Saturday, October 16, 2010

In Memory -San Tong Jue

Selections from Auntie Soo-Yin's book "Legend of Zhao- An Epic Fable Based on a True Story"

"Pa wanted me to be the farmer because I'm a quiet sort," explained Father, after I'd ask him to elaborate. " He wanted my brother to be the marketman at the Produce Exchange because he was the oldest. After the death of San You in 1933, and after the death of my first wife, Rosemary, two years later, the Depression hit us hard. If we were to sell the Van Nuys ranch and sail to China as Pa had wanted, we'd have gotten only half its value. Everything Pa had lived for , everything he strived for ,had slipped through his fingers and he was so unhappy. After Pa died I was determined to make good for us. And believe me, it was scary because we were in debt up to our ears. No matter what happened at the Produce Exchange-or in the fields on our farm-I had to clear at least ten thousand dollars a year just to make ends meet. I had to do that "

Father worked the Van Nuys Ranch until the sun rolled down ,then he drove at 3 a.m. to the Produce Exchange-on L.A' s San Pedro Street-in order to market fresh asparagus, each bunch packed in crates stamped with our logo of "Universal No.1" He worked so hard to build a dream.

And how I love the big house that Father built in 1945. The rooftop of the house allows you a sweeping view of the San Fernando Valley.... In that room by the hearth I know that Father is lighting his Lucky Strike. He puts one hand on the white mantel and catches Joe's pupils in a portrait above that mantel. Commissioned by Father, Joe's portrait speaks of inward moves stolen from the space outside of time.

"This is our family's headquarters", says Father. He taps the mantel above the fireplace and says, " Our new home should have a bit of the old country built into its spirit. I want the Van Nuys ranch to be the central beacon in our lives, a home to which you can return whenever you wish. It's like a ship anchored safely in a harbor that will always provide for you-that will always provide for everyone in the family-because it is our only headquarters now, we can't go back to China"

Father shows me how to uproot expertly the earth . Like a reaper of old Song times he thrusts his machete at a steep angle-as if brushing the face of an exquisite scroll. Soon I follow my father's motions, feeling clumsy. Father is steeped in this life , I tell myself. I see the field's dust settle like clouds upon his hair and it softens the monkey grease across his suntanned face. I see dirt buried beneath his fingernails, and when I kiss his rosy cheek , I taste the salt of China's southern seas.

Wednesday. My mother summons my siblings and I to the upstairs bedroom of my parents. I see that her face is weighted by pain as I'd never seen in her. Her finger points to a spot on their rose-colored silk bedspread.

"This morning your father locked himself in our bedroom" opens her heart, "and all day he wept by himself-all day!- I want you to see his tears and to understand what our move means to him".

O god! informs my soul, that tear-stained outline that I see on their bedspread is larger than a human head!

"I want you to understand what your father feels but cannot express aloud," says my mother . Her voice is strained, exhausted , bombarded by an unspeakable burden.

So enormous was Father's heartbreak. It was one man's soul exploding at once-triggered by a myriad of treasons-and I felt helpless in my ability to reach him . I felt terrified. I had never experienced the depth of my father's emotions, not like this , for in public he never allowed himself such unraveling because it was considered an act of weakness for a man; this according to the Chinese point of view-which was his view. But here lay the stain of irrevocable rupture before my eyes. Father let go and cried centuries of sorrow to no one but a rose-colored bedspread that could not comfort him. He gave way to the loss of something deeper than an immigrant's worn out dream, he felt the core of his existence-- all that he believed in -- take an uncontrollable turn and he had not understood himself inside that twist of fate . To Father the condition of unity was the fabric of our family's consciousness, and no matter what its deficiencies, he felt this unity could not be questioned.... Attempts to restart his life began to misfire, as old men in their desperate hour often face; nevertheless, Father brought up great courage that reinforced his ability to take those blows, and I grew to love my old man and to respect him all the more for this.

Departing the Van Nuys ranch I closed our massive , white front door . Before it's tattooed face ( the character Fu carved in gold) I wondered if that character knew the irony of a river's journey down the lea of dreams. Long ago Father had stood before the charcter of Fu , freshly carved, and had pointed to me its soul. "Do you see the 'Fu' ? It means 'Happiness!". There is power in a word like this and it will bring to us many good years, you wait and see." He smiled at me and he believed.

You hear a coyote's carol and you hear no more. You feel a valley's vision and you see the valley no more.

Father's legacy was not the one he'd intended to leave us , but it is the one I most treasure for all that it illuminates upon the art of living .
"I tried so hard to make a comeback," In my apartment in San Francisco he fell to deep silence on my sofa. The doctor's news had hit him swiftly...
An enormous sadness washed over Father's face that had no words to express its grief- that the fight for life had left him --except to me he choked : " I tried so hard to do right, I tried so hard. "
And I asked myself, Has life been lived in vain in view of the travails that take it? Hell no ! Life has not been lived in vain no matter where you're parked on this social planet, no matter who you've come to be or have not come to be.

