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Yep Fun was born in 1907 in Toisan, Guangdong Province, China. In 1926, at the age of eighteen, he immigrated to the United States through sponsorship and arrangement by an uncle already living and farming in Stockton, California. Yep Fun came as a paper son. His ship voyage to San Francisco and stay at Angel Island was not a pleasant one. The Immigration Station was solitary, cold, uncomfortable, and the food was mediocre.
After Yep Fun arrived in San Francisco, his English name became “Ernest” or “”Ernie” for short. Ernest first lived and worked as a houseboy for the Schilling family of the Schilling Spice Company in San Francisco. The Schilling House was his first exposure to American culture and the English language. He recalled that the Schillings were a nice family to work for, and he was treated well. Ernest also learned to read and write English at night school at the First Baptist Church. At an early age, he believed in the promise of education, and excelled at math.
In late 1926, Ernest moved to Stockton to work with his uncle, Yep Check Lan, at a potato farm on the outskirts of town. They did everything in the farm and rarely went into Stockton. He recalled that they sold one hundred pounds of potatoes for one dollar and lost money every year. One year, there was a terrible drought and the entire crop was wiped out.
In 1934, Ernest returned to his village in China. He was set up to meet a woman in the village named Yet Fun. She had a good reputation in the village, always recruited to be an organizer of events, and was considered to be an ideal prospect for a wife. Their meeting was successful, and shortly after, they had an arranged marriage in the village. Their first child, Marilyn, was born in 1937, but not before Ernest returned to the United States at the end of 1936 to work and to avoid problems with the Japanese, who were invading China during World War II, moving from north to south.
While working on the farm, Ernest and some of the other workers would go into town to eat, and began to see a business opportunity with all of the Navy shipyard workers in Stockton. In the late 1930s, Ernest, along with three other partners, opened a restaurant called Gan Chy Restaurant in Stockton. The restaurant was located on 215 South El Dorado Street in Chinatown, which dates back to the late nineteenth century.
Gan Chy Restaurant immediately became busy and was an instant success. Because Ernest had learned English and was excellent at math, he worked in the front of the restaurant in customer service as the cashier. Ernest attracted many customers because he was very sociable, friendly, and interested in people.
Ernest returned to China again in the mid 1940s. During that trip, he and his wife Yet Fun would give birth to another daughter Rosalyn and a son Raymond. Ernest returned to Stockton in 1949. Shortly after, Yet Fun, Marilyn, Rosalyn, and Raymond would leave Toisan village for Hong Kong, but it was a narrow escape. Yet Fun was able to get their approval to leave on a boat out of China right before the Communists were able to detain them at the border. In 1952, at the age of 15, Marilyn immigrated to the US under a paper name. She flew from Hong Kong to California and stayed for a few weeks in the Sansome Street Detention center during immigration. She remembers living in a dorm with other fairly young girls. She recalls the meals were foreign to her, and missionary ladies came with craft materials and activities for them. After her release, she went to Stockton where she attended high school. She lived with her cousin, and her father hired an after-school tutor so she could learn English.
Finally, Yet Fun, Rosalyn and Raymond immigrated to the U.S. in late 1953. They flew on Pan American airlines from Hong Kong, and were not detained when they arrived in San Francisco. Since Ernest was a US citizen already, he had sponsored them to come. Ernest and Marilyn met the family at airport. Marilyn just couldn’t wait to see them. She remembers her mother had dressed the children in their best clothes for their arrival in America. Rosalyn wore a pink dress with a velvet collar. Raymond wore a suit and clung to his mom throughout the reunion at the airport.
By that time, Ernest had built the family a new house with three bedrooms and one bath on the south side of Stockton. Ernest and Marilyn prepared for their arrival by decorating the house with a Christmas tree, decorations, and presents under tree. This was such a dramatic difference from life in China, and a welcome one. Raymond’s first memory of the house was the soft carpeting throughout and the newer style of the stucco house located at 242 East Anderson Street on the corner of San Joaquin Street. It was one mile south of Gan Chy Restaurant.
Yet Fun worked seasonally at the Tillie Lewis Cannery, packing peaches and cherries, and skinning tomatoes in preparation for canning. Marilyn started working at a local market called Sung Sung Market as a bookkeeper while she was still in her junior and senior year of high school at Edison. Knowing no English, Raymond and Rosalyn attended Jackson Elementary School, two blocks away from home. Raymond and Rosalyn also went to Chinese school. In 1954, Ernest and Yet Fun gave birth to another daughter, Helen.
