VOICES: CHINESE WOMEN OF THE DELTA
VOICES: CHINESE WOMEN OF THE DELTA
BY GERRYE WONG November 7, 2023
What a successful and informative celebration! On Sunday November 5, 2023, LF OHP (Locke Foundation Oral History Project) and Locke PRDA (Locke Prior Residents & Descendants Association) joined to host a special Fundraiser/Reunion Luncheon. Locke PRDA brought together Locke residents, descendants and supporters of Locke after a hiatus brought on by the challenges of COVID for a reunion. LF OHP contributed the oral histories collected from local residents. Together, the partnership inspired the concept of producing a documentary titled, “Women’s Voices of the Delta” and the fundraiser for the production
As Chair of the Locke Foundation – Oral History Project, Corliss Suen Lee explained in the program,“ It is undeniable that the Chinese men who immigrated to America accomplished feats beyond comparison. However, hidden within the Chinese American immigration story is that of Chinese women who suffered in silence within the male-dominated Chinese culture. Invisible and voiceless, their own community gave them little consolation or support.”
Caption: Chinese Historical and Cultural Project members from Santa Clara County
With these thoughts in mind, it seems the LF-OHP with support the Locke Prior Residents & Descendants Association (Locke-PRDA) have embarked on a project to produce a short documentary film titled, “Voices: Chinese Women of the Delta.” As Corliss continued, “Unfortunately, gone are these Chinese women who resided in the small towns along the Delta who endured the hardships while raising families. Thus our film will focus on the Chinese women’s sacrifice and contribution through the recollections of their family members and descendants.” Joining in this Oral History Project so important to collect before it is lost too soon, are Co Chair Honey Lum, Carol Lee and Mark Miller, in addition to volunteers Ron Chan, Cindy Chang, Anita Lo and Darren Suen.
Caption: Supporters from Sacramento, Auburn and Silicon Valley
At the event, the group honored former citizens who grew up in the Delta area, Ruth Jang, Corliss Suen Lee, Gay Lum and Harry Sen. Each had a captivating story about their early childhood days to teenage to adulthood working alongside their parents and living in large Chinese families during the Depression years.
Caption: Supporters from Stockton Chinese community
The Sacramento River Delta had a longtime presence of Chinese immigrants from the 19th Century when they came to build levees, drain the swamps,, and later stayed to transform the wetlands into the most productive farmland in the US. Facing discrimination and severe living conditions, the Chinese persevered and raised their families through hard work employed by all –grandparents, father, mother, and the children – working alongside each other, young and old, to make a living despite the fact their children were forced to go to segregated schools and too often, the Chinese were forced to take harder jobs others in the community didn’t want to do.
Caption: Gay Hoi Lum
A video snippet of each honoree was shown at the event. Honoree Gay Hoi Lum was born in 1927 and sadly passed recently in September, 2023. Gay and his cousin were sponsored by this father (Lum Chew) and passed through Angel Island before arriving in Locke at the age of 11. During his first year in Locke Gay worked alongside his father weeding in the tomato fields. After one year in Locke, he was hired by the JB Thomas Ranch as a houseboy, sleeping in the barn. In high school an art teacher recognized Gay’s exceptional artistic, became his biggest fan and advocated for a scholarship to the San Francisco Academy of Advertising. In 1953 was drafted into the Korean War and trained as an interpreter assigned to the 35th parallel – Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). . In 1957, Gay was the first Chinese hired by the Sacramento Bee Newspaper as an Editorial Illustrator and retired after a notable career of 35 year. In 1997 Gay was acknowledged by the Asian American Journalists Association (AAJA) with the Pioneer Spirit Award for “Leading the Way for Asian American Journalists
Caption: Ruth Chan Jang
Ruth Chan Jang was born in Walnut Grove, where her parents operated the a dry goods store for a time in Walnut Grove until they moved to Happy Café at 13964 Main Street, Locke. Ruth Jang is now 100 years old. At age 21, adventurous Ruth entered the Army Stationed at Moody Field, Georgia her duties were as a “Gopher” delivering messages from each building riding a tri-motor scooter. Stationed in New York, she was assigned to take wounded soldiers to free Broadway show and the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. Weekends she went dancing with serviceman. She never felt any discrimination as the only Chinese in her unit. After the service she married Harry Jang, who was a lieutenant in the Air Force during WWII and who had received the Distinguished Flying Cross for his exceptional navigational skills under fire in Asia. They lived happily after raising three children. She attributes her longevity to staying active her entire life. The video snippet shown was produced by ABC10.
