Murray Lee runs a finger across a family tree he’s displayed in the Chinese Historical Society Museum on Third Avenue downtown. On the left of the big white board, Lee taps at a solitary name, Ah Quin, a man from Canton, China, who moved to San Diego in 1880 and who, by the time he died in 1914, was the most influential Chinese in Southern California. (He died with $50,000 in his estate.) In a house on Third Street, Ah Quin raised the first Chinese family in San Diego. He named his children Annie, George, Mamie, Tom, Maggie, Lillian, Franklin, Minnie, Henry, Mary, Mabel, and McKinley. Murray Lee runs his finger across the family tree to the names of Ah Quin’s great-great-great-grandchildren, born in the 1980s and ’90s.
“Some of Ah Quin’s fifth generation,” says Lee, “may not even know that they have a famous Chinese ancestor.”
Lee, who serves as curator of Chinese American history at the museum, gives the impression of someone who takes pleasure in precision and order. Now retired, he worked much of his life as a cartographer for the U.S. government, managing the research and production of maps. Around him in the museum, his exhibit on the early history of Chinese in San Diego, In Search of Gold Mountain, is a tidy explanation illustrated with maps and pictures of Chinese migration from Guangdong Province.
Lee shows how immigrants, particularly those from the Four Counties Area near Canton, made their way from China to San Francisco and southward to San Diego. Lee’s prose is lucid, his explanations clear. One photograph in the exhibit stands out from the others: Ah Quin surrounded by his mighty brood. Unlike other turn-of-the-century photographs that show stoic immigrants gazing stonily at the camera, Ah Quin’s isn’t grim. Someone must have said something funny just before the picture was taken. Ah Quin’s two oldest daughters are fighting off grins; his wife is too. Ah Quin’s own face is caught in a semi-smile: a man who named his son McKinley is someone who had a sense of humor.
Murray Lee isn’t related to Ah Quin. His interest in the “Mayor of Chinatown” is purely intellectual. Lee lived and worked in the Washington, D.C., area until he retired to San Diego in 1983, when he became involved in the local Chinese Historical Society. In many ways Lee is the local Chinese Historical Society. He edited the society’s newsletter and still writes much of what’s in it. Lee lugs slides of his In Search of Gold Mountain exhibit around town to colleges, universities, and high schools and lectures on its contents.
Talk off-the-record with other Chinese about the Chinese Historical Society Museum and you are lickety-split down the rabbit hole of what “Chinese” means. You hear talk of a power struggle. Taiwanese, you are told, aren’t much interested in the immigrant experience and want to turn the museum into a showcase of Chinese culture. There are, you are told, two kinds of Taiwanese: the Taiwanese-Taiwanese who immigrated to Taiwan four centuries ago and the mainland-Chinese-Taiwanese who, as Mao’s Communist victory rolled across China, came to Taiwan with Chiang Kai-shek in the late 1940s. While the Taiwanese-Taiwanese are content with their own identity, the mainland-Chinese-Taiwanese are self-consciously Chinese-in-exile, see themselves as an authentic remnant of what it means to be Chinese, and are therefore big promoters of Chinese culture. The mainland-Chinese-Taiwanese long for reunification with the mainland, their motherland. The Taiwanese-Taiwanese do not. There’s considerable friction, obviously, between the two groups. Moreover, the question of Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland is the central question to all Chinese — to all Chinese, that is, other than the American descendants of immigrants who, like Murray Lee, stand outside the fray with an amused calm.
Murray Lee doesn’t have a personal stake in the Taiwan question, as do other local Chinese, but he would like to see the wishes of those who live in Taiwan taken into consideration. If Taiwan does or does not reunify with the mainland is something for others to decide. As for whether or not Taiwanese from the mainland are trying to hijack the museum and turn it into a showcase for Chinese culture, Lee’s response is a shrug of his shoulders.
“Their own immigrant experience is so different from that of the Chinese who immigrated to America in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. They’re very well educated people. They’re professionals. They’re Mandarin speakers. They didn’t come to America to work in gold mines or build a railroad. Theirs is a whole other experience. They didn’t have to face the impact of discrimination and exclusion laws. Everyone needs to know about and recognize what the early immigrants had to face and how successful they were under trying circumstances. We can all share their early history with the same pride as we share our Chinese heritage and culture.”
In a roundabout way, Lee is addressing the problem of Chinese identity. Most Americans use the word “Chinese” as if it defined a homogeneous group, but “Chinese” is more imprecise than “Anglo” or “Hispanic,” for “Chinese” doesn’t even describe a people who share a common spoken language. At its most useful, “Chinese” describes someone who can trace his or her ancestry to China; beyond that the word offers few clues. For example, 75 percent of the people most San Diegans think of as “Vietnamese immigrants” are in fact hoa — ethnic Chinese, Cantonese-speakers, whose families settled in Vietnam in the late 1920s and ’30s. These people think of themselves as “Chinese,” but their experience of what that word means is worlds away from what “Chinese” means to a Taiwanese-Taiwanese who owns a successful biotech firm in Sorrento Valley. Or even from what “Chinese” means to Murray Lee.
