– Cerena Wong Burns
Editor’s note: Cerena Wong grew up in Chinatown’s Central Plaza from 1950 to 1972. She attended Castelar Street Elementary School from kindergarten to 5th grade, and graduated from Belmont High School in 1968. She graduated from UCLA in 1972 with an English BA. After marriage to Gordon B. Burns, she received her JD from UC Davis King Hall in 1976. She was a prosecutor and Deputy District Attorney in Santa Rosa from 1976 to 1985. In 1985, she was appointed to the Municipal Court by Governor George Deukmejian. Later in 1997, she was elevated to the Superior Court of Sonoma County by Governor Pete Wilson. In 2016, she was awarded the Rex Sater Award for Excellence in Family Law. Cerena has been a longtime member of CHSSC, even though she has not lived in Los Angeles since 1972. She has two adult sons and 5 grandchildren. This was from July of 2020.
My Father’s Family Origins
My paternal great-grandfather Wong came to Gum Saan to work on the transcontinental railroad. He endured the grueling dangerous work and survived to return home to Zhongshan 中山 as a rich man. He married and had children, one of them being my grandfather, Wong Show Chong (1880– 1963). My great-grandfather sent his son to the US to make his own fortune just like he had done decades before.
My grandfather, Wong Show Chong, came to the US as a very young man. He did all the kinds of work that was usual for Chinese immigrants: vegetable gardener, store clerk, and running a laundry in San Diego. It wasn’t until he found work as a film actor in Hollywood in the 1920s to 1940s that he was able to settle down.
He brought his wife, my grandmother, Wong Fong Shee, and their three adopted children, my Aunt Nellie, my Uncle Bill, and my dad, George, to Gum Saan. My dad was an infant when he came to the US in 1923.
My dad’s family lived in LA’s Old Chinatown which was demolished when the Union Railroad Station was constructed in the 1930s. Their house was so old that it did not have indoor plumbing. When Dad needed to use the toilet in the middle of the night, he would wake up his brother, Uncle Bill, to accompany him because it was so dark outside. Once he saw a dead Chinese man hanging from a tree in Old Chinatown. He said he had nightmares for months after seeing that.
The family moved to New Chinatown around 1938. My grandparents owned a lot in the middle of Central Plaza. They built a building with Soochow Restaurant on the bottom and their residence on top.
My grandfather, Wong Show Chong, was very involved in Old and New Chinatown. He was a longtime member of the local Hop Sing Tong. As a tong member, I remember he would get dressed up in his suit, put his .32 caliber revolver in its shoulder holster, and go out and patrol the streets of Chinatown during the New Year celebrations to “keep the peace.” He was the president or board member of many of the local Chinese organizations and was often called on to make speeches at annual banquets. Sometimes he would bring us grandkids with him to feast on the sumptuous food at Chinatown restaurants. I remember listening to him make his speeches.
Grandfather Wong Show Chong’s Hollywood Career
In Jenny Cho and CHSSC’s publication, Chinese in Hollywood, on page 42, my grandfather is holding the first prize trophy the Chinese group of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) won for “the most beautiful float” in the Labor Day parade. He is being handed the trophy for the Chinese actors by Larry Steers.2 Grandfather’s IMDb page states that he was born in San Francisco, but that’s not true. He must have obtained US citizenship as a result of the destruction of the Hall of Records in San Francisco during the earthquake of 1906. So many Chinese in the US got around the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 restrictions due to the destruction of records from the earthquake.
Even I was a movie extra as a Chinese peasant in a John Wayne movie, Blood Alley (1955) with my grandfather, Mom, and brothers. You could make a hundred dollars a day just standing around dressed in dirty shabby Chinese costumes. It was great money for us.
