On Gold Mountain
Fong See, my great-grandfather, left China in 1871 as a youngster, found prosperity on the Gold Mountain (the Chinese name for the United States), and lived to reach his hundredth birthday. Rising out of a mass of nameless Asian immigrants, he became one of the richest and most prominent Chinese in the country. He lured customers into his Asian art store by selling tickets to see a stuffed mermaid. He loved money, and had a childlike enthusiasm for fancy cars. He also had a way with women. My family always “knew” that Fong See had two wives. The marriage between Fong See and Letticie Pruett–my white great-grandmother–would go on to establish the See name. The second wife, a Chinese waif who had supported herself making firecrackers, was only sixteen when she married my great-grandfather, who was sixty-four at the time. This family always lived under the name of Fong. Altogether, Fong See sired twelve children–five Eurasian, seven Chinese–the last born when he was in his late eighties. This is the story of the Sees and the Fongs and how they assimilated into America.
As a girl, I spent frequent weekends and most of my summer vacations with my paternal grandparents in Chinatown. We would pass through a moon gate guarded by two huge stone lions and enter the dark, cool recesses of our family’s Chinese antique store, the F. Suie One Company, a gigantic mercantile museum that contained, among other things, porcelains taken from the royal kiln and floated downriver on sampans; altars pillaged from provincial temples; and huge architectural carvings shipped in sections to be reconstructed by Fong See’s sons in one of his many warehouses.
At lunchtime, Grandma Stella and I would walk up the street to a restaurant that must have had a real name but that we just called “the little place.” Along the way we’d stop to chat with Blackie at the Sam Sing Butcher Shop, with its gold-leafed roast pig in the window. We’d stop in at Margaret’s International Grocery and browse through the aisles with their salted plums, dried squid, and fermented tofu. At the restaurant, we’d go back to the kitchen to chat with the cook and watch as he packed up our order into cartons.
Once back at the store, I’d go upstairs to the workroom, with its huge machinery and its pinups of sedate Chinese maidens, where my grandfather and great-uncle Bennie would be engulfed by dense clouds of sawdust and the din of saws. Bennie would invariably look at me wild-eyed and shout, “I’m gonna put you in trash can.” Terrified, I’d scramble back downstairs and my grandfather and uncle would wash up with Lava soap.
After lunch, if I got bored–perhaps after playing in the mountains of straw packing, or climbing into the arms of a gigantic Buddha, or making a fort underneath one of the large altars–Grandma Stella would let me “help” her while she worked on the restoration of a coromandel screen. I might clean brushes or mix ink; sometimes she let me use my fingertips to press clay into the chipped areas. Or I might help my great-aunt Sissee as she dusted and polished her way from the bronze room to the art room to the room for scrolls and fabrics, and from one end of the main hall–which held exquisitely carved furniture–to the other.
In the late afternoons, my grandmother and great-aunt Sissee would relax in wicker chairs in the back of the store over cups of strong tea. During that quiet and comfortable time they would reminisce about the past. They told intriguing and often silly stories about missionaries, prostitutes, tong wars, the all-girl drum corps, and the all-Chinese baseball team. They spoke about how the family had triumphed over racist laws and discrimination. Then, as inevitably as Uncle Bennie’s threat of the trash can, would come my grandmother’s assertion that, “Yes, during the war, the lo fan (white people) made all of us Chinese wear buttons so that they would know we weren’t Japanese.”
My grandmother taught me how to wash the rice until the water ran clear, then–without the aid of a measuring cup–pour water over grains in the steamer up to the first knuckle of a hand. It didn’t matter if it was her knuckle or mine, she explained; for five thousand years the system had worked perfectly. Finally she would place a few lengths of lop cheung, a delicious pork sausage, on top to cook as the rice steamed. Meanwhile, my grandfather would be chopping ingredients. Once the rice was on, I became my grandfather’s second cook. “The best I ever had,” he used to say. Together–although all these years later I can’t remember a single thing I did–we would make up a dish of tomato beef for which he was remembered decades after his death.
At family weddings, we’d wait at our table for the bride to come by, and my grandmother would let me be the one in our group to hand over the lai see–“good-luck money” wrapped in a red envelope with gold characters of felicity and fortune limned on the outside. My grandmother would take me from table to table through huge banquet rooms, explaining who each and every person was and how they were related to me. “This is your first cousin once removed. This is your third cousin.”
In 1989, Aunt Sissee celebrated her eightieth birthday with a traditional Chinese banquet. I will always remember how my cousins and I left our banquet room to spy on the wedding taking place in the main dining room, where at least five hundred guests kept tapping their chopsticks on their bowls or glasses, making an amazing racket. “Well, they must be from Taiwan,” one of the cousins sneered. “You know, FOBs, fresh off the boat.” Since Fong See’s first voyage and his early dubious career selling crotchless underwear to brothels, the family had become the old line, the aristocracy. No longer FOBs, we were ABCs–American-born Chinese.
That evening I gave Sissee a copy of Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s book, Chinese American Portraits, which, for all its tragedies, secrets, and illicit exploits, also conveys a powerful cultural and artistic ethos. Three days later my cousin Leslee called. She wanted me to know that Sissee, her mother as well as my great-aunt and the only living child of my great-grandfather’s half-Chinese, half-white family, thought it was time for a book to be written about our family and that I was the person to write it. The following week I was over at the store with my tape recorder, listening to the stories Aunt Sissee, my grandmother, and my cousin had to tell. That first day I learned that Fong See was not the first family member to come to the Gold Mountain. His father–my great-great-grandfather–had worked as an herbalist during the building of the transcontinental railroad. I also found out that Fong See had not two but four wives. All through the years my relatives had kept these marriages a secret; bigamy was against the law and embarrassing to his children.
Two months later Sissee died suddenly, but Leslee encouraged me to continue with the book. Our friends and family were getting up into their eighties and nineties, she noted, and when they died their stories would be lost. At Leslee’s urging, I pressed on. My relatives, including my father, who truly were not disposed to participate, did so–I believe–to honor my great-aunt’s wishes.
During the last five years I have interviewed close to one hundred people, rich and poor, Chinese and white. I struggled with the difficulties posed by different names for the same person: Milton, Ming, Ming-ah, Ah-Ming for my great-uncle; Fong See, Suie On, and See-bok for my great-grandfather. I tried to decipher the heavily accented English of old men who confuse the words for he and she, him and her, in this time and in this town. I spoke with some who could no longer remember their own mother’s names. “It was a long time ago,” one man told me.
Pouring over documents in the National Archives, I discovered that immigration authorities had been after my relatives from the very beginning, but never really caught on to what they were doing. I received help from numerous libraries, historical societies, and academicians. I nagged relatives, friends, and customers to rummage through their attics, basements, and closets for photographs, papers, and other memorabilia from fairs, art shows, and family rites. I looked at films and videotapes, scrapbooks and letters, packing slips and tax records. In total ignorance, I struggled with the difficulties of the Chinese written language: Should I use Mandarin or Cantonese? And how should I romanize it: with the Wade-Giles or Pinyin system? (Ultimately I decided to use Cantonese with the old-fashioned Wade-Giles methods, in keeping with the era of the book. However, medicinal words are more properly rendered in Mandarin/Pinyin.)
What has emerged is a story of melting–how people and cultures melt in all directions. What I haven’t yet mentioned is that when my grandmother included herself among the Chinese who had to wear buttons during the war, she might be tucking loose strands of red hair into her bun. My grandmother–like my great-grandmother–was white, but she was Chinese in her heart. She had melted into that side. Over the years, she had packed away her eyelet dresses with their cinched waists, and had adopted black trousers and loose-fitting jackets, learned how to make lettuce soup, how to give those brides their lai see, how to be a proper Chinese daughter-in-law. My great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother were as white and “American” as they could be, yet they all chose to marry men whose culture was completely different from their own.
