See points out that for everything there is a reason. There is a reason why her great-grandfather made a successful living making crotchless underwear.
“Why was that happening?” asked See. “There are different ways you can look at it: historically, economically, and sociologically.”
In California during the Gold Rush, the ratio of women to men was 1 to 20. Even though some of these women were married, the majority of women lived their lives working in the world’s oldest profession – prostitution.
Several years later, in what was labeled as dangerous and illegal, Fong See married a Caucasian woman, Letticie Pruett, or Ticie, as she is known. Before 1948, no Chinese person could marry a Caucasian woman; nor could they own any kind of property. The couple later moved to Los Angeles, staying in the underwear industry for several more years before settling down in the antiques business. By 1919, Fong See was one few Chinese men who conducted business with the Caucasian community on a daily basis.
Looking across Kreider Hall on that Feb. 28 afternoon, See tells her audience that most of us are here because of someone else. There were people a long time ago that struggled to get here and because of their struggle and because of their determination to make a better life for themselves, we also get to share in that reward.
“There were countless tragedies, some were personal like losing a house or losing a spouse,” said See. “There were also larger-in-scope tragedies like fleeing war, fleeing poverty and fleeing different types of discrimination. We are on their backs for being here.”
She points out that one of the most important things that she learned was the she could not just bluntly throw a sensitive question at the person she was interviewing. Even though it may be the interviewer’s own relative, the important thing about any discussion of this nature is to develop trust
Artifacts, such as those See found in her mission to find answers to her family’s past, can mean a lot. A letter, a photograph can be of significant meaning, regardless of whether or not it is in the family. Clues to answering the questions of one’s past can be found in churches, city halls, and in birth and death certificates
“In the old days these things had all kind of information on them,” said See. “It wasn’t just a mother’s maiden name or what you died of, these are sometimes quite elaborate and you can get them from whatever state someone is from.
“You never know what you’re going to find.” said See.