John Jung and Pui Yue Hon
DescriptionAuthor and retired professor Dr. John Yung, 73, talks with his cousin-in-law, Pui Yue “Ronnie” Hon, about growing up in Macon, Georgia as a Chinese-American during the Jim Crow era. He also discusses the three books he has written about Chinese-American life in the Deep South.
Subject Log / Time Code
- John Jung
- Pui Yue Hon
- anecdotes (humorous but true stories)
- Chinese food
- chop suey
- Chopsticks in Land of Cotton: Lives of Mississippi Delta Grocers
- economic beliefs and practices
- Family Traditions
- Macon, GA
- memories of former times
- memories of growing up
- personal experiences
- political beliefs and practices
- San Francisco, CA
- social beliefs and practices
- Southern Fried Rice: Life in a Chinese Laundry in the Deep South
- Sweet and Sour: Life in Chinese Family Restaurants
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00:06 Hi, my name is play you Ronnie Han. I'm 54. Today's Days May 1st 2010. I'm at the National Archive in Morrow Georgia interviewing. Dr. John down. He is the cousin of my husband.
00:26 Hi, my name is John John. I'm 73 today is May 1st 2010 and I'm at the national archives in Morrow, Georgia. And my cousin's wife is the interviewer.
00:43 Hi John. I'm so happy to have you here. I really enjoy listening to you at today's first Asian-American Symposium at the archive and you talk about your searching your childhood history and I'll take that and it was a treasure Trove of information. You tell me a little bit more. Sure. I'll be happy too many people don't know about Chinese in the South I grew up in Macon and our family was the only
01:21 In the whole city on while we were there and so what I talked about was some of the problems that we might have encountered no Bean Chinese in l
01:35 And what is it like to be the only one in and the south in the in the fish in the water yet? You're not aware of it. But then when I moved to the West Coast people and asked me, what was it like being so then I kind of think back about it and funny thing was in a way we were kind of culturally isolated of course, but you just sit in and we got a little teasing sometimes the kids because we were different but wasn't as bad as some people might have thought it would have been
02:24 Do you have a stock answer when they ask you? Why do you look different at different talk different or maybe you a simulated upon this doesn't then out?
02:34 Yeah, well people is Chile children can say the most honest things in her classmates and everything when you're dealing one-on-one people kind of treat you on an individual basis is people who don't know, you know, they have a stereotype and so you know that kind of look down on you some but my parents are always so kind of taught us to kind of look after ourselves and take pride in ourselves. So I think we managed to do okay, although you know and let them back in hindsight know. I know that we didn't know a lot about Chinese traditions and culture even though we knew how to speak Chinese with my parents, but we really didn't feel like we were really fully Chinese cuz everyone else is either black or white so we were like
03:34 Inconspicuous and we were kind of like nobody's
03:39 So you don't feel any pressure in the pre-civil rights era. You don't feel any well until after we had left. So in that sense, I grew up pretty much in the Jim Crow segregation era and so the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement really started a few years after we left. So the ways of life is just a way of life that you accepted as a child when you're grown up in Macon, Georgia wrong. I I knew things didn't feel right. But you know, you just one family, you know, there wasn't a whole lot we could do about it. So, you know, we were sort of just so
04:31 We knew that was some unfairness about it and so forth. But you know, we ourselves were sort of accepted in the community, but at 11 less than you know equal status.
04:48 So for example of I went to a white school, so in other places in the South some Chinese may have not been allowed to go to White School.
04:59 Do you have any incident that you can recall that stands out in your memory as a child in Macon Georgia does the white and the colored drinking fountain and I was small kid. I didn't know any difference. So I just started drinking out of a fountain one day and a woman white woman tap me on the shoulder and kind of pointed to to the other phone cuz obviously I was drinking out of the color come out saying a word she was so to telling me well, you know, you should drink out of the white fountain but you know, I just picked up that lesson or I can remember you're seeing like in the stores, you know, that white people would get waited on first and then colored people would have to come out wait until all the white people got waited on which was very unfair and I even even a child could see that
05:56 And I know that you went to high school in San Francisco, California when
06:04 When and why did your family move over there around the early fifties for about 25 years decided that we need to move the family to California because they wanted us to be in a Chinese Community. My two older sisters were getting your courting marriageable age. And so my parents wanted them to meet Chinese people. Don't marry other Chinese so they just decided Lock Stock & Barrel in a we just up and move. Although my father. I should stay behind several years by himself to run the laundry and make him by himself. So the rest of us we moved to California and that's where I started high school. And in what? What is the adjustment. Like, how do you how do you deal with it?
