– Diana Young Klein
Editor’s note: This interview from 23 July 2020 was with Diana and Diana’s husband, Ken Klein, the family historian. Ken grew up in what was later to become Koreatown and also attended Belmont High. Ken retired as the head of the USC East Asian Library and is fluent in Chinese. Diana retired from teaching at Pilgrim School in Los Angeles.
The story of how my family became American is, like many Chinese families’ stories, a bit complicated. We do not know how or when my paternal grandfather originally came to California. It is possible, I suppose, that his parents were both here in 1881, when he was born. The San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906, however, allowed him to claim that he was a citizen by birth, but that his papers were destroyed. He then returned to Shekki (Shiqi) 石岐 in Zhongshan 中山 to get married, but when he applied to bring his wife to California, he declared that she was his daughter, and he also brought in her brother as her husband. The understanding was that the brother and sister would divorce after a few years so that Uncle could be able to marry and raise a family of his own. My po tai 婆太never did grant her brother a divorce,4 but we recently learned that this uncle did marry and have his own children.
My po tai, who immigrated to the United States in 1912, wanted all her children to be born in this country. She had 4 children here, my father, Thomas Young (1915–1961) being the 2nd son. Thomas was born in San Francisco, but spent much of his childhood in Shekki, returning to San Francisco in 1930.
My father returned to Shekki in 1935 for an arranged marriage. My mother, Wai Sui Tang (1919–1992), was 17. My father came back to the US and was going to apply for his new wife to join him in San Francisco, but the Japanese invasion of China interrupted those plans. They were separated for more than ten years, and she was not able to apply for immigration to Los Angeles until 1947. We have her papers with attorney Y.C. Hong’s signature. Uncle Frank, my father’s brother, was also separated from his wife for a long time. The separation was hard for both my parents. During the ten years, my mother had to live with her in-laws during the War period. It must have been a shock for her. Zhongshan became intolerable during the War so the in-laws moved to Hong Kong. By late 1941, the War had spread to Hong Kong, and the family moved back to Zhongshan.
I remember my father having talked about sewing men’s white shirts, but in San Francisco he worked in restaurants, starting as a waiter but then learning to cook as well. He was able to avoid being drafted during World War II. Soon after the War, he and his brother, Frank, came down to Los Angeles and opened a restaurant. The restaurant, Hung Far Chun 杏花 村 (Apricot Blossom Village), was at 658 N. Spring Street, right across the street from Sing Lee Theater. I remember that in the parking lot of our restaurant, there were these outdoor stairs that went down. We were told never to go down the steep stairs. We found out later that it led to the old China City.5
My father became a great chef, and the restaurant was very popular. Many celebrities came to eat there; I remember there being a signed photograph of Paul Newman on the wall. Frank took care of the business end of the restaurant, but he died in 1952, and my father in 1961. Later, the restaurant was renamed the New Hung Far Chun under different owners.
During my parents’ separation, my father probably lived in a rooming house on Spring Street. The underground part of Chinatown was their haven with gambling and drinking. It was a big change when my mother immigrated. She probably thought that living in the United States would be similar to what she was used to in Shekki, where she would be well taken care of. She had come from a family with servants. She didn’t even know how to cook. Good thing my father was a cook. She had no friends here, and everything must have been so different and strange for her. She also had a hard time understanding the language and acclimating into the American way of life.
My older sister, Pearl, was born in 1949. I was born in 1950, and our brother, Danny, in 1951, all of us at Lincoln Hospital,6 just like so many other Chinese. Our doctor, Dr. Chock, was on Spring Street. Aside from Dr. Sue, there was another doctor on Bernard Street. Dr. Chock encouraged the mothers to birth their children clustered together. Many families in Chinatown had their children born close to each other. In the 1950s, most Chinese Americans had three or four children. There were plenty of Chinese kids running around Chinatown and Castelar School (laughs).