Lee’s own family history — the Chinese history that fascinates him — is rooted in the Toishan District southwest of Canton and is therefore, in many ways, a typical Chinese American history. Until only very recently, the great majority of Chinese immigrants came from Guangdong Province, a part of southern China that, for historical reasons, has been exposed to Westerners and the West since the mid-18th Century. To talk then about “overseas Chinese,” or who the Chinese call “huaqiao,” is, generally, to talk about Southern Chinese, a regional group regarded by other Chinese as hardworking and industrious. A small corner of Guangdong Province, the Four Counties Area, yielded many of the immigrants who settled in California, including the well-known Hom family, which settled in San Diego. When people from the Four Counties Area speak Cantonese or Mandarin, the official language of mainland China, they speak with a strong rural accent.
“I can always tell when someone’s from that area,” one Hong Kong woman told me. “There’s a certain way they pronounce words, a certain intonation. Sometimes they’ll try to disguise it. The Chinese are just as class conscious as anyone else, maybe more so. The prejudice is similar to the American one about Southern accents, the stereotype of Southerners being uneducated, unsophisticated. So people from the Four Counties Area often have this rural accent and Cantonese speakers from big cities like Hong Kong have a prejudice about it. Of course it’s ridiculous to stereotype people because of an accent. You only have to look at how well those people have done in America, how hard they’ve worked, their success in business and education, to see how ridiculous it is.”
Murray Lee, who didn’t study Chinese (Mandarin) until an adult, has forgotten most of it, but he laughs when I tell him what the Hong Kong woman said. He admits that life was very hard and people were very poor in Toishan, where Yik-Gim Lee, his grandfather, came from. Murray Lee has spent considerable time tracing his family’s genealogy and hunting down the facts of his grandfather’s story. In Grandfather’s Bones, an essay published in the spring 1995 issue of the Chinese Historical Society newsletter, Lee describes his grandfather as a “quiet and humble man, despite his size. He stood over six feet tall and was as strong as an elephant and was nicknamed ‘the Elephant’ by those who worked with him.” In the 1880s, Lee’s grandfather left China to work on a railroad in the Pacific Northwest. According to Grandfather’s Bones, Yik-Gim Lee was at one point captured by a tribe of Pacific Northwest Indians with whom he ultimately lived for two years. The tribe’s chief had lost his son and adopted Yik-Gim Lee, making him a minor chief within the tribe.
“Can you imagine what an adventure that must have been for a poor boy from China?” Lee squints into the late-afternoon blue filling the empty museum. “My mother was Caucasian and the first immigrant to America on her side was named Jonathan Murray, and he came to Connecticut Colony from Scotland in 1685 at age 20. I carry the names of both immigrant ancestors, which is why I have this feeling of duty to research their histories and pass them on to the younger generation.
“Every Chinese family has a story.”
I ask Murray Lee what he thinks it means to be Chinese, if his interest in genealogy weren’t an expression of his Chinese-ness.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he chuckles. He moves across the room and gazes at Ah Quin’s family tree. “A lot of Chinese aren’t interested in genealogy or their ancestors. To me it’s interesting because…” He runs his fingers across the white board. “Because… Because it’s like a puzzle.”
A difficult puzzle, he could have added. Tracing genealogies, extracting family histories, is similar to what any journalist would do when setting out to write a story about San Diego’s Chinese community. You encounter immediate difficulties.
“My parents didn’t talk about the past,” a 28-year-old Shanghai woman told me. A recent immigrant from the mainland, a graduate of a well-known American business school, she could talk at length about economics, about the evolution of the Shanghai stock exchange, but she lacked the barest details about her own family’s past.
“My parents are both members of the Communist Party. I know they must have suffered during Mao’s Cultural Revolution and when they were growing up during Mao’s Great Leap Forward. There was incredible famine after the Great Leap Forward. Everyone starved. But my parents have never talked about those things. I think that’s common of many Chinese parents, wherever they are from. Life for Chinese has always been difficult. In China. For Chinese living in Southeast Asia. There was persecution, political troubles. Parents just never talk about it. They concentrate on the present. Making sure you do well in school. Making sure you have a profession.”
You encounter a lot of language couched in understatement and studied evasion. I remember talking with a young man from Beijing who now designs computer chips for a North County firm. I was asking him about Mao’s calligraphy, which was so idiosyncratic that, while Mao was alive, most mainland Chinese could recognize it on sight. Chinese characters are actually stylized drawings of things — wind, water, a rice field — that represent both ideas and sounds. While the Chinese, depending on which dialect they speak, assign a different sound to an individual character, they all agree on its meaning. In other words, a Mandarin speaker in Beijing can read a letter written by a Cantonese speaker in Hong Kong: Chinese share, at the very least, a written language. While there are universal, concrete rules for how characters must be drawn — you always proceed from the left to the right, the top to the bottom, etc. — there’s leeway for individual expression. Over centuries, Chinese calligraphy evolved into high art, and its masters elaborated their own rules and developed specific styles that are studied and copied by students of Chinese calligraphy across the globe.
