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Oh, to be a young woman in the 1920s, unbound from tradition. This is the story of Susie Sue Tin, unbound, who journeyed from Australia to California to marry, in her own words, for the adventure.
Susie Sue Tin’s love for the unexpected complimented her being—imagine a tall, immaculately dressed young Chinese woman who enthusiastically spoke her mind with an unfailing Australian accent. Many people don’t know that historically, Chinese Australians constitute a large swath of the Chinese diaspora. Initially lured by the promises of making a fortune and earning lifetime pride, Chinese left their homes for the “New Gold Mountain,” as Australia was dubbed in the mid 19th century (the original Gold Mountain, gam saam, being San Francisco). The Chinese established major Chinatowns in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne. People became merchants and hawkers, fishers, but eventually represented a whole variety of industries including scrub cutters, interpreters, cooks, and storekeepers.
Susie Sue Tin’s father left his Chinese village of Har Harng in Loong Doo County, Kwangtung Province, China as a young man to join his brother in managing a grocery store in Brisbane. He sent for his wife in 1897 and she gave birth to Susie Sue Tin the following year. She had four more children, all boys.
Even in Australia, Chinese traditions prevailed, and the Sue Tin brothers were favored. Susie Sue Tin learned to tolerate her role as the sole girl—in many ways, she was a princess. She lived a life of leisure, going to the movies and the theater three times a week.
But when she turned 12 years old, her father, Matthew Sue Tin, took the family back to China so they would get a “proper” Chinese education. Susie was the only girl in the village school, in Har Harng, and out of loneliness, or restlessness, or perhaps just because she could get away with it, she often played hooky and went to visit friends and relatives instead of attending class. Susie’s lanky silhouette and mane of hair, coupled with the mystery of an oddball female presence in the classroom, earned her an array of admirers. Two of these men couldn’t shake her from their memory, even after she returned to Australia in her late teens.
In 1922, a letter arrived from California. A classmate and admirer from China, Kow (John Kent) Young, asked Susie to join him in California as his wife. Before John Kent’s marriage proposal, though, there had been another penned proposal from a different classmate, who lived in Hawaii. Although the 1924 National Origins Act prohibited “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from entering the country, the courts determined that wives of Chinese merchants could join their husbands in the United States.
Susie was hungry for a new adventure, a new long voyage. Another Gold Mountain sat in the idylls of her mind—a new world to explore, new communities to join and such a promising adventure had suddenly befallen her, folded into the marriage proposals. An impending marriage was the last thing on Susie’s mind; filled with wanderlust, she wrote Kow Young back with a “yes.”
After six months of preparation, Susie set off for California in 1923 with her passport, visa, and $250. The journey across the Pacific Ocean on the ship, the Ventura, took three weeks. At the end of the first week it stopped in Pago Pago, the second week in Honolulu, and finally the third week in San Francisco.
Susie could not disembark from the Ventura with the rest of the passengers. She, the only Chinese passenger on the ship, was detained at the Angel Island Immigration Station, whose exclusionary policies targeted at incoming “Orientals” had reached a tense climax that year. Wives and children were ruthlessly interrogated for hours to prove their legitimate blood relations to previous arrivals; single men were sent back to their countries of origin in high volumes. However, because of her friendship with a saloon waiter on the ship, Susie’s stay on Angel Island was short. The saloon waiter took Susie in hand, “flashed his badge,” and took her to the heads of the lines of each immigration department. When asked her reason for coming to the United States, Susie answered, “for pleasure.”
Susie was met by Kow Young (he renamed himself John Kent to facilitate American business activity) and his sister-in-law, Mary. Susie liked John Kent “well enough,” and they were married the next day at the courthouse.
Fast forward to the 1930’s: John Kent and Susie ran a restaurant in Oakland Chinatown, Asia Low, and were raising two daughters, Norma and Elfreda. (Their firstborn son, Arnold, died in infancy.) Asia Low’s sales staggered to untenable lows during the Depression. Even with “supplemental income” during a demand-heavy Prohibition, their store struggled to turn profits.
But Susie still gave her daughters everything she never got as a child. Susie always loved music but did not have the chance to develop her curiosities. Atypical in the Chinese community, Susie gave her daughters both piano and dancing lessons. Imagine two girls from Oakland Chinatown tap-dancing in a radio competition!
Although working at the restaurant was dirty and hard labor, Susie enjoyed following the fashions of the time outside of work. She not only opted for the rich-looking draped dresses or the exquisitely tailored jackets on colder days, but she loved to accessorize as well. Susie sported short hair styles such as the “finger wave” and the “bob,” along with the country’s Second Wave feminists. Susie matured from princess, to queen.
Some people today still remember Susie, because her western clothes and ways were unusual in Oakland Chinatown. Because of immigration restrictions barring Chinese women and children in the early 20th century, Oakland Chinatown and its San Francisco counterpart evolved into bachelor’s societies. Women felt stranded. They were less likely to acquire the lingual skills needed for forays into the rest of the city. The 12th Street border of Chinatown marked the edge of their world. But because she was educated and widely respected, Susie became a bridge for many of the other families, helping them communicate, read and write in English. She served her role as a community matriarch well into her later years.
While Susie had been an undisciplined student herself, she valued reading and education. She sent her two daughters, Norma and Elfreda, to the University of California, Berkeley where they both became teachers. Susie’s grandchildren, Sue, Joanne, Madeleine, Dave and Larry, read together with their grandmother, huddled in bed, and were amused by her Australian accent. Susie gave them books as Christmas and birthday gifts, which were always inscribed with a personal message. The grandchildren fondly called her “Bobbee,” a phonetic interpretation of the Loong Doo word for “grandma.”
Susie would return to visit her family in Brisbane, Australia as a matriarch and queen. Susie Sue Tin died in Oakland in February 1988, one week before her 90th birthday. She had lived her adventure.
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