When Pearl was born, our parents had moved to a house on Grand Avenue, near Sunset (now Cesar Chavez Avenue). There were many Chinese families living on Grand Avenue, and Mom made many friends there, some of whom taught her how to bathe an infant and change a diaper. A few years later, we moved to 431 Bernard Street.
Growing Up on Bernard Street
I remember Bernard Street as a community of families, a safe haven. In the 1950s, the kids could walk around the streets by ourselves. All the neighbors knew each other, and we all watched out for each other. We were like a big family. You could go to anyone’s door and just walk in. For our mother as well as for us kids, this is where we made friends. Mom finally found a sense of community, especially as many of the families living in the immediate vicinity had come from Zhongshan. There was also an Association building next to us, and we knew that we children were to avoid it.7
In our immediate neighborhood were a number of families with children, including the Chan, Lum, Lee, Shu, Yip and Fong families, but also the Sahagun, Gomez and Lopez families. And there was Mrs. Whiting, whom we always called “Mrs. White” (laughs).8 Mrs. Whiting lived in a beautiful, well-maintained house that was to become the home of the Chinese Historical Society many years later. As a child, I sometimes wondered how she had come to “our” neighborhood (laughs). Behind her house was an empty dirt lot at the Doyle Place cul-de-sac. This served as our playground. We played marbles, dodgeball, kickball, and baseball; we rode our bikes and flew our kites there. Mrs. Whiting would come out and yell at us not to play in this junkyard. On the other hand, she also gave us candy when we went trick-or-treating. We pretended to camp in the vacant lot next to our house, which was overgrown with dry tall grass and shrubs. Our parents wouldn’t take us camping, so we decided to do it ourselves. We had learned about Smokey the Bear from school, so we brought water buckets. We made a fire pit with rocks and started a campfire. In the 1950s, smoking was common and there were plenty of matches around. We also went on hikes and played war; the tall weeds were a great place to hide from your enemies.
I think many of our playtime ideas had come from watching the Little Rascals and the Mickey Mouse Club. If we weren’t outside, we watched a lot of television with programs such as Sheriff John, Popeye, Howdy Doody, and Engineer Bill. We children all spoke English. We were sent to Chinese school, but it was hard for most of us to be serious about it. We learned the bad words and tortured our teachers. Our poor parents had to pay for these Chinese lessons. Maybe they thought we would gain some Chinese culture. Today, we are embarrassed that we cannot even recognize simple characters (laughs). We thought we were “Americans.”
One other way our parents tried to instill Chinese culture in us was to take us to see Chinese movies at the Kim
Sing and Sing Lee theaters in Chinatown. Sword fighting movies were one thing, but the Cantonese opera movies were an ordeal to sit through. Even so, these were another inspiration for things to imitate with our friends. We would take turns pretending to speak or sing like in the movies.
Every morning, the Chinese kids from all around the neighborhood would walk to Castelar Elementary, and it was fun to greet your friends on the street. The community also included a number of Mexican and White kids. Nobody thought anything of it. Most of our friends were Chinese, but there was a lot of mingling with others at school. My brother’s best friend was George who was Hispanic. George was more than welcomed in our home. He lived on Cottage Home Street, just north of Bernard Street.
I remember being particularly inspired that there were two Asian teachers at Castelar in the 1950s. Mrs. Louie, who taught 3rd grade, was Chinese and then Mrs. Yamamoto taught 4th grade. I thought, “You’re Asian, and you could be a teacher?” I especially appreciated Mrs. Yamamoto, who was so patient with her students and always spoke in a very soft voice. I was impressed that she played the piano as she taught us patriotic songs. And she did not mind that I was left-handed. That was when I decided that I too, wanted to be a teacher.
A close family friend suggested to Mom that the three of us attend St. Bridget’s which is near St. Peter’s, the Italian Catholic Church, and the all-boys Cathedral High School.9 Our parents looked up to churches, but they never attended. The services on Sunday were held in Latin, which was certainly difficult for most of us to understand. The nuns taught catechism classes on Saturdays, and many of the neighborhood kids decided to join. Cerena, who to this day is my best friend, attended a Catholic girls school rather than Castelar and helped me to understand the religious lessons better.