I knew a little about this and I was still amazed that Mao’s handwriting could be recognized by so many people. (How many Americans could recognize Bill Clinton’s handwriting? Richard Nixon’s? Abraham Lincoln’s?) I asked the young chip designer why this should be so, and he paused. He had a green card, a good job in Southern California, had no apparent intention of ever returning to live in China, had therefore no reason to fear repercussions for anything he might say, especially in answer to such an innocuous question.
“You could tell by Mao’s handwriting,” the young man answered, “that Mao was someone who didn’t play by the rules.”
Beijing-born artist Li Huai sits in her La Jolla living room, surrounded by Chinese antiques, black-leather couches, a grand piano, framed gouaches she did while an art student in Beijing. I ask her if there are things about her life in China that she finds difficult to talk about. She says:
“I still self-censor. I can tell I’m censoring myself even as I’m talking to you right now. I came to San Diego in 1983. I have an American husband and an American child. I am successful in my work. I still censor myself. There are things I’m not telling you because they are too personal and too painful, and there are things I’m not telling you out of habit. I grew up that way. From the time I was very little my parents told me, talk about anything but don’t talk about guajiatashi, the ‘big affairs of state.’ You never mentioned anything political, or anything that might be considered political. And during the Cultural Revolution, when I was growing up in China, there was very little that wasn’t political. If you had an opinion, you didn’t express it. Anything you said could be used against you or your family. You learned to keep your mouth shut.”
Inspired and directed by Mao, administered by his wife, Jiang Qing, the Cultural Revolution began in 1966 as a means for Mao to eradicate his opponents in the Communist Party. The revolution rapidly expanded its scope by creating broader and broader classes of “political subversives” targeted for destruction. No one was safe and, as was traditional in China during times of turmoil, intellectuals were the first to suffer.
Of the Cultural Revolution’s many ambitious goals, one pursued with particular zeal was the eradication of China’s past. Everything traditional was bad; everything new and revolutionary was good. In light of these values, Li Huai came from a bad family. Her mother taught classical Chinese literature at high schools in Beijing, her father taught Russian and classical Russian literature at the city’s most prestigious universities.
“I grew up black,” Li explains.
Families from politically suspect classes or backgrounds were identified as “black,” politically correct families were “red.” The Red Guards, the teenage vanguard of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, were merciless toward “blacks.”
“I remember when the Red Guards stormed into our home and tore it apart. They found my father’s collection of records of Russian classical music. I remember the Red Guards crushing the records, crushing them under their boots. We just stood there and watched. Too afraid to move. We didn’t do or say anything. What could we do or say? You heard a thousand stories like ours and the only thing you wanted was for your story not to be one of the worst.”
Li’s family was expelled from Beijing and sent to rural Anhui Province where, for a while, before Li’s father was tried and sentenced to seven years’ hard labor, he was given a job tending cows. Li’s mother was sent to teach at a school in a remote village. Twelve-year-old Li was left alone in her family’s apartment for four years, looked after by neighbors.
“My situation wasn’t uncommon during the Cultural Revolution. Many parents were sent away. Many children were left alone. By that point, the Red Guard had shut down most of the schools. There wasn’t anything to do. I just stayed at home. Fortunately, I had two things in my favor. We had managed to save some of my father’s books, classical Chinese literature, so I was able to read poetry. My father was a very typical Chinese scholar. He’d studied all the Chinese classics and had made us memorize lots of poetry. He’d also made sure that I studied Chinese calligraphy. From the time I was very little, my father hired a calligraphy tutor for me, a very talented man. I was so little when I started that I had to sit on his lap to reach the table. I was very good at calligraphy, and I progressed very fast.
“After you get past a certain point of proficiency in calligraphy, you usually choose to study a particular style, and there are some styles considered appropriate for boys and other styles appropriate for girls. Although my father was traditional in many ways, he allowed me to study a particular style, a very bold, masculine, assertive style that most girls never studied.
“My calligraphy studies gave me a good visual sense, a good sense of control with a brush — Chinese calligraphy is done with a brush. Calligraphy gave me a good basis for drawing, for draftsmanship, and all those years I was alone in my family’s apartment, I drew. Simple things. I’d concentrate on a single object, a chestnut for example, and I’d draw it over and over again, maybe as many as 75 times. You have to understand how visually starved we were in China, for color, for visual excitement. The government controlled all media. All images were repetitive, political. So I learned to find visual stimulation in very simple things; I learned to concentrate on detail, which was possibly the best education for a young artist. I can thank Mao for giving me that isolation.
