Don Yick Chin, born in 1927, is my eldest brother. He was born in The Village of the Floating Moon in Toisan, China. The Village of the Floating Moon consisted of 100 or so families in the Pearl River Delta. Don recalls that both fresh fish and saltwater fish were caught, as well as, freshwater and saltwater rice was grown. As tranquil and idyllic as the name suggests, it probably was during periods of good harvest and peace; but like many men who left during periods of poor harvest and government instability, the driving force was to earn a living and to send money back home. My brother Don was born after our father Jin Koon Chin (1904-1980) returned to China to marry our Mother (Dong Nan Chun 1909-1992). He had been working in a cousin’s Boston, MA laundry to pay off the cost of his “paper son” immigration. Don was barely a year old when Father returned to America.
Don remembers living with his paternal grandmother during summer months, and living with his maternal grandparents during school months. He attended school 6 days a week for 6 years. He learned that teachers did not spare the rod for misbehaving. They used a flexible whip with feathers on one end for dusting; the handle on the other end was for punishment. Don experienced the handle end at times, especially after Mother left to join Father in America. He recalls rolling up his pants and getting whipped on the back of both legs and hands in front of the whole class.
Another vivid memory was the times he and Grandmother were caught out in the field while Japanese planes circled over their village. They ducked into the rice plants to hide. Bombs were dropped on the shopping center across the river that served as a terminus for the train from Toisan city.
Don was 8 or 9 years old when Mother left for America, and 12 years old when Father sent for him to come to America in 1939. Neither he nor his paternal Grandmother slept much the night before he left. She shared the story of her hard life raising three children, our Father, his brother and sister, without any support. Grandfather had died at the early age of 35, and his two older brothers were already in America. Eventually her three children also left for America, so her grandson Don was her last connection to them.
She gave Don three things for his voyage: a bottle of water, because foreign water could upset his system, some red envelopes to buy what he might need, and a string of nine Chinese copper coins with a hole in the middle. They represented wishes for a long life. The old dynasty coins held no value, But more importantly, they were a tangible link to her and the country of his birth. She told Don to urge his Father to return with him to see her soon. However, it wasn’t possible; she died shortly before the end of World War II. Aside from Grandmother’s gifts, Don had a footlocker and a leather suitcase. What few “toys” he owned he had given to a cousin that he babysat for.
There was a 10-month stay in Hong Kong with a Chin clan member until his papers were ready. Casting off at dock was a typical fanfare, with streamers, friends and family waving passengers off on a cross-ocean cruise. But for Don it was a sad and lonely moment. There were many unknown experiences awaiting him, like a father he had no memory of.
The Canadian registry ship was renamed the Empress of Japan and was held up at Shanghai for three days. When Don ventured up to the deck, he saw that half of Shanghai harbor was flying the British flag; on the other side of the harbor were the flags of Japan. All other boats in the harbor displayed the Japanese flag, as well. The delay was due to waiting for Japanese destroyers to accompany the Canadian registry ship out into open water and safely past patrolling German subs allied with Japan. Days after leaving Shanghai, Don saw people painting the ship. Out on the open sea, Don saw flying fish, porpoises, and the backs of giant fish, most likely whales, since he had never seen any of these species before.
In my brother’s words:
I don’t remember any kids my age. There were women going to join their husbands, and there were men returning back to the US. I remember talking with stewards, and people who served food and cleaned laundry. I remember being impressed with English sailors in Navy uniforms who oversaw immigrant quarters and dining rooms. They couldn’t speak to us, and we couldn’t understand them.
We ate with other Chinese people. The food was good. . .there was little to do but eat, play cards. . . no such thing as radio or games. We each had few possessions. People returning to the US suggested we go to the dining room and have a really good steak. Never in my life did I have a steak! I think it cost $2.75. I had $5 that I could spend. Money was collected from some of us wanting to go. During the meal I felt seasick, but I held on as long as I could. I ran back to my bunk and the toilet. When it was all over, I had lost $2.75 and had no steak dinner. That was my first exposure to the dining room and American food.
Crossing the Pacific the ship stopped by Honolulu for two days. Don was able to see at some distance a huge pineapple rising from the land. He thought it was a real pineapple. By the time they reached Vancouver, Canada 18 days later, the entire ship was battle ship gray. The next load of passengers would be American troops in preparation for war with Japan, Germany and Italy.
It was October or November 1939 when Don arrived at a holding station in Vancouver. The five-day cross-country train ride to Montreal opened his eyes to many new sights. Among them were snow on mountaintops and a gang of very dark-skinned people, Blacks, working along side the tracks. In Montreal, he was among immigrant passengers taken down the St. Lawrence River, out to the Atlantic Ocean, and south to his final destination, Boston Harbor, MA.
Don had no harsh memories of his interrogation at the harbor holding place. He knew some others were stamped for “RETURN.” But he had studied and had the benefit of resembling his father.
Relatives living in Boston greeted Don and took him to their Chelsea home. It was a two-story building with a family hand laundry below. Grandfather’s two older brothers and their families lived on the floors above. Grand Aunt Ethel took him to Filene’s Basement for shirts, knickers, and other items. Don did not recognize himself in American garb; he had lost that “fresh off the boat” look.
Fresh in his memory are two things from those first days in America. His female aunts and cousins wore clothes that exposed their arms and legs! Women in China always wore pajama-like bottoms and tops. Also, Don witnessed a fire simulation in front of the high school where a bon fire was set. Fire trucks with loud bells clanging pierced his ears as they raced to put out the fire.
