The Yee family
Nellie was born in
Nellie Yee Chung describes her
Q: Where was Grandfather born?
A: In Toishan. He was a Yee from the
Q: You don’t remember what year he was born?
A: I don’t remember.
Q: What did Grandfather do in
Q: Oh, nothing to do?
A: When he was young he lived in the home village.
Q: How old was he when he came out?
A: Relatives brought him out to
Q: Why did Grandfather come to the States? Did he ever say?
A: When he
was very young, he went to
Q: How long did it take?
A: Oh, I think it was 70-odd days. They were
carried over by the wind, and sailed for 70 odd days. They arrived in
Nellie was not certain when
her father arrived in the
Mr. Yee’ s boss wanted to share with him the tragic news of the assassination of President Lincoln. However the two men did not speak the same language, so the boss held up a coin with the “Big Man” (Lincoln) on it, and gestured the firing of a gun.
Q: So he went to
A: He looked for work in
Q: What about Grandmother?
A: My mother came around the same time.
Q: [They] got married in
A: [They] got married in
Q: Did he bring his wife over with him?
A: According to the immigration laws, only men
could come over. They could not bring their wives. So they had to go in
roundabout ways. Once they stayed in
Q: Do you know why they came to
A: Because cousins lived there, and they told
him to go look for work in
Q: What did Grandfather do [in
A: He worked for others, pouring wine and harvesting wheat, etc. At each town, there'd be a big taxi car to pick them up, and he'd cook meals for people in the truck. He'd get up to cook at They’d eat at , and start work at , threshing and cutting wheat. There was a kitchen there on the wagon. After they finished harvesting they'd go harvest in another place. The wagon would follow them. He cooked 3 meals a day for others. There was also the man who contracted the work, and they also arranged for a car to provide meals. [He cooked] bread, milk, coffee, [American food] things like that. He drove the provisions over, and ate from time to time, around .
Q: Where did he live?
A: He lived on the wagon, and he slept in the car. When they finished harvesting in one place they went to harvest in another. The wagon followed along the road. I heard him say that they threshed wheat, that is, harvested wheat, and picked beans. In the old days, wherever people went to work, the kitchen followed along.
Q: Did they have blanket in the winter? How often did they come home?
A: They worked in the summer until August or September, and then came back. They worked a few months each year, not the whole year round.
Nick Peirano, local merchant, said that the Chinese were cooks for the crews on the big ranches, and they probably fed a crew of 35-40 men three meals a day. The cooks baked pies and cakes in the "chuck wagons," and they were very good cooks.
Mr. Collins, the
cashier at William Collins and Son Bank, that was located on
Marie Louie recalled that Mr. Yee was paid in gold coin. He would stuff the coins in his shoes, because he did not want the money to be stolen. When he returned home on the evening of payday, the children would help to pull off his boots and coins would roll over the floor. The children thought that this was great fun.
Q: Each time he came back, [from the farms] did he do any carpentry?
A: Some people might want to remodel their store or partition off a room, and they’d ask him to do it.
Q: He did that himself? Or did somebody help him?
A: He did it himself,
and the house we lived in was built by Grandfather. We had a house ourselves
that was rented. There were houses there, [in
Q: A firehouse?
A: Yes, and Grandfather helped. Grandfather was in charge of opening the door, and as soon as there were shouts of trouble and calls to get out the fire truck, Grandfather went to open the door and let those people [Chinese fire fighters] in to get the fire truck. When the fire broke out, all of us Chinese came. We heard that a stretch of stores and house on Figueroa were all in the path of the fire. Mother was frightened, I was the youngest, but I was over a year old –18 months, that’s 2 years old. Mother picked out a few items of clothing. I was crying hard then, it was very frightening. There was no road out, just one side of the street. All the stores in that stretch burned down.
In 1872 the
These men were greatly appreciated in the whole community. Newspaper reports praised their accomplishments:
The Chinese Fire
Company is peculiar to
Another article on
the same day said that the Chinese Fire Company was the first to arrive at the
fire at Ayers Hotel, which was located on the south side of
"They fell heir to one of the cast off hose carts of the Monumentals. In time they fell into cooperation with the Monumentals, and always turned out at all town fires and always did good and efficient service. Also they always turned out and joined in the public parades with the Monumentals and received their share of the applause and cheers of the crowd.
One of the early chiefs of the Chinese Fire Company was Soo
Hoo How. Thomas Bard employed him for seven years and then Mr. Soo Hoo opened a
hand laundry. He fulfilled his life dream by returning to
Q: How did Grandfather call you? What name did he call you?
A: “Youngest girl, oldest girl,” like that.
Q: “Oldest girl” was Emily.