“There were many ironies during the Cultural Revolution, and one of the worst for our family was that my calligraphy teacher publicly denounced my father. During the Cultural Revolution, they set up these loudspeakers on every apartment building, and these loudspeakers broadcast propaganda all day long. You couldn’t get away from them. They broadcast political news and they broadcast information about political criminals. And there came one day —we all heard it — when we heard my calligraphy teacher’s voice booming out of the loudspeakers on our apartment building. My calligraphy teacher’s voice denouncing my father as a political criminal. This destroyed my father. He had respected this man. I sat on this man’s knee as a little child. I had studied with him. He had been my teacher. And he denounced my father.
“So the years passed. My father was in prison. My mother was away. When I was 16 I, like all Chinese teenagers at the time, was sent to work on a collective farm in a rural village. I came from a ‘black’ family. I wanted so badly to fit in. I was determined to work very hard. Because I’m from Beijing, I speak Mandarin with a strong Beijing accent. One of the things that gave me away was that the Beijing accent has a strong r sound, very similar to the r sound in American English. So I tried to soften my accent, to get rid of my Beijing r. I also worked very hard in the wheat fields — carting manure to the fields, planting, harvesting. Harvest time was the most difficult. We worked almost ’round the clock, getting the harvest in before it rained. It was hard, repetitive work.
“Gradually, I was accepted by the peasants. They respected the fact that I worked hard, even if I came from a family with political troubles. As someone with a ‘black’ background, I had to write a self-criticism every day I was in the collective and hand it over to a Communist Party official. I had to show that I was improving.
“People saw that I had beautiful handwriting, and since one’s calligraphy is so important in China — a way of persuading people — little by little people started to come to me to ask me to write letters for them. Official letters. And little by little people found out that I could also draw. I was asked to do political posters for the collective. Finally, my third year there, my skill was so well known that I was asked to do a large mural, a portrait of Mao, to decorate the meeting hall in the county seat.
“I was, of course, terrified. Painting a portrait of Mao was potentially very dangerous. There were a million ways to go wrong. One small mistake and you could be sent to a labor camp. I was very nervous. I had only a small, postcard-size picture of Mao to work from. I knew that the only way to enlarge and paint it onto the meeting hall’s wall was to draw a grid on the image and on the wall. That way I could match perfectly what was in each small square on the postcard to the larger squares on the wall. I knew, however, that in the past when people had tried this technique, they’d gotten in trouble. The grid, people said, made it look as though Mao was behind bars, as if the artist were trying to put Mao in prison. I know that sounds unbelievable, but that’s how things were during the Cultural Revolution. Finally, I spoke with a Communist Party official and explained to him that I needed to use the grids to do the mural, and he gave me his okay. I lavished an extreme amount of attention on the mural. I remember trying to get the mole on Mao’s face exactly right. The mural was a big success.”
Li’s stay on the collective coincided with Mao’s death, the arrest of Jiang Qing, and the official end of the Cultural Revolution. By the time Li was to leave, the Communist Party was attempting to reorganize the nation’s long-dormant educational system. College admission, the Party announced, would be based purely on national entrance-exam scores. No preference would be given to children of high Party officials. No deserving student would be denied admission because of a bad political background. Li decided to take the exam to enter the Beijing Film Institute, the most selective art school in China. Li was the only student from Anhui Province to pass the exam. In 1978, she left the collective for the institute, a member of the first class to enter the school since it was closed at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution.
“It was like,” Li says, “I had gone from hell to heaven.”
There are more than one billion people in China. The Beijing Film Institute accepted only 124 students. There were only 13 in Li’s department, art direction.
“Suddenly, I was overwhelmed with information. It was a kind of gluttony, really. I had been so starved for art for so long, I just sort of binged indiscriminately. We had access to art books, foreign art books and foreign magazines and foreign films. In comparison to the rest of the population, we had tremendous freedom. But we still had to abide by certain rules. All art had to be optimistic. All sources of inspiration had to come from outside yourself. Self-expression was frowned upon. Pessimism, sadness, were not allowed. I and my friends painted and drew many things we knew wouldn’t be politically acceptable. We’d hide them and show them to each other. We had little parties. We’d buy some beer and spend the night burning our politically unacceptable art in a trash can.”
In 1982, shortly after Li graduated from the institute, she met by chance Paul Pickowicz, a UCSD professor of Chinese history who was in Beijing doing research on Chinese silent films. One year later they married and Li moved to San Diego. In May 1989 a collection of Li’s work, Li Huai: An Artist in Two Cultures, was exhibited at the San Diego Museum of Art, one of very few solo shows of a contemporary artist’s work that the museum has ever done.
“Why is your work so violent? So angry? So negative? People asked me those questions when I first got here and started to paint. Americans had a hard time understanding my work. They didn’t know enough about China to understand what I was trying to express or why I was trying to express it. For the first time in my life I was able to use colors, form, content, that I never could use before.
