Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Tale of Two Joes- Wong Joe and Jue Joe

One of the mysteries of our family oral history is how Jue Joe and Otto Brant became fast friends and how they met. Earlier in this blog I suspected that Jue Joe may have met Otto Brant being employed as his houseboy. It turns out there was probably a "houseboy" connection in how they became friends but it was not as simple as I first thought . Let me tell you the stories of two Chinese domestic servants in Los Angeles , Wong Joe and Jue Joe, and about my theories about how their meeting may have led to Jue Joe's friendship with Otto Brant .

Otto Brant arrived in Los Angeles during the mid 1880s during a major real estate boom. He had made a small fortune in drilling wells for water irrigation in Texas with his brother Byron and came to Los Angeles to try his hand in real estate investment. Later he and a partner would found the successful Title Insurance Company. He and his wife Susan  began a large family and early on hired a Chinese houseboy, Wong Joe . Wong Joe was an integral member of the Brant household and even played nurse "girl " to the Brant children .  Here are some Brant family photos courtesy of Harry Brant Chandler.

Otto Brant in his younger years .

Otto Brant family circa 1905

The Brant house in Los Angeles .

"Old Joe"- Wong Joe , Houseboy for the Brants
Behind the photo of Old Joe there is the following note :

...Wong "Joe"
Cook and nurse "girl" who raised the whole damn family and many of the neighbors Kids. ...

Wong Joe's history with the Brant family was a long and deep one that stretched for many years. He became a trusted member of the family household .

Meanwhile, Jue Joe arrived in Chatsworth in the San Fernando Valley in 1893 after working on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Like Wong Joe, Jue Joe was employed as a houseboy. He was employed by Neils C, Johnson and Ann Wilden Johnson, pioneer homesteaders. Here is some information about the Johnsons and some pictures of Chatsworth and the San Fernando Valley in 1893 when Jue Joe arrived.

By the late 1880s most latecomers found it more difficult to find good farmland in 
the valley. Most were consigned to seek out marginal land in the surrounding hills 
for ranches and homesteads. Benjamin Porter had divided his “least desirable” 
property into thirteen separate shares. Granger Ranch (which Porter named after 
his ranch superintendent), the westernmost share and adjacent to Santa Susana 
State Historic Park, eventually became part of the town of Chatsworth Park. In 
1870, Niles and Wilden Johnson were among the first families to take advantage 
of the Federal Homestead Act, to settle in the San Fernando Valley. The Johnsons 
were applying for the land under the 1862 Homestead Act, which allowed an adult 
United States citizen or naturalized citizen the opportunity to acquire free up to a 
¼ section of a township (160 acres) in the public domain west of the Mississippi. 
The claimant had to have improved and lived on the property for at least five 
years, after which he paid a nominal filing fee; or was allowed to buy it after six 
months for $1.25 per acre. Settling first in Brown’s Canyon, in 1874 they 
relocated farther up the Santa Susana Pass Road and homesteaded in what is now 
the Indian Hills Estates. Over the next twenty years, several other early pioneer 
families established homesteads in the hills above Chatsworth, including the 
Coffeen, Glasscock, Graves, Gray, Thrasher, and Iverson. By damming streams 
and digging wells, these homesteaders were able to coerce crops from the rocky
soil. All of which contributed to the west valley’s economic growth, helping to 
establish the Chatsworth area as an independent agricultural community. With the 
opening of the Owens Valley Aqueduct in 1913, the City of Los Angeles offered 
to sell water to Chatsworth and other towns in the San Fernando Valley only if 
they would agree to be annexed. As a result, Chatsworth’s residents voted to give 
up their municipal independence to the growing megalopolis. With a steady supply 
of fresh water, the Chatsworth area would be noted for its orchards of oranges, 
lemons, grapes, and figs, and eventually develop thoroughbred horse ranches


Ann Willden Johnson 
Ann Willden Johnson defined what it meant to be a pioneer.  Born in Sheffield, England, in 1845, Ann moved to the United States as a small child.  Her family settled in a Mormon colony in Iowa and lived there for several years.  In 1851, the Willdens followed Brigham Young and his Mormon disciples to the Great Salt Lake in Utah.  Ann remained in Utah until she married Neils Christian Johnson and soon moved to California. 
The Johnsons lived around the greater Los Angels area, and ultimately settled in Chatsworth in 1874.  According to her autobiography, Our Pioneer Mother, as told to and recorded by her daughter, Leonora Johnson MacDonald, Ann was "the first white English-speaking woman in the San Fernando Valley."  Ann did all that she could to develop a community in Chatsworth.  In 1880, Ann assisted in establishing the first school in Chatsworth and served as the clerk for the Board of Trustees for several years.  Ann also devoted much of her time to work and worship at the Methodist Church and Sunday School.

