Exploring the art of prose


Where Am I From? by Amber Wong

Image shows a red building crisscrossed with lines of red lanterns; title card for 2022 Creative Nonfiction Award winner "Where Am I From?" by Amber Wong.

Amber Wong’s “Where Am I From?” is one of three winners of the 2022 CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award, guest judged by Ingrid Rojas Contreras.

A secret family story unfolds in “Where Am I From?”: “From a stranger to my cousin and then to my ear, as a teen I heard that my paternal grandfather was a gambler. Not just any gambler, but at one time my Yeh-Yeh was the ‘big boss,’ proprietor of the biggest illegal gambling house in Oakland, California.” A page-turner of an essay, “Where Am I From?” raises questions about family and migration, being Chinese American in a time of oppression and persecution, and secrets. Tremendously readable, this essay documents the way survival sometimes forces a wedge into family generations. Gripping, exact, and powerfully written.  —Ingrid Rojas Contreras


“I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’
if I can answer the prior question
‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

—Alasdair MacIntyre


No one would talk. It was as if my family had sprung, fully formed, from the roots of America.

My face told me otherwise.

In my house, my grandparents appear in tangibles: battered leather luggage tags, photocopied birth certificates, a metal cigarette case embossed with a dragon. They appear in valuables: a set of monogrammed cuff links, a diamond eternity band, the gold coin bracelet around my wrist. They remain sharp in my senses: a wisp of Pall Mall, the pliancy of a fresh skein of yarn, the sizzle of dumplings immersed in hot oil. Most of all, I taste their legacy in every plebeian Cantonese dish—in the salt of see yow (soy sauce), the savory of ho yow (oyster sauce), the fermented rot of hom ha (shrimp paste)—as well as at every ten-course Chinese banquet dinner I attend or have the honor to host. From them I learned to cherish the ritual of Peking duck, a delicacy that takes two days to prepare, where the signature characters—smoky-crisp skin and succulent dark flesh—meet the sweet of hoi sin and tang of slivered scallions in the crease of a doughy bao. Assembling this morsel, lifting it to the lips, and inhaling its aroma should never be rushed. Here is a gift far beyond sustenance. Here lies the texture of culture.

In the Cantonese dialect they spoke, I know my mother’s parents as Por-Por and Goong- Goong and my father’s parents as Ma-Ma and Yeh-Yeh. But I knew very little of them until now. As any family who was persecuted under the provisions of the Chinese Exclusion Act could tell you, there were reasons. Harassment. Lynching. Jail time. Deportation.

As a child I learned that even innocent questions have hidden seams. Why did my grandparents come to America? How did they make a living? Tug that thread—out may fall a cache of gold. Or, just as likely, a murder weapon. I never asked if that zip gun disguised as a pen in my grandfather’s desk at Eighth and Webster had ever been fired. For my family, being silent meant not being caught.

As if they’d signed a blood pact, my parents, aunts, uncles, and even my San Francisco-born English-speaking Ma-Ma kept mum for decades, behaving as if any revelation would inexorably lead to the exposure of The Big Family Secret. The façade of our American life, carefully curated since the 1800s, could be exposed as a sham.

But eventually, rumors arrived in hushed whispers. From a stranger to my cousin and then to my ear, as a teen I heard that my paternal grandfather was a gambler. Not just any gambler, but at one time my Yeh-Yeh was the “big boss,” proprietor of the biggest illegal gambling house in Oakland, California. No prostitutes or booze, the rumor went, just pai gow, mah jongg, and the lottery. But when I asked Dad, then a doctor, about his father, his eyes narrowed even farther. “Where’d you hear that?” he barked, not waiting for an answer. “My father was in the import/export business. He was a merchant,” he said with finality before turning his back on me.

Fifty years later, virtually all who could tell the truth are gone, their secrets cached with their bones. All I have left are snips of ephemera, curated in a process long ago forgotten. Here’s my Yeh-Yeh’s official-looking Port of Oakland identification card, his picture on the front. Here’s his deputy sheriff card with his occupation—import/export—clearly typed next to his name. Here’s a cheaply framed Certification of Incorporation, signed by the California Deputy Secretary of State, announcing the incorporation of the “Cathay Social and Educational Society.”