06:57 Cuz it was like day and night in San Francisco at Macon Georgia No worlds apart. But I remember coming to San Francisco is in July or August and George. It was about 90 degrees and very humid. When I got to the San Francisco Bay Area. It was all shrouded in fog and it was cold and windy and and then as soon as I can make out the city's outline in through the fog I could see all these Hills and everything. So that was the initial reaction.
07:37 When I got there, you know suddenly I was no longer. The only Chinese in town was I was surrounded by thousands of Chinese people, but still it took some getting used to you know, I was just so totally different. Did you find them embrace you how hard to sleep right away or give me the 8th. Asian in Francisco?
08:09 I had to know cuz they grew up in the Chinese Community like a lot of which Chinese school after what is the mix in the school you go to in San Francisco at 2 was probably predominately white. Although probably maybe 10% Chinese Chinese considered like that. One of the best high schools remember like, my mother wanted me to learn Chinese. I learn Chinese Church Chinese Church, which dialect did you learn it then?
09:09 Can over 6 foot taller than my classmates were all like 5 and 6 years old and you could learn anything. I felt like a village nuts or something. So that was the end of that.
09:29 So and then you went on to college and then how do you decide what you study in any it did the move have anything to do with your identity formation in those early years scientists were some technical that I think after taking a few calculus and physics class. I decided that wasn't for me and I kind of just want psychology and I did well in that and so I became one of the I guess first Chinese Americans to actually go into that field. So then you showing today in the 2010s still major.
10:30 More concrete engineering Pharmacy business or something like that where they could see no some direct income coming in and stuff like that run your own business. That was the tradition of Chinese immigrants in a little bit different from everybody. And then what do you do with your adult professional life? Well after I got a PhD in Psychology from Northwestern University got a job actually in California at California State University Long Beach. So I became a professor and I was very enjoyable lifestyle and you get to work with a lot of students on eager young minds and become.
11:30 Books about Chinese community in the contemporary history and all that working as Professor. I didn't have really much knowledge about Chinese American history and Leah was later as I was approaching retirement and I've been working with a lot of minority students of all different backgrounds as a mentor and I had a grant from the National Institute of mental help to encourage minority students to work on doctoral degrees in and do research in Psychology. So I think that coupled with no changing attitudes and civil rights activism and so forth made me more aware and more interested about Chinese, you know, American roots. And so that's how I started beginning to get interested in the
12:30 During this more because I never really learned much about it in school because it wasn't taught. And so I think my initial motivation was I remember the hardship that both my parents taste, especially my mother and so my initial reason for getting to this with I wanted to write a story history about my mother and how difficult it was for helping out in the laundry raising kids and so far and not knowing any English and being the only Chinese woman in town and so far and then eventually it kind of mushroom to evolve into a book I call Southern Fried Rice which is really about a whole family and what it was like in those days and how my family got my my parents got there and what it was like no living in the South running a laundry in and then how we moved to California that that was the impetus the reception of that book.
13:30 I was very skeptical but I was really sure how well it would be received and I just kind of did it cuz I felt like it needed to be written down and then I kind of lot. I I got some invitations to talk at some Chinese Historical Museum and
13:54 The reaction was very good, you know people would come up and talk to me afterwards and tell me that they had similar experiences where they grew up and I was fascinated by their stories could lot of people would pay lives that I thought was much more complicated and more interesting than mine. But what I kind of realized and I didn't realize it was because I was really surprised cuz I was telling people things that they already knew as I was talking to like Chinese older Chinese.
14:27 And then it finally dawned on me that they they like to hear me talk about it because I was telling their story.
14:35 Last year about two years ago. I got a email from some Chinese in, North Carolina.