“Still, I have to admit that I’m pretty much a loner. I haven’t really sought out the local Chinese community. I have a few Chinese friends, but I really don’t know what’s going on in the community at large. I’m an artist. I work on my art. I don’t exactly avoid other Chinese, but in China we have a saying, ‘Once bitten by a snake, you fear rope for ten years.’ ”
Fifty-four-year-old Chris Fan, a Taiwanese-Taiwanese, president of Wyntek Diagnostics, Inc., in Sorrento Valley, wants to build a Taiwanese American cultural center that will stand for 100 years.
“So our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren will remember where they came from.”
Fan’s 24-year-old son Felix is an internationally famous cellist who lives in Paris and New York. Fan got his graduate degree in chemistry from Purdue, did his post-doc at MIT. Wyntek is the second company he’s owned; he sold his first to Eli Lilly in 1990. Wyntek, which manufactures ingeniously simple tests for things like pregnancy and strep infection, is doing so well that it will soon move into a new 45,000-square-foot facility. Fan is voluble, outgoing, laughs a lot. He talks openly about his life, his past, his family.
“Frankly, if you asked me, I’m not Chinese. I’m Taiwanese.”
This sense of Taiwanese-Taiwanese exceptionalism comes from the island’s history. Chinese, Fan says, didn’t begin immigrating to Taiwan until famine forced them to leave Fukien Province in the early 17th Century, which was a busy century for Taiwan. It was also in the 17th Century that the Dutch and Spanish established settlements on the island. In 1895, as a result of the Sino-Japanese War, China’s Imperial Government ceded Taiwan to Japan, which ruled the island until 1945.
“We’ve had so many unique cultural influences, influences that mainland China doesn’t share. The Japanese made the Taiwanese take Japanese names. They made Japanese language the official language in Taiwan. My father, who was a high school teacher, had to teach in Japanese. My older brother, who’s a doctor in Osaka, doesn’t speak Chinese. When we meet, we have to speak in English with each other. We Taiwanese-Taiwanese have had all these cultural influences — Dutch, Spanish, Japanese. We were given to Japan by China. We’ve had a very unique history. So when the mainlanders came in the late 1940s, they basically took over where the Japanese left off. They occupied all the positions of power. They even occupied the villas in which the Japanese officials had lived. Many Taiwanese were naturally glad to be rid of Japanese colonialism, but they soon found out that one kind of colonialism had been replaced with another. The mainlanders were in charge. And when the Taiwanese-Taiwanese objected — mainly the middle-class, the entrepreneurial class — they were massacred in the thousands by the mainlanders.”
Mainlanders would argue that their extreme authoritarianism was justified by the equally extreme challenge posed by Communist China. Mao’s utopian revolution, they believed, was an aberration, something of which the Chinese people would eventually tire. Sooner or later, the mainlanders in Taiwan believed, the people of China would rise up against Mao and his revolution and would look for support from one place, Taiwan.
“But you must understand,” Chris Fan says, “that the mainland Chinese were only 15 to 20 percent of Taiwan’s population. The rest of the population had an entirely different experience, a different history. The Japanese had invested heavily in Taiwan, in infrastructure. Taiwan was always incredibly productive in agriculture, in rice, in sugar. Taiwan had become very prosperous. So when the mainlanders moved in and took over, there was great resentment toward them. They were very authoritarian. When I was growing up in Taiwan, in all my secondary education, in all the history textbooks I had to read, maybe only one or two pages were devoted to Taiwan’s history. All the history I learned was mainland Chinese history. There was never any discussion of what happened to Taiwan in 1895, the Japanese occupation, or of the arrival of the mainlanders and the violence after they arrived. It was only after I came to the United States that I was able to learn about Taiwan’s history. In Taiwan, the government, run by mainlanders, kept very tight control on information. It wasn’t as bad as living on the mainland, but there were severe restrictions. I came to America in 1969, and because I had been opposed to the Taiwanese government, I couldn’t get a visa to visit Taiwan until 1993. Taiwan didn’t even have a truly free election until 1996. Now Taiwan is incredibly westernized — Taipei is far more westernized, in terms of attitudes and freedoms, than Hong Kong. For me, I feel far more at home in Taiwan or the United States than I would in China. I don’t have a sense of China being my home.”
Many other Chinese, however, do have a sense that China is home, and whether or not they live there, they believe Taiwan should be part of China. The morning I talked with Fan, we spent almost an hour sketching a diagram of the many local Chinese immigrant societies and Chinese-language newspapers and where they stood on the Taiwan question. The two-page diagram is a nerve-jangling jumble of boxes and arrows. As I study the diagram I realize that while it is useless as an explanatory device, it is actually a very good illustration of just how confusing the word “Chinese” can be.
Locally, there are five basic groups of recent Chinese immigrants who’ve established newspapers and immigrant organizations: mainlanders from Taiwan, Taiwanese-Taiwanese, people from Hong Kong, the Indochinese from Vietnam, and, the most recent, people from the mainland. Of all of them, only the Taiwanese-Taiwanese uniformly support Taiwanese independence. With few exceptions, the others believe Taiwan should be part of China.