Caption: Harry and Leila Sen Receiving congratulations from CHSA and CHCP Board members
Honoree Harry Sen was born in 1933 to a family of pear and vegetable farmers. He was the “Gum Jai” (Golden Son) in a family of 7 sisters. Harry claims living in hard times, developed his work ethics, sense of responsibility and drive for success at an early age. His parents emphasized family and the importance of the education they themselves did not get. He tended the family garden and the pigs, ducks, and chickens. By age 10, he helped his father prune pear trees at various orchards during holidays and school vacations. His grandfather’s grocery store, Foon Hop, was known for scrumptious prepared foods and popular freshly made tofu His mother and aunts were integral to the success for Foon Hop, their family store. Harry attributes his mother with her influence to his love of fishing, culinary skills, and expert gardening knowledge. It is these stories about the women in his life that that has helped the OHP capture a glimpse of women’s life in the delta.
Caption: Corliss Suen Lee
Corliss Suen Lee grew up as a resident of both Locke and Walnut Grove. As evidence by her long lineage in Locke and Walnut Grove, Corliss cares deeply and is passionate about preserving the legacy of the Chinese of the Delta. Intensely impacted by the resilience of the women around her, Corliss is committed to sharing their silent struggles. Empowered in her own right, Corliss was President of her own company, a developer/builder of subdivisions of homes, in a male-dominated industry. Her insight as a woman was what launched her success. Corliss became the first woman minority president of the Building Industry Association and served as Vice Chair of the California Seismic Safety Commission. In Contra Costa County Corliss worked with nonprofits, building the first Habitat for Humanity houses in Contra Costa County. Corliss was inspired and compelled to make a difference, having experienced the resilience of the women she knew.
Caption: Artifacts sale at fundraising luncheon
Award winning film-maker Min Zhou will collaborate with the LF committee to direct the documentary film with the important topic of the marginalized and forgotten women of the delta. At the event, Douglas Hsia addressed the audience saying that the success of their mission and goal to produce this documentary rests on the shoulders of supporters who join the Locke Foundation in the making of this important piece of history in the making.
The Locke Foundation was created as a non profit organization to educate the public about the history, culture and legacy of the small town of Locke. Locke has gained public notice when given the designation of National Historic Landmark. Often known as the only last remaining town that was once solely owned, governed and inhabited by Chinese, the Locke Foundation’s goal is to preserve the town and present activities and tours to encourage visitors to come and learn abut the proud history of this once thriving Chinese immigrant community. Officers are President Stuart Walthall, VP Clarence Chu, Treasurer Eileen Leung and Secretary Douglas Hsia with Directors Carol Lee, Corliss Lee, Honey Lum, Dustin Marr, Mark Miller and Darrel Woo. I brought up a group of Silicon Valley friends together with members of the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project this past summer, and thanks to Locke Foundation members, we had a very enjoyable tour through Locke’s Main Stret hearing stories of what the town’s people once did, and what businesses occupied the different buildings still standing. It brought history alive to picture the farmlands the hardworking Chinese families thrived on, the long distances the children had to go to the Oriental Schools, even segregated between Chinese and Japanese children.
Caption: Locke Foundation Board members Carol Lee, Douglas Hsia and Corliss Lee welcome guests
Carol Lee advises all interested individuals wanting to preserve Chinese American history to support “Women’s Voices of the Delta” by directing your donation to: Oral History Project. P. O. Box 1085 Walnut Grove, CA 95690 Attention: “Voices”