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Family and Childhood - 2

Can you describe the first house that you lived in?

I lived in a hotel. My father leased a hotel in Chinatown. So, we were in a hotel that was right across the street from the Chinese YWCA, which is now the Chinese Historical Society. We had a very different kind of house from everybody else. We lived on the ground floor, and we were very poor. We had a big room that served as a dining room for us, a kitchen that was like a closet, and we didn't have a refrigerator, we didn't even have an icebox! We put things like milk outside on the ledge of our window so that it would be cool at night. It's a wonder that none of us got poisoned, but we happened to live like that and we were all pretty healthy.

When you were five years old, and you were walking into your house, can you describe what it was like?

We lived on a hill. We lived on Clay Street in San Francisco. It was a hill, and I can remember going with my father when I was five years old to go shopping to the Chinese butcher shop. We all used to beg to go with my father because when we got there the man at the butcher would give us one frankfurter that we could eat. We were so poor and so hungry that we really latched on to whatever extra food that we could get. I remember that hill with lots of pluses because it was joy. My father used to sing and hum a lot, and while climbing up that hill he would be humming the Toreador song, from Carmen. I don't know where he learned it because we did have a radio, but he was not very well versed on arts or on music; but I could remember that very strongly. At five years old, walking with my father up the hill had a lot of meaning for me.

How many people were in your family?

There were nine people in our family. We had seven children, and my mother and father. We also had an uncle, who lived with us in our hotel, and we had a lot of what we called uncles. They were not really our relatives, but they were treated like relatives living in our hotel. Our hotel was, I would say,again, mostly poor people. A lot of black people, and it was a place that I still have very fond memories of because people were very kind to us. I think I mentioned before that they gave us dolls and they gave us all kinds of presents and they treated us like we were princesses. My father was very good to the people. If they were behind in their rent, he would let it go. So there was a very good relationship between my father, our family, and the tenants in the hotel.

What was your favorite memory at the hotel?

I guess it was the times after supper. There were five girls and two boys, and we would all get together after dinner, sit around—we had this one room that served as a dinning room, as a kitchen, and everything else. We would get together and do our homework together. It was just a warm, fuzzy feeling that we would have being together because we would spend a lot of time gossiping and sharing ideas. My sisters used to help me with my homework. I was the youngest girl, and they were older and they were in other grades so they taught me how to read, they taught me all kinds of things. I was very fortunate being the fifth girl. Then the two boys came after me, my brothers.The other one that I have real good feelings about is that we use to have one of those kerosene stoves, I don't know if you have ever seen them, but they're kerosene stoves. My mother used to make pudding on top of it. Pudding she made was just cornstarch with sugar and water, but we all thought it was such a treat. One of our "uncles", he's not really an uncle but one of the tenants, used to come down and he would tell us ghost stories, he would tell us stories of all kinds, so we would sit there entranced by the stories that he told. Again, that warm feeling of all of us together, the whole family together, and people telling us stories. Lots of memories about stories.

Do you remember what the pudding taste like?

Oh the pudding? We thought it was delicious, but when you think of it, it was only cornstarch and sugar. But in those days we didn't have much food so that was really good. We looked forward to it.

Do you remember any of the stories that your "uncle" told?

Yes, I could tell you some of the stories that he told. There was always ghost stories and after he told these stories we were so scared—we used to have to go upstairs to our rooms—we were so scared to go over there because the stories were so compelling. Always talked about a weeping woman. They were like badgers. Japanese always had a lot of stories about badgers. The badgers were turned into weeping women, and in Japan when you had to go to the bathroom, you had to go to a toilet that was far away. Then they would have to leave the house to go to the bathroom, and on the way to the bathroom they would encounter a badger that turned into a weeping women, who would follow them and call to them and tell them to come with her. He would act it out and it was so scary. But we kept asking him to tell us some more, tell us some more because it was something that drew our curiosity. Always a lot of stories about ghosts.

Just a quick question about that. If you jump ahead real fast to being in Topaz, do you remember that story when you were having to walk to the bathroom? Did the story come back?

But what happened when we were in Santa Anita, the story came back to me because we used to have to go there. There was a rumor in Santa Anita that there was a white woman with golden hair who was suppose to be walking around there at night. Then I would think of my ghost stories and it would come back. Yes, we would look for the blonde who was supposed to be in the camp with us in Santa Anita. We never found her, but people have said they saw her running. But nobody ever really confronted her; I really don't think there really was one. It was somebody’s fantasy. We think it's a young man who had a fantasy. Got tired of seeing all the black haired women.

Can you describe the community around you and your neighbors?

I lived in Chinatown and right across the street was the Y. Next to the Y was a little house where one of my friends, Pearl, used to live. One of the things that I could recall was when one of her brothers died. We used to do stupid things like walking on the roof ledge. The ledge is about this big and we would dare each other to walk around the ledge. If you fell we would fall three stories down, but that never occurred to us. In the house across the street there was also a ledge. They never told us what happened, but he fell off the roof and he died so we went to the funeral. We had never been to a Chinese funeral and it was so fascinating because they had all kinds of food that they left for the dead. They had a regular altar and they left all kinds of good food for the dead as well as feeding everybody else. Chinese funerals were very different from what we were used to, which were Japanese Buddhist funerals. Across the street, I think I told you there was a YWCA and they would have dance bands and every Saturday night there would be a big dance for the Chinese community. We could hear them and we knew who the band people were. The next morning on Sunday, we would see a funeral and a Chinese funeral would be a parade with picture of the deceased and the same band that was playing so happily on Saturday night was mournfully walking slowly for the funeral. It was such a contrast between Saturday night and Sunday that we were really quite struck by the difference. But it was very different from the Japanese ceremony.

Can you tell us about your first Japanese ceremony experience?

One of the first funerals I went to was when one of the people in our hotel, who was a friend of ours and who was one of our uncles had died so he had a Buddhist funeral. It was at a Buddhist temple and they had chanting, a lot of chanting. We were a little bit uncomfortable because we were used to the Christian churches. We didn't understand a word that they said, but it was a chant and then they would ring the bell every so often. There would be a gong that would come on and we sat there kind of bewildered because we didn't know what was going to happen next. He was in a casket and we did go up to the casket. There was a little dish with ashes in there and you had to take some of that and put it into another dish, and you had to bow and put your hands down. It was very solemn and very quiet except for the chanting. It was very different, we had no parades. There were no parades. There was food, but there was nothing left for the people who had been deceased. I remember seeing a bowl of fruit that was left out and flowers. They kind of put together some of the Christian ceremonies together with the Buddhist ceremonies. Very interesting what happened; as a result of being in the United States.

 

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