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A time to seek, and a time to lose;
A time to keep, and a time to throw away.
A time to tear, a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, and a time to speak.
When I think of my grandmother or Mama, there are two memories that come to mind. As a seven-year-old, I see her with my Yeye (grandfather). Hustling and bustling all over their small apartment, she never stopped. My sister and I would entertain ourselves by spinning in Yeye’s big office chair. Surrounded by nothing but the dizzying world around us, we would send ourselves into giggles. Mama and Yeye did not know how to interact with us as active children. To this day, they remind me of Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic. However, instead of a pitchfork, Yeye holds a remote control for the television.
As a fourteen-year-old, I see Mama in the nursing home for the elderly. Fragile and unable to speak, time spent together becomes our language. With only six months to live, I talk to her for an hour each Thursday. I tell her about my tiring life as a high schooler. I show her how to solve the Rubik’s cube. In turn, she nods with her eyes. She listens. Her hands inch forward and with support, we held each other for moments at a time.
When she passed away, her story, her life changed me in ways I never expected.
Born on December 19, 1927 in Hong Kong, she grew up with her mother and older brother, Dick, while her father Poy Chong was away in the United States. As the patriarch of the extended Quock family, her father (my “Tai Gung”) considered himself a sojourner to the US. He considered the US to be a destination for himself and other males in the family as an opportunity for work and income to send back home. As such, when he returned to the US, he told immigration that he had a son born to him in 1927, thereby “reserving” a future placeholder for Mama’s distant boy cousin born that same year.
Her family was from Gao Gong Village and so they traveled between the two, due in part to the threat of violence and civil unrest from local warlords. When Mama was about twelve years old, Tai Gung made the major decision to relocate his family to the US permanently. His wife and son were already living with him in San Francisco, but he needed to reunite with Mama whom he hadn’t seen since she was born. Tai Gung heard from someone from a nearby village, that they had identity papers for a young girl for sale. After living in the care of other family members, she finally joined her family in San Francisco under the paper name “Cheung Toy.”
Her immigration papers stated she was a fourteen-year-old girl born in Dai Nam Village, China. She had a father, stepmother, 17-year-old brother and 4-year-old half-brother. Mama arrived with her paper brother and father in San Francisco Bay in September 1939.
Her real father, the Chinese Manager for American President Lines (APL), came out to her ship on a pilot boat as he did for every APL passenger ship coming into port. He entered her shared cabin filled with bunk beds, asked for her by name and took her to an adjacent cabin without further comment. When they were finally alone, he closed the door, turned to her and simply said, “I am your father.” Her heart must have raced. They spoke for about an hour during which time Tai Gung asked if she studied her identity papers thoroughly. He told her what she might expect while on Angel Island Immigration Station and that he would meet her when she landed in San Francisco. Mama only spoke about that moment once to my Dad.
Before this family reunion could progress further, my Mama was first detained for two weeks at the Angel Island Immigration Station for interrogation like so many others before her. It took two weeks of detention before she was able to arrive in San Francisco. After two weeks of intense interrogations on Angel Island, the investigator stated, “There appears to be no reason to doubt the claimed relationship.”
Because she was bound to her paper father, her real family maneuvered around the inconsistency that she lived with them in San Francisco while her paper father lived in Santa Cruz. Shortly after she arrived, her father legally “adopted” her to pre-empt government inquiries into why she would live with the Quock family rather than her “father.” However, little is know about this resolution.
As stated in her immigration papers, Mama attended Girls High School in San Francisco. Her first job was in credit adjustments at the Nathan Dohrmanns Department Store where she worked for two hours each day after school. After graduation, Mama joined her father’s employer, American President Lines, where she worked in the payroll department for five years.
In August 1945, her paper father returned to China, instantly raising red flags for US immigration. Mama was subjected to another round of interrogations focusing on why she would remain in the US while her “father” returned to China. It took five months for her to dispel their suspicions of illegal activity.