The four siblings all have fond memories of growing up in Stockton. Helen remembers the south side of Stockton to be a wonderful multicultural place to grow up though there were class differences with the wealthier north side, “It felt like a small town. We didn’t even lock the front door, and I remember riding my bike all over town. Weather in Stockton was great, I have nice memories of growing up there.” Rosalyn also remembers how safe the neighborhood felt and going trick or treating as kids in the neighborhood during Halloween. Marilyn remembers the outdoor feel of the city and its close proximity to lakes and rivers. Raymond remembers the diversity in the south side of Stockton, a neighborhood with Italians living on same block along with Hispanics, Chinese, and Japanese. There were lots of immigrants working in agriculture and at the many canneries in Stockton. The corner store was run by Italians. Raymond remembers the very active Chinese community, including all the family associations, long-standing restaurants like On Lock Sam, and local businesses such as Marty Shoe Store run by a fellow Yep, Marty Yep.
In 1957, Ernest started his own business, a Chinese take out and delivery restaurant called Ernie’s Kitchen on 227 East Charter Way, four blocks away from home. Ernie’s Kitchen was a pioneer in the area as a Chinese restaurant focused on take-out and delivery. Ernie’s Kitchen offered Chinese food (American style) including garlic chicken, fried prawns, and tomato beef chow mein. Business was a challenge at first, but Ernest’s outgoing personality and involvement in the community helped the business expand to catering work. Ernie’s Kitchen catered many lunches and dinners for various organizations, such as the Yep Family Association, the Confucius Church, Hawaiian Luau, and Filipino celebrations at the Masonic Auditorium to name a few. It became a popular restaurant in Stockton.
Everyone in the family had a role working at the restaurant, and the children remember essentially growing up there. Rosalyn remembers taking the phone orders, packing the orders, and also being a cashier. There were also food deliverers who drove two cars out at a time. Helen recalls working throughout high school, doing the food preparation, folding wontons, and serving customers. Ernest and Yet Fun did the cooking along with another chef and a prep person. Over the years, relatives, friends, and many students from Edison High School worked there, many as their first jobs and retain fond memories of working for Ernie to this day. Ernest retired in 1970 and sold the business to Marilyn’s husband. Ernie’s Kitchen was eventually sold in 1990.
Ernest was very active and greatly respected in the Stockton Chinese community, especially at the Yep Family Association and the Confucius Church. He also served as president of the Chinese Benevolent Association, and was in charge of the Chinese School. The Benevolent Association’s mission was “to promote the welfare of the Chinese community together with other organizations and for the awareness and appreciation of the Chinese Culture.” His children recall him making many community speeches at various events, especially during Chinese New Year. Over the years, Ernest was quite the community servant, giving out loans to those in need, and helping to write or translate letters for Chinese immigrants in the community. He cared for his aunt and uncle who originally sponsored him.
In the 1960s, the Crosstown freeway was proposed in downtown Stockton. The freeway was built on the blocks between Washington and Lafayette Streets, essentially wiping out most of Chinatown and destroying the local Chinese flavor and history in the Stockton community. Gan Chy Restaurant and many Chinese family owned businesses in the heart of Chinatown near El Dorado and Washington Streets were torn down to make way for the freeway. At the time, progress and growth was a government focus rather than on preservation.
Sanborn Map 1950 showing blocks along Washington Street prior to the crosstown freeway in the late 1960s.
Google Map in 2012 showing the crosstown freeway after its construction in the late 1960s.
Helen adds, “What happened to Stockton with the (crosstown) freeway made the division between north and south side greater with the class separation greater as the south side declined. The Confucius Church, Chinese School, and the Chinese Benevolent Association remain, including a few of the Chinese restaurants along with a housing center built after the freeway. Other than that, there essentially isn’t a Chinatown in Stockton anymore.”
Ernest and his wife Yet Fun eventually went on to have eight grandchildren and four great grandchildren. Ernest lived to the age of 97, married for 66 of those years to Yet Fun, and resided for 79 of those years in Stockton. Today, their children have wonderful memories of their parents’ impact on their lives and the lives of their own children.
Helen sees her parent’s story as inspirational. She recalls her father’s difficulty and courage when he was so young. “Later generations are built on backs of immigrants, whose opportunity to come here to the U.S. is so wonderful. Having that history and inspiration is amazing.”
Raymond recalls the importance of capturing the family’s history when his father was still alive.
Rosalyn recalls, “This (interview) reminded me of how fortunate we were to have parents who took care of us. I remember my mom when she had a day off, she would spend time with us playing gin rummy with me and Raymond. We always had dinner at a decent time.”
Marilyn appreciates her dad’s adventurous spirit to take on a restaurant business, and always felt fortunate about their upbringing. She is proud of his father’s leadership in community and being such a good role model to his children and grandchildren, who are all productive citizens.
Credits: Family photos courtesy of the Yep family
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