“That’s because of their strong feelings for China as their homeland,” explains Fan. “Even if they don’t support the Communist government in China, even if they’ve never lived in China or visited there, they feel Taiwan should be part of China. A Cantonese speaker from Saigon, for example, who is opposed to the Communist governments in Vietnam and China, still believes in Taiwanese reunification. These people feel a connection to China that we Taiwanese-Taiwanese do not. One thing that I guess you could say is characteristic of Taiwanese-Taiwanese immigrants is we assimilate very quickly into American culture. Very quickly America becomes our home.
“As far as what we share with other Chinese, the most important thing, I think, is that we share holidays, like Chinese New Year, which is on February 5 this year. That’s one thing all Chinese have in common. Taiwanese-Taiwanese. Mainlander. Vietnamese Chinese. We may be separated by politics, language, history, but we all celebrate the same holidays.”
The parts of San Diego where Chinese New Year is celebrated most conspicuously are Vietnamese. Walking around Mid-City with a Cantonese interpreter, I discovered that many of the restaurants and stores that I’d thought of as Vietnamese were owned by hoa, ethnic Chinese. My favorite Vietnamese noodle shop. A small grocery. A Vietnamese sandwich shop. A little knickknack store. The owners all spoke Cantonese, and although they were polite and could speak through my interpreter, they weren’t forthcoming about their lives in Vietnam or about their immigration to America.
“They’re very guarded people,” my interpreter told me. “They’re suspicious. They had a hard time in Vietnam.”
In 1972 there were 1.3 million ethnic Chinese living in South Vietnam. Many of their families had come to Saigon from southern China in the late 1920s for economic reasons. Others had come in the late 1930s as Japan invaded southern China. After the fall of Saigon, the ethnic Chinese, largely involved in commerce, became popular targets for the Communist regime. In 1978, the Vietnamese government banned all private trade and sent a great number of ethnic Chinese business people to “repopulate and cultivate” the countryside. The situation deteriorated further in 1979 when Vietnam engaged in a border war with China: never fully accepted as truly Vietnamese, the hoa, ethnic Chinese, were regarded as potential agents for an enemy state. Life was intolerable for the hoa, and from 1979 to 1981 more than 200,000 fled Vietnam as “boat people.” (By the early 1990s, the total number of hoa who had fled Vietnam was estimated at more than 500,000.)
Embarrassed by this exodus, the Vietnamese government enacted a series of reforms throughout the 1980s to normalize the status of ethnic Chinese. Laws were passed insuring that hoa had the same “rights and obligations” as any Vietnamese citizen. By the late ’80s the Vietnamese government had lifted most restrictions on the hiring of hoa, and measures encouraging some private-sector industries gave certain hoa greater control of their economic life. Twenty-five years after the fall of Saigon, the Vietnamese government now openly talks about the “vital and important role” its ethnic Chinese citizens play in the nation’s growing economy. After having forcibly “re-educated” many hoa, having treated them as foreigners and enemy agents, the Vietnamese government now regards hoa ties to China and the West as valuable.
Listening to Van Ha, manager of the Chinese-language American Chinese Times, you begin to get an idea of the complexity, and impossibility, of hoa life during and after the Vietnam War.
“I wouldn’t say that our life in Vietnam was similar to the black experience in America because black Americans are in their own country. We were regarded as foreigners. We were discriminated against in business, in education, even in the military, although military service was mandatory in South Vietnam. Still, there were hoa on both sides of the war who were motivated out of a sense of patriotism — they thought of Vietnam as their home and they were going to fight for it.”
Ha, whose family was from Guangdong Province, was born and raised in Saigon. He was educated in Cantonese and Mandarin at Chinese-run schools, and in the evening he studied at what he calls “literacy schools,” programs that helped ethnic Chinese achieve fluency in spoken and written Vietnamese. In 1968, when he was 20 years old, Ha enlisted in the South Vietnamese army.
“There were two kinds of conscription, you either joined voluntarily or you were grabbed off the street. I decided to join and ended up serving as a sergeant. There was, however, what you would call in English a glass ceiling for ethnic Chinese in the South Vietnamese army. It was an unspoken rule — nothing official, nothing on paper — but ethnic Chinese couldn’t rise past a certain rank. That’s just the way things were.
“What many Americans don’t know is that China, on behalf of the North Vietnamese, sent spies to South Vietnam to recruit ethnic Chinese to fight as guerrillas for an organization called ‘Huayuen,’ which just means ‘Chinese movement’ in Chinese. They recruited mainly among illiterate Chinese who lived in the South Vietnamese countryside. They recruited uneducated people, people who really didn’t know or care much about politics. They didn’t have any real political motivation. They didn’t know right from wrong. They didn’t know what they were doing. And they were recruited to act as terrorists only against ethnic Chinese who supported the South Vietnamese army and the American military presence. It was Chinese fighting against Chinese. They planted bombs, they threw hand grenades. They assassinated people. Something like a pro-Taiwanese paper was a particular target in Saigon. In its offices you’d never want to sit near a window. And I want to stress that this was Chinese fighting against Chinese.
