Chinese Voices

I just finished reading Unbound Voices by Judy Yung. The book tells the stories of first and second-generation Chinese women living in San Francisco’s Chinatown between 1850 and 1945. What makes this book so riveting is: Each woman tells her story in her own words. I was very moved by how each one expressed herself.

If the woman speaks in English, Judy transcribes exactly what she says and the way she says it. She doesn’t correct for language, sentence structure or word choice. If a woman spoke in Chinese, Judy translated her words the same way.

This is from an interview Judy had with her mother in the 1980s. It was conducted in Chinese: “When I became pregnant with your third sister, I said no matter what, I was not going to have the baby in Menlo Park. It was a matter of life and death. I told your father, even if you don’t want to go to San Francisco, I am leaving. There were two Chinese women obstetricians in the city and I was determined to have my next child in a hospital.”

Judy is second generation Chinese. She grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1950s and went to an American public school each day and afterwards to the Chinese school. In Chinese school she learned the Chinese language and history and read Chinese classics. This was very helpful to her when she interviewed the women for this book. She was quickly able to establish rapport and trust because she spoke the language and knew the culture. The women trusted her to tell their stories.

The book begins, around 1850, with women telling how they came to Gold Mountain (the Chinese name for America). Some came with their husbands, others followed them later and some were left to live their lives out in China while their husbands remained in America and remarried. The latter were called Gold Mountain Widows.

This is from an interview Judy conducted in China with Kwong King You, a retired doctor, age 75, in 1982. She was a “sau saang gwa” (Gold Mountain widow). She hadn’t seen Ah Fook, her husband and the father of her children, in 40 years. She’d heard that he’d remarried in America and wanted to see him one last time.

“When he first left, I was very upset and wanted revenge, at least until I reached the age of forty-five. My colleagues kept telling me not to be stupid. If he remarried, I should remarry. I used to cry tears from my eyes down to my toes. It’s been such a hard life…There’s always hope that he might change his mind and come home…My hope is that he will someday return. I will always welcome him back. My mind would be put to rest if I could just see him one more time.”

Judy’s interviews cover the period from 1850 to 1945. I was intrigued by the way she conducted them. For the most part, she went to the women’s homes or the homes of one of their descendants, chatted, asked them all the same questions from a list and let them talk. It was only after the interview was finished that she asked them to sign a consent form. This was so they would have enough time to get to know her and decide if they were willing to let her tell their story.

At whatever time the women came to the Gold Mountain, it was very difficult. Congress had passed a number of laws, especially the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, to keep them out. Once their ship docked in San Francisco harbor, they were taken to Angel Island and interrogated for a few days, weeks or more. Their answers had to match exactly the answers their husbands gave when they were interviewed. Otherwise the women would be sent back to China on the next ship.

To make sure their answers did match (i.e. the number of houses in the village or where the room they slept in after they were first married was located in the house, etc.), each husband prepared a coaching book for his wife. She was supposed to study it on the voyage over and then destroy it.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, many of the women were tricked. Instead of being married when they arrived in San Francisco, they were sold into prostitution. A number died, some were able to buy their freedom and Methodist and Presbyterian women rescued others.

The Methodists established the Methodist Mission Home in 1871 and the Presbyterians established the Presbyterian Mission Home in 1874. Both places gave the women a place to stay, taught them English and helped them find a Christian husband or job, other than prostitution, to support themselves.

More and more women arrived in Chinatown. They made homes for their families, worked and participated in community life. Because of them, life was better for their daughters. The daughters went to American public schools. Some even went to college. Because of this they were able to get good jobs outside of Chinatown that paid more. The terrible discrimination of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave way to the tolerance and friendships you see today.

No longer are the Chinese forced to live in Chinatown. They can and do live all over San Francisco, in every neighborhood: Downtown, in the Marina, Pacific Heights, out by the ocean and in many other neighborhoods.

My mother, who is not Chinese, was able to stay in her house, out by the ocean, for many years longer than she ordinarily would have, because her good friend, Virginia, a Chinese American, lived across the street. Virginia is about ten years younger than Mom and at that time was still able to drive. Virginia and Mom used to do their grocery shopping together every Thursday morning and then go out to lunch. Where? Why to a neighborhood Chinese restaurant of course.


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    • Book Lover on February 1, 2015 at 10:16 pm
    • Reply

    Claire, you captured the essence of the book with your blog. Good job.

      • Claire Murray on February 2, 2015 at 10:51 am
      • Reply

      Thanks! It’s a wonderful book about some very inspiring women.

    • Kelly Bixby on January 30, 2015 at 9:55 am
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    Claire, your voice comes through beautifully in this piece. I enjoyed learning about the women, and I gleaned something helpful to my own writing. In interviewing friends for the biography I’m working on, I hadn’t even thought of the need for a release. I’ll be looking into that further. Thanks for sparking new ideas.

      • Claire Murray on January 30, 2015 at 2:56 pm
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      Your welcome! Glad you enjoyed the piece.

    • Claire Murray on January 25, 2015 at 4:48 pm
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    Yes, it would be nice if schools taught everyone’s history so children would grow up learning the contributions of all the people who make up the U.S. I think it would increase patriotism when they become adults. Thanks for commenting!

    • Sue Remisiewicz on January 25, 2015 at 2:43 pm
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    Thanks for the insight into a part of American history that you don’t find much about in schoolbooks. That should be changed.

  1. I love the way you make it personal with the story of your mother and Virginia. Nice touch.

      • Claire Murray on January 23, 2015 at 12:26 pm
      • Reply

      Thank you. I appreciate your comment. Come back next month!

  2. I always enjoy the way you capture the spirit of your subject. I really feel compelled to keep reading and see how it ends.

    • Claire Murray on January 23, 2015 at 11:25 am
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    Thank you, Kook-Wha. Yes, their lives were very hard at first and for a long time afterwards. Those that survived and whose families prospered gave their children and grandchildren a very strong start in San Francisco. I wonder if their descendants who are alive today appreciate all their grandmothers went through. What do you think?

    • Kook-Wha Koh on January 23, 2015 at 10:28 am
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    What a beautiful story and heart warming one.
    I like the detail description of the harsh life in the unknown world, specially for the woman who left families in China.

  3. Thank you Claire for sharing this author! The premise is interesting and I’m drawn in by the interview-style as a means to capture the oral histories of these women. What really captivated me was the line you quoted, “I used to cry tears from my eyes down to my toes.” Wow. The best nugget was your closing, thank you for letting us in on why this title was meaningful for you personally.

      • Claire Murray on January 25, 2015 at 9:00 pm
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      Thanks, Emily. Yes, I liked that line a lot. I thought the imagery was so distinctive and so Asian.

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