Many of the Chinese I interviewed talked about white as lo fan and fan gway, as white people, “white ghosts.” Often someone would say, by way of explanation, “You know, she was a Caucasian like you.” They never knew how startling it was for me to hear that, because all those years in the store and going to those wedding banquets, I thought I was Chinese. It stood to reason, as all those people were my relatives. I had never really paid much attention to the fact that I had red hair like my grandmother and that the rest of them had straight black hair. But I had other proof as well. All Chinese babies are born with a Mongolian spot–a temporary birthmark in the shape of a cabbage–at the small of their backs. I had a trace of that spot when I was born. Though I don’t physically look Chinese, like my grandmother, I am Chinese in my heart.
Finally, it is hard to read any book on Chinese immigration or the Chinese experience that isn’t critical of other books on the same material. All of them have their own views on racism, poverty, the role of women, language, politics, art, love, and beauty. I don’t know who’s right or wrong, or who’s more historically accurate as opposed to more politically correct. All I can hope to do is tell our story. On Gold Mountain doesn’t purport to be the whole truth–just a truth, one that has been filtered through my heart, my experience, and my research.
The Wonder Time
Fong Dun Shung hoisted his Gold Mountain bag onto his shoulder and nodded one last time to his wife, daughter, and Number One and Number Four sons. He turned, and began the half-day’s walk to Fatsan, where he would board a sampan and float east through the Pearl River delta to the big city of Canton, then south to Hong Kong, where he would board a ship for Gam Saan, the Gold Mountain. Fong Dun Shung and his second and third sons padded single file along the raised pathways that divided the pale green ricefields that lay just outside the protective wall of Dimtao. How long, he wondered, would it be before they returned home?
Fong Dun Shung had heard of other men who has made their fortunes as Gold Mountain men. Defying the powerful ties of family tradition and the more tangible threats of the Dowager Empress of death by decapitation for leaving China, many men had gone looking for gold. It was said of Gam Saan that a man could find pieces of gold as large as a firstborn son lying openly on the ground for anyone to pick up and keep. Now people talked about this railroad and jobs to be had for any man who was willing to work hard. In his village, the men guessed that even if you couldn’t save one thousand American dollars, you would make at least eight hundred. Fong Dun Shung shifted the weight of his basket from his right shoulder to his left. He was lucky. He was being given a free trip to the Gold Mountain, and he and his sons had already been promised jobs.
These had been harsh years for his family. Dimtao was a poor village, and this branch of the Fong family was one of the poorest. Fong Dun Shung didn’t own land, not even one miserable mou in a time when the whole world knew that at least three mou were required to sustain a single life. He couldn’t rent land, for he was too poor even to buy rice seed.
He was an herbalist, trained in an art many thousands of years old. From his father he had learned that the most important thing in the universe was qi–the essential life force–and that the balancing of qi was imperative to maintaining good health. He had learned to envision the human body as a universe containing the five elements–wood, fire, earth, metal, and water–and that each of these elements governed a corresponding organ–liver, heart, spleen, lungs, or kidneys. If any of the six essences–wind, cold, summer heat, dampness, dryness, or fire–became overbalanced, then a body would weaken and fall prey to disease and illness. He had learned all this from his father, and in these past years Fong Dun Shung has been teaching his sons.
Fong Dun Shung was a traveling man who, with his older sons, wandered from village to village throughout the countryside. On good days, villagers clustered around as his sons beat gongs to announce their arrival. Then they laid out mats and blankets on the rough dirt outside a family association house inside of which the births and deaths of all of a village’s ancestors were carved into stone and mounted on cool walls. Perhaps it was this close proximity to the thoughts of ancestors, or perhaps it was the kung fu that Fong and his sons performed to attract children and old people. He couldn’t say now. But for many years–as he tossed a son through the air, or moved himself through the exercises based on the movements of the deer, bear, tiger, monkey, and crane, which would be restorative for rheumatism, arthritis, digestive disorders, and chronic fatigue–there had always been customers.
At the end of the exhibition, Fong displayed his herbs. Women clustered around. “What may I take to help make strong the son who grows in my belly?” a woman heavy with child might ask. He would give her a packet of ground peach pit, tiger thistle, and the leaf of the pagoda tree to facilitate blood circulation. “Healthy parents have healthy children,” he liked to say. “If you keep your blood strong, then your children will go through life disease-free and have healthy children of their own.” For women who would not stop bleeding after childbirth, he prescribed brews made from Japanese catnip, turmeric, and safflower.
He was ministering to a woman with boils when the railroad scout spotted him and asked if he would like to go to the Gold Mountain to help the Chinese laborers when they got sick. “The coolies don’t trust western doctors,” the foreign devil rattled off in tones that Fong could not understand, but which were translated for him by a Chinese helper. Fong was told that the railroad company would pay for his passage, his herbs, and his knowledge. He didn’t have to consider this proposal for very long; he knew what his life has been like in the last few years.
As his family had grown, as his sons had asked for wives but could not afford to pay the bride-price for a proper wife, or even to buy an unwanted girl as a concubine from a family even more desperate than his own, Fong’s business had become more difficult and customers harder to find. Some of the reasons for this he knew from gossip, but how could a grown man trust gossip? Fong Dun Shung was an unimportant man, who could neither read nor write. So he had to trust gossip, and what he saw with his own eyes.
These were times of terrible unrest in China. When he was a young man and just married, there had been the first Opium War of 1840. His country had paid six million taels of silver to Great Britain to redeem Canton, as well as a thirty-three-million-tael indemnity payment. Hong Kong had been given to the British, and other ports had been forced open. Opium had flooded the market. Over the years, Fong had seen what this did to rich and poor alike. The Second Opium War, which ended only six years ago, in 1860, was even worse: another huge payment had been made to the British; missionaries had been permitted to come in and preach about their one god; more ports had been opened; and cheap, mass-produced items had begun to be imported, destroying the country’s small industries. It was unfair, but China’s weapons–spears, swords, arrows, and outdated cannons–were no match for the British artillery, rifles, and ships.
The plunder of his homeland didn’t stop with outsiders. Only thirteen years ago the Red Turbans–groups of clans and secret society members–had captured nearby Fatsan and trampled through the villages and fields toward Canton. Imperial troops and local militia had tried to combat these ruffians, and in the process entire villages had been burned to the ground. In the same period the Punti (the “Local People) and the Hakka (the “Guest People”) had waged their own useless civil wars. If this were not enough, Hung Hsiu-ch’uan, who called himself the Second Son of Heaven, had led the T’ai P’ing Rebellion, capturing and holding Nanking as the capital of his own dynasty. Twenty-five million people had died in the countryside, from war and its resulting famine. Warlords, sensing that the ruling Manchus would do nothing to stop them, now mounted their own campaigns–ravaging, pillaging, extorting.
As Fong traveled through the countryside, he would often pass villages that had once given him good business. Sometimes he would not even have to enter through the gates to know that death had come; the heads of men to whom he had sold herbs in years past hung on stakes outside the village walls. He would walk on. Where in the past he had seen children calling out good-natured greetings from astride the backs of water buffalo, he might see a few half-starved, naked children hunkered down next to the village streams, hoping wearily to catch a fish. Again, nothing to do but shrug and walk on. Nothing to help them now, and only trouble to find.
Now, as he followed the river south toward Canton, Fong Dun Shung hoped that he would become a successful Gold Mountain man and return in a few years with gold in his pockets. He imagined that he would become the headman of his village, and that everyone would look up to him. He would be rich. He would have many wives and many more sons. It was possible.