Father passed away and his cardboard boxes from Mexico began to arrive in Los Angeles, one by one.
" He'd carried our lives with him wherever he moved!" exclaimed my brother Guy in astonishment; he lifted from Father's boxes the photos, cards , letters that we'd sent to him over the years and that he'd carefully bundled with red rubber bands. For down the years of grief we thought our father had abandoned us emotionally. But it was the strength of Father's love, unfolding in those tired brown boxes, that brought Guy to weep for what in life went unexpressed between father and son .

I embrace a marvel so eternal -what a family really means.

Memories of San Tong Jue from Auntie Soo-Jan :

Portrait of San Tong Jue: Photo taken in the 1980s at a family celebration banquet.

"Gung, in his early 70s in years, began winding down in Mexico and spending more and more time in the U.S. He lived with various children, moving from home to home every few months. Then he fully retired and for 3 years, he stayed with Pingy and her family, living in the nice guest suite over the garage. After that, he came to live permanently with us the last 6 years of his life and we moved across the cul de sac to a larger house to accommodate our growing family, including my father. I was a stay-at-home Mom so we were all comfortable with the arrangements. Gung was an integral and permanent part of our daily lives and he finally had time to be a fully involved grandfather. I can say that it was the same for Pingy's family when he resided with her. During the time he lived with me, Janet and Diane were of the middle school and high school ages while Ryan went from infancy to 6 years old. Our children were influenced daily by having their grandfather around. He met Janet's dates and had talks with Diane. Diane said that one time when Mel and I were out of town, Gung asked if she wanted hash browns to eat. Diane said yes, whereby Gung placed a big pile of potatoes in front of her to peel and cut up. Right then, Diane had a lesson that you have to work for what you want. She said that she never forgot that incident. Afterwards, Gung cooked some very delicious hash brown potatoes. It probably tasted even better for all of her efforts. He also cooked a very scrumptious "jook."

Once, Diane went with friends on a Grunion hunt and came back with a bucket of catch. Gung showed her how to clean and cook them. He saved a female one with roe and waited for Ryan to come back from school so they can disect it together as a teaching moment. There definitely was a special bond between those two. I remember that for two days, Ryan's hamster was an escapee in the house. Gung joined in the hunt and looked for clues as to where the critter's favored spots were. He jerry-rigged the hamster cage door and set the trap in the fireplace. The next morning, we had a captured hamster and everybody was happy!

Whenever, Mel and I went out, Gung was the babysitter. Inevitably, when we returned, Ryan was sleeping in Gung's bed while Gung sat in a chair. Even as of a few weeks ago, Ryan said that for six years, Gung was his best friend and he still lives each day the best he can to make him proud. Ryan was his sidekick and shadowed him as Gung immersed himself into many projects.

First, Gung color coded every one of Mel's tools so that they can be traced and identified when neighbors borrowed them. He built two pantry cabinets for our garage for extra storage. Then outside, he built a wide and very tall storage cabinet along the dead, exterior wall space alongside the chimney. It was the envy of the neighborhood. It was big enough to store 3 bicycles end to end and space for paint cans and many tools because he had put in shelves, hooks, racks, pulleys, a system of locks,etc. He even added a slant roof and shingles and paint job that perfectly matched the rest of our house seamlessly. He built a potting table, a large gardening tool chest on casters for use in his garden, and a beautiful butcher block table for my kitchen. I asked him how he knew all these skills. He laughed when he told me that as a high school student, the counselors thought that the best course of action for an immigrant young man was to enroll into all the shop classes. He said that those classes served him well because to run the Farm he had to be Jack of all Trades: a mechanic, an electrician, a welder, a carpenter, etc.

His most happy and contented days began when Seal Beach placed a Community Garden right along the river at the beginning of our tract (2 long blocks from our house beyond the park). He cleared and planted 2 plots with various vegetables such as zuchinni, eggplant, strawberries, green onions, carrots. He built his own trellis and strung up string beans, Chinese bittermelons (fu gua), Chinese okra (sing gua). He hauled his tool chest down there along with a lawn chair. After a hard days work on the land, he often lingered and I would have to drive down there to tell him dinner was ready. I'd find him sitting in the chair at sunset just enjoying the vista of all the vegetables in his prolific garden. I have some photos that I took of him in that garden, but like your father, I would have to sift through boxes of photos to look for them. He and I would walk among the other people's garden plots and he would point out tell-tale signs of yellow leaves, curled edges on leaves, insect infestations, etc. and instruct what the remedy was, ie. that plant needs more nitrogen, or that's a symptom of lack of potassium, or overwatering, etc. He was always a teacher and he also always loved the land. He even grew some asparagus in a large pot in our front yard as a testament to the past.

Once when I was at the gardens alone, a man asked me if my father was of the Jue Joe Asparagus Ranch on Vanowen Street. Imagine my surprise when that guy turned out to be the tax collector for the Ranch back in those days! He told me that he was now living with his daughter in the very same housing tract as us and had a plot in the garden. What a coincidence!!