Wait. I hold the framed document up to the light. The embossed gold foil of the Great Seal of the State of California looks genuine. Signed on November 19, 1929—with notable fountain-pen flair—the signature appears to be that of the Deputy Secretary of State, filling in for Frank Jordan, the official Secretary of State. Despite minor irregularities, the document appears authentic.

Less authentic, I presume, are the underlying documents, especially the business plan, for Yeh-Yeh’s venture. But with an elegant pen stroke, all taint is erased: the State of California officially recognizes my grandfather’s right to run a social establishment. This, I know now, is where the family business thrived. Known to the Chinese community as Mun Jung, meaning “group of people coming together,” this business at the corner of Eighth and Webster became a mainstay of Oakland Chinatown life for over twenty years. It’s the heart of Oakland Chinatown. This is where the gambling happened.

By the time I was born, Mun Jung had been closed for three years. We had gone straight. Everyone—our family, our friends, the whole Chinatown community—tried their hardest to forget. In the desert of my family’s secrecy, nothing bloomed. Until now.

When strangers ask, “Where are you from?,” I no longer answer. They don’t want to hear the truth. That from generation to generation to generation to generation, I am an American.

But to you I will say: My people had ghost lives that no one spoke of.

In Fau Shek village near Canton, China, circa 1915, a slender teenage girl crouches in the shadow of a kitchen doorway, her glossy black hair slicked back into a smart bun. But in keeping with her mourning clothes, no decorative comb adorns her hair. Muted voices from the front room, oddly stripped of the normal sharps and flats of her family’s Cantonese dialect, flow smooth as cascading rain. In a protective gesture, she tugs her Mandarin collar tight as she peeks around the corner. She sees her mother rise, tiny silk-slippered feet betraying the slightest of wobbles. She watches intently as her mother lifts the porcelain teapot, bows, and holds back her flowing sleeve as she carefully pours their best bo nay tea into her guest’s teacup.

Footfalls approach from behind. “Deedee!” her young brother cries. Quickly she scoops him up, shushes him as she draws him back into the kitchen. She holds him close, ignores the grubby finger smears on her mourning smock. “Don’t cry,” she whispers, “I’ll make sure he takes care of you too.”

Their father, a dry goods merchant whose ship sailed regularly between China and India, is presumed dead. Ever since his ship was lost in the South China Sea, the storm that took his life has also roiled their family. Their mother, with her fashionable but misshapen four-inch lotus feet, bones broken and bound long ago, is worthless to work. The girl and her two younger brothers have no skills. But today, luck stands at their doorstep. Chung Wah, a man from a nearby village made rich by a business in America picked her—her!—from all the other village girls for the honor of marrying his firstborn son.

Hours later, it is done. At fourteen, she is betrothed to a boy she doesn’t know. As she and her brother emerge from the shadows, watch the rich man’s silk robe sweep the dust from their doorstep, her future brightens. She’s landed her gold coin. Her family need not worry ever again.

She cannot know that in a few years her gold coin will fade to tarnished brass. The business her future father-in-law has built is illegal, dangerous, rife with corruption. Running the Oakland Chinatown gambling houses comes with great risk. The federal and state authorities want to bust them. The San Francisco and Sacramento clans want their territory. The local police want to show they’re in charge, so they storm in and raid their houses and businesses.

Her husband, a firstborn son bred to the rarified air of indulgence and opportunity, will sink into the quicksand of opium addiction. But this will be her comfort: they will live in America when it happens. By then she will have kept her promise to her younger brothers and secured her family legacy. The boy who will become my grandfather will have made it to America.