# # #
In 1862 the slave trade was banned internationally, so foreign men tricked, coerced, or “shanghaied” Chinese travelers into signing contracts for boat fare, which left them little better than slaves. Like blacks who had been shipped to America from across the Atlantic, the Chinese, too, were loaded onto overcrowded chips where they lived belowdecks for the duration of their voyage across the Pacific. Conditions on shipboard were nightmarish. On some vessels, men found themselves stacked like cordwood in three-tiered bunks six feet long and thirteen and a half inches wide, with only seventeen to twenty-four inches of headroom. These holds reeked with the stench of humanity as hatches were battened down to prevent escape. The sojourners–men who promised to return to their home villages–were given a bucket of water a day for washing and drinking. Food was also scarce. The foreigners knew from past experience that the fastest thing to break a man’s spirit was hunger.
No one knows exactly which ship bore Fong Dun Shung and his two sons to the Gold Mountain, but in earlier days, death rates were consistently high. On the Exchange, 85 of 613 coolies died. In 1854, after eighty days at sea, the Libertad reported 150 dead from scurvy and “ship’s fever.” On the John L. Stevens, which carried 550 immigrants, conditions were so bad that standees had to take turns on the too-few bunks. Conditions improved when the four massive ships that constituted the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s fleet began carrying as many as 1,200 passengers in steerage. Men brought their own bedding and slept on wooden frames. During the days these beds could be cleared for living space. Still, men suffered from seasickness and diarrhea, from bad food and tainted water, and often arrived in San Francisco after their thirty-odd-day journey in severely weakened condition.
By the time Fong Dun Shung arrived in San Francisco, in early 1867, the sight of hundreds of Chinese streaming down the gangplanks of these huge ships had become common. The laborers changed from their filthy traveling clothes to clean, blue cotton tunics and pants. Their queues, neatly braided, swung rhythmically behind them. Each carried with him rolled blankets, matting, and a basket filled with his meager possessions, all tied together with the length of a rope.
Fong Dun Shung and his sons felt lost and confused in the hubbub of the wharf. There were no immigration procedures, no customs officials. He had been told he would be met by someone. But by whom? Above the sounds of the commotion along the wharf, Fong heard the strains of his dialect. He looked at his sons, who nodded their agreement. “We must find the man who belongs to that voice,” they seemed to say. Gently pushing through the crowd, they noticed that other men from the ship seemed to be grouping together around other Gold Mountain men who called out in various dialects: “I am from Nam Hoi. I look for all men from Nam Hoi.” “I speak Sze Yup. All men who recognize this language of strong men, come to me now.” Fong and his sons found the man who spoke the Fatsan dialect from the Nam Hoi district. The labor agent ordered Fong, his sons, and a handful of others into single file. They trotted away from the crowded dock and along the streets leading to the center of the city.
How strange it looked. Certainly, Fong Dun Shung thought, this must be a city with great feng shui–the propitious confluence of air and water. Buildings clung on hillsides catching the water, wind, and air. Some were brightly painted, like temples. Mostly they were far apart and seemingly unprotected. As much as he hoped never to see the sea again except to return home to his wife and other children, Fong couldn’t help but glance back and down to the bay, which shimmered in the crisp, wintery sunlight.
On they trotted until they reached Chinatown. Bright red lanterns hung here and there. Three-cornered pieces of yellow silk swayed in the slight breeze before some buildings, telling these new visitors that here were restaurants. Signboards advertised herbs, clothing, jobs. He saw no sign of women except a few lonely, pale faces that peeked out from small barred windows. Prostitutes, his guide told them.
The family’s time in San Francisco was destined to be short. Before leaving the city, Fong, with chits from the railroad office, procured satchels of cinnamon, hawthorn, gardenia, clove, licorice, and chrysanthemum in the form of leaves, blossoms, roots, rhizomes, and pods. He could not anticipate what lay ahead, but he knew from experience that men everywhere suffered from colds, cuts, and stomach troubles. With help from the Six Companies–a federation of benevolent societies representing districts and counties in China–his sons sought out and purchased heavy boots and black hats. At the end of the week the trio boarded another ship, this time a riverboat, which slowly carried them up the American River to Sacramento, where the Chinese travelers again divided into groups and were transported by wagon or train to worksites high in the Sierra.
The California that Fong Dun Shung entered was a peculiar place filled with nature’s bounty–fertile soil, a wide variety of animal life, mountains, deserts, valleys, and rich mineral deposits. It was a land destined to be forever built on dreams. The same hopes for gold nuggets the size of babies that had originally enticed early Chinese sojourners had also enticed men to leave their town houses in Boston, farms in Ohio, ranches in Montana, and plantations in Georgia. These men had come alone, for the West was no place for womenfolk. Until 1869, when the transcontinental railroad would be completed, California was seventy percent male, and they were a lawless bunch–rowdy, rough, filthy. Few “good” women lived among them. One result of this lack was that there were no women to wash clothes. Wealthy men sent their cloths to Hong Kong to be laundered, starched, and ironed. A dozen shirts cost an outlandish twelve dollars and took two to four months to make the found trip. But for years people looked forward to “steamer day,” when loads of clean wash would enter San Francisco Bay and be distributed to its owners. For at least one week, everyone would be smartly dressed and starched.
In 1850, two years after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, California became a state. Eleven years later, in 1862, the first anti-coolie club was formed. That same year, Leland Stanford became governor. In his inaugural address he said, “To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population.” Later that same year, Stanford became the president of the Central Pacific Railroad.
The Big Four–Stanford, Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, and C.P. Huntington–embraced the grandiose idea and the potential profits of a transcontinental railroad. Certainly the need was there. As construction began, three equally unpleasant choices awaited even the most hardy westward-seeking adventurers. They could spend six to nine months–depending on weather–sailing down the east coast of South America and around Cape Horn. Or they could sail as far as the Isthmus of Panama, pole up the crocodile-infested Chagres River in small boats, then transfer to a mule team for a fifty-mile hike over the mountains to the Pacific. Although this method cut months off the trip, it carried with it the inherent risks of yellow fever, cholera, and death. Finally, adventurers could spend six months crossing the deserts, plains, and mountains from the Missouri River–a dangerous trip frequently ending in death from disease, Indian attack, or accident. A transcontinental railroad would reduce the travel time to one week and substantially improve the odds of a safe and healthy arrival. With a shorter, less arduous trip, more women might make their homes out West–the prospect not only of clean wash but of company in bed proved to be a powerful motivator for California’s mostly male population.
The Central Pacific Railroad broke ground on January 8, 1863. Two years later, only fifty miles of the track had been laid. Crocker became convinced that the Asian race that had built the Great Wall of China could also build his dream. It was also cheaper and faster to bring workers to San Francisco from Canton by boat–given good winds and fair seas–than to recruit white laborers from east of the Mississippi.
At first, Croker met with tremendous resistance. Upon hearing the idea, the superintendent of construction exclaimed in distaste, “I will not boss Chinese.” And Stanford, who had campaigned on an anti-Chinese platform just four years before, faced public embarrassment if he reversed himself. Still, Crocker pressed his case, relying on the simple fact that his partners were astute businessmen accustomed to considering the bottom line. At the beginning of 1865, fifty Chinese men–former miners who had experience with drills and explosives–were hired on an experimental basis. They proved so successful that six months later between two and three thousand Chinese worked on the railroad.
That first winter was the harshest on record. “Crocker’s Pets,” as they came to be known, lived like moles. They dug tunnels through forty-foot snowdrifts and continued to lay track. Avalanches whisked men away, tunnels collapsed. Still the work went on. When the spring thaws came, men were uncovered still standing holding their tools, their faces frozen in death masks of horror.