14:44 And he said
14:46 I read your book you have written my life story and I didn't quite grasp what he meant. But he went on to say said our lives was just like yours. We were the only Chinese and our town. We also lived in the laundry. We also lived above the laundry etcetera etcetera and that's that was really gratifying to hear that my story or My Telling of the story resonated. Well with a lot of other chinese-american also actually got a lot of response say, oh, yeah. Well, you know how we relate to what you telling us because we were isolated to you know, in some sense like when one woman said we were the only African Americans in our town in New England, New Hampshire somewhere and so it wasn't just a Chinese American experience that the story was dealing with it, but it was this feeling of being so to ethnically isolated or cultural.
15:46 Different that was so appealing to people having that type of story told and the people that come up to talk to you. Are they mostly the middle age group of the younger gang without a college student who expressed the most interest. So I've given my presentation young people are a mixture some or very interested. I mean in the more I get opportunities to speak to young people the more of them that I find that are interested. There are sizable number who you know, I sort of like too wrapped up in the present. So they think of this is an old ancient history and it's not all that interesting but I think it is a value to him, but you know it is it's a little harder so I think
16:42 And you know what? I was reading your boat. I started to talk to my friends parents and we got on to engage into an hour and a half phone calls him to ask me what kind of question and you've really piqued my interest will it was following your development on that? Once you start thinking about these things all kinds of questions pop up.
17:10 And then you just keep on researching one punch it to write summer. Poker text book ever written one life story. But the funny thing was when I did Southern Fried Rice I learned so much that I didn't never I never even knew about Chinese history in America and then I learned so much about laundries and how the Chinese got into laundry is and how they were discriminated against in the laws that were passed against Chinese laundries. And so I started doing research and I find all these laundry's all across the u.s. And all across counter. So that's why I kind of wrote another book about the Chinese laundries that how important they were in the history of our Chinese. What is it called?
18:10 The laundry because the Chinese were prevented from working in just about anything. So laundries were something that was not contested initially that it was more casinos like women's were domestic work. So
18:26 Chinese were allowed to do that without competition for a long time. And that's that's how the tradition of the Chinese laundries got started.
18:34 And besides it's already has a mom-and-pop operation compared to today's Laundry & Mindy UCLA trampoline continue, or is it a die and Trey? You know what I think partly because of Home laundry machines and soap for laundry started dying out by the time, you know, our laundry, my parents retired laundromats also know a lot of people now confused laundromats with laundry. They're not the same thing. I can you tell me a little bit more like the a life on the laundry, you know, you do everything from you know, washing it to iron it. The whole thing or is the laundromat in those self-service. You just have the machines there and then but yet to answer your question, I think dry cleaning became more profitable even for the laundromat, but that's not that many Chinese Laundry is left.
19:34 The Arkham laundries run by other newer and regrets like Korean immigrants came later. And so a lot of them did laundry and dry cleaning 2nd and 3rd Generation Chinese the children of the Chinese Laundry. If I don't want to call him that they went on it became professionals. They got college degrees and the laundry because they have the education that enables them to to work as professionals.
20:05 But the family was really important in many of those laundries know a lot of laundries were they didn't have family members, but they would bring in cousin's brother's so they don't have light children, but it was something where they kind of pool their resources together and those that did have children the children helped out and went to work and develop a work ethic from no helping a parent.
20:36 And I also understand that you are also wrote some other books after that. How did that come about retired from psychology? I did a book on the Chinese Delta Chinese in the Mississippi Delta tours and grocery stores, and I wouldn't have dreamed of even writing that book except that when I was giving a talk once about southern fried rice a man from Mississippi Chinese man came up to me and said, you know, we really should have someone write about the Chinese grocers in Mississippi.
21:16 And I I didn't volunteer, you know, cuz I didn't think I knew enough about it, but he had a lot of contacts cuz he'd come from Mississippi and he put me in touch with a lot of people in Mississippi as I started to research. I found this really fascinating because it was very different from say Chinese in Georgia or Alabama to the Mississippi Community. Unless a Mississippi also include Arkansas cuz either side of the Delta are in the Mississippi Delta. How did these Chinese get there? And why would they all doing grocery stores, doing laundry? For example, and how did they survive and you know what was their place and I was really I guess intrigued because I met a lot of the people in person and got to know them and I could see that their Community was very close-knit and yet it was it was really shrinking because a lot of the Moon moving away their children and move to California or Texas.
22:16 The older generation is dying out and yet there was a strong community that have flourished for many many years and so by writing that book. I feel like it was important to help them record their history.
