by Russell C. Leong
Editor’s note: This was excerpted from a interview of Mollie Leong by her son, Russell, on the occasion of Mollie’s 75th birthday. Mollie Jow Chun was born on 13 November 1921 and married Charles Leong on 2 October 1949 in Santa Clara.
My Immigrant Parents
I was born in 1921 in Isleton, a small town close to Sacramento.38 I was the fifth of the six children of Jow Yee Chun (near 1881–1956) and Lee Shee. My parents never talked about their families. I have two brothers and three older sisters. My parents were farmers. When I was about three, we moved to Reno.39 There was a Chinese family who had three or four children of their own and who owned a restaurant called The Mandarin.40 They just gave us the restaurant because they felt sorry for us. We all worked at the restaurant. In fact, when my sisters married, we took in two other girls who helped out by waiting on tables. There was sort of a second story on the restaurant where we had three beds for the girls. My folks stayed on the main floor in the back of the restaurant. When my parents were older, they gave the restaurant to the Choys who were my second sister’s husband’s twin sister—who had six children of their own. We didn’t charge them anything. Years later, the Mandarin Restaurant burned down and is now a Greyhound Station.41
My mother had bound feet so it was very difficult for her to walk. What she did was to buy the smallest shoe size available—size two—and stuff the front with cotton. She was then able to walk, but not a lot. Her friends in San Francisco followed her method. You never saw her feet, but she washed bloody stockings every day. She wore lisle hosiery. We respected her; we never asked to look at her feet. Every night, she’d be in the bathroom, and she’d have a bowl of hot water to soak her feet.
My parents were fair-minded people. They didn’t socialize. My mother loved to mark Keno tickets. Every day, she would mark the Keno ticket, and my father would go to the casino to play. She loved to play the slot machine, but she could not go to the club to play. My father installed a slot machine in the restaurant. Every day, she kept five dollars’ worth of nickels to play. She was so happy when she’d win the jackpot—but it’s our own money! She got such a charge out of it.
My mother never spoke English. My father did. He was born in China but claimed his birth certificate was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake.42 He had “ga-ji” 假纸 or false papers. Then he went to Fresno to work. My father would laugh when my mother tried to speak English throughout the years. She understood everything we said, but she never tried to speak English.
My father was very jovial. The highlight of his year was to go to San Francisco and go to Roos/Atkins.43 The salesman was named Cordell Leong. Every year, he sold my father a new suit. My father was very dapper and wanted to be very modernized. He did not let my mother walk behind him. He helped my mother on with the coat when they’d go out. He opened her door. He was very very modern that way. When the kids were grown, they would rent a room at one of the hotels on Grant Avenue and take in a Chinese opera. My mother never understood the American pictures, but all her life, she got the biggest charge out of watching Laurel and Hardy shows.
I went once to the Chinese opera with my mother. She brought a pillow. She brought bags of candy to stuff me. As I didn’t understand the opera, I was restless. Every time I was moving around, she’d give me a bag of peanuts or something to eat.
My sisters worked real hard waiting on tables. Mary also helped in the kitchen. The restaurant had about seven booths, one banquet table, and four outside tables. Two waitresses can handle it. We had Caucasian customers, some were lawyers. They liked my father a lot. We also had university students. The gals would order fried rice and split it. Some of these girls have remained my friends; we get together once a year. They remember my father.
My family worked so hard at the restaurant on Lake Street. My mother and father were the chefs. They had no time to spend with the children. They were so tired after work. The restaurant was about two blocks away from the clubs. But then, Reno at that time was very small. There were only four Chinese families.
Bill, my younger brother, and I just played in the backyard and went to school. When I first started school, they didn’t trust me to walk. So we had a taxi pick me up every morning. I loved school. I love history, and I love English. I didn’t have to study very hard and I always made the honor roll. In fact, I was co-editor of the year book in high school. I ran for office each semester, and I was elected secretary. Every Christmas and Chinese New Year, my folks had a box of mixed Chinese goodies for each teacher—that was the custom.
