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Our dad, George Hom Eng, was born Hom Fun Yuen on November 8, 1921 at the family home in Sek Doy Lo village, Toishan, Guangdong, China. His mother, Quon Lem, was a housewife who also worked in the rice fields. His father, Hom Gong Man, would travel back and forth from Guangdong to “Gold Mountain” so he could work and send money home to support the family.
Hom Fun Yuen had an older sister, Hom Fun Liem, and a younger brother, Hom Fun Yien. George also had an older brother born around 1916 but had died of pneumonia.
During his childhood, Hom Fun Yuen played with other children in the village, attended school, worked in the fields and helped around the house. At the age of fifteen, his father ordered him to travel to Gold Mountain to work and help earn money for the family. They arranged with Quon Lem’s brother-in-law to submit the documents claiming Hom Fun Yuen as his son thereby allowing him entry into the United States.
Hom Fun Yuen boarded the S.S. President Coolidge, an international passenger ship, in Hong Kong on April 11, 1936. His name had changed to Ng You Ngep, as listed on the ship’s manifest. As a passenger in steerage, he remained confined to this area for the entire voyage while enduring harsh conditions. The ship arrived at the Port of San Francisco on April 24, 1936. Like most Chinese immigrants, Ng You Ngep was interrogated by immigration officials to determine the validity of his immigration petition. Ng missed one question during his interrogation, thereby failing his interview. Ng’s father ended up hiring an immigration attorney to represent him. Ng remained at the Immigration Station for 2½ months while the attorney worked to obtain his release.
Our father hardly ever spoke about his experiences on Angel Island but did share with us one poignant story. While imprisoned, he was given candy by missionaries in honor of the Easter holiday. He was delighted, thought it would be a regular treat, and gave the candy to others. In the following days when no candy appeared, he was so disappointed.
On July 7, 1936, Ng was finally released from Angel Island to San Francisco. His first meal on the mainland in the United States was a bowl of noodles at the historic restaurant in Chinatown, Sam Wo on Washington Street.
Ng You Ngep traveled to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and met up with his father who worked in a laundry. He worked alongside his father, attended school, and was tutored in English by kind parishioners, Mrs. Jamison and Mrs. Gray from a nearby Methodist church in downtown Fort Wayne. Eventually, Ng became a member of that church.
Ng often talked about the Chinese peddlers in the Midwest. Trying to get good Chinese food was difficult in Fort Wayne in the 1930’s. He said there were trucks that would stop by the laundry and sell roast duck, Chinese vegetables, everything one would need for a complete Chinese meal. It was expensive, but there was no alternative.
From the time Ng began working at the laundry, his father appropriated Ng’s wages. When Ng turned 18 years old, he refused to continue this practice which resulted in an angry disagreement between father and son. To further divide the two, Ng didn’t want to live his life like his father (e.g., spending long stretches working in the United States interspersed with trips to visit the family in China). These conflicts led to Ng leaving Fort Wayne and moving to Chicago and subsequently to New York City. With his limited English skills, he worked primarily as a busboy at various Chinese restaurants – it was the only job he could get due to his limited English.
After leaving Angel Island and before enlisting in the Army, our dad’s name changed from Ng You Ngep to George Hom Eng. We are not sure exactly when or why he changed his name.
After World War II broke out, George decided to join the military. He enlisted in the US Army on October 24, 1942 in San Francisco. At the time he was inducted, he took a mechanical ability test and scored well. As a result, George was sent to Pima Aircraft Engine School in Arizona to learn how to build and maintain aircraft engines.
George liked to tell the story when a negligent serviceman almost ended his military career before it had begun. He was walking with two other trainees by a line of bombers parked on a runway. At the same time, another soldier on one of those bombers began cleaning a loaded machine gun without the safety on. Suddenly, there was a burst of gunfire and George swore he could feel a couple of bullets whiz right past his ear where they struck the men next to him. Luckily, the other man was not killed, but he was seriously injured. George always joked that it was the only time he was shot at during the entire war and it was by our side.
After successfully completing his training, George was assigned to the 782nd Bomb Squadron of the 465th Bomb Group A, part of the Army Air Corps. This group consisted of squadrons of flying B-24 Liberator bomber planes and was stationed at the Panatella Air Base in Italy. The group moved to Italy beginning in February 1944, entered combat on May 5, 1944 until its last mission on April 26, 1945.
George reminisced about being on liberty. He remembered having to squeeze into a jeep with his buddies for a trip to Rome to see the sights. There wasn’t much to see or do near the Air Base in Panatella. He mentioned that he never became friends with the air crewmen since the mortality rate was high. Instead, he hung around with the ground crew.
Shortly after his arrival, George remembered a bomb run numbering twenty-four bombers. Only six bombers returned to base and of those six, four had to be scrapped for parts as they were too damaged to be repaired. However, by the end of his assignment, twenty-four bombers went out and generally, they all returned. George’s days were controlled by the bombing missions. He worked on repairing the bomber engines, sometimes eighteen hours straight, however long it took to get those bombers back in the air. Resting/sleeping occurred after the bombers left on missions.