I knew none of that when I met Goo-Por. I was seven; I just knew she was Mom’s aunt. Two weeks earlier, our family had moved to California from Boston, the only home I’d ever known. My nine-year-old older brother and I had been paraded before a wildly expanding crowd of Chinese people whose clucking and poking we’d tolerated only because they appeared genuinely glad to see us. But I was overwhelmed. I’d never seen so many Chinese in my life! Some spoke English, some did not. Their names and relationships to me flew thick and fast—“your mother’s sister’s husband,” “your grandfather’s brother’s wife”—whirling beyond my grasp like bursts of dandelion seeds. Which side of the family are you from? What are your parents to my parents? From birth I’d been taught to call my parents’ good friends “Auntie” and “Uncle,” so I couldn’t even assume they were all blood relatives.

As Mom led the way up the narrow stairwell to Goo-Por’s Oakland Chinatown apartment, the smell of hot grease and cigarette smoke, tinged with mothballs, started to turn my young stomach. I didn’t want to be here. To me, the honorific Goo-Por meant little more than “old woman.” With every echoing clomp up the stairs, I imagined silently squirming for two hours on a stained couch that smelled faintly of urine, taking pains to discreetly avoid the musty, crusty, crocheted afghan draped over the back. I’d have to smile on cue at the sallow, wrinkled people in baggy clothes who would speak in the rise and fall of sharp tones I’d never understand. Could I ignore the pungent smell of dit dat jow—the all-purpose “stink-to-high-heaven” herb for aches and sprains my grandmother had recently introduced me to—that might be simmering on the stove?

Goo-Por sat in a chair much larger than she was, a lit Pall Mall between outstretched fingers, the sleeves of her padded Mao jacket draped over bony wrists. I tried not to stare at her scalp; she seemed almost bald, her few thin strands of hair pulled tight into a marble-sized bun. She appeared as a baby bird with oddly protruding elbows, her fingers like veined claws. She exuded no warmth; her demeanor was one of wary disdain.

Between hacking coughs, Goo-Por wheezed to Mom in Cantonese and Mom replied in a tone I’d not heard before—an almost fawning deference, her voice a little too bright. To Dad Goo-Por said nothing, although she surely knew who he was: the youngest son of a powerful family whose 1940s Oakland gambling business had usurped her own. In retrospect, she may have been forewarned that he didn’t speak sze yup, her dialect, and didn’t want to embarrass him. But at the time I knew none of that. All I knew was that a month ago we’d left our home in Boston. Dad had passed an exam to become a doctor, and now we’d moved to California, a place Mom and Dad had always called “home.”

Goo-Por and I never exchanged a word, our language an impossible gulf. She died not long after. I remember my relief that I’d never have to visit her again. Now I know I missed a rare opportunity to thank her—for me, for my sons, for future generations. Her sacrifices bought us our freedom.

Not long after his sister left for America, Chu Chin followed. Like many young Chinese men in the 1920s, Chu Chin sailed to America by steamship, false identity papers tucked in his vest. Unlike others, he arrived with his new wife on his arm.

To immigration officials, traveling with a wife meant one thing: Chu Chin must be a merchant, and therefore exempt from the exclusion laws. The Chinese Exclusion Act and its successors barred all Chinese laborers from entering America, helpfully defining “laborer” as “skilled or unskilled laborers and Chinese employed in mining.” This overbroad definition excluded most prospective immigrants, the laundrymen and restaurant cooks who serviced the western economy. But merchants who brought exotic spices, luxurious silks, and carved teak furniture to America skirted the rules, and they and their wives were allowed in.

I imagine a nervous Angel Island immigration official, sweat dripping down his back. Early this morning he almost made a mistake, almost let one of those filthy dogs into the country. But then he asked the last question—Is your village well on the left or right side of the main road? When the man hesitated, the official smacked his lips in satisfaction. That poor man’s application for entry was denied. He’d be on the next boat home to China.

Peering through fingerprint-smudged glasses, the official taps his pen on each page as he flips through Chu’s identity papers. Sure enough, the line for “occupation” says “merchant.” They’re coming to join an established import/export business. He checks the cut and fabric of the man’s coat, notes the wife’s gold teeth. They look respectable; they have money. The wife knows all the neighbors in the village, their children, aunts, and cousins. Did he hear her right, her father lives in Chicago? He checks the manifest—the captain of the vessel has already validated their claim, and he’d suffer fines and imprisonment if he’s wrong.