By the summer of 1868, nine-tenths of the fourteen thousand railroad workers on the Central Pacific were Chinese–nearly one-quarter of the total population of Chinese in the country. They dynamited through 1,695 feet of solid rock to create the Donner Tunnels. While the workers on the Union Pacific rushed through the flatlands of Nebraska and the plains, the Chinese on the Central Pacific built a line that rose seven thousand feet in one hundred miles. Lowered by wicker baskets down sheer cliffs, they chiseled through granite and shale to carve out shelves on which to lay track. With hammers, crowbars, and dynamite they made the earth yield to the ambitions of the Big Four.
# # #
Each night, high in the mountains, Fong Dun Shung and the other Chinese laborers gathered around the campfire. One night there might be a game of dow ngow, the game of battling bulls, with each man shaking the dice to determine who should throw the dominoes first. But mostly they played fan-tan. The dealer placed a small handful of buttons from a pan on the ground under a cup. After bets were laid down, the cup was lifted and the buttons counted out four at a time. The men who guessed how many buttons would be left–one, two, three, or none–would be winners depending on how they had placed their bets.
Occasionally they were entertained by fiddlers or flutists who had broken free of life on the railroad gang and now traveled from camp to camp. On some nights, professional storytellers regaled them with tales of the Monkey King Sun Wu Kung, or the Stories of the Manchus or the Three Kingdoms. At regular intervals a civilized barber came into camp and the men waited their turns to have their foreheads shaved and their queues rebraided. On those evenings when no visitors came through, the tired laborers would ask Fong Dun Shung to tell them as story.
“Remind us of our home,” someone might say, as he poked at a sweet potato cooking in the embers of the fire.
“Tell us the story of the snake again,” another might request.
Fong Dun Shung looked out at the men sitting on their haunches, their faces worn and creased from the stifling heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter. “Many centuries ago,” he began, “deep in the province of Yunnan, a farmer was pestered by a snake who refused to die. At daylight the farmer would leave his hut and see the reptile. At night when he came home from his ricefields the snake would still be there. He had been idle, sitting and warming himself on the big stone that lay near the farmer’s well. This would make the farmer so angry that he would take a length of giant bamboo and beat the snake until even its death shivers had left him for good. The farmer would take the serpent’s lifeless body and toss it carelessly into the weeds. But the next morning when the farmer emerged from his hut, the snake would once again be warming itself on the stone.”
Fong Dun Shung paused to let this miracle sink in. A few of the men spat into the fire.
“Day after day,” Fong Dun Shung continued, “the farmer killed that insolent snake and threw him away. Day after day the snake slithered out of the weeds and once again took its place by the well. One night the farmer decided to wait and see what spirit or god it was that revived his nemesis. As the moon rose and illuminated all below it, the farmer watched as the snake lifted its head and nibbled at the leaves of the weeds that were supposed to be its resting bier. In this way, through that canny farmer’s observation of that wily snake, our ancestors discovered the curative powers of herbs, and thus our country’s great healing art was invented.”
“Tell us the rest,” a young man called out.
“That lowly weed was san qi,” Fong Dun Shung explained. “For centuries the most famous herbalists in China have used it to make bai yao, the white powder that binds the edges of wounds and causes them to heal swiftly. The soldiers in our country have always used this and bestowed upon it the special name of ‘gold-no-trade.’ I used it on you, Ah-yee, when you slipped down the cliff and we thought you had ended this life.”
Unlike his sons and the other men who worked on the line, Fong Dun Shung spent most of his days in the camp. He attended to men who were sick, holding their heads up as they drank the bitter herbal teas that he brewed to relieve their symptoms. Sometimes he would be called out to the line to see a man who had been injured. Fong would speak to the head of the gang to confirm whether a man could go back to work or whether he needed to rest in camp.
Fong Dun Shung usually saw the men who hung from baskets down the sides of cliffs when they were already dead. Sometimes the rope holding a basket sheared off and a man’s body was broken on the rocks hundreds of feet below. At other times the basket men would swing out away from the cliff for the detonation of dynamite, only to have the basket swing in again too soon. What good could Fong do for those men whose arms and legs had been torn away, whose faces were left a bloody mass of unidentifiable tissue, bone fragments, and blood? He and a few of his countrymen would see to the burial, noting the site so that eventually the bones could be dug up, cleaned, and sent back to China for proper burial.
In winter, Fong Dun Shung prepared tonics to stave off chills, fever, phlegm, coughs, nausea–symptoms that plagued his countrymen in these snowy mountains. In the summer he mixed potions to cool a man’s body when he had suffered heatstroke, or to soothe insect bites or sunburn. All year round he had on hand poultices for cuts, scrapes, abrasions, sprains, broken bones–all those things that endangered the men as they hammered and chiseled and dynamited their way sometimes around the mountains and sometimes straight through them. Creating these mixtures was time-consuming and required his total attention as he selected and ground ingredients, boiled them until they had reduced by half or more, then sealed them in earthenware jars.
When a man traveled to the Second City of Sacramento or to the Big City of San Francisco, or when a man left this land of hardship forever to return to his home village, he would come to Fong Dun Shung for a dose of spring tonic, for every man wished to be virile when he visited a prostitute or was reunited with his wife. If Fong had been a scholar herbalist instead of a peasant herbalist, he would have given those items that were most linked to male potency–the dried genitalia of male sea lions and seals, dried human placenta, the tail of the red spotted monkey, gum of tortoiseshell, and wild donkey hide. But simple herbs–ginseng, wolfberry, and horny goat weed–were more readily available to him and safer and gentler in action.
As he ground the ingredients for his spring tonic, he didn’t think about his fate. He did not dwell on his hardships. He did not feel these things or any other emotions. He was an herbalist, trained to observe the world outside himself, so he did.
The Chinese in his camp worked twenty-six days out of an American month, from before dawn to dusk. For this they earned twenty-eight or thirty American dollars a month; in their villages they might have earned the equivalent of three to five dollars a month. His countrymen would not eat the food provided by the fan gway, or “white ghosts,” so they brought their own cooking utensils and food. Gang leaders made up orders for shipments from home, and eventually supplies of rice, sweet potatoes, noodles, dried fish and oysters, bamboo shoots, seaweed, salted cabbage, dried mushrooms, peanut oil, and dried fruit would reach them. Throughout the warmer months, traveling Chinese merchants passed through the camp, and a man might treat himself to a luxury–a pipe and tobacco, a rice bowl and chopsticks, a toothbrush, an oil lamp.
He had heard his countrymen commended for their cleanliness and work habits, for the esteem in which they held their families and ancestors, and for their quiet and sedate pastimes. These things were all true. He had seen them with his own eyes. Tang Men were different from the white ghosts who ordered them around. Every day his countrymen took sponge baths. As long as he had been in this camp, Fong had not seen a white ghost take a bath; they smelled rank and putrid from their sweat and the cow meat they ate. Many of the white men indeed became ghosts when their souls left their bodies during the frequent fights they got into at night. Fong had only heard of one Tang Man who had died in a brawl. White men drank a lot and passed out in their own vomit. His countrymen did not drink at all–at least not the fiery liquid that turned the fan gway into fools.
His countrymen drank tea, boiling the water from mountain streams just as they had boiled the water from the cisterns and wells in China for thousands of years. The white men drank straight from those same streams, and Fong often spent days scornfully watching the white doctor as he tried without success to provide relief to a man bent double with stomach cramps, weakening from malaria, or the qi seeping out of him as he died from cholera.