It wasn’t long before Father arrived to take him home to New York City. After 12 years of not seeing each other, that scene was typical of a traditional, respectable reunion between father and son…cordial. They were, after all, strangers to each other. They traveled by train, then by subway to their apartment behind Father’s hand laundry on Manhattan’s upper west side within sight of the George Washington Bridge.
Don described his first sight of our mother as one of uncertainty:
There was a woman with a baby in her arms! She was practically white!. . .she was slightly plump! I couldn’t imagine who she was! Her face wasn’t as I remembered her! she used to work on the farm and was exposed to a lot of sun. She was tanned and thin…now a woman with a western haircut, on the plump side and practically white with a baby on her arm! I had to believe she was Mother because that’s what Father said. Beside her was my other brother who looked almost two years old.
Mother didn’t rush to hug him, but said a few words of greeting. Unlike the American way, the Confucian way was much more restrained. For a long time to his two brothers he would say, “Your mother, your father.” When he addressed them directly it was Ah-ma and Ah-ba. Don was not happy. For 12 years he was a lone entity in China. He was free and independent, attended school, was cared for by Grandmothers, and loved fishing. Here, when not in school, he was expected to work in Father’s laundry.
Father hired a Chinese immigrant to work at his store. This young man accompanied Don by subway to Chinatown to learn English at PS 23 on the corner of Mulberry and Bayard Street. The class had 40 to 50 immigrants who couldn’t speak English. After some months, he was thought to be ready to join a regular class. His math was very good, but due to difficulty with English, he was bounced between 4th and 2nd grades. Don eventually left PS 23 for a school closer to home on 169th Street near Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. Due to his size and age, he was placed in 6th grade, but then bounced between 6th and lower grades like before.
I remember three interesting things that happened to me. We practiced air raid drills. We all lined up, walked to an appropriate hallway, sat down on the floor and put our heads down. We had a great time doing that. We used to push and giggle in the hallway and had a wonderful time when the teacher wasn’t looking.
The second thing was physical education. We would go up to the roof of the school. It was all covered up like a cage. The game of the day was baseball. Baseball was a big deal! Everybody loved it!
“OK, Don, It’s your chance up at bat.”
I said, “I never in my life played baseball!”
“Hold the bat like this, watch the ball come, just swing to hit it.”
So the first time at bat I stepped up to the plate. The pitcher pitched the ball and lo and behold I smacked it and made a complete homerun! I was told to run the bases. Everyone was going wild shaking my hand and patting me on the back. I thought, “What’s the big deal! All I did was hit the ball with the bat! To me it was such an easy game.”
A third event . . .was about pirates. I became a pirate in a play dressed in a colorful hat, sash, eye patch-the whole bit.
Two years of Junior High School followed. Don remembers that time was difficult because kids were very rough. He witnessed brutal beatings between White and Black kids. He was happy to complete two years in one, having caught up sufficiently to graduate in one year. The first high school Don entered didn’t go well. He transferred to Peter Stuyvesant, a top New York City high school.
At the time very little opportunity was open to Chinese, so the only route really available was technical. The majority of Chinese and Chinese Americans took up engineering. All other professions were questionable. My parents couldn’t believe that I could ever get a job as an engineer. Throughout that time in high school, I carried an English-Chinese dictionary with me and all the way through college. Since it was after 1945 when I graduated, the only students accepted for colleges in NY State were veterans. Anyone else had to go out of state, except the top five in their class.
Once graduated from high school in 1947, Don attended night school at City College for a year. With the help of Jerry Masters, a counselor, Don secured a working scholarship to the University of Michigan in Detroit.
I was 19 years old and had only been in the US for 7 years. It takes five years of study for a degree in engineering. I had to work waiting tables for the Jesuit Priest community 6 days a week, three meals a day. After the second year I worked three months at an engineering firm, then had three months of school. That was how I managed to work my way through college. My parents didn’t really believe I could make it. I had to use whatever means to help myself. My goal was…if you worked hard…and I wanted to point the way so that my brothers and sisters that came after me, that they indeed could have the opportunity. I wanted to prove to my parents that, yes, you can succeed. You can be an engineer and get a job. You can make it easier for the younger generation that comes to get a better life for themselves.
Don explained that immigrant parents of the time worked hard doing the only jobs open to them to support families back in China, and to eventually retire comfortably. If they had children in America, they wanted to send them back to receive a Chinese education.
Case in point: Don’s wife went back to China at 4 years old. Her father took the whole family of four children. They built a beautiful home. Mimi and her three brothers all came back. They had seen another life style and were not happy. Don knew of many cases where the kids sent home fought their way back again.
Don once again:
In the beginning I wanted to go back to China. I had to grow up. Eventually, I only wanted to go back to visit. I’ve had a good education, I’ve had a good job, I have a wife and a family. I set goals as I went along and each goal I’ve met. I have contributed to the progress of this country, and raised three boys and 2 girls. They’ve all had a college education or better. I’m at home here and I would never think about going back to live. All my children and grandchildren are here. So I’m very satisfied that I’ve succeeded. I’m more Americanized than I am Chinese!
Post Script: Don is 87 years old. He still has his string of nine coins and Chinese bills his Grandmother gave him when he left for America.
Written by Don’s Sister Elsie Chin Wu
Transcribed from an interview with Don in 1993.