Little does the official know that the decision has already been made. Behind the scenes, Chung Wah, the infamous Oakland gambling don, has been pulling strings, playing the right cards. He ran this gauntlet years ago with his three biological sons, greasing palms and prepping them with the right answers. He did the same for his oldest son’s bride. This time, with a Chinese calligrapher’s steady hand and a bit of ink, the birth certificates for his two daughters—still at home in China—have been miraculously changed; now he has two additional “sons.” Chu Chin, his new birth certificate spread on the official’s desk, is one of them. This “paper son adoption” is just one of many that will slip past the authorities.

The official’s superior approaches from behind, taps his shoulder. With a wave of his hand, it is done.

Reunited with his sister, Chu can’t believe his good luck.

“See? You just needed to be patient,” Chu’s sister says. Quietly, she adds, “Chung Wah is a big man here. Bigger than you can imagine. But he needs you. His sons, he doesn’t trust them.”

It’s a fable as old as Aesop. Gum Shan, or Gold Mountain, is rich with opportunity. Chung Wah has built a successful, albeit illegal, business. Chung Wah’s sons should be running the business, but—and here’s where the moral of the story creeps in—awash in luxury, they turn to traditional vices. Opium. Gambling. Vices are expensive; to feed them, they could risk everything. Even stealing from their father.

But Chu is different; Chung Wah has him by the short hairs. As a “paper son,” he cannot embezzle or even make innocent mistakes—if he did, he’d be prosecuted and deported. Even if mistreated, no paper son would risk going to the authorities. So, there’s a handshake, a tacit agreement. Everyone knows the stakes. Chu plays the role well, adopts the name of his benefactor. Even in death, his headstone proclaims a name that is not his.

I met my grandfather only eight years before he died. Goong-Goong, hollow-cheeked and balding, looked much like his older sister. He and I edged around his Myrtle Street kitchen like wary cats, total curiosities to each other. He seemed pleasant enough. Lighting up a Pall Mall, he’d nod and smile when I’d hand him a glass ashtray. Once as a gift he gave me his metal cigarette box with a dragon on the lid. I felt that he even liked me.

In his forced smile I recognized the same discomfort I felt. Words stayed locked in our heads, never uttered or understood. He knew only Cantonese; I knew only English. We remained strangers to each other until the day he died.

A note about Chung Wah: Everyone in Mom’s family referred to this man—their benefactor, their adopted grandfather—as Jeung Wah Goong, the informal mayor of West Oakland. He was such a big presence in the Oakland community that his funeral procession, replete with drums pounding and mourners wailing, dragged on for blocks. But when I tried to research his place in history, I drew a blank. Chinese names are like that, I thought—misspelled, mispronounced, confused between book names and married names, a slippery skin to ease in and out of. Only after I remembered that “Goong” is an honorific for an older male relative did I do the equivalent of a literary facepalm and stop searching under that name; his last name must have been Chin, and his given names, when I found his obituary, were Chung Wah. Which would account for why he was able to pick someone from the Chin village of Guan On to marry his adopted son. That’s how the woman who is to become my grandmother comes into the story.

I imagine my grandmother in Guan On village near Canton, China, circa 1925, as a twenty-two-year-old newlywed sitting on her bed, her silk cheong sam snug on her hips. Two empty steamer trunks lie open in front of her. She is crying. Raised in relative luxury—an only child—she’s well educated, rare for a Chinese girl her age. Math is her favorite subject. She wants to be a teacher like the man she loves but now must leave. Why did her mother punish her by forcing her to marry another? She lifts a twisted handkerchief to her face. For the briefest moment, the familiar scent of freshly ironed cotton comforts her.

