Chinese Historical Society of Southern Calif. 2007 Talk on Southern Fried Rice

This presentation was extra special because two sons of my Uncle Joe who had a laundry in Atlanta, Henry and James, their wives Ronnie and Helen, attended as well as Jessica, the daughter of Henry and Ronnie. In addition, a long time friend, Ron Gallimore, who attended graduate school with me at Northwestern, and became a distinguished professor at UCLA also came with his wife, Sharon, and one of his research assistants.

The audience was attentive and absorbed in the story behind Southern Fried Rice. Many audience members, about half by show of hands, had been part of a laundry family or had had relatives in this occupation. Those who had grown up in cultural isolation in other parts of the U. S. than the Deep South readily identified with one of the major themes of the presentation, the difficult task of ethnic identity formation where there are very few or no other Chinese in the region.


San Diego Chinese Historical Museum talk, 2006

In 2006, I gave a talk about Southern Fried Rice at the San Diego Chinese Historical Museum. In fact, eventually I had opportunities to talk about 3 of my Chinese American history books at this charming gem of a museum. They have been very supportive; the audiences have been engaged in the topics, which encouraged me to continue to speak at other venues.
The San Diego Chinese Historical Museum is located in the historic Gaslamp quarter district, a very pleasant dining and shopping area near the Convention Center. The Museum occupies two buildings located conveniently across the street from each other, and one has a lovely garden patio where a nice reception was held after the talk. I got a chance there to meet and chat with Museum Director Alex Chuang, Board of Directors President Michael Yee, and Curator Murray Lee and many of the audience, which included two women who had lived in Mississippi and could relate to many of my Georgia experiences.
By coincidence, a history of Chinese laundries of San Diego exhibit was on display and provided a nice context for my presentation. I also later contacted John LeeWong, son of a laundryman, who developed the exhibit and graciously gave me permission to use a photograph of his parents at work for a book on Chinese laundries that I was working on.
It was wonderful that two of my former students, Scott Roesch and Hanh Nguyen, who went on to earn PhD's were able to attend. Both are now professors, Scott at San Diego State University and Hanh in my Department at Calif. State University, Long Beach.


Local Boy Comes Home! Speaks in Macon at the Georgia Literary Festival!

    This was the chance of a lifetime... an invitation to come back to my hometown after being away more than 50 years and  tell the story of our family's experience in Macon as the only Chinese in town!  ( I had made two brief visits of 1-2 days to Macon during that half-century, but not to speak to an audience)

     What is the Georgia Literary Festival?  It is a wonderful idea in which a different site in Georgia is selected each year. Authors who have some connection with that city are invited to come and talk about their literary work.  It is a celebration aimed to increase local pride and awareness and to stimulate interest in reading. 
Bot. Lt: Me with  Chris Stokes, local archivist who was son of a classmate.
Bot. Rt; classmates Carey Pickard, me, and Richard Harris

       My "homecoming" was an unforgettable Rip Van Winkle-like weekend.   I got to walk around the historic downtown, see the old site of our laundry on which now stands a parking structure.  Still, I was about to relive old childhood memories. One highlight was to visit the Washington Library, my childhood refuge from the laundry that gave me a window into the world beyond Macon.   
        The Festival gave me a chance to talk about  Southern Fried Rice in the  very town where the story is based.  There was already good local interest stimulated a few months earlier by a nice article about our lives in Macon  in the Macon Telegraph by Ed Grisamore, noted regional columnist.  In the audience were several people I knew, Gus Parker, a teacher from junior high, and several schoolmates from elementary and junior high school including Tim Adams who was a year behind me so I didn't really know him but he and his wife Julie hosted me for 3 days in the finest style of Southern hospitality.  I also got a chance to talk to the members of the Unitarian Church one day about my Macon memories and on another day I spoke about ethnic identity development issues based on our lives in Macon to some students and faculty of the Departments of  History and Education at Mercer University.
        I had a book signing at the Golden Bough bookstore, which was located, coincidentally,  just  one or two doors down from my parents' original laundry site in 1928 on Cotton Avenue. Many old buildings withstood the test of time while others had vanished. Our Mulberry St. laundry site was now occupied by a multilevel parking lot while the city moved the  historic Confederate soldier monument  that dominated a mound in  the middle of a main intersection to a new location to  make room for left turn lanes... so much for preserving  history!



Summary of My New Career in Chinese American History, Spring 2006

    The interconnections of factors that helped me develop my writing and speaking about Chinese American history are illustrated in the following diagram.
     First, my website for my memoir, Southern Fried Rice, was discovered by an eminent scholar, Prof. Judy Yung, who contacted me because she was about to give several talks in Georgia about Chinese women in America. She became interested in my story and urged me to present a talk at a conference in San Francisco in 2005. She, and another historian, Sylvia Sun-Minnick, encouraged and mentored me in completing Southern Fried Rice.
    At about the same time, Daniel Bronstein, a doctoral candidate writing about the history of Chinese in Georgia also came across my website, and with his support and that of his faculty mentor, Dr. Krystn Moon, I prepared a paper for the Atlanta meeting of the Asian American Studies Association about Chinese laundrymen in the South that were related to our family.  Publicity about this presentation attracted the attention of other Atlanta organizations that invited me to speak, Who's Who Among Asian Americans in Georgia, National Association of Asian American Professionals, Organization of Chinese Americans, and Consolidated Chinese Benevolent Association (Augusta).

      The success I had in speaking about "Southern Fried Rice," was gratifying and gave me confidence that the story I had to share was worthwhile. At first, I was a bit surprised because I didn't think I was telling Chinese in the South anything they had not observed or experienced firsthand themselves. Then I realized that the reception was not so much to my brilliance as a speaker but a feeling of affirmation, someone was publicizing their plight as members of a small and silent minority living in a region of strong racial prejudices.


