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The following is a brief biography of my grandmother, Lum Fong Shee, who traveled 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 in raising a family of nine children while struggling to survive and thrive in a country that remained throughout her life, outside of her family circle, essentially a “strange” and foreign place.
This narrative is based on a series of interviews I along with my mother 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.
Lum Fong Shee grew up in Oon Wor, a farming village of about 100 families near Guangzhou. Fong Shee was the youngest of eight children (seven, after one died). She 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 Fongs’ daily life, from sunrise to sunset, was dominated by work. The family grew sweet potatoes and rice, and kept pigs and chickens. As a girl Fong Shee often accompanied her mother to gather kindling in the hills, feed the animals, and tend to their crops. Her father used oxen to plow the land for planting rice. Other crops grown in the area included taro, peanuts, eggplant, green onions, bok choi, gai choi, and wheat.
Fong Shee spent most of her time by her mother’s side. She was often teased for being a “mama’s girl.” She was also a favorite of her father, who sometimes taught her lessons from a primer after dinner. But learning and playing were not a big part of daily life. Free time was a luxury that the Fong family did not have.
“We were so busy just trying to survive in those years,” Fong Shee said.
Most of the family’s clothing was hand made from rice sacks. Fong Shee usually wore hand-me-downs, clothing with “patches on top of patches.”
The family rarely left their village, and usually only to go into the nearby town, a 15-minute walk from their home. They would buy food such as fish, salt, eggs, or tofu and sell surplus rice, livestock, and kindling collected from nearby hills. They also exchanged unhulled rice for other goods and services, such as haircuts. Items were carried in bundles on bamboo sticks.
On special occasions the Fongs visited nearby villages to see operas, sometimes walking several hours to reach performances. Returning home at dark, the family carried lanterns to light the way. In the New Year and in spring, they traveled to visit relatives, bringing food to share and lai see (red envelopes with money inside) for children.
Some villagers were able to travel abroad. At one point Fong Shee’s father went to America and made a “small fortune” there. When he returned to China, he used the money to buy ten acres of farmland. After he died, the land was divided among his sons..
Fong Shee’s mother arranged a marriage for her youngest daughter while Fong Shee was staying at her sister’s house in Guangzhou. She was 19 at the time. Fong Shee’s mother asked a family friend in a nearby village to find a suitable husband for her daughter in the United States. The matchmaker travelled to California and eventually selected a man named Lum Sue Kow.
Originally from Di Wan, a village near the Fongs’, Sue Kow came to the U.S. at the age of 17. He arrived in 1912 on board the SS Korea. He entered the country by claiming to be the older “paper” brother of his cousin. He made a living by gambling and selling bootleg whiskey and fish from his “old clunker of a car” in the Locke area of the Sacramento River Delta.
Fong Shee never knew about her mother’s arrangements. She had no desire to leave her family in China, or to marry, but she had no choice in the matter.
As the time of her wedding approached, Fong Shee stayed with another sister near Macau while she waited for her betrothed to cross the Pacific Ocean to meet her.
The wedding turned out to be a rather traumatic occasion. While searching for her sister’s house, the young bride had her trousseau stolen from the docks. All the clothing and furniture she had purchased with her $90 dowry was taken.
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.” It was the last time Fong Shee would see members of her immediate family.
By the time the newlyweds left for America, they were both in a sad state. Sue Kow learned that his father had died on his way back to China and was grief-stricken. Fong Shee was distraught at leaving behind her entire family and a familiar life.
“I didn’t have a choice but to marry and come to the U.S., which of course was the dream of many Chinese,” Fong Shee said. “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 U.S., life was much more difficult.”
Lum Fong Shee boarded the SS Siberia Maru on June 23, 1923. She was 21 years old.
Sue Kow had paid a substantial fare of $1,200 for round-trip passage. The couple stayed on the lowest decks of the ship with the less well-off passengers. Wealthier passengers stayed on the two decks above them.
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 20 or so others who also shared her cabin. Each ethnic group had its own quarters, and men and women were separated at night.
During the day, the Japanese entertained others with shows, and men gambled and played poker. The ship made two- to three-day stops in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Japan, and Hawaii on the way to California.