After VE Day, the 465th Bombardment Group was moved to the Caribbean in June 1945. While stationed on the island of Trinidad, George went to a dance for Chinese servicemen and met a young lady of Chinese descent, Grace Lum. After George departed from Trinidad, they began corresponding.
George was honorably discharged from the Army on September 29, 1945, in San Pedro, California, having attained the rank of sergeant. He was awarded the Good Conduct Medal, American Defense Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European, African, Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, and Distinguished Unit Badge.
He moved to San Francisco and utilized his GI benefits to attend City College of San Francisco and UC Berkeley. His correspondence with Grace had continued and led to George asking her to relocate to the United States and be his wife. She accepted his proposal and under the Fiancées Act of 1946, entered the United States bypassing the immigration restrictions of that time. George and Grace married in July 1947 and settled in an apartment on Judson Street, in San Francisco. In June 1949, George decided to leave the university after completing his junior year, and start his own business. He opened a laundry on Castro Street which prospered due to hard work by the couple.
In 1951, George and Grace purchased their first home on Byxbee Street in Merced Heights, a neighborhood which had no restrictions or covenants prohibiting sales to non-whites. Their first born son, Tom, arrived that year. In 1953, a daughter, Emily, was born. In 1954, George purchased another laundry on Valencia Street. Although the laundry business continued to prosper, the work was hard and the hours were long. In 1956 when United Airlines began to hire minorities, George applied and was hired as an engine mechanic.
Throughout these years, George helped support his mother. His father returned to China from the United States in 1939 and died in 1950. His mother and sister relocated to Hong Kong. Additionally, George attempted multiple times to “smuggle” his brother, Hom Fun Yien, out of Communist China. Eventually, he was successful and his brother was granted admission to the United States in the 1970’s.
In 1961, the Eng family moved to a larger home in Ingleside Terrace. They were the second Asian family to settle in this all white neighborhood. The original covenants created in 1924 for this subdivision had excluded non-whites. When Tom and Emily reached their teens, George embarked on an extensive remodel, adding a bedroom, bathroom, and a family room. He spent years doing most of the work himself with Tom assisting.
Even though the family lived on the outskirts of San Francisco, they returned to Chinatown weekly. Every Friday the family would drive to Chinatown to have dinner at Sun Tai Sam Yuen on Jackson Street or Ping Yuen on Grant Avenue. Occasionally, they visited Sam Wo on Washington Street where Edsel Ford Fong, the waiter, talked to George about the “old days” when they both attended San Francisco City College. After dinner, they shopped for Chinese groceries including a stop for the kids at a shop called Hop Lung (Washington Street) where they sold candy and “mui (preserved plums).” They bought apple pies and/or pastries at the Sun Wah Que coffee shop and bought char siu (barbecue pork) at one of the many Chinese delicatessens on Stockton Street. At the corner of Stockton and Jackson, there was a fruit stand called Orangeland where the family often bought ten oranges for a dollar!
We have warm memories of these Friday night visits to Chinatown. Even though we didn’t live there, it still felt like it was our neighborhood and we were part of the community.
In January 1964, George participated in Immigration and Naturalization Service’s (INS) Chinese Confession Program. He was interviewed by INS officials and provided true information about his true family, his “paper family”, and corrected information submitted to the INS in previous interviews. At the end of the interview, George submitted his application for naturalization as World War II veterans were eligible to apply for citizenship.
George loved sports and was a lifelong Giants and 49er fan. He probably became a Giants fan in 1940 when he worked on Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown. When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, it only strengthened his loyalty to this baseball team. Occasionally, George would take Tom to a Giants game at Candlestick Park where the weather was usually cold and windy. After the game, they would drive to Chinatown where they would order bowls of jook from Sam Wo to warm up.
George was promoted to lead mechanic in the 1970’s. He endured a major
setback in his life when his marriage to Grace ended in 1973. He re-married a younger woman but the relationship was not a happy one. The marriage ended within three years. During this time, George petitioned and received approval to bring his mother to the United States. She stayed with him until her death in the 1980’s.
George pursued many hobbies such as travel, gardening, and photography. He was an avid fisherman and liked to play poker at the Chinese Sportsmen’s Club. He enjoyed traveling, often joining tours to Asia. On one of these tours to China, he met Sau K. Yee, a widow from Seattle. They began corresponding and were married in 1985, one year after he retired from United Airlines. For the rest of his days, he was happy in his relationship with Sau and being with the rest of his family and friends.
George died in March 2005, after multiple health problems including asthma and dementia from an inoperable brain tumor. His children, Tom and Emily, feel fortunate that George chose to stay in the United States and through both good and bad times, settled into a life in this country filled with opportunities and promise.
Thomas recently retired from a position in the insurance industry and loves traveling to other countries. Emily is a member of Square and Circle Club and leads English classes for ESL students. She practices yoga and enjoys spending time with her husband and her dog Chloe.
This “Immigrant Voices” story is from a Square and Circle Club service project that aims to share stories of its members’ families with the community. Square and Circle Club was founded in 1924 in San Francisco Chinatown by seven young women to aid flood and famine victims in China. Since that compassionate beginning and to this day, the Club has continued its tradition of supporting and caring for the needs of the community. It is the oldest Chinese/Asian American women’s service organization in the nation. (squareandcircleclub.org)
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