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Jennie (Sook Han) Wu, was born in Cheung Har Bin Village of Zhongshan Province, China. She lived on the family farm in China until the age of 11. Her father, Tse Shan Wu, left China earlier to relocate in San Francisco to earn enough money and bring his family to America. He opened two successful laundry businesses, one on Hyde Street and the other on Sacramento Street. When he saved enough money, he returned to China to marry Jennie’s mother, Lee Suey Mon. A few years later Jennie was born and her father returned to America to continue his laundry business, and later would send for Lee Suey Mon. Jennie was raised by her grandmother in the meantime, and nine years later, was summoned to America.
Jennie was eleven years old when she left the village in 1940 and traveled to Hong Kong, where she boarded the USS President Coolidge alone, without adult supervision, guidance or assistance. On the 20 day voyage, she would make stops in Shanghai, Japan, Hawaii and finally San Francisco. On the first 4 days of the voyage, Jennie suffered from severe seasickness, but after that, gained her sea legs and had a pretty uneventful trip to America. On the ship, she lived in a large dormitory room, where she shared a bed with a twenty year old woman. She befriended a Mrs. Quan and her two daughters who served as her surrogate family for the duration of the cruise.
It was a cold dark night when she arrived on the docks of San Francisco, and was immediately transferred from the ship to a shuttle boat to Angel Island. When she arrived on the island, Jennie was ushered to the women’s quarters where she waited for interviews, medical exams and processing. The bottom bunk bed in a large barrack would be her home while on Angel Island. The women’s quarters was surrounded by a high wire fence confining the occupants to just a small yard. She would often peer out through the fence, wishing she could hike out into the surrounding tree covered hills. Luckily, there were many children her age in the barracks, and she would have companionship and playmates to occupy her time. During the “quarantine” period, there was no contact with family members at all. The only contact with her family would be in the form of occasional care packages of snacks and food sent by her father and mother.
The Immigration Service hired a Chinese cook to prepare meals for the guests, and as Jennie vividly remembered, the food was less than appetizing…a thin stew of mostly bean sprouts, vegetable scraps and rice showed up on the tables every day. As seen through the eyes of an eleven year old, the food would become a lasting memory, but the bonding with her new friends and playmates was a great diversion.
Two weeks into her stay on the Island, a very significant event happened. She was rudely awakened one night by a female guard running through the barracks yelling for everyone to get up and get out…”FIRE!” The Administration Building where the women were housed indeed was on fire. In all the confusion and pandemonium, Jennie managed to grab her suitcase and turned to run out of the building, but was halted as she heard the cries of her friend. When she turned around, her bunk mate was on the top bed crying and paralyzed in fear. Jennie ran back to her and pulled her down and even helped her carry her suitcase out of the burning building. Outside, they shivered in the damp cold air and watched as the flames spread and destroyed the very room where she once slept less than an hour ago. On the far end of the building, she witnessed a group of ladies on the roof making their way to a fire escape ladder, and on the ground, a group of women gathered and were prepared to catch them if they fell. Luckily, they were all able to get down safely. By dawn’s early light, the women’s quarters was reduced to a pile of smoldering ashes. Numb from the traumatic event, they hopelessly stood there and wondered, “now what?”. Some had perverse thoughts, “It should have been the kitchen that burned, not our home”. The ladies were led to the hospital building, which would be their new temporary home. For Jennie, it would be her new home for one more week.
On her third week on Angel Island, Jennie was called in for another interview. Unbeknownst to her, her father Tse Shan was also being interviewed in a separate room. The interviews went well and finally, after three weeks as a guest of the Angel Island Immigration Station, Jennie was in the arms of her father and reunited with her family.
Her new life in America started with a new name, Jennie. She worked in the family laundry business, and later, was employed at the iconic Eastern Bakery in Chinatown, where she worked for 35 happy years. She was held in high esteem by fellow workers and customers alike. She became a citizen of the United States, raised her daughter Mary, and was the “glue” that kept the family together. She is blessed to have in her life, a loving sister Jeanette (deceased), brother Franklin, Edward (deceased), son-in-law Walt, grandson Jason, and nephews and nieces Zachary, Darren, Danielle, and the newest addition to the Wu clan, Skyler.
Now retired, Jennie enjoys traveling and can boast two trips to Europe, China, Hong Kong, Jamaica, three cruises, many trips to Hawaii, and has been to 46 of the 50 United States.
Many family members know of Jennie’s life from her Eastern Bakery days onward, but not many knew of her experiences on Angel Island. I hope this story will expose a new chapter of her life to her family and friends.
Walt Lew submitted this story to Immigrant Voices. We appreciate his story and the use of family photographs.
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