A: I was “Youngest girl.” My mother had many children then, but they didn’t survive, so they weren’t named. So we were called “Oldest girl, youngest girl,” like that.
Q: Oh, Ah George was called Ah Gow (Dog)?
A: Yes, Ah Gow.
Q: What was Ah Bill called?
A: Ah Gee (Pig)?
Q: Oh, Piggy, Doggy?
A: Yes Piggy, Doggy.
In the Chinese culture boys were highly desired, and Nellie’s parents were afraid that spirits of the devil would take boys away. Consequently, the boys were called something insignificant like animal names to confuse the spirits. Later in life they used their given names, George and William.
Q: Tell us about Auntie Eva?
A: I had an older sister. When she was born, my mother was ill, so she gave the baby sister to a Yee family that had no children.
Eva was born in
Q: So your mother’s health was not very good, right?
A: Right, she was not very healthy.
Q: So you told her, you were going to buy milk, right?
Q: Where did you buy milk?
A: I went to someone in
Q: When you were home playing with George, Bill and the rest, did you play any Chinese games? What did you play at home?
A: Play? As soon as we walked out the door there was the sea. They would go fishing, and we’d play in the sand.
Q: Did you sing any Chinese songs?
A: I don’t know how to sing any.
Q: Did you play with white children?
A: We lived in
Q: You say that sometime you went to pick watercress?
A: We picked watercress. In the watercress patch on this side, on the other side of the warehouse. You just walked straight down, it wasn’t very far.
Q: There was a gully in the hill?
A: There were a few inches of water which flowed down from the hill into Straw Man Gully.
Q: Straw Man?
A: Straw Man Gully. We went to Straw Man Gully to pick some. At that time we didn’t know [it was called] Straw Man Gully. Later, when we were all grown up, Eldest Auntie told us about it, about Straw Man Gully. There was a straw man at Straw Man Gully. We all picked watercress. There were turtles in Straw Man Gully.
Q: And you say there were turtles, right?
A: There were turtles. As soon as you caught one, it would flop over. We tied it up with string, tied it by the leg. That way we could pull the live turtle and play with it.
Q: Were they edible, these water turtles?
A: Nobody ate them.
Q: There weren’t many things to play with then. No toys!
A: No toys. How could there be toys?
Q: So you caught turtles to play with, right?
A: Yes we also caught a dog. We raised a dog with was very obedient. When I went fishing with Father, the dog also came along. It was very obedient, that dog.
Q: Did the dog have a name?
Apparently somebody was
eating turtles. Annie R. Smith, an early
Q: Where did you go to school? Did you go to
A: I didn’t go to school when I was young. A teacher came to our house and taught me ABC’s.
Q: Oh, you weren’t in school?
A: No Chinese children went to white schools.
Q: Oh, you weren’t allowed to go?
A: I don’t know if they didn’t allow us or if we wouldn’t go. The other children didn’t go either. The teacher came to our house to teach us ABC’s.
Q: The teacher was a whit woman?
A: A white.
Q: She taught you alone?
A: She taught me and my sister.
Q: Oh. What about your father and mother?
A: My mother didn’t know English. My father knew a few words. He had to work.
Q: How long did you study?
A: Not very long.
mother practiced the Buddhist religion in
Q: Did any Chinese worship Buddha? Were there any?
A: Yes. Some people say there are still some.
Q: Were there any Chinese temples?
A: Yes. Everyone went to worship. The
Q: Did Grandmother also worship Buddha?
A: She worshipped Buddha.
Q: What did she wear to worship [at the temple]?
A: She wore a gown with a long skirt and long top, and there were thing tied around the shoulders. She had an incense burner, one for holding incense. Think of how dangerous that was, going in a long gown. What with lanterns and candles, there would be fire there. Think of how dangerous that was.
Q: And on top of that, it was a wooden building.
A: It was a wooden building, on an alley.
In Nellie’s account of Chinese
religious practices in
were many attempts to Christianize the Chinese in
most extensive and well-publicized mission effort in
The missionaries would go to Chinese women’s homes to teach reading. Chinese children were their students as well. Mrs. Bissell spoke of missionaries’ use of the Montgomery Ward catalogue which provided imaginative teaching techniques when teaching the wives of the Chinese merchants. Soo Hoo Chong Ti, wife of Ung Hing proprietor of Sing Hing and Company, benefited from this English instruction. Chinese women also did beautiful sewing and embroidery, and since these women were reclusive, the missionaries would shop for cloth and bring it back to their homes.
Q: Then did you burn incense at home?
A: We burned it in the evening during festivals.
Q: What about Grandfather?
A: I remember, whenever it was Chinese New Year’s Eve. We had a family gathering on New Year’s Eve, and Grandfather was sure to worship then. New Year’s money was given out, we’d prepare the incense.