I remember the Rice Bowl parties during WW2, but I never participated. I remember we talked about prejudice. I remember my sister went to a beauty salon and when they found out she was Asian, they wouldn’t take her. When I was graduating from high school, we were walking and talking about the senior ball. As I was a school officer, I had to go. I had no date. I heard this boy say, “Gee, it’s too bad Mollie is Chinese. I’d like to take her to the dance.” I’ll never forget that. His father owned a men’s department store, the Wonder Shop, in Reno. They always elected me to office, but yet I’m not good enough to date in public. There were no other Chinese students in my class.
Being from China, my folks did not believe in education for girls. My sisters never went to college. But me, I loved college. I was the rebel in the family. I took a course at a university. But they didn’t believe in it. I decided that since I was not going to go to college, I might as well join the WACs (laughs).44 Rather than letting me join the WACs, they allowed me to study at the University of Nevada. I majored in fitness.
My parents expected to return to China to die. So they let me enroll at the University of California to study Mandarin although I speak Chungshan (Zhongshan)中山. There were a lot of Asians at UC and also in San Francisco. They were very cliquish. I dated some Caucasians, but not Chinese, at UC. I took a very intensive course, but after the third semester, my mother died. She was very young; she was 58. My father didn’t want to go back to China by himself.
It was so unfair because Charlie was the oldest son, and every year, he got a new car. The rest of us—including Bill—didn’t get anything. It was tough for Bill.45 He couldn’t even get back to get his diploma when he graduated. For a whole year, Bill was on his back. It was tough.
My mother took my oldest brother, Charlie, to Lingnam in Canton. Charlie stayed there for a year—at the same time as Joe Soong’s daughter and Chinn Ho’s daughter.46 When my mother went back there, she had her fortune told. They told her that her oldest son and her oldest daughter were going to be in an automobile accident. But because the daughter had some good genes, nobody in the car was going to be hurt. Two years after Mom came back from China, I was in Utah visiting my sister Edna, and we were driving to Yellowstone. Her husband, Wally (who was born in Utah), fell asleep and got driven off the highway. The car turned over once, but none of us were hurt. The fortune teller also told my mom that if she survived ten years with her illness, she would live a long life. She got cancer, and she did not survive.
My sisters all got married at twenty-one years old, and they were matched marriages. I did not marry until I was twenty-seven. Your father was 38. Mine was not a matched marriage. They did try to match me too. He was a first-year medical student. His mother wanted to meet me. She came up and pinched my arms. They said it was a way to see if I was good for breeding children. I thought that insulting, like you’re buying a pig at a market or something. I went out with him a couple of times, but I would not marry him.
My oldest brother, Charlie, was not matched. He was in San Francisco with General Electric. He was interested in golf, and he married the foremost woman golfer. My father had met her and didn’t approve because she was too old, he thought.
I met your father, Charles, after my mother died. The family was very much against it because he was older, and because he had been married before. They checked with the relatives who knew your father, and they said he was a good man. They also said that luck didn’t seem to follow him so he doesn’t make much money. I’m not sorry about marrying your father.
Charlie had just come back from overseas duty in Chongqing. We had a “bian fan” 便饭 with H.K. Wong. I spoke Mandarin so I was his date. But I was kind of mad because he didn’t pay much attention to me. He paid more attention to this other cute girl. The next day, at this other party, I ignored him. Then he started to call me. He knew to send me flowers from Podesta Baldoochi.47 He’d write me all these romantic notes and everything. We used to meet all the time at the Press Club, because he belonged to the Press Club I remember Rita Hayworth had Yasmin six months after she was married.48 I had you eleven months after I was married. But people saw me pregnant, and they all asked when did Mollie and Charlie get married. Even Joe Shoong asked; he was the owner of the building we lived in. We had two sons, and I never wanted a third one. At that time, we were very poor. I can remember cooking pork and beans for dinner. Charlie didn’t make much money, but it’s not his fault. He was a hard worker. He’s stubborn too. He’d refuse a job outside of paper writing. The family got a job for him, but he would not take it. He would rather stick with the paper. He got other job offers at the Dollar Store and everything else. If I went to work, then Charlie would take care of you boys, and I didn’t trust him to be home. When you were eight and Ricky was five, I wanted to work part-time.