To help his garden grow, Gung bought gallons and gallons of chemicals to make his fertilizers and a gallon of arsenic to make rat poison and roach killers. He stored them inside the potting cabinets that he built at the side of our yard. We weren't aware of all that he squirreled away until we filled in our pool and relanscaped our yard five and half years ago. Mel had to, very carefully, transport these chemicals to a toxic waste management station because by this time, they probably had become very unstable. Also after 9/11, security was tight with these fertilizer chemicals because they were bomb making ingredients for terrorists. We were afraid that we would be questioned or be on a "to watch" list, but happily for us, no one blinked an eye.

Gung was very mechanically inclined and you would often see him tinkering with cars. He kept his car running well. He explained to me that you always looked for the easier steps first. Begin work on the outside of the car layer by layer. Only if needed, start taking the parts out as you work inwards. Always start with the simplest because that may do the trick. He told me that I should take an auto shop course, not so much to be able to fix car problems, but to know enough so that I can confidently deal with auto mechanics and make informed decisions and to protect myself from b.s.

Gung had the patience to teach me how to drive stick shift on his old Volkswagen.
Janet recalled that he also patiently taught her how to drive stick shift. By using his interlocking fingers of both hands to illustrate the coordination of stepping on clutch to unlocking the gears, he had a simple, clear way of explaining things. I, in turn, taught all of my children to drive our old stick shift Audi with 250,000 miles to get cut rate premium on insurance for new drivers.

Also, when I first married, Gung took me grocery shopping and showed what to look for when picking out the best of each kind of produce. These were invaluable lessons for a new bride.

In the evening hours, he and the kids would watch science programs on T.V. on Discovery channel, which is a field that he particularly loved. In fact, if he could have had the chance to go to college, I think that he probably would've become a scientist. On top of the T.V. would be rows of children's milk cartons filled with potting soil, a squirt of fertilizer and seeds. He would germinate the seeds into seedlings on top of the warm T.V. for two weeks, like an incubator, then transplant them into his garden. No wonder my children grew up loving science. He also loved watching travel shows and stayed current on news events. Because of him, I'm a news addict.

Gung used to dry fish by hanging them from our patio rafters a few feet from the sidewalk in full view of neighbors and , I'm sure, pedestrians got a whiff too. He liked to experiment with food products and he actually was a good cook, though he did not cook often, preferring to spend time on his many projects.

He practiced two rituals annually without fail. 1). By the evening before Chinese New Years, all his clothes were washed and he, himself was squeaky clean, all affairs in order to welcome the new year's good luck and fortune. 2). On Jan. 1st, New Years Day, without fail, he would get up early to watch the Rose Parade from beginning to end. Then he would comment, "Last year's parade was much better."

His lung cancer came on suddenly and affected the pleura membrane of both lungs simultaneously which is where it originated. The doctor surmised that it was caused by his years of farm work exposed to pesticides. He lived for 4 months after diagnosis. He stayed at home. He took care of all of his needs himself, never wanting to burden me. He even told me that when the time is near, to take him to the hospital because he did not want to die in my house and scare the children. Four days before his death, on his last office visit to see the doctor, he told the doctor that he'll stay alive long enough to visit with all of his children who were coming to visit during President's Day weekend. After that, he would be ready to go. He did just that. On that last day, he dressed himself, sat in his easy chair, then talked to each of his children separately. That night, we had to rush him to the hospital. When he was intubated and regained consciousness, he opened his eyes and shook his head indicating that this is not what he had wanted. He had signed a Do Not Resusitate order months earlier. With the tubing removed, he passed away peacefully in the way that he had wanted. A few days after his death, I thanked the young Japanese doctor who treated him and he said that it was a pleasure to have known such a dignified man and he carried that dignity to the very end. This was your Gung Gung as I knew him.

Under the surface, Gung was a very sentimental man. This was in evidence when, after Gung had passed away, we opened up his old suitcase and found that he had kept every card and letter that he had ever received from his children and family members. They were his treasures and went with him wherever he was, even in Mexico

Concerning material wealth, I think that Gung felt that he had a duty as the surviving son to uphold and expand his Father's work. This was his identity and drove him throughout his life. I've thought of how all of our lives would have been affected differently if Gung was able to hold onto material wealth. One will never know how we, as a family or as individuals, would have turned out....for better or for worse. We could have been wealthy deadbeats for all we know. Fate determined the path, but I think that Gung would have been very proud of how his Family thrived and grew for the better, despite the circumstances of our past. "

Monday, October 4, 2010

New Blog - "Chop Suey"

I hope that family members will continue to send in information , memories, and pictures to expand on the Jue Joe Clan History Blog . Studying family history has been an eye opening experience for me . It has caused me to take many wonderful side trips along the way .
I have created a new blog to share some of the fascinating odds and ends and fresh looks that I have discovered about the Chinese American experience as a whole . Hope you will come along !