My Father, Wing On “Danny” LeeMy grandfather left his village in Taishan, Southern China before his son was born. He planned to make his fortune on the Golden Mountain, as America was called, and then return home to his village a wealthy man. Only it didn’t work out that way. Life as an immigrant was challenging. It was hard to earn a living, let alone save enough to support your family, and pay for your journey back to the other side of the world. Instead, after a long separation from his wife and son, it was decided that they, too, should emigrate to the United States.
In 1948, my father and grandmother arrived on American soil. I used to love hearing my dad tell the story of his passage from coast to coast on a ship. They embarked in Hong Kong and sailed the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco. He recalled that it was about a two week long journey. He talked about it like it was an adventure. Of course, it must have seemed that way to a teenager who had never been far outside of his rural village.
When they arrived in California, my father was separated from his mother, board in different areas with no communication. They were detained and questioned, as was customary for processing Chinese immigrants. Authorities were particular with Chinese in their criteria for permitting entry to the U.S. or not, built upon decades of American legal restrictions and social discrimination against their immigration. All Chinese family members had to answer detailed and specific questions about their village, relatives, livelihoods, and so forth, to try to ferret out the “paper sons and daughters,” those who bought papers identifying them as sons or daughters of Chinese-American citizens. Such purchases was a way to ensure entry, because any Chinese who could prove citizenship through paternal lineage could not be denied. Since U.S. policy at the time was to prevent Chinese from entering, detainees were thus interrogated and cross-examined. If there were any discrepancies in their accounts, it would be cause for deportation.
My grandmother recalled being frightened by the interrogation process. My father, on the other hand, did not recall being frightened or intimidated by any of the questioning. He used to talk instead about how he thought it was incredible that he had his own bed to sleep in, and three meals every day! He ate a banana for the first time in his life and thought it was amazing. He marveled that he didn’t even have proper shoes until then. I laugh now thinking about how he was so practical and optimistic, his sense of humor. I suppose he thought, what’s the worse that could happen—they send me back to the village in China? Not ideal, but all right.
I don’t know where or for how long they were detained. I always assumed it was Angel Island, but according to historical accounts, after the fire in 1940, the immigration center was relocated to the mainland. I learned that detainment was typically two or three weeks, but for some Chinese, it could be as long as months or years.
Happily, authorities found my father and grandmother’s paperwork and stories in order, and they were allowed to enter the U.S. My grandfather traveled from New York City, where he lived, to meet them. They took a train from the west coast to the east coast of their newly-adopted country, and thus began their lives together in America after sixteen years of separation!
Every now and then, I used to ask my father, what did you say to your dad when you saw him for the first time at 16 years of age?! He would reply cheekily, with outstretched arms, “What else would I say? I said, “Father!”
My father settled in New York City’s Chinatown, where he went to Seward Park High School. To this day, I am still amazed by how he managed, without speaking a stitch of English as a new immigrant, to not only graduate high school in a few years, but then go on to complete RCA Institute’s technical training in electrical engineering! Years later I found his RCA textbooks and notes from his student days. I could see he had a talent for math. A humble man, he never really talked about his process of assimilation in American culture. He would merely just say that he did this or that.
As an adult, my father lived in Chinatown, while his parents and his new American-born sisters settled in the Bronx, where they ran a small laundry service. It consisted of a store front with a back room. By day, it was a business; by night, it was their home. My father would help them work when he was able to.
Family lore has it that he landed a corporate job outside of New York City to which he commuted. However, he eventually decided not to pursue a career in the field of electrical engineering. I surmise that corporate work did not suit him, and/or he perhaps faced social inequities that were discouraging. Perhaps it was the pressure of starting his own family and wanting to be able to direct his future more tangibly. Whatever the reason, he decided to go into the restaurant business with partners. Together they owned and managed Mei Mei, a successful Chinese food takeout place in Brooklyn. It was a small business, but it supported several families, and afforded kids college educations. A real neighborhood fixture, it still exists today under other ownership.
I miss my father’s special blend of practicality and humor. He died of illness in 1990. It would be so nice if we could talk more in depth today about his experiences and musings, how he forged a life here as a Chinese-American.