In my family, my father and uncles were the gatekeepers of the immense treasure trove of stories, tales, and legends that had been passed down for generations for over the last four thousand years in China. As a child in the early nineteen fifties, I respectfully sat with the other children after dinner and listened as we were instructed in the behavior of the wise and warned of the pitfalls that attended the foolish. Years passed and at age eighteen, when I move out on my own, I put away the stories and proverbs. They were quaint and seem to serve no purpose in the Sixties, an age of psychoanalytical buzz words, and “hippies.”
But in 1970, the call went out for volunteers to collect and record the stories and artifacts of Chinatown, and strangely I knew I had to participate. So forty four years ago, I found myself working in a small museum and artifact collection called The Chinatown History Project in the heart of New York City’s Chinatown. Back then, New York City’s Chinatown was a stable community of roughly 20,000 people whose history in the United States reached back to 1700’s.
For over two hundred years, driven by war, poverty, and disasters, Cantonese and Fujian Chinese had been dispersed around the world, even to the distant shores of America. Though there were Chinatowns in New York City and San Francisco, the many laws restricting Chinese immigration such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and the Restricted Quota of 105 people a year in 1943, the Chinese American population had always been small. Politics played its role as well. When the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, since it was a Communist government, the United States refused to acknowledge its existence and so there was no immigration.
But in 1979, after 30 years, with the realization that it could no longer deny the existence of one quarter of the world’s population, the United States normalized its relationship with the People’ Republic of China and the quota for Chinese was made the same number given to other groups. By the 1980’s Chinatowns across the United States suddenly became bustling arrival points for several thousand new immigrants a year. And many were not the poor farmer and fishermen who had fled the wars and famine of two hundred years before. These twentieth century immigrants were coming with professional education, and often moving to the suburbs at once, completely circumventing the Chinatown experience.
The nineteen eighties was a time when local elementary schools in downtown Manhattan began frantically calling community organizations in Chinatown as they discovered that as much as fifty percent of the incoming student body were ethic Chinese and they knew nothing about them. Libraries, schools, and community facilities were dealing with a large arriving Chinese population and they had no programs to deal with this demographic. As one elementary school teacher confessed to me at the time, “Every year our school does the play, “Snow White,” but I don’t think we can do that anymore.”
Older Chinese American families like mine, who had been here for three, four, and in some cases five generations, quickly became the minority in our own community and today we represent only about 8 per cent of the population of Chinese in America. The other 92 percent has arrived in the last 35 years. The history, culture, and stories of the old timers, tales of the villages, the “Talk Story” of the Hand Laundries, restaurants, and field workers, are as foreign to them as to anybody else.
Storytelling was one of the most requested programs, and my office mates usually “volunteered” me anytime a call came in. The problem was I had a great number of stories but no actual skill or training in an ancient craft considered a respected profession for thousands of years. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher magically appears. I discovered a traditional Chinese Storyteller, Master Leong Chi Ming, of Toisan, China, plying his trade in the busy streets of Manhattan Chinatown and at once begged to become his student. His English was poor and my Cantonese was worse but we were able to converse and for the next year and half, he instructed me in his style. He called it, “A Practical craft, a Convenience Art,” because without “props,” or a stage, one could do a complete theater with many characters, and make the past glories of China come alive. I treasured every session we had.
Today, the men of my father generation are long gone, and even in my age group, there are more empty chairs every year. The stories of coming to the “Land of the Ghosts,” surviving the discrimination and unfair laws, eking out a living with hard work and frugal choices, are the cobwebs of an old attic. At age 70, I work as an historian in the Chinese Historical Society of America, in San Francisco. Most of my work and lectures have to do with Asian American history, and that suits the needs of most school and college audiences. But a couple of times a year, I’m asked to visit someplace outside the Bay Area and tell some of the old tales. It always pleases me to do.