After Fong’s story, his sons and the other laborers retired to their tents for the night, their bones weary from eating so much bitterness during the day, and with dawn only a few hours away. Fong lingered by the embers and allowed his mind to drift to his home, so far away. He knew that other men liked to talk about their villages–how theirs was the most beautiful or fruitful in the province, how a Sze Yup man was better than a Sam Yup man, how their plentiful sons would look after them when they became esteemed old men. Fong Dun Shung never participated in this banter. Instead he looked up at the stars, which seemed as close as an arm’s reach this high in the mountains, and let his mind travel from light to light across the universe, until he was over his home village of Dimtao and his old life as a traveling herbalist.
He dreamed of men who were matter-of-fact about sexual matters. There was no need for embarrassment, for often in these villages the peasants knew how strong a man was, and how happy his wife was, by the number of sons they produced. Those men who had no sons were often pushed forward by their friends. “I need something to make my penis as strong as that of an ox,” a man might request. “My wife longs for the seed to make many healthy sons.” Good-natured joking and teasing accompanied these times as Fong Dun Shung would pretend to ponder the dilemma, scrounging through his vials, jars, and cloth packets with much concerned determination, until he presented with a great flourish the ingredients that, brewed as a tonic, would make his customer’s wife’s visit to the temple at the next New Year’s Festival joyous indeed.
He dreamed of poor grandmothers, toothless and wizened, who asked for something to cool them. “Cold foods–fruit, vegetables, sliced pork, crab, and fish–will reduce your body heat,” he suggested to those who complained of too much sweat and parched mouths. Then he sold them cooling herbs–gardenia and white peony–to help purge their inner fire, which he knew had not come–as it often did in young men–from an overindulgence in sex, drink, and food. In winter, when the old women had too much interior cold and shivered from fever, headache, vomiting, and body pains, he would say, “Take hot foods–fried, spicy, or those soaked in wine–to heat up and invigorate your body.” For their excessive belching, he gave them cloves.
Other grandmothers and wives, with bound feet, sent out servant girls or forlorn daughters-in-law to ask for help for their nervous disorders. These were “wood emotions” and would be cured by treating the liver. He ground together the root of Chinese licorice, the fruit of the jujube, and common wheat kernels. “Boil these with water until reduced by one-third. Take one dose, sipping gradually,” he would recommend. He recognized that those red-faced wives who laughed too much and too shrilly had too much fire and their hearts needed to be cooled. These women and their children reminded him of how much he missed his own wife and children; they reminded him of traditions so earthly simple that even naming children was as easy as One, Two, Three.
He dreamed that he walked back to Dimtao, where the alleys were just wide enough for a wheelbarrow to pass through. He searched among the one-room huts that made up Dimtao for his wife and children. Was his wife well? Was Number One keeping the ancestors’ graves cleaned and performing his other filial duties? And what of Number Four, Fong See?
In his mind’s eye, Fong Dun Shung passed by older houses with bell-shaped roofs. He remembered telling his sons when they were young that these houses had roofs like a dragon’s back so that when it rained the water would run off quickly, and when it was hot the warmest air would rise up into the roofpeak and keep inhabitants cool. He stepped into his house, which had no windows and no real door. The entrance had swinging bamboo doors–like those of saloons in the white devils’ towns. In his dreams the bamboo was pushed aside, and only the large wooden dowels that slid from one door jamb to the other, like crosswise jail bars, provided any protection. Fong knew that bad people would be kept out and that the good people of his family would be safe and cool inside. He relished the feel of the hard-packed dirt under the soles of his feet. Inside, the cool brick and high tiled roofs offered a respite from the stultifying heat and humidity.
On these dreamy nights in the Sierra, he thought of the rain that beat down on his roof on summer days. He could see his youngest son–in his mind still wearing the split pants of a toddler–perched on the high stone threshold of the front door as the rain came down. Each house had a high threshold to show the neighbors that a family was of high standing, and to protect the house from the muddy water that swirled over the riverbanks during the annual floods. But it didn’t matter, because–and here Fong smiled to himself–the whole roof leaked and the threshold was the only place to stay dry during even the lightest rain.
Fong Dun Shung continued his dream walk outside the village to the ricefields–watery pools during planting season, a dull blanket of amber by harvest. Even in his dreaming, he was careful. The raised dirt paths that separated the paddies and the small roadways that led away from Dimtao were purposefully miserable and crooked–sometimes leading to nowhere–so that evil spirits wandering the countryside would get lost and not find their wicked way to the village. Sometimes he saw a relative, and would nod his head in greeting. The very name of his village, Dimtao, meant to nod one’s head in greeting. The peasants from his village, all of them Fongs, were good people.
But what a terrible man he was! Every night his reverie was cut short by this thought, because it was a truth as unchanging as the stars above his head. Each month, the boss doled out Fong’s twenty-eight dollars–the same amount that his second and third sons earned for their back-breaking efforts. The other men in camp set aside a certain amount for gambling, then sent the rest by wire to their wives and families in their home villages. A lucky few gambled and won. Fong Dun Shung always felt sure that he would be one of them, but after each payday he discovered once again that he was not. So when the professional letter writers came through camp, Fong Dun Shung took that opportunity to stroll out to the far end of the line. When his friends gave their dollars to the bank men for an overseas wire, Fong retired to his herbs, saying that his spring tonic required his attention.
# # #
One year slipped into another. Shue-ying, Fong Dun Shung’s wife, sometimes thought that the only way to tell the passing of time was when the monks in the temple to the north banged upon their huge bronze bell in the morning and their deep sounding drum at night to call people to prayer. Days passed, then weeks, months, and years. She thought back to days long gone when acrobatic troupes, magicians, or poets who stopped by the village would often recite a poem: “If you have a daughter, marry her quickly to a traveler to Gold Mountain, for when he gets off the boat, he will bring hundreds of pieces of silver.” But time had drifted away and now that poem changed: “If you have a daughter, do not marry her to a traveler to Gold Mountain, for he will leave her and forget her.” Surely this had happened to Shue-ying, because since her husband and two sons left, she had heard nothing from them. She did not know whether they were dead or alive; all she knew was that life had been difficult before they had gone to seek their fortunes and now it was even worse.
She married off her daughter, Lin, to Jun Quak, a man from another village, and would probably never see her again. Her eldest son was wasting away in an old mud house down one of the alleys in the village. He had given his life to the opium pipe, and his duties–caring for the graves of their ancestors, going to the temple, performing the proper rituals of New Year’s–had been spirited away in the drug’s smoke. He had also stopped selling herbs, and their pitiable income had dwindled to almost nothing.
Shue-ying. Her name meant “heroine of the snow,” but she had never felt much like a heroine. Her family had been poor, and she had been sold as a small girl. The world knew that her life was not to be one of oiled hair, lovely embroideries and silks, and delicacies laid out for each meal. She had no mother to wrap her feet into “golden lilies.” Instead, Shue-ying had the big-boned feet of a peasant. She was small but strong.
Strong enough to carry people on her back from village to village. Aiya, these people cackled at her to hurry, to stop bouncing, to walk smoothly over the hard, rich earth as they traveled to make their New Year’s calls, or to attend a funeral or wedding. Sometimes they would rap their knuckles on her shoulder to hurry her along. She would burn with anger and embarrassment. They were peasants, just like she was! But no one would walk if they could ride. For the people of Dimtao she was a cheaper method of transportation than hiring a rickshaw or sedan chair. For her humiliation and hard word, she would earn a few pieces of cash, enough money for a sack of rice.