She hears her mother’s halting shuffle, covers her ears as the four-inch lotus feet pause outside her bedroom door. She only now feels the weight, the true calculus of her family’s decisions: her father’s decades-long absence is the price for her sumptuous life. Her Toishan County family home, a spacious two-story with a cistern-fed freshwater delivery system and indoor plumbing, is one of the grandest in the village. Money sent from America, from her enterprising father’s industrial laundry business in Chicago, paid for this house, for her education, for the maids with unbound feet who run the household while her mother sits hobbled by the old Chinese standard of beauty. Small feet, so beautiful, they say. She glances down at her own monstrous silk slippers. Having wealth, but not riches, has saved her from the torturous ritual of foot-binding. Yet this freedom has trapped her into this journey.

In an era when each village has one surname, when Leongs marry Lees and Chus marry Chins, wives move to their husbands’ villages. Here, too, she is an exception. She is moving to America.

But she’s not moving to America at her father’s request. No. Her new husband, entangled by blood bonds and payback, has been given an offer he cannot refuse—his passage to America will be repaid many times over by his faithfulness to his benefactor, Chung Wah Goong, a man he now calls “father.” In a trade of flesh and fortune between two villages, she is a corollary prize: she will legitimize his new name. She and her husband will land in a Chinatown in California, far—she has no idea how far—from her father in Illinois. Both cities trip on her tongue. Oak-ee-lan. Shee-ca-go. They might as well be another world away.

She straightens up and brusquely wipes away the last of her tears, recoils as her new gold coin bracelet—part of a traditional wedding dowry—bites into her cheek. With a yelp she rips open the clasp and throws the bracelet into the trunk, its rich gold hue seemingly mocking her. Wealth was supposed to buy freedom, not enslave her.

Moments later she reaches into the trunk, slowly refastens the bracelet. Crying’s of no use; it is done. Now she must decide what to take to Gum Shan, Gold Mountain, a place she’s only heard of and already resents. What would remind her of home? This silk embroidered bedspread, that sandalwood fan? As she packs for her voyage, she cannot know that she will never see her mother, or the man she loves, ever again. Nor does she realize that her formal education—an elite vanity she does not share with her new husband—has instilled a lifelong thirst for learning, an intellectual vitality that grounds her, prepares her for the risks she will take. She cannot know that one of her proudest moments will come fifty years hence, when, after years of study, she passes her citizenship exam and pledges allegiance to America.

When she arrives in America, her purse on her arm, she stands with her new husband in front of the immigration official. She presses her hair into place. Her gold tooth glints in the harsh light.

When the front door opened on Myrtle Street and my grandfather Goong-Goong and grandmother Por-Por stood together—a slender man in a gray wool cardigan, his black hair thinning; a short plump woman in a full-length apron, her gold coin bracelet snug on her wrist—I couldn’t place them as either the tyrants or the poor folk that Mom had made them out to be. As they led us into the high-ceilinged foyer, I was awed at the burnished wood banister of the staircase leading to the second floor. This house appeared fully American.

Yet there’s a scent I forever associate with first-generation Chinese: the rich musk of sandalwood with the noxious stench of mothballs. In the dim drabness of my grandparents’ Oakland California living room, that queasy mix—at once welcoming and repulsive—almost gagged me. In retrospect, that clash of opposites epitomized their immigrant plight, their overeager attempts to put their best faces forward only to be thwarted by their own best intentions. But to be fair, how was a twenty-two-year-old newlywed in China to know that by carefully packing her steamer trunks with wedding gifts, tucking fragrant sandalwood fans around embroidered silk bedspreads, adding mothballs to protect her precious cargo en route to her new home in America, she’d unwittingly set the new standard for Chinese-American home décor?

During the two summer weeks we lived on Myrtle Street while my parents searched for a house, I was warned to stay out of the back part of the basement, so of course I sneaked in. Behind the clutter of old suitcases and books lay a small windowless sleeping room. In the corner just beyond the washing machine was an unfamiliar metal press bolted to a table. I didn’t recognize it then, but now I know it was a machinist’s tool, the punch, the telltale workhorse of the illegal Chinatown lottery business. My grandfather’s younger brother had lived down here, close to the machine that could have landed Mom’s entire family in jail.

