– Margie Dong Lew (1921–)
Albert Lew (1924–2015) and Margie were charter members of CHSSC. Margie is also featured in Gum Saan Journal 2017, the 40th Perspective of CHSSC. Albert served in the Navy as a first class commissaryman and as a gunner’s mate between 1942 and 1948. This is excerpted from an interview with Laureen Hom and Susan Dickson on 8 Feb 2019 in Alhambra.
My given name is Margaret, but I prefer Margie as it sounds happier.
My parents first came to the United States in 1920, bringing three children, all under 10 years of age. I was born in 1921 in San Francisco Chinatown—the first in my family to be born in the U.S. My own father delivered me, because my elderly woman doctor couldn’t make it in time. A few years after my birth, the family returned to China. Through some twists and turns of fate, my father was not allowed to take me with him. I was left in the care of the Chinese Methodist Home at 940 Washington Street in Chinatown. This was a place for Chinese children supported by the Methodist Church. I grew up there from age 4 to age 18. During these years, my father returned occasionally and was allowed to visit me, but only under supervision for 15 minutes.
On leaving the Home at age 18, I lived at the Chinese YWCA on Clay Street. I supported myself with various small jobs while continuing my education at San Francisco City College. And, believe me, jobs of any kind were hard to find!
In 1939, the Golden Gate International Exposition, popularly known as the San Francisco World’s Fair, opened up on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay. My father came back to open a tea and ivory shop in the Chinese Village. In order to help out at the shop, my father applied for a pass book for me. Every day, I took the ferry to Treasure Island with excitement and anticipation. The Fair was a place of wonder and adventure for an 18-year-old girl still “wet behind the ears.” And now, finally, my father and I were able to establish a much-needed relationship.
In 1941, I decided to take a break from school and San Francisco. I went down to Los Angeles to help my sister with her new baby. On December 7th (who can forget that day), I was taking a bath when my sister knocked on the bathroom and said, “Hey, Margie, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.” At that time, we didn’t even know what Pearl Harbor was or where it was located. We were so scared, confused, and in a state of shock! I decided I’d return to San Francisco to finish my A.A. degree at San Francisco City College.
Feelings ran high against the Japanese Americans after the Sino-Japanese conflict. We had few dealings with them in San Francisco, as the Japanese American community there was small and not close to Chinatown. However, I remember vividly hearing Chinese American schoolmates repeating stories from their parents and grandparents that the Japanese were mean people and cruel to the Chinese in China. They would say that if you had something made in Japan, you should break it and throw it away. We threw away our toys. And we began to feel afraid of any person of Japanese descent. Since non-Asians may not be able to tell if a person is of Chinese or Japanese descent, I remember wearing a badge that said, “I am Chinese.”
It was hard for Chinese women to find jobs until the war began. Many were mothers’ helpers, but I didn’t want to do that. I saw an ad in the newspaper to work at Greyhound, and they hired me at $75 a month which was a magnificent sum to me! I was the only Chinese girl. I remember we counted a lot of tickets. Other Chinese women got office jobs too. I knew one gal who worked as a cigarette girl at the Fairmont Hotel. I didn’t know Chinese gals working in the shipyards, but I was only twenty, and I didn’t really know how to talk to people yet.
At this time, I was living at the Chinese YWCA at 965 Clay Street, a residential facility for Chinese women. It just happened that there was an evening job available for answering phone calls and giving information about the Y’s activities. In 1943, Chinatown decided to open a Thursday evening club at the Y for servicemen. The community would cook jook33 and other Chinese dishes. We would have music and dancing. Most of the servicemen who came were Chinese. That’s how I met my future husband, Albert.
In 1942, Al had just turned 18 and couldn’t wait to enlist in the Navy. His first ship was the USS Raleigh, a light cruiser, where he served as a gunner’s mate. In February of 1944, the Raleigh was decommissioned in the San Francisco Bay. Al was assigned to the USS Bountiful, a hospital ship, where he served as baker first class until the fall of 1946 when the Bountiful was decommissioned at the Bremerton shipyard near Seattle, Washington.
The men were gone, so we girls would go out together. About six of us might go to the movies at downtown’s Market Street, and come back on the cable cars. We never had to be afraid late at night. The movies were our most important entertainment. We could afford them. There were vaudeville shows too.
The one fact that impressed me most about these war years was the fervor and intensity that brought all Americans working together to reach that one goal—to protect America from further harm and to win the war. Thousands of men enlisted (or were drafted), many barely out of high school. Women also joined the services—the WACs, the WAVES, and the WASPs.34 Women also worked in defense plants building ships, planes, and tanks. Women at home planted victory gardens, collected oil, and saved the tin foil in cigarette boxes. Everyone, including me, bought war bonds and stamps to support the government. Ration books were issued with red, blue, and green stamps. Red was for meat, and blue was for sugar. We rationed butter and gas. I couldn’t even get leather shoes. We sent care packages to the troops; we wrote letters to remind our men overseas that they were loved and cherished; and we entertained the servicemen at U.S.O.’s35 whenever they were home on leave. Patriotism was at its highest peak.
Radios were a very important part of our lives during the war years. My friends and I were glued to a radio every night to find out what was happening on the European front as well as in the Pacific theater.
Finally, on 14 August 1945, Japan surrendered, and the war was over! As soon as the news came out, people ran out of the office buildings into the streets—yelling, screaming, crying, and hugging each other. That joyous, happy scene will stay in my memory forever. Exactly one month after V-J Day, Albert and I were married on 14 September 1945.
Now that the war was over, the servicemen were released by the thousands to return to their homes. They would go back to college, plan their careers, marry, start families and plan for the future. Al had signed up for a six-year hitch so he stayed in the Navy until July 1948.
Eventually, Al and I moved to Los Angeles with our two children. I worked for the City of Los Angeles, beginning as a clerk typist and retiring in 1985 as Chief Clerk Personnel. Al worked as a carpenter for the Department of Water and Power before he retired in 1987.
Some of our best memories of World War II did not happen until some 48 years later. After 1993, we attended some Navy reunions. Both ships, the USS Raleigh and the USS Bountiful, had reunions in Nashville and Daytona Beach. In total, Al and I attended 18 reunions, the last one in Branson, Missouri in 2007. At all these events, there was no distinction between the officers and seamen—all were shipmates. The motto adopted was “shipmates are forever!”
33 Chinese rice porridge.
34 American women served in Women’s Army Corps (WACs), the Naval Reserve’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), Women Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs), and Coast Guard Women’s Reserve (SPARs, abbreviated from “Semper Paratus—Always Ready”).
35 Established in 1941, United Service Organizations (U.S.O.) was—and is—a nongovernment agency that provided live entertainment to members of the military.