This work–demeaning as it was–meant not only survival for herself, but survival for Fong See, her Number Four son. He’d been nine years old when his father and brother left for Gam Saan. Shue-ying often wondered what would become of the two of them. She was already married, so no decent man would help her. She was too used-up to become a prostitute in Fatsan or Canton. She hoped that the gods would let her and Fong See slip by unnoticed. Any more bad fortune and they would have to live on the street, living off the generosity of others, passing from house to house with beggars’ bowls in hand.
# # #
By 1870 the transcontinental railroad had been completed, and Fong Dun Shung had opened an herbal emporium, Kwong Tsui Chang, in Sacramento. On the wall of his shop, Fong Dun Shung posted a yellowing newspaper photograph of the golden spike being driven to symbolize the completion of the railroad. He remembered when the bosses had come around, pushing his countrymen aside so that the photograph could be taken. The Men of Tang were not to be in the picture, nor were they to be praised by most of the dignitaries who took the podium that day. Only Crocker acknowledged them: “I wish to call to your minds that the early completion of this railroad we have built has been in large measure due to that poor, despised class of laborers called the Chinese, to the fidelity and industry they have shown.” Fong now knew he should have paid more attention to those words and the lack of them from others that day.
Fong Dun Shung often thought of those last few days on the railroad–how the men had been filled with excitement as they rushed to be the first team to finish, how once it was over no one knew quite what to do. Some men went home, traveling back along the tracks they had laid. They took with them little more than what they had come with–their Gold Mountain baskets packed with padded jackets, a change of clothes, leather boots. They had money, but many lost it gambling on their ships–their years of toil lost when the button count didn’t come out in their favor too many times in a row.
Others from his camp went in the opposite direction–east. No one really knew what was there, but, again, they had money in their pockets. Perhaps they might start a laundry or find work on a farm. Still others, hearing about rail projects in Washington and Oregon, went north. But most, like himself, traveled back over the mountains to Sacramento, where a huge land reclamation project offered jobs to men who would work hard for little money.
There had been no rejoicing, no firecrackers to send these men whom he had cared for over the years on happy, safe, prosperous journeys. Most he never saw again. Some–so he had heard from those who gossiped when they came into his shop on I Street–were truly never heard from again. Some gangs had been taken up box canyons and shot, or left to freeze or to wander until they were weakened and were eaten by wild animals. Fong Dun Shung didn’t know that these stories were true, but he didn’t know that they were lies either. He had lived among these white men long enough to know the depth of their hatred.
After the railroad was completed, he took the little money he had saved and came to Sacramento, where he opened the Kwong Tsui Chang, which meant roughly “Success Peacefully,” down by the railway depot and wharf. Here he was able to continue his occupation as he had since his own father had died. For the first time in Fong Dun Shung’s life, he was earning a good income. Still, he didn’t send money home to Shue-ying and his two sons.
He used many excuses to explain his behavior to himself: Perhaps they had died. Perhaps they had forgotten him. Perhaps it was best that he spend his money on the sons who were on the Gold Mountain with him. These sons, Fong Lai and Fong Quong, had taken day-labor jobs and earned barely enough to feed, clothe, and house themselves. Fong Dun Shung regretted his lack of respect for his wife. He regretted even more that he had not properly taught his second and third sons the centuries-old art of Chinese medicine. If only he had taught them, he reasoned, they would be able to take full responsibility for themselves.
Just as he had during his years on the railroad, Fong Dun Shung tried not to think of these things, but focused instead on the practice of medicine. He still helped men who complained of too much cold or too much heat, too much dampness or dryness. The only difference between what he had done during the past few years and what he did now was that once again he administered to Chinese women–nearly all of them prostitutes.
As early as 1854, the Honorable Hy Ye Tung Company had shipped to San Francisco six hundred girls to work as prostitutes. In those early days, peasants worn down by famine, drought, and warfare could sell their daughters in Canton for as little as the equivalent of five U.S. dollars. By 1868 the newspapers referred to this practice as the “importation of females in bulk.” Just as the coolie laborers had signed their lives over to men of little honor for passage to the Gold Mountain, many of these girls–aged twelve to sixteen years–did the same, pressing their thumbprints into contracts they could not read. Although the purchase of any human being had been declared illegal in the United States, this trade flourished virtually unchecked. By the time the railroad was completed, fair-faced girls of quality, bought in Canton for fifty dollars, could bring in as much as one thousand dollars in California; younger girls, or girls already diseased or unattractive, might still be bought for a few dollars and turn a profit of two hundred to eight hundred dollars each.
On the days when the steamers chugged upriver from San Francisco with a new supply of girls, a crowd always turned out for the auctions. Each girl could look forward to a different destiny. A few fortunates were purchased for marriage, just as they would have been in their home villages. Some might be purchased to be so-called high-class prostitutes. The least fortunate, the ones born with bad luck over their heads, would spend the rest of their short lives in tiny rooms called “cribs,” with a bed as their only furniture and a barred window as their only light on the outside world.
Fong Dun Shung had a vested interest in these goings-on. He saw men before and after: those who first wanted sexual prowess, and then returned to get something to cure the disease that threatened to rot away their manhood. He saw the women too, when they suffered from those problems that could affect their lives and livelihoods–venereal disease, pregnancy, tuberculosis.
Fong Dun Shung prospered, for there was much business to be had. He still gambled, but now he won more frequently. He had only one problem. He was lonely for a woman’s companionship. He did what he saw the prosperous men around him do. He married a louh geui–one who always holds her legs up–and tried not to think of his family in China.
# # #
Even to the tiny village of Dimtao, word eventually came that the Great Railroad had been completed. Still, Fong See’s mother had not heard from his father. Every day she seemed to get older, but Fong See knew that life was not as hard for her as it had been after his father first left, and he had searched through the fields looking for grass to cut and sell to farmers who fed it to the fish kept in village ponds. It was a hard job, and he received little money for his efforts. But because of this work, he knew where all the villages had their fishponds. When the rains came and the ponds overflowed their banks and flooded the rice-fields, Fong See waded out into the murky water and caught fish with his bare hands. On those occasions, he and his mother would have a good meal–whole fish steamed with spring onion, ginger, and soy sauce.
An old Chinese proverb says that when one family is without rice, a hundred families will come to its aid. Like many proverbs, this one expressed more wishful thinking than reality. But in the case of Fong See, one family did step forward to help. In 1871, an aunt and uncle–not true relatives, but good people from the village–saw Fong See working hard and not earning much money.
“Would you like to go to America?” the old uncle asked him.
“Of course,” Fong See answered, knowing he had no money for such a trip.
“I will loan you the money and you can pay me back,” said the uncle.
Everything began to move quickly for Fong See. His mother saw the wisdom in the old uncle’s offer. Her youngest son had shown himself to be enterprising and responsible. She felt confident that if he went to the Gold Mountain, he would search out his father, earn money, and remember to send both home to her. In a few days, Fong See–the fourth son of Fong Dun Shung–would look one last time upon the small village of Dimtao. Then he would walk south toward Hong Kong and board a ship that would take him across the sea on a journey at the end of which he hoped he would find his father and brothers, and encourage them to retrace their steps and return to the home village. But first, Fong See had to complete his role as groom.
Marriage festivities were always something to look forward to in the village. This time, many of the usual traditions had been passed over or hurried along. Fong See’s mother and the go-between, who arranged marriages for couples from neighboring villages, had selected and bought him a girl, named Yong, from a family even poorer than his own. Fong See still had not seen Yong, though the go-between had promised that she had good health and was from sturdy country peasants who had always had male children to bless them until this one unfortunate daughter. Yong would work hard and know her place. Was she pretty? Fong See did not know.
His mother had gone to a fortune-teller, and a propitious day had been selected to accommodate his pending departure. Negotiations between the two families had followed the prescribed rules, but again were settled quickly. These were both poor families, so the only real bargaining had been over the bride-price. Shue-ying had sent only one basket of bride cakes and, instead of a whole roast pig, just a few slices.