My grandfather even got speaking roles. I own DVD copies of some of my grandfather’s movies. He was in almost 50 movies. He acted in King of Chinatown (1939) with Anna May Wong and Anthony Quinn. In that movie, he is credited as the “Chinese man.” He was also in Barbary Coast (1935) with Edward G. Robinson and Miriam Hopkins. Set in the 1850s, my grandfather is “Ah Wing” who witnessed a murder. Robinson is the bad guy, and when he asks who it is that saw him murder the owner of a gold mine, they turn to my grandfather! But nobody is going to get convicted on the word of a “Chinaman.” In the movie The Lady from Shanghai (1948) with Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles, my grandfather is “Li” and he actually speaks both Chinese and English. He was Rita Hayworth’s private driver and henchman. In the slapstick comedy, International House (1933) with W.C. Fields, Rudy Vallee and George Burns, my grandfather has a long scene as the health inspector of the hotel.
My Father, George
Uncle Bill and my dad graduated from Lincoln High School on Broadway, north of Chinatown. Bill went into the military service during World War II, but my father was very nearsighted and at 6’2”, he was underweight at 140 pounds; he was rejected by the draft board. My dad said it was tough living in Los Angeles during World War II. He said he got beaten up once because he was accused of being Japanese. Afterwards, he—like other Chinese Americans—wore a badge that said, “I’m not a Jap.” He really hated wearing that. Years before, my dad played in Chinatown basketball leagues opposite Nisei teams. When the internment happened, the basketball games ended. My father really felt bad about it all. He never talked much about it.
In 1948, my dad was 26 years old, and tall, skinny, and shy. So my grandfather said, “You know what George, we are going back to China to get you married!” The two flew back on one of those early propeller Pan Am airplanes. My grandfather wrote to his relatives and friends in Hong Kong to tell them of their impending visit. My maternal grandmother was the goddaughter of my grandfather. She was living in Hong Kong and got a letter about the visit. She had an eligible daughter!
My Mother, Chunny
My mother, Chunny Lam Wong (1930–2020), was also born in China. Her father had died early, and the family was totally impoverished. Mom was about seven years old when the War began, and her education stopped. Her whole village was bombed to smithereens. Devastation, destruction and starvation were everywhere. I remember when my brothers and I were kids, we begged, “We want a dog like all Americans.” My mother replied, “I used to have a dog. It was a beautiful, good dog. It was a collie—like Lassie.
During the war, we had to eat him because we were starving.” We were flabbergasted. It broke her heart, and we were never allowed to have a dog.
In 1948, my mother was working in Macau. She was summoned to Hong Kong to meet my father. They met up with matchmakers and horoscope readers to do their astrological charts. My mother said it was down to three candidates. My mother was proud that she was the cutest. Dad and Mom had a “date” with all kinds of chaperones (laughs). Then they got married in Hong Kong.
It was a challenge for my mother to adjust to Los Angeles. She had never flown on a plane before, and she didn’t know a word of English. Living with her in-laws wasn’t easy. She lived with them until they both passed.
My mother said she didn’t know anything about birth control either (laughs)! My brother, John, was born in 1949; I was born in 1950; and Raymond was born in 1953. We were all Cesarean births, and they had to tie Mom’s tubes after three surgeries. We all inherited my dad’s big head. John was over nine pounds, and my mother was only 5 feet tall! There were two Chinese doctors who delivered Chinese babies. Dr. Chock was our doctor.3 At his office on Spring Street, he would give us immunizations with this big needle right in the butt!! At some point, Mom’s sister died in Hong Kong, and we adopted our cousin, Paul. When Paul came, he was scrawny and had lots of skin problems. Within a year, he was doing well and speaking English like a native.
We lived with my grandparents on the second floor of Soochow Restaurant—at 456 Jung Jing Road. It was a 4-bedroom, 2-bath residence. I only knew my grandparents as retired. My dad had a series of typical Chinatown jobs. He worked for Yee Sing Chong market, he worked in restaurants, and he worked in parking lots. When we were still little, he got a job at the Terminal Annex Post Office. He then moved to the branch on 9th Street (645 W. 9th Street, near Hope). He put in over 30 years with the Post Office.
My mother took care of the four of us kids plus my grandparents. She did all the cleaning, washing, sewing, and cooking. There was always rice on the stove. And, my mother continued her education and learned English. I remember she would take me and my two brothers with her to Lincoln High School for her night classes. My father was working at the parking lot in the evenings, and my grandparents refused to watch us. My grandmother even thought that my mother was putting on airs, “What makes you think you are smart enough to go to school?” So, my mother took us with her on the bus to class! I have a distinct memory of sitting by her feet, smelling the pencil shavings, and then being warned, “You are all not saying a word; do not make any sounds.” Of course we were good; corporal punishment was definitely executed in those days (laughs). We went night after night. Now that I’ve been a parent, I have no idea how she did it all.