In 1958, I got a job with an interior designer, Everett Brown. I remember the first question I asked him, “Is it alright if I wear Chinese dresses?” That’s all I had. He loved Chinese dresses. After I worked there for five years, his wife started to have Chinese dresses made for herself. I learned how to make a Chinese dress, and I used the same pattern and I never deviated. I remember going to the Weinstein Company, the cheap store on Market Street, to get a yard and a half of material for fifty cents. That’s all I needed.
At the time you kids were born, Roos/Atkins was a very busy store. I found out that at the end of every month, all their good leftover stuff, you could get for a dollar. So both of you boys had some beautiful clothes, Roos/Atkins clothes. To outward appearances, we were doing fine.
When I married Charlie, my father told me it didn’t matter that you don’t have any money as long as you are always clean. He said to always keep the children clean. You have nothing to be ashamed of because you can hold your head as high as the next person. I always believed that.
When I started working for the interior designer, my only stipulation was that I had to be home when you boys were home. That’s the luckiest thing in my life because I had nine wonderful years with my boss. At that time, we had offices in New York. From secretary, I became office manager and that entailed a wonderful trip to New York to visit the other office. But the year after that, they closed the west coast office. I went with the head designer, George Onhauser, and spent another 14 years or so with him until he died. They taught me to recognize and admire beauty. The Maybeck Building is one of the most beautiful buildings.49
I could not have married any other man that I was going around with because they were all younger, and they would never have the patience your father had with me. In our first three or four years, when I’d do something to upset him, he would always say, “You have to grow up, Mom. You have to grow up.” All my sisters owned their own homes and had money in the bank. But I don’t begrudge them, I wouldn’t trade my life for theirs. I don’t envy anybody. I have enough money to live on. My health is good. I don’t owe anybody anything. I’m happy.
At the party yesterday, I told these people that were talking about marriage that I would never marry again. I said if I decide I want someone, I’m going to live in sin! Times are changing.
38 Isleton is along the Sacramento River and had a large community of Chinese and Japanese agricultural workers since the 1870s. In 1926, Isleton’s Asian district suffered a significant fire that destroyed 110 buildings. The population of the community peaked in 1930 with 2000 individuals. The 2010 census indicated about 800 residents of which about 10% are of Asian Pacific descent.
39 Reno is about 170 miles from Isleton. In the 1940 census, JY Chun (62) is living in Reno with Lee Shee Chun (51), Charles (25), Macy (21), Molly [sic] (18), and Bill (16).
40 Located at 219 Lake Street, Reno.
41 Official address of the Greyhound station is at 280 N. Center Street, Reno, but the back is on Lake Street, between Commercial and 4th Street.
42 There is a birth record of “Jow Yee Chun,” born 8 April 1879 in San Francisco to Jow S. Quay and Chan See.
43 Roos/Atkins was a chain of upscale men’s clothing stores based in San Francisco.
44 WACs is the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.
45 Bill, the youngest brother, was a victim of polio.
46 Lingnam 嶺南was a private school established by American Presbyterians in 1889 in Guangzhou. Joe Shoong (1879-1961) was born in Zhongshan and founded a dry goods store in 1901 in Vallejo. In 1928, he changed the name to National Dollar Store. He is thought to be the first Chinese American millionaire. The chain closed in 1996. Chinn Ho (1904–1987) was also a millionaire with business interests in Hawaii.
47 Podesta Baldoochi is one of the oldest florist businesses in San Francisco, established in 1871.
48 Yasmin Aga Khan was born in December of 1949. Her father was Prince Aly Khan who married actress Hayworth on 27 May 1949 in Cannes, France.
49 At 1736 Stockton Street in San Francisco.