Sowing Strength in a Strange Land: The Life of Lum Fong Shee
by Carla Koop
The following is a biography of my grandmother, Lum Fong Shee, who travelled from a village in southern China to the United States as a new bride in an arranged marriage. She was 21 years of age when she left, and spent the remainder of her 78 years in California. I call my grandmother’s story “Sowing Strength in a Strange Land” because of the personal strength she drew upon, living as an illiterate, non-English speaking woman in a foreign culture and land. Despite her challenges, she raised a large family and achieved business success.
This narrative is based on a series of interviews I conducted with my grandmother between 1990 and 1996. Because my grandmother spoke only Chinese and I speak none, my mother, Frances Koop, acted as translator and full participant in the interviews. Eventually I was able to complete a written oral history that gave my grandmother's experience a more permanent voice. I am grateful to have this opportunity to share her experience as part of the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation's “Immigrant Voices” project.
Growing up in China
Lum Fong Shee grew up in Oon Wor, a farming village of just over 100 families near Guangzhou. Fong Shee was the youngest of eight children (seven, after one died), and was born the same year as her eldest sister’s first born. Fong Shee shared a bedroom with her mother in a dirt home built by her grandfather.
The Fong family's daily life, from sunrise to sunset, was dominated by work. The family grew sweet potatoes and rice, and kept six pigs, chickens, and oxen. Fong Shee often accompanied her mother during the day to gather kindling in the hills, feed the animals, and tend to their crops, which included sweet potatoes and rice. Her father used oxen to plow the land for planting rice. Other villagers grew crops that included taro, peanuts, eggplant, green onions, bok choi, gai choi, and wheat.
Fong Shee spent most of her time at her mother’s side or working. She was a sheltered girl - others joked about her being a “mama’s girl” until the time that she married. She was also a favorite of her father’s, who sometimes taught her lessons from a primer after dinner. But learning, like playing or even grieving (her father died when she was 15) were not a big part of daily life – they were luxuries of time that the Fong family did not have. “We were so busy just trying to survive in those years.” Most of the family’s clothing was handmade from rice sacks, and Fong Shee’s usual clothes were hand-me-downs, with “patches on top of patches.”
Opportunities to leave the village were few, occasioned by the need to go into town to buy food such as fish, salt, eggs, or tofu; or to sell surplus rice, animals, and kindling collected from nearby hills. Family members carried bundles on bamboo sticks to market, a 15-minute walk from the village. They would also exchange unhulled rice as payment for other goods and services, such as haircuts.
On special occasions the Fongs would visit nearby villages to see operas, sometimes walking several hours to reach performances. Returning home at dark, the family would carry lanterns to light the way. In the New Year and in the month of May, they visited relatives, bringing food to share and lishee for the children. Some villagers were able to travel abroad, including Fong Shee’s father, who travelled to America and made a “small fortune” there. Upon his return to China, he used the money to buy 10 acres of land which was eventually divided among his sons.
Marriage Fong Shee was 19 and living with her sister in Guangzhou when her mother arranged marriage for her. Fong Shee's mother had enlisted a family friend who was a duck farmer in a nearby village, “Uncle Fong,” to find a suitable husband for her daughter in the United States. Uncle Fong travelled to California and met a man named Lum Sue Kow, whom he found to be good husband material. Originally from Di Wan, a village near Fong Shee’s village, Sue Kow had arrived in the US in 1912, at the age of 17, on board the SS Korea. He entered the country successfully by claiming to be the older “paper” brother of his actual cousin. To support himself he gambled and sold bootleg whiskey and fish from his “old clunker of a car” in the Locke area of the Sacramento River Delta.
Meanwhile, Fong Shee learned about her arranged marriage while at her sister's house. Fong Shee had no desire to leave China, or to marry, but her mother neither consulted her in the matter nor revealed the reason behind the decision. Once the marriage was agreed upon, Fong Shee took a boat to Tsientsin, near Macao, where she could stay with another sister, and then meet her betrothed and get married.
It turned out to be a rather traumatic occasion. While searching for her sister’s house, the young bride had her luggage stolen from the docks. All the clothing and furniture she had purchased with her $90 dowry was taken. Nevertheless, the couple proceeded with a simple wedding in the company of three family members, including Fong Shee’s mother. They ate a special meal, “hung up a few pieces of red paper with our parents’ names, lit some incense, said a prayer, and that was it.” The year was 1923, the last time the young bride would see members of her family.
By the time the new husband and wife left Tsientsin for America, they were both in a sad state. Sue Kow grieved upon learning that his father had died while he was en route to China, and Fong Shee was distraught because her trousseau had been stolen – along with life as she knew it.