My mother was amazing. Mom made us speak English to her. Mom became fluent in English. After she earned her high school diploma, Mom went to work for The Akron department store on Sunset Blvd (between Virgil Ave. and Fountain) when Raymond started kindergarten. She would take the bus and work full time as a cashier. She continued to work there until Akron closed in the 1980s; she loved the customers.
My mother sponsored my brother/cousin Paul, her own mother, her two brothers, and my uncle’s five children from China and Hong Kong. She made applications for all of them and paid the attorney fees, immigration fees, tickets, everything.
Many years later, my Chinatown friends said, “Your mother was the cool Americanized one.” Mom spoke English, she drove, she did not work in Chinatown, and she loved to travel all over the US and the world. She booked cruises regularly. She went to every continent except Antarctica. One of her favorite quotes was, “I never feel bad about paying taxes because it means I have an income. An income!” That was my mom. My mother passed at ninety years old this year.
Growing Up in New Chinatown in the 1950s and 1960s
New Chinatown in the 1950–60s was like a small Chinese village! Everybody knew everybody, and we were an insular community. I would sit watching all the popos playing mahjong as they were admiring each other’s gold and jade jewelry. My grandfather spent most of his days with his pals at Hop Sing Tong in Central Plaza; they would sit around smoking and gossiping. But in the evenings, thousands of Angelenos would come to Chinatown for the nightlife. All the restaurants and stores were lit up with multicolored neon lights. You could hear music from the nightclubs out on the street. When the Rice Bowl restaurant became Madame Wu’s, I could hear the Tahitian dancers and the drums thundering until 2 am outside my bedroom window.
Chinatown went all out for Chinese New Year. All the doors would be plastered with new red signs in gorgeous calligraphy with well wishes for a prosperous New Year. There would be firecrackers exploding all over the place at all hours. At school, all the Chinese kids were suddenly popular because we could buy firecrackers. There were colorful parades and elaborate lion dances! Didn’t everybody grow up in neighborhoods like this (laughs)?
Old Country Ways in the New World
My dad’s mother ruled the house on Jung Jing Road. My mom recollected, “One year I got Daddy to ask Grandma if we could get a washing machine.” She was still using a laundry board for all the bedsheets, diapers, and clothes for eight people. My grandmother said to my dad, “If anyone comes from Sears with a washing machine, I will beat them.”
My grandparents were not affectionate or loving even though we lived under the same roof. I was scared of my grandmother who used to walk around Chinatown yelling at people. She was usually out socializing with her tight little group of Chinatown insiders. My Uncle Bill had married Jenny Lee of Man Jen Low Restaurant, so Grandmother got to hang out with that elite group. In the 1950s, gambling was not legal, but lots of bets were placed at the nightly mahjong game at our house. The noise of the MJ tiles was pretty obvious. My job at night was to sit on the stairs and watch for the White LAPD officer. If I saw him, I had to run up to tell the popos who were smoking and gambling that the cops were on their way. I was the lookout! There was always a numbers game going. My grandmother would actually open a window and shout out her numbers to the bookie as he walked the Chinatown streets. If she won, it was my job to go collect the winnings. He was a big fat guy who smoked a cigar and had wads of cash on him. My life of juvenile crime (laughs).
My best friend was Elsie Soohoo. Her folks owned South China Gifts. We would play four square and dolls in Central Plaza. We would run around and make things up. I would help Elsie as she did her chores of dusting the merchandise. I loved dusting the salt and pepper shakers. They were really cute little dogs or children figurines.
Chinatown Kid Grows Up
All Chinatown kids went to Castelar Street Elementary. Whenever a new Chinese kid enrolled and could not speak English, the teachers would assign one of us kids to him or her. That was the “English as a Second Language” program! Chinese immigration was so infrequent that Castelar could rely on the child’s natural ability to absorb language and the friendship of peers to bridge the language gap. I was “assigned” a couple of girls myself. One of them, “Judy”, and I actually became good friends and I was a bridesmaid at her wedding years later.