Q: Did he (Grandfather) eat vegetarian food in New Year’s Day? On the first and fifteenth days? Or perhaps you don’t know?
A: I don’t know. I wasn’t aware of it. I know that on the first and fifteenth, he would offer incense and heat up wine. He offered incense after washing up and then [he would] go cook.
Chinese New Year, which occurs in January or February, was a festive time for the Yee family, as well as other residents of the Chinese community. This lunar New Year is a time of great celebration and joy, and has been celebrated for thousands of years. On New Year’s Eve the family gathers, and then the year is welcomed in with lion dances and firecrackers. These fireworks will frighten away the evil spirits that could threaten New Year. During the holiday gifts of money, wrapped in red paper, are given for good luck.
During the year incense was also as burned in different parts of the house for the various reasons. For example, incense was burned on the fifteenth day of the month for the kitchen god (God of the Hearth) who was the news reporter. This god kept a record of the behavior of the family and reported to the main god at the end of each year. In the living room incense was burned for the ancestors.
Anglos found this festival to be quite interesting,
and in 1896, an article described the events in
Many of our citizens have availed themselves of the opportunity to visit and partake of the good cheer provided by the leading Chinese merchants who take pride in dispensing with lavish hand the peculiar dainties.
Nick Peirano reminisced about Chinese New Year as well:
On Chinese New Year my dad and mother would get all gussied up and they'd go up and take a little gift to each and every one of them in their little places. Then, on Christmas Eve they'd all come down to the house and bring my mother and dad [gifts]- we had some of their trays; . . . they had china sections in them, the teakwood sections, and they were filled with lychee nuts and ginger and things of that type.
frequented the Chinese and Anglo businesses on
Q: What did Ah Lum’ s store sell? (Ah is a term of address, like Mr. or Mrs.)
A: Groceries, dried shrimp, dried cereals, fruits. Every week the people from the farms would come out here to buy groceries.
Q: Tell me about the stores in
A: The farm workers would go to the grocery store every week, or perhaps once a month. Some people came to the store for provisions, and they’d buy them by the bundle. Some looked like dried shrimps and dried cereals, etc.
Q: What about the workers?
A: If anyone came looking for workers, he’d notify the [merchant/contractor] who would go tell some Chinese to go to work. In those days, most of the foremen were Chinese or so. That way, there’d be about a dozen or so men living in his store. If someone wanted work, he’d go outside in front of the store. Then a big taxi car would come and take them off to work, to the farm. They were far away, these places.
Q: They worked on the farm? Were there any who worked on the rails, on the railroad?
A: I wasn’t born when they were building the railroads.
Q: You say
you went to Ah Nick’s store? (Nicolas
Peirano’s store was on the southeast corner of
A: I went to a white-owned store. Ah Nick’s store sold things like coffee and white sugar.
Q: And what did Grandfather do? Did he buy white sugar?
A: He said he bought white sugar, he bought a package of white sugar. [He told me to buy coffee, and he gave me a dollar.] I’d say “Coffee,” and [Ah Nick] would give me a pound. And I bought sugar.
Mrs. Yee died when Nellie was seven years old, and she
is buried in
Q: Your mother died when you were young?
A: Yes. I was 7 years old. Eldest Auntie, [Emily] was 16, Ah George was 13, and Ah Bill was 3 or 4. I think. So my sister got married, my older sister married. Then my father brought me over to live with my sister.
Q: You were 9 in 1897.
In 1910 Nellie married Dr. Chung Hong. He was
forty-two and she was twenty-two. He was a widower, and had three sons by his
previous marriage. He was also considered among the “foremost of the Chinese
physicians in the
Q: How did you meet your husband?
A: [We were introduced by] a matchmaker, through a go-between.
Q: How long had you known your husband when you got married.
A: Not very long.
Do you remember when your husband came here from
A: Before 1910 . . .1904.
Had he ever gone to
Yes, he went to
Q: What kind of work did he do?
A: He ran a drugstore. Chinese medicines.
So he opened the drugstore as soon as he came to
A: Yes he opened it after he got here. I forget how long after he got here.
He opened a drugstore in
Q: When you got married, did you give a banquet or have some other ceremony.
A: Chinese customs. We gave out cakes, wore pretty clothes, etc. and invited the minister. A white came to perform the ceremony.
Q: He was a minister?
A: Yes, he was a minister. There was a combination.
Q: Oh, there was a Chinese custom and a Western sermon.
Q: Did you have a dowry?
A: Yes. There was clothing, wooden chests, etc.
Q: Were you married in a church?
A: It wasn’t a church, it was at home.
Q: Was there a bus?