I try to imagine my paternal grandmother as a young girl, but I can’t. I see her as I knew her, a sad old woman so heavy that she rocked side-to-side as she walked.

Rumor was that Ma-Ma grew up unlucky. Born in San Francisco to a US-born mother and a China-born father, rumor was that her family splintered early, her parents too poor to care for their children. Rumor was that she served a white family as their live-in maid, dusting their fine china and polishing their sterling silver. She quit school after fifth grade. There were whispers of abuse.

She grew into a beautiful young woman and caught a lucky break. She married well. She had sons. But one day she came home early and caught her husband with their maid. Her luck vanished. On the morning of her husband’s funeral, she yanked off her diamond eternity band and banished it to her jewelry box. She sat down at her dressing table with her sewing scissors and cut every picture of him into shreds.

I met Ma-Ma in Boston when I was almost five.

“Ma-Ma’s coming to visit for the summer,” Mom said. “You probably don’t remember meeting her when we went to California a couple of years ago for Yeh-Yeh’s funeral.” After a pause, Mom added, “She doesn’t like children.”

I froze in alarm. I’d assumed—erroneously, it turned out—we could have the warm grandma conversations I’d imagined from picture books. Weren’t grandmas those gray-haired, bun-sporting, pleasingly plump ladies who clapped their hands in delight when their grandchildren came to visit? Weren’t they the apron-clad keepers of “Grandma’s secret recipes” who beamed as they pulled cinnamon-flecked apple pies out of ovens? Weren’t homemade cookies always stashed in cookie jars within easy reach? Turns out those are uniquely American tropes.

“You’ll need to be quiet while she’s here. When she arrives, don’t look eager, don’t be greedy! You’ll look like you’re expecting presents. And don’t talk to her unless she talks first.”

As a child I didn’t know the stakes, but our family’s near-poverty was all Ma-Ma’s design. Ma-Ma disapproved of Mom. Everyone in the family knew. Not only was there deep-rooted animus between the families, Ma-Ma’s derision dipped down to the personal level. Even though Mom had a bachelor’s degree in business, Ma-Ma saw her as a gold-digger, a poor girl from Oakland Chinatown with no money, no class, and worst of all, a schemer who’d snared her youngest son by getting pregnant. So, in return for medical school tuition and a basic living allowance for her son and his family, Ma-Ma laid down her conditions. No TV. No extras. She would visit every summer to check on her investment.

As Mom shoved our black-and-white TV deep into her bedroom closet and I scrubbed the bathroom tile grout with a toothbrush, I understood my responsibility to make the visit perfect in every way. Be quiet. Be solicitous. “Ma-Ma, do you want tea? Ma-Ma, do you want this chair?” My “thank-yous” came ready and often.

For the next three summers we lived in Boston, Ma-Ma treated us to a taste of her lifestyle. While the rest of the year we ate pork bones and rice, in summer we ate New York cut steaks. She brought delectable treats: foot-square tins of Peak Frean biscuits, layers of savory cookies that lasted all summer; a shallow tin of “egg roll” cookies with delicate flakes that collapsed in your mouth; sealed packages of Chinese dried beef, sliced thin with a glaze of soy and honey. Mom showed us how to carefully strip the beef into slivers, whispering, “Eat slowly! It’s twenty dollars a pound!” When I refused a portion—Do I deserve such delicacies?—Mom, with a sideways glance at Ma-Ma, insisted I eat it. Another hiss: “Eat, or Ma-Ma will think we’re not grateful!”

On those visits, Mom and I would indulge Ma-Ma in her favorite pastime: shopping. On road trips to Toronto we’d shop for bone china cups, and Ma-Ma taught me to find the best. Lifting a pastel cup to the light, she pointed her elegant finger at the curve of the cup. “See how clear and even, you can see through it!” Flipping the cup over, she showed me the mark on the bottom. Aynsley. On another aisle she reached for another cup, pointed at the intricately painted pattern inside, then turned the cup sideways so I could see the contrast with the outside—a simple ivory white with a gold stripe around the belly. She scolded, “Don’t buy cups with patterns on the outside, you waste it! You want an inside pattern so you can enjoy it while you drink tea.” Her tone softened as she handed it to me. “Feel how light! This is the best, we’ll buy this one.” I carried her lessons in my heart. Paragon, Aynsley, Wedgewood—these are the best brands. Gold flake and deep royal blue—these are the best colors. Look for the fine detail in flower patterns inside the cups—they are all hand-painted, made in England. English bone china is the best. Don’t buy anything made in Japan.

