Editor's note: If you appreciate being able to read posts like this, and want to ensure ANC's ability to continue publishing similar content, please click here to demonstrate your support and become a paid subscriber for as little as $1.35 a month.
Looking for Louie, Part 2 of 6
Sleuthing out bio-data on California’s 19th century Gold Country Chinese was not exactly in Javier Garcia’s job description when he went to work at the National Archive 20-odd years ago. In fact, he was hired as a forklift operator.
Chinese memorabilia was – and still is – not so much curated as simply warehoused in San Bruno, according to Garcia (whose name I have changed here to protect his right to bad-mouth his bosses without getting fired). That makes Garcia, a GS-8 warehouseman, our indispensable Go-to Guy on Step One of our search for Weaverville’s next-to-last Chinese merchant family. The Louies were the lucky “winners” who managed to cash out of America and sell the downtown Wing Chong store to Trinity county patriarch Moon Lee, the last holdover in Weaverville’s once-thriving Chinatown (see Part 1).
“We got thousands of crates of immigration records buried here,” Garcia gestures to encompass the underground acres of shelving in the basement of the Archive’s West Coast repository in San Bruno. “It takes some stacking technique. I’d had a little warehousing experience, so they brought me in to move files by the pallet-load.”
Nothing in his blue-collar background inclined him to a professional interest in history, let alone Orientalia. Yet, after a few interactions with the Archive’s Chinese-American patrons, he became hooked on the genealogical quest.
“All these doctors and professors, the so-called ‘model minority,’ searching out – with pride, mind you! – a bunch of coolie ancestors. That really got to me. I mean, I’m from an immigrant background myself. My dad picked peaches at sub-minimum wage for a whole decade before he could finally get proper papers in an amnesty.
“Makes you wonder – don’t it? – about the way we really treat our ‘tired, poor, huddled masses’ here in the Great American Melting Pot. We cheat ’em, harrass ’em and then blame the dumb-ass immigrant whenever our precious middle-class voters start feeling squeezed. And now it looks like the politicians are gearing up for another round of raids and crackdowns.
“Nothing new in that, of course. You know why these shelves are stacked way up to the ceiling? It’s all thanks to the ‘Oriental Exclusion’ laws that tried to cut down the inflow of Chinamen. Each immigrant needed some white people to vouch for him. Each one had to explain his business and family tree back in China and account for all his comings and goings. And that, in turn, required a small army of politically well-connected desk-jockey hacks to churn out all this paper.
“Most of which is unadulterated crap, anyway. I mean, an immigrant in need of a permit had every reason to lie through his teeth. None of the whites – neither the ‘character witnesses’ nor the officials – knew or cared a damn about China or the Chinese. So if you’re a coolie trying to get into this country, why not just tell the bureaucrats whatever works?
“A documented immigrant could sell his U.S. connection to bidders back home in China and bring them over as supposed relatives – ‘paper wives’ or ‘paper sons,’ they called them in Chinatown. I’ve had patrons here in the archive spend months hunting down some long-lost scrap of paper, a deposition or something, only to find it’s nothing but some immigrant’s pure, spur-of-the-moment jive.
“Still, I try my best to help folks. It takes some doing, too, because this collection is such a disorganized mess. The higher-ups here take no pains to make these records accessible. Why should they, after all? ‘Oriental Exclusion’ wasn’t exactly America’s proudest hour. Sooner or later the Archive will probably consolidate all this stuff and stash it in a Utah mountainside or somewhere.
“But, meanwhile, I do what I can to connect people with their ancestors. Over 20 years, you develop a kind of sixth sense to find your way through this maze.
“Louie, you say? Wing Chong?” He prowls down a line of shelves idly tapping on the cartons like a vintner sounding out wine casks. “Merchants, hmm. Trinity. Between Shasta and Humboldt, right?” He wrestles a crate off a stack and pulls out another box from behind. “Try this.”
It doesn’t look too promising, judging from the first few files we riffle: a Sacramento hostler, a Lodi seamstress, a truck gardener from Oroville. But then we hit pay dirt – a Wing Chong share certificate, brushed in spidery calligraphy, showing the company’s four-way ownership split among Louie clansmen. It’s dated at Wei Ba Fu (Weaverville) on the first day of the first lunar month in Year Four of the Chinese Republic, i.e. 1915.
