Sunday, July 25, 2010

Details: Jue Joe , A Most Unusual Houseboy !

"Chinese Domestic on the Front Porch of an unidentified Seattle Home 1888"

Delving into Jue Joe's early history, reading historical documents and correllating those documents with Auntie Soo-Yin's invaluable oral history has been fascinating . San Tong's oral history is the clearest information we have about this era in Jue Joe's life and the history he told to his youngest daughter is really the starting point for understanding this period.
Historical research is sometimes conjecture . Those who are living closest to the event are gone and we are left with clues . I am going to weave those clues now into a theory of Jue Joe's early years in Southern California . Whether what I am proposing is fact or fiction may be lost in the mists of time , but it COULD be true and perhaps that is the most important thing . I think my theory weaves together enough of the documented clues and family oral history into a plausible story that helps solve some mysteries and MIGHT be close to the truth.!
After Jue Joe worked on the Southern Pacific Railroad he ended up as a houseboy on a Chatsworth wheat ranch . Either before or after that time he met and became friends with Otto Brant who was married with children and into buying and selling real estate . My theory is that Jue Joe may have met Otto Brant by being employed as a houseboy by Otto Brant's wife. David Brant in his interview says that his mother told him he had a Chinese man who used to nurse him as a baby who spoke to him in Chinese. David Brant was born in 1889 and was a baby and young child during the years his father was in the real estate business. Jue Joe's immigration documents say that he was living in St Helena in 1892 or 1893 when he applied for his certificate of identity , but it was possible that those dates are wrong and he actually left St Helena earlier and arrived in Southern California between 1890 and 1893 . In any event , I propose that Jue Joe was employed in the early years in Southern California by the Brants as a houseboy and that was how Otto Brant met him . Immediately on meeting him , Otto would have sensed a fellow traveler , a self made man like him , of the same age , who had alot of spunk and wit . I think employer and employee sooned morphed into friends and associates. Like Auntie Soo Yin says , class distinctions were less important in frontier Los Angeles. and these men from vastly different backgrounds would have instantly realized a lot of common ground . Jue Joe was most certainly not your usual houseboy , but someone quite special . He was older and with more life experience then most houseboys and had been saving money and sending it back home to China for many years. San Tong reports that Otto Brant actually borrowed from Jue Joe for some of his real estate deals . David Brant's interview reports that in the early years Otto's real estate deals were very shaky and he and his partners were buying and selling land where title to the land was very obscure , some of the land did not even exist and was under water ! Meanwhile , Jue Joe was essentially saving all his money and probably would be eager to put up some of his money in Otto Brant's business ventures while he was learning about business and heard from Otto all about what was coming in the San Fernando Valley and all of Otto's grand plans. When Otto heard that Jue Joe was coming back from China , my theory is that he offered to help Jue Joe get back on his feet. Brant family history puts Otto's older brother Byron K. Brant as a big citrus grower in the Ontario/Upland area in 1906 when Jue Joe is coming back from China . Jue Joe arrives in January of 1906 and in March of 1906 during a sworn immigration interview he lists his place of residence as El Monte ( which is in the Ontario/Upland area ) and his occupation as a farmer. San Tong reports that Jue Joe worked again as a houseboy on his return from China . My theory is that Otto arranged for Jue Joe to work for a time on his return from China as a domestic with his brother Byron and arranged for Byron to allow Jue Joe to start farming on some of Byron's land in El Monte . Later , of course, we know that Otto helped Jue Joe with acquiring land in the San Fernando Valley .
In the late nineteenth century in the frontier American west , many middle class families employed Chinese males as domestic servants because of the lack of females to serve in these roles. An excellent resource concerning this aspect of the Chinese experience around the turn of the century is the paper I discuss below. It is also very interesting in detailing how domestic service for many Chinese was a stepping stone to empowerment and later success in other businesses.

Stepping Stones to Empowerment: Chinese Servants in the American West
A paper prepared for the Annual Meeting of the Association for Asian American Studies, April 19, 1997, Seattle, Washington.

and expanded here :

Some quotes from these papers are very helpful in understanding Jue Joe's houseboy period ..
"While much of the late Victorian era social life existed only in the magazines and other taste-arbiters (how much attention do we pay to Vogue or even Harper's, today), it did seem that every home must have its Chinese servant. Not just in the provincial capitals but even in remote mining towns in Idaho, and inland communities such as Boise, Walla Walla, and Lewiston. One woman remembered of Boise, "nearly everyone whom I knew had a Chinese cook, and usually he was not only the cook but generally house boy -- washing, ironing, and doing all of the heavy work. "

"In the late 19th century ,Domestic service involved cooking, cleaning, waiting table, laundry, child care, and the hundreds of other tasks that the primary caregiver in each home provided. Many households required servants simply because the amount of work was too much for any one person

The demand for domestic labor eventually met the supply of Chinese workers, resulting in male Chinese laborers assuming the usually female role of domestic servant on the West Coast of the United States and Canada, despite efforts to recruit from traditional sources in the eastern and southern states.

