Years before “finding our roots” became popular, Lisa See wrote this book subtitled “The One-Hundred Year Odyssey of My Chinese-American Family.” While she didn’t have the plethora of online information that’s available today for such projects, she had something better: multiple family members still alive to tell her this remarkable tale of a Chinese immigrant family. Her great-grandfather and family patriarch Fong See, grandfather Eddy See, and father Richard See as well as countless other relatives in this sprawling family, both in the U.S. and China, were available in person. Lisa See was generous enough to share not only her unique family oral history along with supporting archival documentation, but also to place it within the larger context of American and Chinese history.
(NOTE: There’s some confusion involving dates and names of the early family members, so I will use the most likely information from See.)
“Gold Mountain” was the name given to the western United States, particularly California, by the Chinese after the 1848 gold strike. Rumors of gold just lying on the ground waiting to be gathered resulted in a mad dash by people from around the world seeking great riches. Chinese people were not immune to the lure of gold. By the time they arrived in California, however, most found the rumors were just that, and had to find other ways to survive.
The first Fong to arrive in the U.S. was Fong See’s father, a noted herbalist in his area. A representative from the transcontinental railroad company offered to pay his fare to America to act as doctor to the many Chinese workers employed to finish the project. Fong accepted and brought his #2 and #3 sons with him, leaving his youngest #4 son Fong See with his mother living in extreme poverty.
After the railroad was completed, the Chinese workers scattered to find other employment. There was a vast land reclamation project in Sacramento on which many Chinese worked, so the father and sons moved there to open an herbalist shop.
After about 5 years of no word or money from the father and other sons, Fong’s mother sent her mid-teen #4 son Fong See to America to find them. (A kind neighbor offered him a loan for passage fare.) Amazingly, he did! The father soon returned to his home in China with his second wife, a former prostitute, in tow.
It’s at this point that Fong See’s story of literally rags to riches starts. He stayed in Sacramento and tried to keep the herbal store going, but knew nothing about the herbs and how to use them. That business turned into making ladies’ underwear (there’s a link I won’t divulge here). Over time, Fong became reasonably successful as the new business grew.
Enter 18-year-old Ticie (Letticie) Pruett. Fully orphaned by the age of 8, she was treated like a servant by other family members. By 18, she’d had enough, left her home on an Oregon farm, and ended up in Sacramento unable to find a job. She asked Fong for work, but he refused to hire her. After watching his store for a few days, she again approached him, this time with suggestions about how to improve his business. He agreed to employ her for a trial period. I think we can agree it worked out.
Ticie was not just smart, sensible, and mature for her age. She was educated and provided the illiterate Fong with translation services and help with officials as well as suggestions for the business. Three years later, they married in the only way that a Chinese man and a Caucasian woman could at that time: they drew up a marriage contract. They couldn’t know then that they’d started a dynasty. Everything that happened later flowed from this union.
Fong See fathered 4 sons and one daughter with Ticie. (A family photo of them in the book shows what a handsome group they were!) Later they relocated to Chinatown in Los Angeles. Fong See started an import/export business (among others) that was so successful, he “became one of the richest and most prominent Chinese in the country.” [p. xvii]
After WWI, Fong See took his family on an extended trip to his old home in China where his personal life fell apart. Ticie’s main goal in life was to keep her family together. When Fong See proposed leaving one son in China for business purposes, Ticie left China with all her children while Fong See stayed on for some time. He combined work with the pleasure of spending his money on a large house, his village, and whatever else he could find to do with it on that trip.
It was a permanent split for the couple, especially when Fong See took a young wife and brought her back to America. Together they produced 7 children. It was a completely different marriage for that wife, whom he treated in the traditional Chinese way even in America.
The children of Fong See and Ticie all did very well. Most stayed in the family business, while Ray split off to become very successful in his own right. (He also never forgave his father for the split with his mother and the other marriage.) All were educated, and with each successive generation, more had advanced degrees and professions.
What I also find interesting is that the half Chinese, half Caucasian sons married Caucasian women, eventually making Lisa See 1/8 Chinese. Lisa’s grandmother Stella “was Caucasian, but she was Chinese in her heart….My great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother were as Caucasian and ‘American’ as they could be, yet they all chose to marry men whose culture was completely different from their own.” [p. xx] This reminds us once again how fluid identity is.
We should remember that when those women married Chinese-American men, it was a time when such marriages were illegal or at least looked down upon by other Caucasians. Ticie’s sons went to Tijuana to get married because they couldn’t legally marry a Caucasian woman in California at that time. It’s not very long since numerous ridiculous restrictions like that were finally repealed.
In some ways this is a typical immigration story of the times: arriving in poverty, learning a new language, and working hard to raise a family and give them a better life. The Chinese, however, faced additional barriers based on racial discrimination and laws aimed directly at them.
When the Chinese railroad workers scattered to find other work, many ended up working in laundries and food businesses. They could not own land, but were allowed to be merchants. Predictably, they were scapegoated during the depression of the 1870s, accused of “taking jobs” from Caucasians, and treated abominably. (Don’t we hear the same today, just about a different group?)
Yet this group has succeeded beyond all expectation in just a handful of generations.
See’s book is nearly 400 pages of small print, but she tells a story so compelling, unique, and filled with rich detail, the reader doesn’t want to put it down. Her writing flows so that it’s easy to read and is just plain INTERESTING. Frankly, I liked the people so much, I missed them when I finished the book.
See not only gives us a loving look at her family; she also places them within the larger historical context. Considering our growing Chinese-American population today, I think it’s important for us to learn more about their immigration experience and place in American history. I recommend this book for that purpose, but also because See tells such a good story, complete with many wonderful photos, maps, a family tree, and an account of her visit to her ancestral Chinese village!
Lisa See has written a number of other books, fiction but with threads of fact through them. I’ve read some of them and particularly enjoyed:
and China Dolls:
Carolyn See, Lisa’s mother, was also an author.