22:32 And do you know any research that you find out figure out how come is grocery store in Mississippi and laundry in every other small town the happenstance of the plantation cotton plantations, no longer being a willing to extend credit to the cotton Pickers like the African American who worked on the plantations, the plantation started to close down of the word is profitable. And so they look at least out, no service where they would either cell or extend credit on food and supplies and clothing and things like that that the the workers needed. So about that time Chinese and come in and have been recruited to come there too. So to be cheap labor to work on the plantations to replace the slaves who've been freed.
23:28 But the Chinese didn't want to work out in the fields and they saw this opportunity to open little small mom-and-pop grocery stores in the black neighborhood. So they filled an itch when the commissary stop selling in extending credit to the the black workers. The Chinese came in and did that and that's what enabled them to kind of get a toehold economically in the Delta. And so that's what they all did and laundry wasn't wasn't no really that critical I guess food is more important than clean clothes.
24:03 And I guess having a little bit marching or so car with a Chinese wheeling and dealing in the business since they excel in take his providing the surface that the was needed and field in the cap parts of the world to mention about the 1943 Chinese Exclusion Act. Do you think it had a transition because that would
24:42 Allow more Chinese with the merchants standing orders at the grocery store right by the merchants that came before your time at the repeal of it. And so does it have any effect because of that?
25:06 If they were Merchants they were able to bring their family members. So this grocery store were in existence prior to 4300 K. I got mistaken family there any other wives and children to come to Mississippi to help. And again, it's the family helping out. That's the way that they were able to make a profit because they all live in their store now in the back of the store next door to it that, you know, save money and all the children helped out at a very early age, but they don't look at me like anything like today's grocery store today. Not your Supermarket type things.
25:57 These were things where it wasn't even self-service. I think you know, he's generally, you know, you'd go to the counter and you'd ask for something in the store keeper would get it for you and that sort of thing.
26:08 So they are not like today's say Super H Mart like pocket 4K cooler line in Porter techniques food at all. This is for the general public dry goods and canned goods and all that like half of the store is a laundry with all that paper wrap finish clean clothes and the other half is cans and food stamps and whatever do they have combination like that or I don't know if in Mississippi that were but I'm sure there were some in some parts of the US didn't come across stores or operator. I dabble in both surfaces.
27:08 So date, so the Messianic stupid do type of store to exist.
27:21 And I said the grocery but what's the name of that book again appropriate and then you wrote another book after that right lightning struck twice because I was giving a talk about all the southern fried rice and the guy comes up afterwards and he says he said okay, you you wrote about laundry. You wrote about grocery stores has nothing else left for you to do you have to write a book about Chinese restaurant. And so I kind of smiles and I said well,
28:05 I've eaten a lot of Chinese restaurants with don't know anything about running. What's up? I don't think I have the no background knowledge about doing this. He said don't worry. He said I own several Chinese restaurants and I'll be your resource person.
28:21 So what's the weather at me think about it and I was kind of intrigued but I got a little intimidated. I didn't want to overextend myself. But again what you start digging in and you read and you find out research that other people have done. I started seeing a possibility. No cuz I was intrigued by know. How did Chinese restaurant become so popular because they so popular now in one of the most popular Cuisines, they're everywhere, you know, every little towns got Chinese restaurant throughout not just us and Canada, but all many parts of the world.
29:01 So one of the things I found it was kind of interesting as that.
29:05 Chinese food was disparaged Chinese restaurants were mainly to serve other Chinese and you know, they serve.
29:17 Chinese soul food. If you will heal Cuisine foods that came from China that that you know American tourists wouldn't you know, and they would things that Chinese with familiar with
29:29 And then what happened was like, oh somewhere roughly around 1900 year. There was a Chinese Envoy Who Came From China or some diplomatic thing and it was all a big write-up about it and stuff and it so happens and there's several different versions of this but the basic story is that he wanted some Chinese food and cook together something and you know, people liked it and then they asked him what is this and it was Chop Suey which angle size wording of odds and ends to be translate in Chinese. It's just leftovers the chef invented something and the papers it up.
