Ko Shew immigrated to the U.S. in 1921 under the name Dick Low. He worked hard throughout his life, starting out as a farm laborer and eventually becoming a department store manager. Kenneth Ko Low reflects upon the many gifts and life lessons his father bestowed upon him.
TRIBUTE TO MY FATHER, DICK LOW, ON HIS 90TH BIRTHDAY, 1995
My father, Ko Shew, was born in 1905 in the city of Shek Kee in the Chungshan District of China. He was the first son of the Ko Young Sun and Woo Shee. He had six younger siblings. As in most regions of China, work was scare in Shek Kee. At the age of 15, my father had to leave home to find work in Hong Kong. There he worked as a clerk in a department store. A year later, he decided to seek his future even farther away from home. He decided to come to America.
The year was 1921. My father was only 16 years old. There were severe restrictions on Chinese immigration into America. My father had to purchase immigration papers in order to enter the country. He purchased papers from someone named Mr. Low, so he became Dick Low. He spent six months at Angel Island before clearance from the Immigration Department was granted.
America may have been the Golden Mountain and a land of promise, but for this young Chinese immigrant it was also a land of hardship. It was a difficult place to survive. During the 1920s, my father worked in farm labor in the Suisun, Fairfield, and Isleton/Locke areas. He also worked in various jobs as cook and kitchen help in San Francisco area restaurants. All the while, he studied English during the evenings.
During the 1930s, my father went to Southern California and worked in the National Dollar Store chain. He started in the Pasadena store, moved to the San Diego store, and then transferred to the Los Angeles store. He became a department manager and was well-respected in his work. He also learned how to run a business.
From the 1940s until he retired in 1974, my father owned and operated a series of grocery stores. He first gathered his hard-earned savings and bought a store in Pomona, California. Later he had stores in Berkeley, Alameda, and several in Oakland. Running a small store was a risky business, filled with long hours, hard labor, and the threat of physical danger. Day by day, month after month, year after year, my father approached his work with consistency and dedication.
My father married my mother, Portia Owyoung, in 1949. In 1950, my father became a U.S. citizen. Also in 1950, my brother Raymond was born. My sister Stephanie was born in 1951. Lastly, I was born in 1953. This completed the family my father had long desired but had to delay because of economic hardships. Later, his joy became even more complete when his youngest sister Foong Kwan immigrated to America with her family in 1969. Then his youngest brother Kong Lum came in 1983.
When my father retired in 1974, he and my aunt returned to their home city of Shek Kee. Although my father had written home often and had continued to send money to support his family, he had not seen his mother in 53 years. She had seen a boy of 16 leave home in 1921, and now her wait was over. Her boy had returned to see her.
When I was a boy, I sometimes thought that my classmates had more things than I had. They had more toys and books and better clothes. They did not have to go to the store every day after school and on weekends. They went on vacations. They had bicycles and sports equipment. They seemed to have quite a lot.
Now that I myself am a man, a husband, and a father, I see my coworkers and realize that I had a lot more when I was a boy than many of them. I had a stable home with two parents who loved each other and loved their children. They cared about who we were and what we did. I had the example of a father who had known what it was like to struggle, to face misfortune, to persevere, and to overcome. He knew how to be thrifty and to save money. He approached each day with a good attitude, with humility, and with a sense of humor. He taught me these things through his example. During the past few years, my father has faced several serious illnesses, but he has come back each time. I see his courage and his good attitude as he goes to dialysis treatment, and I only hope that I can be as courageous and have as good of an attitude as I get older. I thank my father for everything he has shown me, and I am proud to be his son.
He passed away at the age of 102 in December 2007.
Place of Origin
Place of Settlement
Fairfield, CA, US