“After the fall of Saigon, when the North Vietnamese took power, the guerrillas who had fought in Huayuen, for the North Vietnamese cause, were treated very badly by the North Vietnamese. They were stripped of their rank. Some were imprisoned. Their treatment angered the Chinese government and was one of the reasons for the 1979 border war between China and Vietnam.
“Now, I was an ethnic Chinese who had served in the South Vietnamese army for seven years. I had therefore been on the American payroll. People like me were stripped of all their property and sentenced to three years at hard labor. I knew that sooner or later the government would catch up with me. The government specifically persecuted ethnic Chinese. I had no other choice but to leave Vietnam.”
As manager of the American Chinese Times, whose offices sit off El Cajon Boulevard not far from 54th Street, Ha is responsible for the paper’s ad sales and his phone rings continuously. From one call to the next Ha switches from Cantonese to Mandarin. Over his desk hangs a photocopy of a picture of Ha in fatigues, taken when he was a sergeant in the South Vietnamese army. “An American friend took that picture.”
The editor of the American Chinese Times, Ha explains, is from Beijing, so the paper supports Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland.
“But we don’t print much about the Taiwan question. We run a lot of stories about mainland China, about the country’s economic development. There’s a lot going on in China right now.”
Through my Cantonese interpreter, I ask Ha what he thinks it means to be Chinese, but my question apparently isn’t straightforward enough.
“We have a saying in Chinese that when you go to someone else’s village, you adopt their customs. We are adapting to American life.”
We go back and forth like this for 10, 15 minutes, with my repeatedly asking Ha what he thinks it means to be Chinese and with his repeatedly responding with non sequiturs like “It means to live peacefully together” or “It means to be hardworking and forward-looking.”
I ask the question one last time and my interpreter, whom I trust, who is licensed and has translated for the U.S. Federal Court in several states, looks at me wearily and repeats my question to Ha, “What does being Chinese mean to you?”
“I want the American people who read this article to know that we are not parasites.”
Ha’s response sounded familiar.
In 1919 Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria’s grandson, wrote, “Jews and mosquitoes are a nuisance that humanity must be gotten rid of in some manner — I believe the best would be gas! Let no German ever forget this, nor rest until these parasites have been destroyed and exterminated from German soil!” Some years later Adolf Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, “The Jew is and remains the typical parasite, a sponger who like a noxious bacillus keeps spreading as soon as a favorable medium invites him.”
Eighty percent of Chinese living outside of the People’s Republic of China live in Asia. The people making up this large part of the Chinese diaspora have long been known as the “Jews of the East.” In many ways the analogy is apt. Entrepreneurial, a cultural and linguistic minority with an ancient history, the ethnic Chinese were denied full access to the societies in which they lived, while at the same time those societies condemned them for being “clannish” and “inward.” Jews have been simultaneously seen as “radical Communists” and “money-hungry capitalists.” Jews have lived for centuries in various societies, adopted their languages, fought in their wars, contributed to their economies and literatures, only to find out, in the end, that despite their patriotism and assimilation, the locals never ceased thinking of Jews as “foreign.”
“My father was a shmatte salesman,” says Yu Su-Mei, owner of Saffron Chicken and Saffron Noodles on India Street, two of the city’s best-known Thai restaurants. “Mostly embroidered goods. He was from northern China, Shandong Province. Very poor. Really the Sicily of China. No one could wait to get out. He traveled to Thailand in the 1920s, and he moved to Bangkok definitively, bringing my mother, after the Japanese invaded northern China in 1937. He started a business in fabrics, and, later, in Chinese antiques, not far from the Thai royal palace in central Bangkok. Many of his clients were Thai nobility and, mostly, foreigners, and that’s where they lived. It was a very cosmopolitan area. He wanted to be near the action. And it was also convenient, because you could travel from there to any part of the city by boat, and by boat was how you got around Bangkok in those days. We lived near there, near the Oriental Hotel, which was the first paved road in Bangkok. There had been Chinese in Bangkok for many centuries. But my parents never considered Thailand their home. They always thought of themselves as in transit.
“I grew up in a very Thai environment. I was one of the first Chinese girls to attend the boarding school attached to the Thai royal palace, the school established by Presbyterian missionaries, the one made famous by Anna in that horrible movie The King and I. It’s a prestigious school where very wealthy, titled Thais sent their daughters, and I attended that school for nearly ten years. There were never more than four or five hundred girls in the school. It was very regimented. They taught us to be extremely independent, very assertive. They taught us things like cooking and sewing, but there was also a great emphasis on knowledge.