    The Gala was a great event, and I was even 'given' a tux to wear (and keep). I gave a Keynote Speech in which I took advantage of the fact that National "Take Your Child To Work" Day was just a few days earlier by talking about how as a child I was taken to work every day in our laundry! I then spoke about some of the invaluable lessons I learned from that experience.


Distinguished honorees, ladies and gentlemen: I am honored to have the privilege to speak to you on this wonderful occasion...
oh... I was taught to be polite... but I really mean it.

I am most impressed with what a vibrant and energetic sense of community there is among the Atlanta Asian American .... ..
       In contrast, when I was living in Macon, we had a much smaller community...my family...we were the entire Chinese COMMUNITY....when we finally left in the mid 1950s, the Chinese community was gone! A local paper noted it was the first time in 100 years that there were no Chinese in town... it was not clear from the artilce whether the writer was relieved or saddened!
A few years ago, in reflecting on my family’s life in Macon, ...our culturally isolation for over 25 years, being the solitary Chinese,    or Asian...for that matter, family in town in an era with a highly segregated society, I was inspired to write a memoir, SOUTHERN FRIED RICE,.. to record our family’s life ...and in small way help preserve and share a bit of Chinese American history that few people outside of the South know about.
      There isn’t time enough tonight to go into any detail about our family story so I want to say a few things about growing up in a Chinese laundry.

Let me BEGIN with what might seem to be a digression: I’ll bet none of you knew that this past Thursday was:“TAKE YOUR CHILD TO WORK WITH YOU” Day
... The premise being: it’s good for kids to learn what their parents do at work, even if they go just 1 day.)
[Note: this doesn’t always have accurate result: For EXAMPLE, when my son was a youngster, I’d occasionally take him with me to campus. He soon reached the (false) conclusion that work fun because all I did was: Drink coffee, chat with students, and occasionally scribble on the blackboard, and illegibly at that]

I, too, had the chance to watch my parents work when I was growing up....I worked with our parents in the laundry...not just 1 day a year, but EVERYDAY so that I often hated having to work in the laundry, ... BUT I now must admit it did teach me some valuable lessons.

What “lessons” did I ‘learn’ from watching MY parents work

What Work is Like
1. Work is hard!    Ben Franklin, as we all know said... “Early to Bed, Early to Rise...well,
he never talked to a Chinese laundryman for even though my parents went to bed early and get up early... six days a week, 52 wks a year. ...it did not exactly make them any healthier, or wealthier, ..but perhaps wiser
2. The Peter Principle (If it can go wrong, it will) also applies in the Laundry When the hired help doesn’t come in, the work must still be done. When machinery breaks down, the work must still be done...And as with President HarryTruman, the buck stops here .... with my parents who still had to get the work done.
How to Deal with People
3. The Customer Always Thinks he is right, even when he is wrong Some customers thought we lost clothes that they later admitted they had never
brought in... but had misplaced or left at home
4. Golden Rule Treat Customers the way you wanted to be treated... this did not always work, but it was a good starting point and usually worked
5. Learn how to ‘read’ or size up customers,    that way I could pick easy to serve customers to wait on, ... and let my father deal with the obnoxious ones.
Use Your Intellect or Brain
6. Dealing with many illiterate customers, white and black, quickly taught me the value of being able to read and write and why education is so important.
7. Learn Problem Solving skills: For example: Lost tickets were the bane of our existence... by the way, just how the expression, No tick-ee, no wash-ee, arose is a mystery to me.    No Chinese laundryman said that because we always found the laundry, even without a ticket but we had to open, and rewrap, many bundles to find the right clothes. This taught me to develop strategies for finding a customer’s clothes efficiently.
8. Develop Organization and memory Skills because Time is money:
In a laundry, you have to do more than just wash and iron clothes; after that you must sort and reassemble finished items for each customer and to do this efficiently you need to be organized and have a good memory.
9. Money Does Not Grow On Trees, (although it sometimes fell out of clothes). Our parents did not indulge us, or themselves, with material items, but they
always found the way to provide for essential needs especially if it had to do with our schoolwork.

Importance of Family Involvement 
10.    Family cooperation is essential for survival... we all had to pitch in and work
together in order to make a living. These lessons were invaluable in helping me succeed throughout life.

Now I want to conclude by contrasting Two very different conceptions of Laundry Life
The first, I will call the Customer’s “Romantic” Philosophy of The Laundry (imagine background song “Laundryman, My Laundryman”... to the tune of ‘Chinatown. My Chinatown”) There was an OLD commercial in which:

A white customer asks the Chinese laundryman : How do you get the shirts so white? The Laundryman’s proud but sly Answer: ANCIENT CHINESE SECRET!
In other words: We, CHINESE were IMBUED by the white ad writer with magic-like power to transform dirty, smelly clothes into clean fragrant clothes, This stereotype shows that mainstream society saw Chinese as experts, but only in this one area
A “Realistic” Philosophy of Laundry... one that might represent the view of the Chinese laundryman:
Children, you should Aspire to something higher than doing laundry; control your own future with knowledge and education... our laundry will provide the financial support for you to get this valuable education.

In conclusion...we must recognize that successful though we may be, we did NOT do it alone. We stood on the shoulders of our parents and families, a strength of our Asian cultures.
Tonight, in honoring these 67 outstanding members of the Who’s Who in Asian American communities, I think I can safely say that we are at the same time honoring their parents and families who supported them in pursing their dreams.


NAAAP Atlanta April 2006

NAAAP members are young professionals, and unlike my older audiences, had not directly experienced the same levels of racial discrimination and lack of opportunities. This make it more challenging to get them involved, but their response was positive and made the event worthwhile.

About Me