A: [No], I think it was horse-drawn. They called it a stagecoach. You know, the old fashioned coaches?
Q: Did your father come to your wedding?
A: According to Chinese custom, my father didn’t come. At that time I had already lost my mother.
The wedding was the biggest in the history of the local
colony. Bride and groom are members of old and honored families. A strange wedding
it was, a mixture of Christian and Oriental custom. A minister of the Christian
faith performing the Christian service while interwoven almost with the very
words were the Chinese wedding customs . . . [Before the ceremony] [t]he
bridegroom was taken in hand by his friends. He was conducted to a room where
his wedding robes were taken out. They consisted of silk jacket, silk vest,
mandarin apron and the satin pantaloons. His queue hung in a straight black
line down over his gorgeous costume which was sent from
The article went on to describe Nellie’ s wedding attire:
She was gorgeously dressed in a costume, said to have cost a $1000. The entire affair, jacket, apron and pantaloons were a mass of gold wire embroidery. Great dragons glared from the scarlet silk, curling their golden tails about. Butterflies and insects flitted across it. It was a sight worth beholding. The headdress was the official wedding helmet, a mass of gold and jewels and a heavy veil of gold and pearls hung down over her ivory skinned features.
A reception was held after the ceremony; however Nellie did not lift her face to the scores of guests. The dictates of Chinese custom require that the full view of her face be reserved for her husband alone. The following day, the bride and groom were photographed in traditional clothing.
A: [Yes]. Whites lived there. We were the only ones living in our house. We lived upstairs. Downstairs was the drugstore.
Q: Did you buy it?
A: No, we rented it.
A: Work? No.
Q: Did you ever help your husband with jobs like filling prescriptions?
A: No. He hired someone to watch the fire and brew the medicines. If I had free time I’d come down and watch the fire.
Q: Do you remember if more whites or Chinese came to your husband’s drugstore?
A: Mostly Chinese came.
Q: At the drugstore was there was a room for people to take their medicine?
A: The back room was used for taking medicine, and there were 2 tables there.
Q: There was also a pharmacy.
A: A pharmacy, a big kitchen, and a porch.
Q: How many burners did the stove have?
A: 6 burners.
Q: And they were all used at the same time?
A: If they were a used at the same time, you could cook 17 to 18 pots of medicine. Each burner could cook 3 pots.
Q: And there was a room for taking pulses?
A: There was a room for taking pulses, and a room for taking (medicinal) teas. After the medicines were cooked, they were taken there.
Q: I remember the medicines were put in the most beautiful porcelain bowls.
A: Yes. There was also a cup of tea, a Chinese spoon, and a big rice bowl filled with tea.
Q: There was also a plate of Western crackers?
A: Western crackers and a cup of tea for them to drink. There was a plate with a few crackers to e taken with the medicines. They drank the medicines like soup, spoon by spoon, and weren’t afraid of the bitterness.
At Dr. Chung’s office, he would take the patient’s pulse, diagnose their illness, and prescribe the proper herbal cure. Patients would either take the medicine there, or carry it home. Dr. Chung was quite well known, and people from all over came to his office. He traveled on business to Calexico by train on two occasions, and he was known to make house calls. Some of Dr. Chung’s patients are still in contact with the Chung family.
Q: How many children do you have?
A: You - Lily, Arthur, Marian, and then Marie.
Q: Were you busy managing the 4 of them?
A: There was no pause all day long. I had to do laundry and cook the meals, 3 meals a day.
Q: Your daughters helped you?
My daughter (Lillian) helped me when she grew up. Then when she went to
Dr. Chung had four children together. Dr. Chung’s children by his first
marriage were named, Sam, Chung Ping, Elbert. In 1928, some family members,
Nellie, Dr. Chung and Marie, traveled via boat to
They also visited Dr.
Chung’s village, and Nellie and Marie’s appearance came under close
scrutiny. Since Dr. Chung was the first
to return to his village with an American born Chinese family, people of the
village thought that Nellie and Marie’s eyes should be blue, or at least
lighter than people’s eyes that were born in
Overall, this trip made a
big impact on Nellie. She was very excited about visiting the homeland of her
father. Nellie returned to
Nellie Yee Chung
experienced good health until late in life. She attributed her vitality to
fresh vegetables, freshly killed chickens, and fresh milk. Nellie lived into old age, and died on
Nellie’s children have also led
prosperous and interesting lives. Arthur became a physician and is currently
Marian married one of Arthur’s
classmates. They lived and worked in
Lillian married an architect and
engineer who came to the
Marie met her husband in 1958 at USC
where she was working in the library, and he was a doctoral student. Dr. James W. Louie worked as a guidance
counselor and a teacher. Marie and James
retired and moved to