“I had a very, very hard time there. I was beaten, I was neglected, I was called names because I was Chinese. During the 1950s in Thailand, there was a lot of animosity toward the Chinese. The Chinese were seen as potential Communists. It wasn’t as bad as what happened, or what happens, in Indonesia. There, it was and is much worse. But I was living in Thailand, and I had a Thai name, and I didn’t look Thai. In the 1950s the Thai ridicule of Chinese turned to hatred. We Chinese were prosperous. We worked hard. We never went on vacation. We were the whipping boy.
“You turn adversity into advantage. For all my years in the boarding school, I looked up to the missionaries. I wanted to be like them. From what I experienced in that school, the abuse, the loneliness, I knew I wanted to come to America. Anger can be a very real force. When I was 12 years old I told my mother I wanted to come to America and she thought I was crazy. I started doing research and by the time I was 15 I’d learned that there was a school in Kentucky, a school that had established itself as a school for orphans at the time of the American Civil War, that gave scholarships to ‘international’ students. I told my mother I wanted to go to that school and that I was pretty sure I would be accepted. She said okay, but you can’t go alone. You have to take someone with you, a relative. I chose Susie, the daughter of my second uncle. I applied to the school, and we were both accepted.
“I’ll never forget it. We had to go from Thailand by boat, the President Cleveland, to San Francisco. And from San Francisco we took a train to Kentucky. Kentucky! There wasn’t even a train station where we stopped, only a man waving a handkerchief. We got off the train with all our luggage, so much luggage, as if we were going to be married. And the man says to us, ‘Y’all from China?’
“Rural Kentucky. I thought I’d died and gone to hell. Most of the school’s buildings were built during the Civil War. Most of the four or five hundred students were orphans, from every part of the world. It was horrible. I knew I had to get out of there. In the general confusion I was able to convince the administration that a mistake had been made, that I was actually in the 11th grade. They gave me a test, and thanks to my education, I passed into the 11th grade, shortening my time at the school.
“When I finally got into Chapman College in California, Eastern philosophy was cool. Suddenly I was ‘in.’ I had a wonderful philosophy professor, and it was in his class that I started to read and put things together. Reading Eastern philosophy, I began to recognize elements of my own upbringing. The more I read, the more I recognized myself. I became Chinese when I came to the United States. I know that sounds strange, but it was in the United States that I understood what it meant to be Chinese, what a wonderful thing it was, something unique and different and good.
“There were lots of things that came out of this self-understanding and self-definition, like my mother’s cooking. She was a wonderful cook. There were lots of rules about food. The Thais snacked all day long. There was all this street food, so many vendors. But we Chinese ate three specific meals a day. Snacking all the time wasn’t Chinese, like wearing pants wasn’t Chinese. I never owned a pair of jeans when I lived in Thailand. This was at a time when everyone wanted to look like Elvis or Pat Boone. I never wore sandals. I always wore socks. To my mother, that’s what being Chinese meant. There was always this sense of decorum and etiquette at our meals. In Thai families during meals, you laughed and you were jolly. You could talk and chomp and eat. In Chinese families, you couldn’t talk unless you were spoken to.
“There was this sense of being apart. And food was always a great adventure. We went to the market with our mother, and we were never afraid. As I said, she was a wonderful cook. She never allowed us to cook. We always had to stand back and watch. For myself, I preferred Thai cuisine. I learned a lot about cooking it while I was in the boarding school. But my mother had a wonderful palate. She never used a recipe. She smoked — so much for all you hear about cigarettes ruining your palate. She was a marvelous cook, and she was the person who taught me to appreciate food.
“My father is still alive, he’s 96, but when my mother died in 1982, I went back to the village in Shandong where they were from. It was very strange. I was scared. I had to speak Chinese. I didn’t think I would fit in. We had to get special permission from the government to visit the village. It was Chinese New Year. Everyone knew that we were coming, and when we got there they had a New Year’s feast for us — dumplings, homemade wine, and pickles.
“This village was very poor, a hill covered with rocks. And these people, my relatives, had kept all these pictures my parents had sent them. There they were, these pictures of me when I was a little girl, and pictures of my family, tacked up in a relative’s home. They even had pictures of my parents when they were in that village. These people knew all about me, where I had been, what my parents had done, but I didn’t know anything about them or about their lives.
“And they took me to see the house where my father was born, an old house made of clay bricks that had turned into a place where they kept corn. And they showed me the orchard my father had started, my 96-year-old father. The trees he had planted himself. And the graves of my ancestors were in that orchard, and they took me to see that. It was still so soon after the Cultural Revolution that these people, so far in the country, didn’t think it was all right to bow to your ancestors, because during the Cultural Revolution those sorts of customs were outlawed. They were seen as reactionary and superstitious. Despite that, one of my relatives said, ‘Let’s bow to your ancestors.’ And we did.
“And it was there that I came full circle, understanding what it means to be Chinese. Being part of this long line of people, this community. Family and community and China, our country, China. Social customs. Passed down through generation to generation. From my mother and father to me. This long lineage that tells us who we are, that shows us how to see what we are. That being part of something whole that goes back forever.
“I bless my parents for reminding me every day of my life that I’m Chinese.”