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How Jiu’s journey to America was full of drama and daring. Daughter Lena Fong and granddaughter Polly Fong share this account of a remarkable woman’s life in Oakland Chinatown during the tough Depression and the post-World War II years.
The story of How Jiu (birth name Lum Wum Hoy) is one of courage, daring enterprise, adversity, and the indomitable human spirit. Her story is but one of thousands of stirring portraits of the Angel Island Immigration Experience. We want to thank Gimmy Park Li and Kimberley Jew for their work on this profile.
When Lena Fong dusted off her mother’s leather suitcase, little did she know that what lay before her was all her mother had for her journey from a little village in southern China to the United States. Lum Wun Hoy’s suitcase was virtually untouched since 1928…a veritable treasure trove of 54 exquisitely hand-stitched garments comprised her dowry when she boarded the Taiyo Maru on June 22, 1928 from Duk Jow in Guangzhou, China to immigrate through Angel Island to meet the man she was to marry in the U.S.
On a warm June day aboard a steamship at 18 years old, Wun Hoy left behind her mother and father, a well-respected village butcher, to marry Chew Ah-Foon who had been enticed by promises of the gold mountain and pursuing a better life in America and immigrated to the U.S. under the “paper name” Yee Chuck.
As fate would have it, Wun Hoy’s sister was originally matched to marry Ah-Foon but shortly before leaving for the U.S., she was kidnapped by bandits and held for ransom. Wun Hoy’s family had already bought papers for her sister to emigrate with her “paper family” and scheduled to depart immediately by steamship. Consequently, Wun Hoy’s family decided to send her to the U.S. in her sister’s place to marry Ah-Foon. Eventually they paid the ransom and Wun Hoy’s sister was returned to her family but her destiny was forever changed.
Lum Wun Hoy immigrated to the U.S. through Angel Island under the name How Jiu with her “paper family” – a term used for Chinese immigrants coming to the United States prior to 1944 who claimed to be a family that had legal immigration documents issued and approved by the United States government but were family members on paper only. Many Chinese immigrants bought documentation and identities that allowed them to immigrate as either children of “exempt” classes (merchants, students, clergy, diplomats) or children of citizens (those who were American born because Chinese could not become naturalized citizens until 1943). The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the only law in American history to deny citizenship or entry based upon a specific nationality — essentially freezing Chinese immigration.
How Jiu’s “paper family” consisted of Mr. and Mrs. Dot Wing Jiu, sisters Ellen and Lily, and brother Richard. A third daughter remained in China, so the Dot Wing Jiu family sold their daughter’s U.S. legal documents thus allowing How Jiu to immigrate to the U.S. According to her immigration document, How Jiu appeared to have stayed on Angel Island for about three weeks arriving June 22, 1928 and departing July 19, 1928. Although she was actually just 18 years old, the documents list How Jiu as being age 20 and 5′ 2-1/2″ tall. Her occupation is listed as a student out of Shaw, Mississippi.
During their detention at Angel Island, How Jiu and her new family were rigorously interrogated to determine if the family and its members were real or a fraudulent attempt to gain U.S. citizenship. Mr. Dot Wing Jiu would brief How Jiu and the family every night on answers to the questions posed by the immigration officers. They would often be asked how many windows were in their house and if they were facing east or west. One was also asked if they had a dog. If someone else in the family answered, “yes” to a question, and another said “no,” then entry into the U.S. would be denied and the family sent back to China. Since her family had paid thousands of U.S. dollars to arrange for her to move to the U.S., How Jiu was very careful to answer all the questions correctly so she could gain entry and start her new life.
After successfully passing through Angel Island, How Jiu married Ah-Foon and settled in Oakland Chinatown. An enterprising young man, Ah-Foon worked a produce sales route, a business he learned from others who emigrated from the same village. A little over a year later, their eldest daughter Lena was born on November 19, 1929 in Oakland. They later had twin daughters, Ida and Violet and a son, Jimmy.
As most girls in China were not formally educated at that time, How Jiu did not have the opportunity for education and multiple degrees afforded to all of her brothers in Canton. Learning English became a top priority so she enrolled in classes at the YWCA in Oakland to learn the basics while getting to know many of the women in her community.
At a time when many married women in Chinatown did sewing piecework or seasonal jobs at the canneries to earn extra money, How Jiu had the modest luxury of staying home and focused on raising her children. Motivated by her patriotic duty during World War II, How Jiu worked stringing parachutes for the troops for a time and growing her own victory garden.
Tragedy struck when their son Jimmy, at age nine died from pneumonia – an illness difficult to overcome at that time since penicillin did not exist yet. To help distract herself from her son’s death, How Jiu accompanied her husband on his produce sales route, learning the English names for all of the fruits and vegetables they sold to their clients throughout the Oakland / Piedmont, Area.
How Jiu stayed in touch with her paper family as they all lived in Chinatown. Though they weren’t related by blood, How Jiu felt a strong familial connection with her immigration/paper family as they had made it possible for her to be in the U.S. Because of that bond, she and her paper sisters always called each other sisters.
Lena Fong was compelled to share her mother’s story with the Angel Island Immigration Station (often referred to as “The Ellis Island of the West”) in hopes that a peek inside the virtually undisturbed time capsule-suitcase of beautifully preserved silk garments and her rich family story would educate and provide a glimpse into the experiences of Chinese Americans who immigrated through Angel Island.
Lena and her husband Dr. Joshua Fong raised their five children, Neal, Jill, Heidi, Charlotte and Polly in San Leandro, California.
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