Actually, our real interest was in the activities we were able to enjoy after the lesson. The nuns introduced us to games, arts and crafts, and Bingo. I enjoyed Bingo the best, as the nuns would give a prize of some metal saint figurine or a rosary to whoever won. We formed a club which we called the Crusaders. The nuns taught us about parliamentary procedures and taking minutes. They made sure we had a president, vice president, secretary, and treasurer. We would bring a nickel each Saturday as dues. We would then decide together how to use the money. The nuns taught us how to save money and how to collaborate. It was great. Later, we got even more enterprising. The nuns bought reject candy from the See’s chocolate factory. We would pick out the “okay” ones and repackage them. They then taught us to melt the rest of the candy to make fudge. Once completed, we would sell the candy by going door to door. This then added to our funds; it was more than our weekly nickels. We learned how to be resourceful. Father Quinn and the nuns went hiking with us; we went to parks and to the beach, where we wore our gym clothes, since none of us had swimsuits (laughs). They also taught us how to act and sing, and we put on plays. We had bazaars and other church functions. We learned how to give back to the church and to our community. Father Quinn was a real delight. He understood the community and the people of our neighborhood. Father Quinn even helped us through our teenage nonsense. St. Bridget taught us religion, life skills, ideals, group dynamics, tolerance, and critical thinking—all things our parents could not teach us.
Among my many good memories of Chinatown, Chinese New Year was the best! We had fun with all the firecrackers we collected from the grounds of Chinatown Plaza. We would collect lucky money from all the aunties and uncles. We used the lucky money to go to buy sweets from Jack Gogo (older brother), at the Yee Sing Chong market.10 He was very generous and loved all the kids in our neighborhood. I think in the 1950s, this was the only supermarket in Chinatown; almost every household shopped there.
In the early 1950s, our mothers took care of the kids, while the fathers worked long hours. My father would leave a certain amount of money on the table for groceries and rent, but it was not always enough. I remember watching Mom peel walnuts for the restaurant; one full box of peeled walnuts earned her $25. She taught my sister and me to help her out, which I thought was fun. By the mid-1950s, the women began to do seamstress work at home. My mother had not even known how to sew a stitch when she was in China. Later, she worked in a big factory near the Chinese Baptist Church. About 90% of the workers there were Chinese, with some Hispanics as well. It was there that she learned to become an excellent seamstress, which gave her a trade and the ability to earn her own money.
My mother and the other women in Chinatown had felt the need for some independence. Towards the mid or late 1950s, these neighborhood women all decided to apply for citizenship. They attended classes at the Chinese Methodist Church to learn English and took citizenship classes. Mom received her citizenship in 1957.
It was our mothers who figured out a way to apply for families to immigrate. My mother had a brother who had escaped to Hong Kong in the early 1950s with seven kids—six girls before the son. He was my mother’s only link with the rest of her family in Shekki. She had been sending money to help his family, and then began to apply for their immigration to the U.S. Through my mother’s determination, my uncle and one of his children did immigrate in the early 1960s. They lived with us for a short time. Eventually, the entire family came to Los Angeles. Mom was very proud of this.
As my cousins began to arrive in L.A., the community helped in finding jobs. Two of my cousins worked at Phoenix Bakery. Sincere Imports, General Lee’s, Hong Kong Low, and the Louie family also were helpful. Mom’s career as a seamstress motivated me to want to learn to sew. I made a few attempts to use her industrial sewing machine, but it was not until I took a home economics class in junior high that I was taught sewing properly and began to truly enjoy the craft. We also could see what a good chef our father was, and we all worked in the restaurant with him. Our job was to make wontons, bag fortune and almond cookies, learn the cash register, and chop simple vegetables. To this day, I believe we learned a lot about cooking from our parents, enough so that each of us has become a good cook in our own domains.