The purpose of the marriage was to ensure filial ties to China and the home village of Dimtao. In his weeks, months, and possibly years away, Yong would beckon to her husband in his day thoughts and haunt him in his dreams. He would not forget her–or his mother–and would eventually return home. During his absence, Yong, aged ten when he left, would be little more than a servant girl.
Now, as Fong See waited for the bearers to bring his betrothed to Dimtao, he considered what she had been doing in these last days and hours at her home. She would have taken a bath in pomelo leaves gathered by a close female cousin, and sat in her family’s rice-drying tray while her female relatives combed her hair and braided it into a style appropriate for a married woman. She would have prostrated herself before the family’s ancestral tablets, then again before her mother and father, whom she would never see again. If she was lucky, a few good peasants from her village might slip her some lai see–good-luck money that would always be hers and hers alone.
Fong See allowed his mind to consider what this evening might hold. There would be no banquet, for his mother did not have money for that kind of celebration. There would be no wedding chamber, just his straw-covered pallet in the corner of his mother’s one-room house. There would be no consummation, for little Yong was just that–little.
Fong See tried to concentrate on the future, his journey, his search, but his thoughts kept drawing him to the past. He had been born in the auspicious month of August in 1857 in the village of Dimtao in the district of Nam Hoi in the Pearl River delta of Kwangtung Province of the Middle Kingdom. His village was located a half-day’s walk from Fatsan, a commercial city to the north, and a full day’s walk from Canton. He knew every corner of his village and everyone who lived there, for they were all related to him in one way or another.
Fong See was fourteen years old, certainly old enough to take a wife. Although he had no formal education, he was enterprising and clever. Before his tenth birthday he had gone to Canton, where he had sold peanuts–a symbol of prosperity–on the streets. Life in Canton was different from that in the village. Even time itself seemed more important there, as hour-callers walked the streets, calling out the time throughout the day. In Canton he saw thousands of people living on boats along the riverbanks. He had heard that some of them lived and died on those boats without ever setting foot on shore.
He had seen girls even younger than he was, going to silk factories before dawn and returning home after sunset. Sometimes, as he walked from his favorite street corner for selling his wares to his boardinghouse, he would peek inside the wooden slats covering factory windows to see the girls sitting before steaming woks, their hands in boiling water as they unwound the silk cocoons. Other girls in other factories lost their eyesight from days and nights spent embroidering phoenixes and dragons in the forbidden stitch.
He had witnessed many amazing things in the southern city–puppet shows, snake charmers, acrobats balancing bowls on long bamboo poles. He had seen professional beggars waiting in line outside the great compounds–how he longed to know what lay behind those heavily carved doors–hoping for a little rice or the leftovers from a banquet to fill the wooden bowls they held in their hands. Some were gaunt, barely more than skeletons; others–whole families of professional beggars–were a fright to the eye, with their self-inflicted wounds.
He had seen men punished for breaking the law by having their heads put in cangues–huge wooden platforms fastened around their necks like a collar. Fong See recognized this for the clever punishment that it was. A man could not sleep, for he could not rest his head. He could not eat, for he could not reach his hands to his mouth. He could not bat away a fly or mosquito that tormented his ears or eyes, but he could continue to work with his hands. As a man struggled with weight and the humiliation, characters written on the wooden from told the world of the man’s offense.
Fong See had seen other men sitting for days on end with their hands locked into wooden stocks. What better punishment for a robber than to lock his evil hands in wood for all his neighbors to see? In Fong See’s village, the punishment was more severe. If someone stole a chicken, he would have to go before everyone in the village. The village guard would bang a gong, and everyone would take a turn to whip that robber one time. The physical punishment was bad, but the loss of face in front of the whole village was even worse.
Fong See stood as a crackling burst of firecrackers announced the arrival of the sedan chair. All around him villagers pushed forward to watch as the two bearers came to a stop and held steady the red-draped sedan chair. As little Yong stepped down he saw the red veil that covered her face quiver slightly. With his fan, he tapped Yong’s head, raised the veil, and looked down into the pale face of his child bride.
# # #
Several months later, as his countrymen jostled past him and went belowdecks, Fong See gripped the railing of the riverboat that slowly glided from San Francisco Bay up the yellowish river toward Sacramento. He had heard that most of these trips went overnight, but since he had been on the Gold Mountain, he had tried to see and experience as much as possible. For months in the Big City of San Francisco, he had walked the streets of Chinatown, stopping at every herbal shop and visiting every acupuncturist’s office, inquiring if anyone knew his father or brothers. When Fong See turned up nothing, he decided to try Sacramento, the Second City.
“Little Brother, you and I must be of the same mind.”
At the sound of his dialect, Fong See turned to see an older man with baskets and rope-wrapped packages at his feet.
“You must be wise indeed to stay out here while our countrymen go belowdecks to possible death. Do they not think? Do they not remember?”
“Old Uncle,” Fong See responded, using the customary honorific, “I am traveling to Yee Fow, the Second City. I do not understand.”
The older man thrust his chin forward, pointed at the young man. “You are new here?”
At Fong See’s nod, the older man explained. “The fan gway call these boats ‘floating palaces.’ I call them death houses. Do you remember your mother telling you never to lift the top of the rice pot? Not only will this ruin the rice, but you could get a bad burn. This boat is like that pot. It runs on steam. Below, there are great boilers that explode when the white devils forget to attend to them. When I was a young man, only a few years ago, a boat called Yosemite exploded just after leaving a place called Rio Vista. We will pass there later today. When the explosion came, bodies flew through the air. One hundred died in the first burst, another fifty died in the second. Only Tang Men perished in the explosion, or from drowning when the boat sank. I saw their bodies floating in the water. Their skin had scalded and split. The fan gway buried our countrymen in one grave. You could not blame them. Our countrymen were nameless pieces of boiled flesh. The fan gway, what do they care about human beings? They saved the gold, not the people. Later they brought that death ship back to the surface. They cut it up and made it into a new boat that even today plies these waters. I saw these things, and they turned me into the old man you see before you.”
By staying on the deck, instead of going to the “China Hold,” where hundreds of his countrymen paid a few cents to travel in steerage going up and down the river in search of work, Fong See learned much. As he spoke further with the old man, he learned that the drafts of these ships were so shallow it was said that they could run on land after a rain. He learned that at night or in the fog, the captain rang his bell and waited for an echo to bounce off a building so that he would know which way to go, which way to turn. He heard stories about captains who didn’t hear the echo or were lazy in their duties, ran aground, and splintered their vessels in the heavy fogs that blanketed the tule marshes.
Fong See stood by the old man for hours. Looking straight down, he saw turbid water that churned and swirled with each revolution of the paddlewheel. For most of the trip, mud banks kept the river within their gentle embrace, but sometimes they passed high levees like those he knew in China. They had been built by fellow sojourners, the old man told him. The boat chugged pasts flimsy wooden buildings that clung to the riverbank on stilts–again reminding Fong See of China. He had seen places like that in Canton when he sold peanuts on the street. The boat passed cultivated fields where he saw his countrymen bent in their labors.
“Come,” the old man said. “I will show you something.”
Fond See followed as the old man ducked behind a pile of cloth bags, then, checking to make sure no one was looking, climbed the crew’s stairs to the upper deck. They hunched down low and crept along the deck until they reached a window.
“Go ahead, Little Brother. Take a look.”