“I didn’t have a choice but to marry and come [to the US] – which of course was the dream of many Chinese. They thought this was the place where you could make money easily and there was plenty of it. I didn’t know I would have to work so hard for so many years...All I did was work and get pregnant…At least in China my sisters, brothers and relatives were around to help if needed. [In the US]…life was much more difficult.”
Voyage to “Gold Mountain” Lum Fong Shee boarded the SS Siberia Maru on July 30, 1923. She was 21 years old. Sue Kow had paid a substantial fare for roundtrip passage - $1200, but the couple were still among the poorest group of passengers and thus confined to the lowest decks of the ship. Conditions were uncomfortable. Fong Shee was sickened by the smell of paint that permeated the lower decks, and sometimes drenched by water that entered through portholes. She slept in a bunk bed, along with the twenty or so others who also shared her cabin. Each ethnic group had its own quarters, and men and women were separated at night. Wealthier passengers stayed on the two decks above. During the day, the Japanese entertained others with shows, and men gambled and played poker. En route, the ship made two- to three-day stops in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Japan, and Hawaii. When the ship finally arrived in San Francisco on August 23, 1923, the Lums were put on the day’s last boat to Angel Island, at about 5:30 pm.
Angel Island and San Francisco Fong Shee was detained on Angel Island while her new husband waited for her in San Francisco. In the first few days, she was questioned by officials and examined by doctors. Early on she learned that she would be permitted to immigrate, but continued to be detained on the island for two to three weeks. During the interrogation process, officials questioned her to determine if her marriage was legitimate. Suspicion arose when the couple's answers differed about the number of floors in their motel in Hong Kong. Luckily, Sue Kow’s paper brother, acting as interpreter, explained to officials that Fong Shee was a scared young lady, the first time out of her village, and could easily have made a mistake.
Fong Shee’s stay at Angel Island was difficult. She felt no compassion from officials, and “completely at their mercy.” Detainees were housed in big rooms of 20 or 30 people. Men and women were separated at all times. “I still remember eating my first meal with tears running down my face and into my food. There were a lot of people around, but no one paid any attention...I felt alone and scared. And…the smell of food…was sickening to my stomach.” Once she was cleared to go, Fong Shee arrived in San Francisco, but her husband was nowhere in sight. “I was so frightened, not knowing what was going to happen to me when the boat arrived…I couldn’t believe this new husband of mine…what was he thinking? Here I am, an absolute stranger to this new land, everything and everybody unfamiliar and unable to speak the language! I was so naïve.”
Sue Kow did show up, finally, sick with the flu. The couple stayed the week in San Francisco while Sue Kow recovered from his illness. Fong Shee’s first taste of “freedom” was to navigate the unknown streets of San Francisco, alone and scared, to find medicine for her new husband.
Flower Farming in the South Bay San Carlos
After arriving, the couple initially received assistance from a family association in San Francisco and then settled in San Carlos, where Sue Kow’s paper family lived. Many villagers from the same region in southern China came to the Peninsula and farmed, “because we didn’t know how to do anything else.” They all raised chrysanthemums, and some worked at the San Francisco flower mart. Sue Kow was paid $100 month to help harvest chrysanthemums, while his wife learned how to cook. Eventually, Fong Shee was paid to cook and pick suckers off of the flowers.
Fong Shee learned more about her new husband’s character as she settled in. Her father-in-law told her “half-kiddingly” to save the money she earned and send some home to her mother rather than giving it to her husband. Her mother-in-law also warned her not to accompany Sue Kow on gambling trips to Chinatown. Uncle Fong, worried that Fong Shee’s mother would “kill” him if her daughter wasn’t looked after, advised her to try to keep Sue Kow on the straight and narrow. Belmont When work dried up in San Carlos after several months, the Lums moved to a chrysanthemum farm in Belmont that Sue Kow had leased with an uncle (his “paper” father) prior to his marriage. Relatives helped them build a house on the land. Outhouse facilities were the focus of scrutiny by city authorities, who “were always after them to move because of unsanitary conditions.”
Initially, the Lums raised sweet peas and sold them at the San Francisco flower mart. With freshly picked flowers in a basket slung over his shoulder, Sue Kow would take the train to San Francisco, stay overnight in Chinatown, and then sell flowers early the next day. Alternately, a Caucasian man would deliver area farmers’ flowers to the mart for a fee. An association was eventually formed so growers could receive regular payments.
After the sweet pea season, the Lums planted chrysanthemums. All work was done by hand – watering, weeding, fertilizing, and transplanting. The fields were tilled with hand tools and horses. Workers removed suckers from the stalks to encourage the growth of a single large blossom.
