Wednesday, June 9, 2010

San Tong Jue as a Young Man

San Tong Jue , my grandfather, arrived in America at the age of 13 , not speaking a word of English . Picking up the language quickly , he enrolled a few years later in Van Nuys High School . Let me have Auntie Soo-Yin tell the story of his high school years :

Van Nuys High School's curriculum and intellectual pursuits sparked San Tong's wonder, but they came to him packaged in strange ways. High School revealed to San Tong sports events, dances , picnics, school trips to Reseda's public pool- and those doors slammed in his face. Social initiation swelled for natives but not for sons of China. And San Tong tried to be American, he put to practice his learning of R.O.T.C in the School's open field until one day his drill instructor informed him that West Point , too , was out of the question for Chinese. Science became San Tong's passion as though to form in a glass tube the chemistry that would matter in his future . I tell you if the halls of ivy had opened a crack , San Tong would have met that challenge and he would have felt his mooring on some vital plane that he was seeking all his life . It once prompted, Oliver, the family attorney , to say to Joe , "The boy's got real promise ,Joe , why don't you send him to college? He really wants to learn."

"You no see what Chinese see." slid Joe's shudder. "No place for him out there, he stay home work on ranch!" To Joe success was born in rolling the earth's green foil- Joe had this to teach his sons, for they were the first Chinese family to pioneer the San Fernando Valley's heart.

(Click on photo to enlarge)

San Tong, Van Nuys HS: The Van Nuys High School Year Book of 1923. San Tong Jue is a student in the Freshmen A Class, he is standing in the back row, fifth person from the right side of the photo. The page illustrates San Fernando Valley's early Spanish colonial heritage, wild animals at the Griffith Park Zoo, and ducks swimming at Reseda Park's large duck pond.


  1. Upon arrival in Los Angeles, Jue Joe hired a tutor to teach his sons English so they would be ready to attend school. Then at the age of 13 San Tong was placed in a 1st Grade classroom in which the kids sat wide-eyed at their first glimpse of a Chinese. His teacher sat him beside her desk, and she coached and fast-tracked San Tong into Van Nuys High School were he belonged with his peers. At Van Nuys HS San Tong showed an early aptitude for creative endeavors. In woodshop he designed and built a beautiful bookcase with a glass-paneled door. I remember seeing that bookcase in our family room where we dined nightly (not in our formal dining room), in the big house on the Jue Joe Ranch. Auntie Soo-Yin.

  2. When San Tong became a young man in the 1920s, and before he married Rose, he wanted what all young American men dreamed of having. A sportscar! He saved every penny and bought himself a Ford Roadster. He was so proud of it. (I remember seeing a photo of him waving his hand from out the car's window.) But later he couldn't make a monthly payment of $50. So he asked his father Jue Joe for the $50. "My father wanted to teach me a lesson," recalled San Tong to me with a smile, "he wanted me to learn to live within my means, so Pa said to me, 'NO!" Just like that. What could I do? I hid the car every night on different streets so it wouldn't get repossessed. Finally, I got so tired of doing this that I just left my car where it was and let it be repossessed." Jue Joe had many lessons to teach San Tong. After San You died, Jue Joe began training San Tong to be a marketman. "I was scared," recalls San Tong to me, "I didn't know how to negotiate and buy additional produce to add to ours at the Produce Exchange on San Pedro Street. So I would buy, for example, carrots and pay too high a price for them and then my father would chew me out. That was his way of teaching me. Throw me into a pool and let me sink or swim. He was a cranky guy. When I learned to do well he never said so. When I made a mistake, wow, he let me have it." Auntie Soo-Yin.

  3. It was a different world from life in Sum Gong Village (Sanjiang). "I can still hear my brother's voice consoling me, me at 3 years old." recalled San Tong. His brother San You was 2 years older. "Each morning after our mother fed us rice gruel, she would lock us in the house before she went to work in her fields. There was no one to look after us so this was her routine. I cried and cried and my brother tried to comfort me. 'Don't cry,' he would say, 'and then he would start to cry, too.' A year later when I was 4-years old my brother learned how to climb out an upstairs window and down to the ground. We would run to the big canal that separates Dai Jan District and Hang Mei District, where the roots of thousand-year old Mangrove trees dipped into the water, and play with the other children. One day a huge current swept me into the canal and I fought so hard to keep from drowning as it swept me a long way downstream. I remember my 6-year old brother San You running after me and shouting, 'Hang on! Don't give up!' I managed to grab a shrub and pull myself to the bank. My brother took my clothes off to dry them in the sun, and when the sun grew dim and it was time for our mother to return from her fields, my brother and I climbed back through the upstairs window and she never knew that we'd gotten out of the locked house." San Tong learned never to give up in life. He never gave up trying inspite of the odds. To his last breath he tried, and that was his nature. Early life in China had toughened him for the hard knocks that he would experience as a young man in America. Whenever pirates came to Sum Gong Village, Leong Shee would hide her sons from the kidnappers. Everyone in the Village knew that she was alone, was married to a rich absentee farmer, and had 2 sons eligible for ransom. At night she would take her sons out to the fields. She would hide San Tong in a stack of rice straw with a demand that he not make a sound or move. Then she would do the same with San You, but hide him far off somewhere else. In the morning Leong Shee would fetch her sons. Villagers had to protect themselves. There was no police force. So in Sum Gong Village, once a week, each family was required to give up a son for sentry duty atop the Village's walled encampment. San Tong's cousin, Ah Fook, who was 15 or 16-years old carried a rifle as he marched atop the wall. The width of the wall was wide enough for a donkey cart. And the wall had two gates: one north at Pig's Head Mountain (Jee How San), and one east beyond Kieu San Mountain. "On the hour if the coast was clear the sentries would ring their gongs," recalled San Tong. "But sometimes you would hear a burst of gunfire when there was trouble. Suddenly, it would fall silent again." Auntie Soo-Yin.

  4. When San Tong heard that he was moving to California to be with his father he was so excited. This was a new adventure. In 1918 Gold Mountain was where the action was. But to travel from Sum Gong Village to Hong Kong in order to board the great steamer to California was a trip in itself. "You had to paddle to the middle of a river and wait for a barge to come by. You hoped that when the barge came, the waves it stirred did not tip your boat upside down. Then you threw a rope up to the barge and it would pull your boat, along with others, like a train to Jeongmen Harbor. (In Jeongmen you caught another boat to HK.) Sometimes, the barge you were attached to was attacked by pirates. There was nothing you could do but watch in horror as the barge's pilot cut the ropes to your boat and left you to your fate." That was life in Sum Gong Village, sink or swim. America would be different, thought San Tong to himself. He looked forward to learning the new language of English. He looked forward to absorbing all the sights and sounds of America. World War I was fresh on everyone's lips. His brother San You said he wanted to be a fighter pilot, then he was going to land a Kitty Hawk on their front yard in Sum Gong Village. San Tong said he wanted to be a General in the U.S. Army and fight the world's evils. I think he would have been a good general. He had leadership quality. He had a commanding presence and it was revealed at a very young age. "Even when I didn't want it," said San Tong about his childhood, "the other kids always looked to me to be their leader." Auntie Soo=Yin.