30:18 And lo and behold the the young people in like New York and when I say young people that mean teenagers everything but maybe even middle-aged people who like to try new things in there with the publicity in the hype about Chop Suey. So they all wanted to go with the newspapers call it slumming so they go down a child sounds like an adventure. You know, we're going to go try out this Chop Suey stuff, you know, and then it just wanted something caught fire and came a lot of the Chinese Laundry and then they were going into restaurant scene that as a better source of you know, employment over working. It wasn't any easier but and Chinese restaurant suddenly started blossoming everywhere.
31:12 Now, of course, there's Chinese restaurants and there's Chinese restaurant most people today think of the fancy ones for nothing but in my book, which I call sweet and sour cabbage option because these were immigrant families and you know, a lot of these people didn't know how to cook or they didn't know how to cook restaurant style when they went silent. They don't know how to do laundry when they were so these men came over and they had to find something to do something did laundry they did restaurants, even though they really weren't trained or educated in those occupations. So the families helped out in both the restaurant new ones and yellow like in the middle of the country like Kansas or Nebraska, it wouldn't be the same thing as
32:12 Restaurants in San Francisco, they didn't serve the same food when you got in the middle of the country. It might need Chop. Suey chow mein and egg rolls. Everything else was American food, but it was run by Chinese and so that gave them an opportunity to make a living but sweet and sour, you know, what refers to a well-known type of Chinese dish but it also means that for the Chinese restaurant with sweet and that it gave him and then, gave him a way to make a living it gave him a country so that they can send their children to college in this whole thing was also sour because it was really hard and long and very demanding and the pay was very low and they just barely scrape by a lot of them. You couldn't even make it something some of them, you know went bankrupt and things like that and
33:10 It's a way of making a living but it's not easy. And in a sense that the Chinese kind of paint themselves in the corner because the food is good and it's healthy generally speaking. It's also cheap and expensive. So people expect a Chinese restaurant to be cheap and cost so that meant that the wages that people receive in working with very very beautiful and very very very poor. So Chinese restaurant workers and family members really had that work hard to scrape by so that's why I was interested in all these kinds of stories is that regardless of their occupation the Chinese immigrants and Lena the Next Generation
33:57 They were pretty remarkable in terms of their resilience in terms of trying to you know deal with the hardships that they had to face not knowing the language not having very good economic opportunities being targets of discrimination and racial Prejudice and being ridiculed very frequently and by racial taunts, they really achieve remarkably successful careers and provide a better life for their children the Next Generation. So I'm kind of fascinated by this even though I'm not historian by training in a way. I've been able to combine my since I called you with my interest in history because I think
34:48 Being able to in my books. I put a lot of focus on the people and their lies and their experiences that the psychology part but it's also dealing with things that happened in history that as I said myself in my own experience. I never learned about these things when I was a kid growing up, they didn't teach these things. And so this is why I find it gratifying to
35:16 To do this type of writing and help not only educate other Chinese Americans and asian-americans is also a lot of white and black Americans of also said that she they never do this. So I think that's kind of what drives into doing this.
35:42 And you see that the same hard-working and
35:47 Crocodile in Long Island type of SIM translate into the second generation even with the education that they are able to get the hard work is still there and the discipline sometimes I think the second generation or third generation may may not be as fully aware of this is they need to be and sometimes feel sort of entitled and not aware of what their parents and grandparents did for them.
36:24 So what would you like to tell her?
36:27 Young people will read it and then talk to them about it. Cuz I think they do want to know and people all types are interested and their ancestry at some point. They may not be interested when they're 20. They may not even get to say when they're 30, but at some point I think they're going to be interested in it. And I think they will find it worthwhile knowing
37:03 So what is next for you after this folks? I've learned to say I don't know exactly what will happen. I will not say there won't be another book. I don't know of any that are in the plans, but I've seen in the past that I could be wrong. I hope you keep on grinding cuz I'm very thankful that you've started out and about the couple friends listen to your talk today, and they said I never heard about any of this history. I didn't know this kind of situation existed the way you growing up in making and everything. I mean, this is totally brand new event to my contemporary, you know, the middle age group that came much later in the sixties and seventies. We have no clue your parents generation have had what they had to endure and this is how I open experience all my friends and me and I like to thank you for writing or that
38:03 Several people have been nice enough to tell me that now they really learned a lot and that's that's a reward for teacher. I like you say you cannot find this kind of stuff in US history books.