Into this economic niche resulting from overwhelming demographic, social, and political factors stepped the Chinese laborer. The Chinese were no more suited for domestic service in the West than were the Basque fishermen who became sheepherders there; this was just an artificial economic niche that circumstances made it possible for them to fill. Yet, they filled it in ways uniquely Chinese and -- as well -- uniquely western.

With that in mind, let us sketch in the experiences of a "typical" Chinese servant. Usually teen agers or younger when they arrived, most knew no English and had little idea of what to expect; many suffered extreme homesickness. Often labor contractors assigned them to specific jobs, and both the contractor and the employer expected them to learn on the job. If successful, they learned to cook and clean, acquired some English, and found a good home. Any surplus funds were mailed back to China to support the family remaining there or saved for a triumphant return to the ancestral village. Over time, and through careful management of their money, they moved on into other occupations such as restaurateur or laundryman. A successful servant could do well. Hang, cook for the Roe household in Montana, returned to China with the immense sum of $1200 in savings.(Roe, Frances. Army letters from an officer's wife, 1871-1888. New York, D. Appleton & Co., 1909. 311.) "

Wages were around $40 per month and room and board which was probably better than what Jue Joe could make on the railroad.

"The Chinese filled an economic niche that few others were willing or able to fill. Of particular importance, is that, although male instead of female, the Chinese were permitted to assume the jobs of domestic service including child-care..."

Domestic service provided a number of learning opportunities for the Chinese who chose this route. They learned how to cook "American-style," accomplished the rigors of house-cleaning and laundry, and even coped with child care. In addition, servants were in an excellent position to "get inside" the dominant culture. Unlike the railroad or cannery worker who was insulated from the Caucasians by the contractor, the servant was thrown into the midst of a "white" milieu. Learning some English was a requirement, since the lady of the house was certainly not going to learn Chinese.

In addition to domestic duties, many cooks were also the shoppers. They would go to market, interact with the shopkeepers, and select and pay for the food supplies. As butlers and while waiting table they interacted with the social and political elite of the community. A Lewiston, Idaho, resident recalled having a U.S. Senator as a houseguest. During dinner, the Chinese servant asked to be introduced to the assembled company and went around the table shaking hands. (Pfafflin, Grace. Pioneer Chinamen of Idaho. Seeing Idaho, 1:9(February 1938) p. 24.)

Others took advantage of their situation to learn business skills. Gee Sing asked his employer how to read the exchange rates in the newspaper; every night he would study the price of silver in Hong Kong. When it reached his target, he was off to the bank to buy or sell, in order to increase his stake being held for him in China. (Blythe, Samuel G. "Chinese cooks." Saturday Evening Post, 205:44(April 29, 1933) p. 67.)
While there were many Chinese who found the rigors of domestic service (always on duty, managing the household and the household's relationships, dealing with the continual patronizing) so onerous that even work in the canneries might have been preferable; there were those who found great satisfaction in the job and were well treated by their employers
Wing Yee, another example, began in California as a houseboy, then became a cook. He remained with the same family for many years, assuming greater responsibilities as general farm manager. He was encouraged to bring a wife from China, who became housekeeper in his place; and his employers built a home for his growing family next to the main house. (Wong, H.K. Gum Sahn Yun: Gold Mountain Men. n.p., n.p., 1987. 125-130.)

Domestic service as a stepping stone to entrepreneurship has not, and perhaps can not, be proven. However there are numerous examples in the literature of Chinese men who began their American life as servants and moved out to establish businesses and other ventures.

Entrepreneurship is the ability to see value where others do not. It is also the ability to "make lemonade when life hands you lemons." Living on the margins of the culture attunes one to the imbalance of goods and services. Domestic service provided the Chinese with an experience at the heart of the culture, within the Caucasian home, in the bosom of the family; an experience that offered glimpses of needs that could be fulfilled from the margin. Many seized the entrepreneurial moment and made a successful life for themselves in a strange land among a strange people.

The result for the Chinese, as it has been for other domestics, was that there was no escape from the roles assigned to them except when they stopped being domestics. Nevertheless, many Chinese immigrants could rightfully be proud of their accomplishments as servants in Euroamerican households. Some,, owed their later successes in the wider community to the skills they had perfected while adapting to an unfamiliar role within an alien culture. "


  1. Jue Joe might have arrived in L.A. earlier than 1893. I recall that my brother Guy had once said to me that Jue Joe "...came to Los Angeles in 1890." I said that I was sure our father had said "1893." But Guy was very certain, "No, no, it was 1890." Auntie Soo-Yin.

  2. My father San Tong had said that Jue Joe built his home in Sum Gong Village(Sanjiang Village) in the Western style, in 1902. It was not your typical Chinese house. As Pingileen and I discovered in 1987 Jue Joe's house was kind of ranch style: The beds were not raised platforms as in Chinese style; instead, the beds stood on 4 wooden posts and had headboards of the early California period. Western decorative tile was used as part of the railing on his balcony. Clearly, as a houseboy he had immersed himself in the "heart of white culture" and had acquired a taste for Western-style furnishings. And he later incorporated these new ideas into the home he built in China. Auntie Soo-Yin.

  3. When are you going to write a book ? I can help you to get a Chinese version