Ann Willden Johnson: Chatsworth homesteader
On April 16, 1873, Ann Willden Johnson gave birth in her Chatsworth ranch house to the first white child born in the San Fernando Valley. Born in Sheffield, England, Johnson grew up in Salt Lake City. At 15, she married Neils Johnson. The couple came to California in 1867. The Johnsons lived in a two-room tent in Soledad Canyon, using one half for the family quarters and the other for a grocery store she helped run. In 1870, she and her husband settled in Chatsworth where they built a home. There, she held Sunday school and tutored her 10 children. She helped start the Chatsworth area's first school in 1880 and was clerk of the school board. She helped found a Christian congregation in the West Valley that met under the oak trees at her house until Pioneer Church was built in 1903. The structure is now located in Oakwood Memorial Church in Chatsworth. She died in 1920 at the age of 74.
When Jue Joe starting working for the Johnsons as their houseboy he was already 37 years old,  the Johnson's had 10 children . The two youngest and probably still in the house were Oliver age 8 and Norman age 9 , the next youngest was Emma  age 20 , and the oldest was Hanna age 32

Jue Joe  probably in his 40's 

Neils C. Johnson 

Ann Wilden Johnson 

Chatsworth 1893 

Chatsworth Rail Station 1893 

View of the San Fernando Valley  circa 1893 

I was interested to understand what the relationships between Chinese male domestic servants and their employers were like in 19th century Los Angeles. I discovered an excellent memoir of a Chinese domestic published in 1914 entitled  "Yellow Angel", written by  Mary Stewart Dagget. This book illustrates how the male Chinese domestics became not just servile background attendants in these households but became essential and indispensable members of the family who were trusted and  willing to speak their minds and even to offer their own opinions different from the caricature of a faceless domestic. These men had real character and spunk. The book also shows how in an era of Anti Chinese agitation and exclusion politics the close association between these men and their employers led the employers to develop strong pro -chinese  attitudes. Here are pictures of Ms. Dagget's Chinese servant .
The full text of this book is available for free on the internet archive as it's copyright has expired .

Chinese domestic servants were often proud of their employers and often eager to offer their employer's help to their Chinese  friends even without asking first! One of Sue Chang's friends is arrested  for gambling in a police raid on Los Angeles Chinatown's ubiquitous Fan Tan parlors. Sue Chang is quick to offer his friend his employer's help.

Chinese are a social people and Chinatowns have always served as a haven for area Chinese to meet with their countrymen and to develop friendships and speak their own language and eat and buy food and  clothing and supplies from China. In the 1890s Los Angeles Chinatown was booming and thriving despite the rabid anti Chinese agitation of the times. Railroad connections allowed Chinese working in the greater Southland area to descend on Chinatown on their days off . I am sure that Jue Joe took that opportunity to travel from Chatsworth where he was probably the only Chinese man in the area to Chinatown Los Angeles on his days off.

Here are a few views of Los Angeles Chinatown in the 1890s.

I think that Jue Joe probably met Wong Joe in LA's Chinatown . They discussed who their employers were and what they did. Jue Joe probably told Wong Joe that his dreams were not to remain as a houseboy forever but  to lease land and start farming potatoes so he could make enough money to go back to China . He probably mentioned to Wong Joe that he was looking for white landowners who might be willing to lease land for farming. Wong Joe probably mentioned that his boss ,Otto Brant was a big time real estate guy and could probably help Jue Joe with a farming land lease and offered to set up a meeting between Otto and Jue Joe. By this time Jue Joe had probably also accumulated a fair amount of money and kept it in the bank.  Like  other Chinese of the times he was beginning to thrive despite the difficulties of the times . Carey McWillams in his book , "Southern California -An Island on the Land", 1944  page 93. quotes a vistor to Southern California in 1898 :"John Chinaman is forging ahead rapidly in this country. The Chinese are doing the servant's work in hotels, boarding houses, private families , and on the farms they are leasing land, raising an immense quantity of vegetables, and have a monopoly on the huckster business (door to door vegetable sales ).  It makes a New England man squirm to see them in lines at banks, depositing  money and handling gold in quantities as easily and intelligently as if they were Wall Street brokers.... "

Jue Joe probably jumped at the opportunity of meeting Otto Brant . He was an unconventional man who throughout his life although speaking broken English and being illiterate was able to make friendships with  powerful white men of the time , and forge relationships that would last decades. Jue Joe and Otto when they met were around the same age and although of vastly different life experiences and cultures were  probably able to feel a common bond. They were both dreamers with a vision for big things for the future in their own ways.  Otto at the time was probably interested in a man he could trust to use as a "straw man" in clearing of title for clients in his new Title insurance business and who was also willing to put up some of his own money for transactions  and Jue Joe was in need of Otto's help to arrange for his leasing of land to start his potato farming business . I think it was the beginning of a  strong relationship and friendship that would last until Otto's death in 1922.

Ps. a note on the name  "Joe" . Jew Joe's real Chinese name is Jew Pan Soong  in Cantonese. Chinese use the family name or surname first and the given name last. So Jew Joe's surname would be Jew and Wong Joe's surname was Wong .
Almost all Chinese given or personal names have two syllables, the first syllable would often change after a person married. Thus Jew Joe's  Cantonese name before marriage was Jew But Soong and became Jew Pan Soong after marriage. Sometimes Chinese would shorten their given name and use only the last sylllable, thus Jew Joe would say that his Chinese name was Jew Soong.  "Joe" was most likely an American personal name that he chose for himself after living here in the early years and then using on his first identification certificate.  Many white folks would use Joe , or  John, or Charlie in speaking with Chinese rather then using the Chinese's real given names which were difficult and hard to pronounce. Chinese often adopted these personal names used by the whites as their official given names on legal documents .This was especially true for those like Jew Joe and Wong Joe who had immigrated before stringent Exclusion acts were passed which required careful documentation of complete Chinese names on immigration documents.. In his later immigration documents Jew Joe always speaks of " Jew Joe " as the name by which he  is known by the Americans. Likewise for Wong, Joe would not be his real Chinese name but an American nickname he chose for himself


  1. The picture labeled "View of the San Fernando Valley circa 1893" is actually a view of Glendale (Rancho San Rafael) from Griffith Park (Rancho San Felis)

  2. I passed on your blog and email to some friends of mine at the Chatsworth Historical Society.