The ship arrived in San Francisco on July 30, 1923. The Lums were put on the day’s last boat to Angel Island at about 5:30 p.m.
Fong Shee and her husband were detained on Angel Island in order to determine whether their marriage was legitimate. In the first few days, they were interrogated by officials and examined by doctors.
During the interrogation process, officials questioned Fong Shee about her marriage. Suspicion arose when the couple’s answers differed in response to a question about the number of floors in their Hong Kong motel. Luckily, Sue Kow’s “paper” brother smoothed things over. Acting as interpreter, he explained to officials that Fong Shee was a scared young woman, the first time out of her village, and could easily have made a mistake.
Early on Fong Shee learned that she would be permitted to immigrate, but was detained on the island for three weeks while her husband stayed in San Francisco. Her stay at Angel Island was difficult. She felt “completely at [the] mercy” of officials, who showed no compassion to her. Detainees were housed in large 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,” she said. “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 was taken by boat to San Francisco. When she arrived, 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?” she recalled. “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. Fong Shee’s first taste of “freedom” was to navigate the unknown streets of the city to find medicine for her new husband.
After arriving, the couple received assistance from a Chinese family association in San Francisco. They 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.” Families 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.
When work dried up in San Carlos after several months, the Lums moved to a farm in Belmont. Sue Kow had leased the land with an uncle (his “paper” father) prior to his marriage. Relatives helped them build a house on the land. City authorities “were always after them to move because of unsanitary conditions” at their outhouse.
Initially, the Lums raised sweet peas. 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 at the San Francisco flower mart. Sometimes a Caucasian man would deliver farmers’ flowers to the mart for a fee. An association was eventually formed so growers could receive regular payments.
The Lums eventually started to grow chrysanthemums. The entire family worked. Neighbors pitched in to help each other during busy periods, and the Lums also hired one or two village people to help year round.
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.
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 buckets around and plucked insects off the flowers.
Neighbors initially welcomed the Lums to the area with lai see [gifts of money in red envelopes]. 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,” Fong Shee recalled. “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 they were old enough, the oldest children helped babysit and cook, and worked in the fields.
Fong Shee felt isolated and fearful, 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,” she recalled.
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,” she said.
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 kind and friendly to them. The Costas also provided them with an electric pump when the Lums’ well ran dry. The Costa children played with the Lum kids, and one of the Costa boys hooked up the Lums’ first phone – the first among farmers in the area.
“Our neighbors would come over and make calls all the time,” Fong Shee recalled.
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 asters with thick, full centers. He also developed the first hybrid yellow aster.
The family later rented land in South Palo Alto and 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 a box of candy as their one gift.
Wartime was difficult. In 1942, the Lums helped two relatives get established in the U.S., and didn’t have enough money to buy fertilizer. They wouldn’t have survived without the help of a buyer who loaned them $3,000 in exchange for a discount on flowers.
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.
With income from the store, the Lums had new purchasing power. Sue Kow bought himself a $6,000 Cadillac, an upgrade from the old car he used to drive around the town of Locke. Fong Shee made one memorable shopping trip to San Jose, where she purchased a down blanket and new jackets for all the kids.
As a young woman in China, Fong Shee embarked on a journey to a strange new land where she would spend the rest of her life.
Over the years Fong Shee and her husband raised a family of nine children. After working as flower farmers for many years they built a retail business and prospered. Lum Sue Kow passed away in 1965. Fong Shee lived on for over three decades after his death.
In 1977, after more than fifty years in the U.S., she became an American citizen.
In the last decades of her life, Fong Shee enjoyed visits with her large extended family and recordings of Chinese opera. Plants in her small yard were a source of pleasure, especially her favorite bird of paradise flowers. She lived independently well into her nineties.
Fong Shee never stopped longing for China. Accompanied by family members she made a total of six trips back to her village, where she reunited with relatives and visited the graves of her parents.
She died in 2001 in her “home away from home” in Menlo Park, 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 U.S., although I appreciate the conveniences,” Fong Shee explained. “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.”
Carla Koop is a granddaughter of Lum Fong Shee.
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