My father died suddenly when I was about ten years old. He was only 45 years old. The restaurant had started well as he was a great cook. But there was a lot of competition. My dad was probably too generous; I don’t think everybody paid for their meals (laughs). My Uncle Frank died earlier in 1952 and after that, Dad’s restaurant began to decline.
Without Dad, our family downsized to an apartment with only one bedroom. We moved a little further down Broadway, and the unit was owned by Sincere Imports (1301 N. Broadway). As everyone knew each other, the community really helped my mother a lot. My mother was working, but I think friends and neighbors who knew us must have really helped us out before my father’s social security came through. I remember they provided many meals and groceries for us.
When we started Nightingale Junior High, we noticed it was more diverse, with more Hispanic and some Black classmates. We made many new friends in this new environment. Our mother then decided to move us again to a slightly larger place just off of Sunset, on White Knoll Drive. A few years later, she had saved enough money to put a down payment on a house on Third Street and Ditman Avenue in East Los Angeles. Some of her friends thought that was a wrong move, as East LA was not thought to be a good neighborhood. Mom wanted to do what she thought was best for us, and this included owning her own home with three bedrooms, a driveway, and a backyard. What an accomplishment! She continued to do sewing another ten or fifteen years.
Even though we were in Roosevelt High School’s district, we successfully petitioned to go to Belmont High instead, where most of our friends were going. By this time, we had pretty much separated ourselves from the Chinatown community. Perhaps we didn’t learn that much academically at Belmont but we certainly benefited from experiencing the unique diversity of its student body. At that time, at least, there was no majority ethnic group. Belmont drew students from the J-Flats neighborhood, Historic Filipino Town, and included Hispanics, African Americans and Whites.11 The majority may have been Chinese students. I met my future husband, Ken, who lived on 8th and Vermont in what later was to become Koreatown. Yet I do not remember any ethnic conflicts of tensions during my time there; we were all just Belmont classmates.
Meanwhile, my sister and I worked to help support our family. As a young teenager, Pearl started working at a gift store in Chinatown. Some of her salary went to groceries and the rest of it went to our school needs. I was part of the Work-Study Program at Belmont.12 My first job was as a preschool teacher’s aide at Castelar; I did that for about two years. That money went for bills, including school expenses. My brother Danny worked at a small grocery store down the street from our house. Both my sister and I attended East LA Community College (ELACC) because we could not afford enrollment in a university. By then, Pearl and I found jobs working at the downtown post office. We worked from 6 pm to 10:30 pm for $1.80/hour. That was considered great income in the late 1960s. It was also a Work-Study Program for low income students. A lot of the workers were people of color, and we met the best people at the post office. My sister and I would go across the street for taquitos at Olvera Street. The three of us saved enough money together to buy a used Ford Falcon for $600, our first car. We felt rich, and it provided us a sense of independence.
However, working at the post office for a year led me to repeated illnesses, and I went down to 99 pounds. I had to quit. I next managed to find another job working in the library at ELACC; the hours were better, and my health improved. When I completed my two years in junior college, I transferred to California State University, Los Angeles, where I received a B.A. in social studies and completed my elementary credentials program.
My sister, Pearl Young, was a co-founder of the Chinatown Service Center in 1971. She began working there as Assistant Director with no pay, but she and the Director successfully applied for a federal grant, so it became her job. Ken and I also volunteered occasionally to help other immigrants acclimate to the United States, knowing how hard it had been for our family. I was not all that political during the late 1960s and 1970s, but we all had feelings against the war in Vietnam. When my brother went to Berkeley to study architecture, Ken and I went to visit him, and we attended the Moratorium March in San Francisco.13 Though I never told my mother about it. After Saigon fell in 1975, there was a huge wave of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Chinatown Service Center was one of the only agencies that could really help.
