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This biography is based on a) stories that were told to me by various family members, b) statements from my grandparents immigration papers preserved at the United States National Archives in San Bruno, California, c) information from an oral history that I took of my mother Helen Hoh Wu, in 1993, and d) my own remembrances of these grandparents who nurtured me as a young girl and woman growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area.
I remember my grandfather, Harry Sai Hoh (Hoh Sai Hoo) as an educated man who embraced many aspects of Chinese culture. He wrote calligraphy, tended to bonsai plants, knew his homeland’s history well, and appreciated fine designs in Chinese art. While having grown up in China, my grandfather was able to speak English fluently, and when I married a fellow student – a Caucasian man, my grandfather was extremely welcoming towards my new husband. When my husband and I had a son a year later, my grandfather gave his new great-grandson a Chinese name.
I got to know my grandmother Woo Shee Hoh well because I spent quite a few weekends staying with my grandparents at their home in Berkeley, California. Some of my cousins, my youngest aunt, and I joined my grandmother on shopping expeditions to San Francisco’s Chinatown. She always bought chunks of cha sil for us while we went from store to store buying fresh ingredients for dinner. When we got home, she was able to cook tasty Chinese meals for large groups of relatives who gathered around the dining room table for a weekend dinner. She only spoke Chinese, but despite the fact that we, her grandchildren, were only partially bilingual, we understood her. When we went to downtown Oakland to buy clothes, my grandmother always took us to a lunch counter restaurant where she would order her favorite American food—b.l.t. sandwiches. I remember her as a very kind, generous person.
It was only after many years that I learned about my grandparents’ early lives back in China and their subsequent immigration to the United States. My grandfather was born in 1896 in Guangzhou [Canton], China, to his mother Au Young Shee and father Hoo Yui Sang (aka Hoo Chung) who owned a store in Guangzhou, another in Hong Kong, and still another in San Francisco called Sue Woo which was apparently opened by my grandfather’s own grandfather (This may have been the first Chinese-owned store in the United States.). My grandfather attended Lingnam School which was started by the Presbyterian Church in Guangzhou. He probably learned English and facets of American culture at this school. Lingnam was known to give its students more “American”-sounding names. Maybe that was how my grandfather came by the name of “Harry.” I was told that he was forced to cut his queue at this school. However, while the school may have tried to convert its students to Christianity, I had never thought of my grandfather as a Christian.
On November 16, 1916, my grandfather married my grandmother Woo Shee Hoh who was born in 1897. I have been told that this was an arranged marriage. They lived in Guangzhou at No. 4 How Dut Lane and then No. 4 Lok Yin Gong. By November 4, 1918, their first child Hoh Ah Moy [Helen] was born. In December of the same year, without his wife and child, my grandfather was able to immigrate via Angel Island to the United States. While the Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed in 1882, my grandfather was able to land as a student with the intention of entering the University of California at Berkeley or Stanford University (Had he been a laborer, he would have been prohibited from landing in the United States.). His plans as a student were thwarted when his father told him that since the manager of his store, Sue Woo Company, was returning to China, my grandfather would need to take over as store manager rather than attend school. The store was located at 953 Grant Avenue in San Francisco and sold groceries, porcelain, and art goods. Occasionally he designed furnishings for customers and had those objects made in China. According to the National Archives Records, my grandfather acquired an ownership interest in the store in 1919. His status as a shop owner probably prevented him from being deported as the Chinese Exclusion Act exempted merchants.
On December 15, 1920, my grandmother and mother who was only two years old, immigrated to the United States through Angel Island as the wife and daughter of a Chinese merchant. According to the National Archives Records, my grandparents had a son Hoh Gee Keung born on September 21, 1921 in San Francisco. My grandfather testified that “an American woman doctor,” perhaps by the name of Dr. Stark, delivered the baby son. Soon after, my grandfather, grandmother and mother went to China in 1922 and returned in 1923. Perhaps they brought the new baby son to China as well because my relatives have told me that he died in China at age one (The National Archives Records appear to contradict this, as my grandmother testified in 1931 that Hoh Gee Keung was ten-years old and still living in China.). Another child Hoh Mei Kum, my Aunt Florence, was born in 1923 and continued to live in China with relatives.
My grandparents had many more children, including Hoh Teen Nuey, my Aunt Annie born in 1924; Hoh Bun Duen, my Uncle Daniel born in 1925; Hoh May Leen [Yin], my Aunt Janice born in 1927; Hoh Bun Jong, my Uncle John born in 1928; Hoh Bun Yuen born in 1930. My grandfather testified that Dr. Margaret Chung attended to all of these births in San Francisco. My relatives’ family tree shows that Hoh Bun Yuen died at age one in China.
My grandparents and their children in the United States lived at 30 St. Louis Alley which could be reached through Sue Woo, the Grant Avenue store as the residential flat was located right above the shop. Conditions were crowded. There were only two bedrooms for a family that eventually numbered ten people.
My grandfather was highly recognized as a Chinatown leader when he became President of the Sam Yup Association and Principal of Nam Kue Chinese school located on Sacramento Street between Grant Avenue and Kearny Street (He was also known by the name of Hoh Quai Chuen in these leadership positions.). The Grant Avenue store drew business from both Chinese and Caucasian customers. By exhibiting his goods in a window at the Windy City Club in downtown San Francisco, my grandfather attracted additional Caucasian customers to whom he gave yearly Christmas gifts, and they in turn recommended his store to their friends.
In 1931 his father Hoo Yui Sang died. Since my grandfather could not leave the store, he sent my grandmother and some of their children, including my mother, Aunt Annie, Aunt Janice, Uncle Daniel, and Uncle John– to China to pay their respects. Unfortunately Aunt Janice was left behind with relatives only to return years later, while the other members of the family came back to the United States a few months after they had departed for China.
The two girls who had been left in China—Aunt Florence and Aunt Janice—did return to the United States as teenagers.
The family continued to grow as my grandparents had Hoh Bun Kay, Uncle Kenneth in 1933; Hoh Bun Cheung, Uncle Charles in 1935; and Hoh May Ping, Aunt Melanie in 1940. According to my mother, business at the store dropped severely because of the war in China during the late 1930s-early 1940s when my grandfather had a difficult time importing goods. He eventually sold the store and moved the family to Berkeley where he opened up a small shop. The family lived on Harper Street, then 60th Street, and finally Derby Street in Berkeley.
I have memories of staying at my grandparents’ house on 60th Street where I and my Aunt Melanie who was only three years older, would pick delicious apricots in the backyard. My brother Elliott and I would play with my cousins Gregory and Jeffrey (sons of Annie and Homer Lum) and occasionally with Robert (son of Florence and Howard Fong). My grandmother was usually home to watch over us.
As I became older and attended college in Berkeley, I continued to visit my grandfather at his store on University Avenue. He was always welcoming to me. However, it was during this time, that my grandmother who had suffered from diabetes for years, died in 1962. My grandfather, afflicted with ALS disease, died in 1972.
My grandparents’ sons and daughters married and had offspring of their own. The family tree now has branches extending wide through each one of my grandparents’ children.
Laurene Wu McClain, who was born in San Francisco, is an attorney and a history professor. She has published articles regarding American legal history and the experiences of Chinese in the United States.
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