Fong See raised his head and peered inside. He didn’t care what the old man said–this was a floating palace. The room was huge, unlike anything he had ever seen in his life. It went up two stories, but where the second story should have been, a balcony clung to the walls. The molding along the railings where white women in full-skirted silk gowns rested their gloved hands were elaborately carved. Other women sat on red plush chairs around marble-topped tables, and sipped from tall-stemmed glasses. A few of the people danced to the strange music that wafted though the window.
Looking at the floor-to-ceiling mirrors encased in gold frames, Fong See wondered if they could be real gold. He saw bearded men, in fine woolen suits and silk shirts, some with hats that stood straight up or were shaped like bowls, and women with red and gold demon-hair piled high and topped with hats covered in feathers–their images repeated over and over again in the mirrors’ reflections until they nearly made him dizzy. He wanted to be in that room, be a part of that group with their fancy clothes, their effortless talk.
“Hey, you! Get down from there before I throw you overboard.” Fong See didn’t understand the words, but he understood the sound in the crewman’s voice. His companion said something in the foreigner’s language, grabbed Fong See’s arm, and they went back down to the river level.
As they sat on their haunches by the railing, the old man said, “The white demon does not like us in his country. We are the ones who make it easy for them to come here. We are the ones who risk our lives and sometimes die to build the railroad that opened this land to them. Now they forget.”
“But this cannot be,” Fong See said. “There is fortune here for everyone.”
“You are wrong. For the fan gway only.”
“But we are Tang People. We are honorable people. Surely they treat us well.”
“What brought you here little brother?”
“I came in search of my father,” Fong See said bravely, proudly. “He is an herbalist. I hope to find him in the Second City.”
“Ah!” the old man spat, then looked at the boy shrewdly. “There is more?”
“I have come to make my fortune on Gold Mountain. I have a wife in my home village. I want to make her proud. I wish one day to dress her in the finest silk and give her enough servants so that her feet may never touch the ground and her hands and face will never lose their luster.”
“You come for money.”
“Yes, Uncle, didn’t you?”
“Of course I come with my dreams, but, Little Brother, so does the white demon. He comes across the country on tracks that I and my brothers laid with our own hands. Now he says he wants to work.”
“But don’t they all work?”
“In the old days, no. They stand. They talk. They tell us what to do. These new demons, they want our jobs and they want us to go away.”
“But I just got here.”
“Listen to me. Be careful. Be wary. If they do something to you, you take it. You don’t let them see you mad. You hide your anger. You look blank, like this, so they cannot see inside you.”
Fong See looked at the older man’s face as he seemed to pack away all that made him alive and human until he was as blank as a wall without paint, without posters, without notices. Then the man grinned and was himself again.
“People come from the other ocean and they become citizens,” he continued. “But we cannot. If they hit you or steal from you or murder you, there in nothing to be done. They can cheat us out of our wages. They can rape our women. But we are like the Indian or the black man here. No power. No voice. No way to get retribution. It is not like in our home villages, where a man must accept the punishment of the villagers. On the Gold Mountain, a Chinese is not even allowed to testify against a white demon.”
The old man turned away and looked out across the yellowed water, beyond the levee and fields to the cloudless sky. Fong See realized that the conversation was over. He still had many questions, but then he thought that the old uncle’s words must be wrong. Surely his mind had grown bitter from years alone. It could not be right that his countrymen were not treated as guests in the foreigner’s land.
# # #
In the life story of Fong See, the events surrounding his first wedding, his transition from boy to man, his voyage to the Gold Mountain, the search for his father, his birth, even his name, will always dwell in a nebulous world of fact mixed with mystery, fantasy, and apocrypha. This is purely American, for in what other country can a man–any man (or woman, for that matter) –reinvent himself over and over again? Fong See and his descendants created his history from a mosaic composed of perceptions, feelings, sometimes wishful thinking, and undeniable fact. Not surprisingly, not everyone agrees on the details.
More than a hundred years after these events, even Fong See’s name is disputed. His granddaughter named her daughter Sian, after both the archaeological site in China and the name of endearment she believes her grandfather was called as a small boy, See-on. Some say his childhood name was Yong Yee. Others say that was the name of his Number One wife, with Yong as her clan name. In his government interrogations, Fong See said that his marriage name was Fong Ngai Jung, but it wasn’t a name anyone in the family can remember him using. A large number believe that his name was always plain Fong See: Fong as the clan name and See, literally meaning “four,” as the fourth son.
Still others have said that, yes, he was plain Fong See, and that when he came to his country and gave his name–Fourth Son of Fong–to the immigration men, they heard “Fong See,” and so See became his last name. A small handful say that no, the real story is that when he came to this country the immigration officials asked him where he was from and he answered, “I come from across the sea.” Hence, his name became See, because, as everyone knows, immigration officials on both coasts took a certain malicious pride in renaming people. No matter what the “true” story, See was his last name of the next fifty years, after which he would once again take up the last name of Fong. But since the F. Suie One Company and later the F. See On Compnay were to be the names of his stores, his white customers would call him Mr. Suie, Mr. See, even Mr. On, but never Mr. Fong.
Sissee, Fong See’s eldest daughter, said that her father was married for the first time when he was just seven years old, the very year that Fong Dun Shung left for the United States. He wasn’t looking for his father; rather, his father had sent for him, since he would be the easiest of his children to bring to this country. Only later, after Fong Dun Shung had experienced success, did he return to China. Danny Ho Fong, Fong See’s nephew, said that his grandfather was never “lost” at all. Fong Dun Shung went to the new Gam Saan of Alaska, forgot to send money home, and that’s why Fong See and his mother were “super struggling” and lived in “super poverty.” (Unfortunately, Danny Ho died before he could be questioned more fully on this story.)
Ming Chuen Fong, Fong See’s eldest son from the third wife, has said that his father was a vegetable peddler in China who went to a market with his wares carried in two baskets hung from a pole across his shoulders. Chuen agrees that his father was betrothed before he set sail, but says he was already seventeen years old; Fong See never found his father or his brothers, for they were already back in China, where Fong Dun Shung was a successful gambler. An entry in the The Stories of Chinese Americans, published by Foshan Wen Shih magazine in China, states that Fong See was twenty years of age when he “followed his countrymen to the United States to make a living”; it was where he “struggled and had many bitter experiences,” and where his father “did not do well and died in a foreign land without ever returning to China.”
Of all the “lies” that Fong See told, perhaps none is more slippery and elusive than those regarding his age. One family story is that he was two weeks short of his hundredth birthday when he died. Aunt Sissee used to say that when her father got to a certain age he liked to tack an extra year onto his actual birthday–on Chinese New Year’s or at the birth of a new child–so that by the time he died, he was telling customers that he was 120 years old. As for “hard” fact, in his immigration files Fong See states on several occasions that he was born in 1866 (not 1857) and landed in the United States in 1881, when he was fifteen. Then beginning in 1917, he changed his story, telling immigration officials that he couldn’t remember when he was born or when he came. But the immigration files are often unreliable, riddled as they are with tricky questions and equally with tricky answers.
In his day-to-day life, Fong See told newspaper reporters and customers that he arrived in the United States in 1871 and moved to Los Angeles in 1874. This was partly true. Fong See incorporated his store in Sacramento in 1874, but didn’t settle in Los Angeles until 1897.
It might be well to consider that one of his grandchildren has said: “If you tell a lie, then you must have a motive for telling that lie.” So perhaps in this wonder time we can give Fong See his invented birthday with all its exaggerated truths and concrete fantasy. Since Fong See saw himself–publicly advertised himself–as a man who had his feet on Gold Mountain soil in 1871, then perhaps that is when he arrived: after crossing the ocean not on a Pacific Mail steamship (the preferred method of travel) but on a clipper ship, “carried over by the wind,” as his fellow countrymen called it–at the age of fourteen, already a married man.