We had always grown up in a protective and integrated community, and I rarely experienced racism or discrimination. When Ken and I were dating, my mother did have a hard time with my interracial relationship. She lectured and scolded me. Since we were living in East LA, my mother would refer to Ken as that “Mexican boy” (laughs). It was a hard sell to get her to accept our relationship. It helped that Ken helped to paint the house and also learned some Cantonese. We were married in 1974, which prompted us to sell the house in East LA and to buy a place in mid-Wilshire, where Mom lived with us. The funny thing is, several years later, my mother began to ask my brother, “Why aren’t you married yet?” and “A mother’s duty is to make sure her children marry before she dies.” By that time, Mom had mellowed somewhat (laughs). She was relieved when Danny did get married to a Hispanic woman from El Paso. As it turned out, while our family was acculturating itself to life in America, we landed in a community that was acculturating to the mixture of cultures.
My experience growing up in Chinatown, although somewhat abbreviated, has molded me into who I am today. I have a real appreciation of the importance of family and my ancestors’ struggles coming to America, leaving their homes while trying to hold on to their cultural roots here, and I hope to pass this along to the next generations.
4 Actually, po tai means great-grandmother. But many families use different designations. It could also be that the family used “po tai” as Thomas’ mother re-immigrated in the 1950s as the widow of Diana’s great-grandfather, rather than as his daughter-in-law.
5 Christine Sterling’s China City was between Spring and Main, Macy and Ord. It suffered two suspicious fires in 1939 and 1948. It was closed in 1948. The children were probably not allowed to go into the area because it was physically unsafe.
6 Probably at 443 S. Soto in Boyle Heights.
7 Gee How Oak Tin (“Most Filial”) Association enjoin the Chin, Yuan, and Woo families. The 421 Bernard Street building was built in 1949 and designed by Chinese American architect, Eugene Kinn Choy. This Association is a national network established before 1900.
8 Louise Whiting (1892–1992) lived at 411 Bernard Street most of her life. She was the daughter of French immigrant, Philip Fritz Sr., who built the house in 1886. 411 Bernard Street is now the CHSSC office. See https://chssc.org/fritz-family-history/.
9 St. Bridget Chinese Catholic Church was established in 1940 at 510 Cottage Home Street. It was established by Father John Cowhig, a Columban priest who had left his missionary work in China in 1939, and lived at Cathedral High School. Columbans were founded in Ireland in 1916 and known for their missionary work in China. Father Cowhig was followed by other Columbans, Father Anthony O’Doherty and Father Matthew Quinn. The Immaculate Heart nuns helped at St. Bridget’s. Nearby, St. Peter’s Italian Catholic Church was established in 1904 at 1039 N. Broadway for the growing Italian immigrant population.
10 Jack Lee was featured in Gum Saan Journal 2006. He took over Yee Sing Chong market in 1952 from its former owner, Frank Lee. At that time, Yee Sing Chong was on the corner of Hill Street and Gin Ling Way—near the Gateway. In 1957, it moved to the Lee Family Association building at 964 N. Hill. In 1964, Yee Sing Chong opened as the first modern supermarket at 988 N. Hill. Jack Lee was involved in other enterprises including First Public Savings Bank and Mandarin Plaza.
11 “J-Flats” is a nickname for a former Japanese American neighborhood between Melrose and Vermont, and from the Hollywood Freeway to Virgil. Today, it is also referred to as “Virgil Village.” After World War II, Mexican American gangs included First Street Flats and Fourth Flats—also known as Primera and Cuatro Flats. The Boyle Heights’ Aliso Village projects—home of these gangs—was built on an earlier settlement of wooden shacks and makeshift shelters called Russian Flats. J-Flats was the territory of the Japanese American Black Juans gang. Thanks to Jim Matsuoka, formerly of J-Flats, for explaining this Los Angeles history.
12 The Federal Work-Study Program was introduced by the Johnson administration in 1964.
13 On 15 October 1969, there were massive demonstrations across the nation for “Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.”