Sometime in the 1950s, my parents invested in a 6-unit apartment in Watts on 46th Street. I remember my dad pulled out a wooden sign that read “For Rent, Whites Only”. My dad painted over the “Whites Only” part of the sign. Every weekend, my parents would drive us kids there to sweep garbage, spray for cockroaches, pull weeds, and the like. The whole family worked at the apartments. We were used to being around African American tenants and neighbors. We did not suffer directly during the Watts Riots in 1965, but we all felt it was terrible. By the time I started college, my parents owned three more apartment buildings in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood.
In 1960, my mother and all of us kids were converted to Catholicism. We got baptized. We went faithfully to St. Bridget’s Chinese Catholic Center for Mass. My brothers and I joined the Saturday program at church called “the Crusaders.” The priest and nuns would take us to see movies and engage us in activities at the church and elsewhere. I became very close to my best friends, Diana and Pearl Young, during those days at St. Bridget’s.
All three of my brothers and I started working after school as teenagers. We worked at Kam Company across the street on Jung Jing Road. Kam Company was a wholesale importer of all kinds of Chinese goods. We packed and unpacked silk slippers, porcelain teacups, and jade trees. I did bookkeeping and paid invoices. Later, Uncle Jack, my mother’s younger brother, ran a restaurant on Third and Fairfax, right across from Farmers’ Market. I took the bus there after school to help him for fifty cents an hour. I would do my homework at his restaurant. He would drive us home after he closed shop. Through the Work-Study Program at Belmont High, I got a job downtown as a typist for Goodbody & Co, a stock brokerage on Sixth Street.
I was a good student at Belmont, but was “no good in math” so I broke the Chinese stereotype (laughs). There was a Midwestern Association of Colleges that wanted to diversify their student population. They came to Belmont High School to recruit minority students. I was given a full scholarship. In 1968, I went to a small liberal arts college, Cornell College, in Mt. Vernon, Iowa. Mt. Vernon, Iowa was quite a shock for a kid that had grown up in LA Chinatown. I met all kinds of people from Chicago, Minneapolis and St. Louis. It was quite an education. I learned about winter, snow and ice. I transferred back to UCLA in 1970 and graduated in 1972. I worked two jobs to pay for college. I worked at the Beverly Hills Luggage and Gift Shop on Beverly Drive, and at night, I took care of a crazy rich old lady living in Century Towers for room and board. I didn’t have time to be an activist, I was just trying to finish school. I left Los Angeles after UCLA.
I have always been proud of being Chinese American, proud of being from Chinatown. It has stood me well in my life. When I was a deputy district attorney arguing in jury trials, I would use stories of my life in Chinatown. I would explain the facts or points of law with metaphors from Chinatown. My Chinatown life has been like a treasure box in my heart. I would pull jewels out when I needed them. I remembered things my mother said or did; or what the butcher at Yee Sing Chong said about eating cow brains making a kid smarter; or how all the mahjong grandmothers made me promise to buy them Cadillacs when I grew up and became rich. I remember the whole roasted pigs of Chinatown glistening in the window displays and dripping fragrant oils (laughs). People liked my stories (laughs). Now our little village of Chinatown that was alive with families in the day and packed with tourists at night is a vanished world.
2 Larry Steers appeared in more than 550 films between 1917 and 1951. Steers was active in the leadership of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
3 Dr. Francis Chong Auck Chock (1907–1967) was born in Hilo, Hawaii and came to Los Angeles near 1926. He was married to Fannie, a beauty operator, by the 1940 census. They had two daughters. C. A. Chock is also listed as having served in WW2. He died in Los Angeles. Another important doctor in Chinatown was Dr. Julius Sue (1924–2002). Reference Raymond Chong’s article on gandie 乾爹—or godfather—of LA Chinatown: https://asamnews.com/2020/07/12/one-of-the-few-chinese-americandoctors-serving-in-the-us-military-in-wwii-remembered/