This elegant rice paper document is stapled, by way of cover sheet, to a stack of foolscap immigration forms, now yellowed and brittle with age. In vintage typescript or lead pencil scrawl, they detail the life and times of the firm’s managing partner, one Louie Chow.
We learn how he first arrived in America in the seventh Kuang Hsu reign year of the Ch’ing Dynasty (i.e. 1882) and rose over the next two decades to be a merchant in the Dung On Company of San Francisco before moving to Weaverville to take up a $1,000 stake in Wing Chong; how his first wife (she of the bound feet, mother of his three eldest sons) died while he was away in California; how he mail-ordered a second wife, sight unseen, a modern woman with unbound feet; how he journeyed back to her village of Gam Lung Tun, Canton, to beget another son on her; how, on the return trip, he was caught in the cross-fire of the Russo-Japanese War (1895) and had to change ships from a Japanese to a Chinese vessel before he could get through a Tsarist naval blockade and make his way back to San Francisco.
Two sepia-toned mug shots accompany Louie Chow’s dossier. In the first, he appears as a sleek merchant, smooth-faced and faintly smiling, but with eyes demurely averted as befits a humble, transient sojourner in the white man’s world. He sports loose, black silk pajamas and a tasseled beanie to cover the forehead tonsure and long queue he must wear as a Han subject of the Manchu Ch’ing dynasty.
The photo adorns a 1901 affadavit attesting that Louie is a “bona fide merchant.” As stipulated in the Geary Act of 1892, he “has not acted as a miner, fisherman, huckster, peddlar, laundryman, cook or servant” nor performed any other manual labor apart from shop-clerking. His store is certifiably not “a laundry, restaurant, barber shop, lodging house, pawnbroker, gambling outfit or opium joint.”
Some 27 white worthies of Weaverville signed this declaration with many a copperplate flourish. The list starts out with the local Judge, district attorney, postmaster, supervisor, sheriff, banker and druggist. Bringing up the rear are assorted blacksmiths, tinsmiths, surveyors, teamsters, hotel keepers and merchants. Even Trinity Journal Publisher A.F. Bremer – no friend of the Chinese, at least in print – added his name to the roster.
All the signers claimed to have been acquainted with Louie for at least eight years, and some attested they bought tobacco from him daily. But none of them seemed to even know his real name – they all called him ‘Wing.’
The next mug shot, from 15 years later, would be almost unrecognizable as the same Louie Chow if it weren’t for the label. Gone is the beanie and, for that matter, the queue, since China had in the meantime cast off Manchu rule. Gone, also, is the diffident, downcast gaze. Now Louie stares straight into the camera, his face deeply furrowed under the eyes and around the mouth. He looks haggard and more than a little pissed off.
Well he might be, too: at the time he was photographed, he’d just been through the gamut of Angel Island, the U.S. government’s notoriously unwelcoming West Coast “reception center” for Chinese immigrants. He was freshly returned from another visit to China, his fourth in 34 years. This time he’d brought back with him his Number Four Son, one Louie Gar Hien, to help out in the store.
The accompanying “Application for Certificate of Identity” describes Louie Chow as 51 years old, 5′ 3½” tall, with a “pit on left cheek and a pit on left side of nose.” He signs the form boldly and crudely in Chinese, as though holding the pencil in a clenched fist. The ideogram “Louie” turns to be the word for “thunder,” which matches the stormy glower of the mug shot. He looks like a man who’s had enough.
Louie Chow made it his business to never again submit to another Angel Island “reception.” The only other time he passed through the place was outbound for China after selling out Wing Chong to the Moon Lee family.
“And that’s it?” we ask Garcia, turning over the last page in the dossier. “That’s about as far as you’re going to get over here, on this side of the pond,” he nods. “Next stop, I suppose, is – where did it say he was from? – Gam Lung Tun, Canton. Yat lo ping on,” he pronounces in a fairly credible rendering of the Cantonese phrase for “bon voyage.”
Next installment: Up the Creek in Taishan.
Lincoln Kaye is a forest fire lookout on Ironside Mountain in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. He was a foreign correspondent in Asia for nearly 30 years before retiring to Trinity County.