The entire family worked. When the children were young they mainly helped pull weeds. In time they learned to fertilize plants, pick suckers off the stems, water plants, collect seedlings, and harvest the flowers. One year during a caterpillar invasion, the two oldest children carried a little bucket around and plucked insects off the flowers. Neighbors pitched in to help each other during busy periods, and the Lums also hired one or two village people to help year round. Life on the Peninsula Neighbors initially welcomed the Lums to the area with lishee. But long hours at work didn’t permit much socializing, even with the Lums' in-laws who lived next door. Life for the young wife and mother was dominated by work, either in the fields or at home. “I remember strapping the youngest to my back and working from morning to night, and then doing more after everyone was in bed. My husband was very little help to me other than working out in the fields. I desperately needed help, especially when the children were too small to help out. I was having children every other year until I was about forty!” Once able, the oldest children helped baby sit and cook, and worked in the fields.
Life was hard, and Fong Shee felt isolated and fearful. She was surrounded by an alien culture, and unable to understand the language. “In the early years…when I saw a stranger approaching our house, I would quickly lock all the doors and hide.” When white people were hired during the sucker season, she “would run away and hide among the flowers.” One time she overpaid a bill, but the white man who came to collect payment failed to refund any of her money. Sometimes Fong Shee was forced to accompany her husband to the all-men's gambling house in Chinatown, which she heartily disliked but felt powerless to refuse. “I felt that I didn’t have any support, emotional or otherwise, from my husband.”
The Lums farmed in Belmont for about 10 years without turning a profit. Often freezing weather would ruin the crops. Once the land was exhausted, they rented land in East Palo Alto and built a house with the help of friends and relatives. The Lums’ landlords, the Costa family, were friendly. Their children played with the Lum kids, and one of the Costa boys hooked up the Lums’ first phone – the first among the farmers in that area. “Our neighbors would come over and make calls all the time.” The Costas also provided them with an electric pump when the Lums’ well ran dry. The Aster King The Lums eventually began to raise asters, even though they weren't popular flowers at the time. Sue Kow was the first to raise asters in East Palo Alto and became known as the “Aster King” among the growers. He grew the finest asters, with thick, full centers. He also developed the first hybrid yellow aster.
The Lums later rented land across the Bayshore Highway, in South Palo Alto, and in Menlo Park. In Menlo Park they had their first Christmas tree. On one memorable Christmas, the manager of Flood Park and his family, who had become good friends, invited the Lums to string popcorn and decorate their tree. The Lums received one Christmas gift of a box of candy.
Wartime was difficult. In 1942, the Lums were helping two relatives get established in the US, and didn’t have enough money to buy fertilizer for the asters. They would not have survived, had not one of their buyers loaned them $3,000 in exchange for a discount on flowers. Retail Success Near the end of the war, the Lums began making more money. In 1946 they were able to buy a two-story house in Menlo Park for $9,000. They began buying investment property in San Francisco and then opened a retail shop, Lum Toy Flowers, on the El Camino Real in 1951. The Lums’ last year of farming was 1953. One of their last fields lay across from what is now the Stanford Shopping Center.
With income from the store, the Lums had new opportunities and purchasing power. Sue Kow bought himself a $6,000 Cadillac – quite an upgrade from the “clunker” he used to drive around Locke – while Fong Shee made one memorable shopping trip to San Jose, where she purchased a down blanket and new jackets for all the kids.
Lum Fong Shee grew up in a small farming village in southern China. While she had no desire to leave her family, or China, as a young woman she embarked on a journey to a new land in the company of a stranger. After many years of working in the fields and then building a retail business, the Lums prospered. Although Fong Shee never had any formal schooling, she was able to send each of her nine children to college. In 1965, Sue Kow died. Fong Shee would survive her husband by over three decades. In 1977, after more than fifty years in the US, she became an American citizen. She enjoyed gardening, taking special pleasure in her favorite “bird of paradise” flowers, and cooked for herself well into her 90s. But she never stopped longing for China. Accompanied by family members she made a total of six trips back to her village, where she met and reunited with relatives, and visited the graves of her parents. She died in 2001 in her “home away from home” in Menlo Park – just across from the building where she raised her family and owned a flower shop. She was 99.
“I never really cared for living in the US although I appreciate the conveniences. All my children and family live here so I would never leave, but my thoughts are always in China. Before I got married, I loved the camaraderie of my family, relatives and friends. Things were familiar and I could go by myself and visit family and friends freely. Then, when I got married and came here, I felt trapped at home. I didn’t speak or read English and couldn’t go anywhere...even though my life wasn’t very easy, the best thing that can be said is that my children – and especially the grandchildren – have had so many opportunities to go to school and embark on careers."
Photos and captions. Photos provided by Frances Koop.
Growing up in China 1. Lum Fong Shee grew up in Oon Wor, China (1985). 2. Fong Shee visited with relatives during one of several trips she made to Oon Wor in the 1980s (1984).
Marriage 3. Lum Sue Kow's immigration certificate (1912).