In 1950, Mama met my Yeye, Gim (later known as “Jim”) Quan, through a local Chinese Social club. He first asked her to go out with him on Father’s Day, which she, of course, declined. Ultimately, when he selected a different day, she went out with him on a double date. In some ways, their union was destined as Mama’s father and Yeye’s father were in each other’s wedding parties. They were married on June 3, 1951 in the auditorium of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance on Stockton Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
Between 1956 to 1957, Mama gave birth to two children, my Gooma (Doreen) and my Dad (Kelvin). My Dad recalls her being “very old school Chinese,” laughing as he added, “They weren’t subtle. They were very strong characteristics. She was extremely structured and highly disciplined. She always wanted to know what the rules and expectations were and held very firmly to them. It was as simple as being punctual. Being late to anything for anyone was a ‘major violation.’ If you’re five minutes early, you’re on time. Everything she did, you could put a clock to it. Every Saturday, she’d vacuum. Every other week, she would change the pillowcases. Every day at 6:00 pm, dinner would be on the table.”
After working at sewing factories in Chinatown, Mama ventured outside the protective circle of Chinatown at the downtown department store, JC Penney. Soon, management at JC Penney offered her a new role as manager in customer service, a promotion from her job in the payroll division. She declined the promotion because that would mean her shift on Saturdays would result in a day less each week with her family. She would muse later to Dad, “Can you imagine me – patiently listening to customer complaints every day?” This was in stark contrast to her deeply rooted conviction that everyone should learn to accept imperfection and disappointment because that makes you stronger and builds patience and character. Her career would eventually take her to become a Unit Supervisor at California’s Public Utilities Commission’s Engineering Utilities division.
Mama valued loyalty and family above all else. Throughout her life, she always cared for someone else. As a child, she cared for her mother, younger brother Collin, and eventually, her father. As a wife, she cared for my Yeye and as a mother, she cared for her children and later, her grandchildren.
In 1965, Mama went through President Lyndon B. Johnson’s amnesty program where she had to go to Canada and re-enter the country as a citizen. Besides her strict discipline for order and routine, she highly valued honesty and personal integrity. It must have had to be a real struggle to need to compromise these as a paper daughter. There must have been real shame and strong fear of deportation that was felt prior to her amnesty but even long afterwards.
Despite her fears, Mama continuously balanced her jobs as a career woman, wife, and mother. Whether it was taking care of the home or work, her independence and modernity of the 20th century inspired Gooma. “We have YouTube and other resources now to teach us, but she had to learn a lot of that on her own. She was determined and persevered all by herself in a foreign country,” Gooma said, “She really tried to instill work ethic into her children.”
At home, Mama was best known for her cooking. She was able to cook everything from lasagna and English short ribs (American style) to traditional Chinese dishes. Gooma learned how to cook by helping and watching her cook. Dad still can taste the deliciousness of Chinese winter melon soup in his childhood home. There were rare occasions of hot San Francisco evenings where the main course was a banana split and ice cream, ultimately becoming a family favorite. Pizza trips were also regarded as a family special treat (but only when Yeye was out at night since he insisted on Chinese cuisine for dinner).
She loved classical music and played violin, but lived her dreams of playing piano through Gooma. Together, they would go to the San Francisco symphony often. They even went to a live Arthur Rubinstein concert (one of the world’s greatest pianists). Gooma would return home inspired, and enjoyed nothing more than playing the piano in a frenzy. She says she owes her music appreciation to her nurturing.
However, as children of a strong-willed woman, both Gooma and Dad remembered Mama as valuing education and ambition above all. She used to say, “No one can take your education away.” While Mama, herself, never went past high school, she always wanted her children to do so. She worked hard for them to attend private schools and after, to private universities. If it was going to keep them sheltered from all the bad things in the world, then she’d do it. She sacrificed much for their success and was extremely proud of their accomplishments.
While these memories of my own grandmother feel distant, her strength and resiliency are legacies that continue to guide my own work. I hope to turn the shame and fear she felt into something that may empower others to find their voices.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Katie Quan (she/her) is a third generation Chinese American. Her creative platform, This Asian American Life, gives voice to history, community, and collaboration. Her work has been exhibited in Overachievers Magazine, SF Zinefest, Kearny Street Workshop, Asian American Women’s Artist Association, and Chinese Historical Society of America. She currently teaches at City College of San Francisco. Learn more about her work: www.thisasianamlife.com.
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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