On sweltering summer evenings, Ma-Ma taught me to crochet like her—smooth metal hook in my right hand, yarn looped over my left index finger to keep the tension perfect. Even though I’m left-handed, I learned by copying her movements. For hours we’d sit silently, hooks moving in and out. She’d glance over occasionally to make sure my double-crochet stitch was even.

Once, only once, I asked her about her childhood. Sitting on the floor at her feet, I looked up from my crocheting and asked, “So Ma-Ma, what was it like when you were little?”

Ma-Ma’s pencil-thin eyebrows notched into a deep V as she looked up from the afghan square she was working on. Only her two-hundred-pound girth saved me. If she’d been a spry sixty-two-year-old, she would have sprung from her chair and swatted my insolent seven-year-old face—her hands were that quick—a lesson I’d learned two summers prior when I’d accidentally crossed my chopsticks at the dinner table, a taboo that could bring bad luck. I’d heard a thwap, felt a sharp sting when in one fluid motion she went from eating a morsel of salt pork to smacking my hand with the back of her chopsticks.

This time I saw Ma-Ma lean forward in her chair and draw her hand back; reflexively, I shrank away. “Mo, mo, no use talking about that!” she hissed, pushing back on my childhood innocence as if warding off an evil spirit. “Bad luck, bad luck!”

She took her secrets, heaped on silent sorrows, to the grave.

In a Toishan village in 1914, a young mother silently weeps as she packs a trunk for her eleven-year-old son. Her first two sons have already been summoned to America by their headstrong father, a Chinese man who was born in America and has made his home there. This son is the last. American law won’t let her immigrate. Will she ever see her sons again?

The boy who will become my paternal grandfather, Yeh-Yeh, steps onto the steamship alone. His is the first name on the Chinese passenger list of the boat that docks in San Francisco on February 2, 1914. After disembarking with his few possessions, his first task is to satisfy the immigration officials that he is who he claims—the son of an American-born father. Although he’s carefully committed facts to memory, he must be nervous; he speaks only Chinese. He’s awash in relief when, after two-and-a-half weeks in custody, he is admitted as “the son of a native.”

He stands with his twenty-year-old brother at the threshold of a well-kept house in Oakland Chinatown. He checks the address: 135 Eighth Street. He doesn’t know it yet, but this will be his home for ten years: from high school, to marriage, to the birth of his first son.

Before knocking, he feels his brother squeeze his shoulder. Hard. In his ear, a warning: “Be polite! Great-Auntie is doing our family a big favor!”

The door swings open. The homey aroma of Cantonese comfort food—black bean spareribs, bitter melon, and salt fish—fills the air. His stomach groans—how he missed these familiar flavors on his journey! From somewhere deep in the house come the shouts of children playing. A young maid leads them into the living room where a thirty-year-old woman sits in a fine silk dress, a traditional cheong sam. He gasps at her beauty. She’s the young American-born widow of the renowned San Francisco gambling don, the King of the Chinese Gamblers.

She waves them in. Such a resemblance to her own sons! She addresses the elder brother. “Come in! Good to see you. So, you’re bringing us your little brother?”

“Yes, Auntie. Father’s still in Fresno taking care of business—your business,” he says with a slight bow, “but he wants to thank you for taking care of him. I need to get back there tonight.” He watches for his great-aunt’s reaction, feels grateful for her approving smile. With few words, the young boy’s life in the United States begins.

Bitter and sweet meet him in America. His great-uncle’s death has brought him here, but family connections catapult him past the toil of restaurant or laundry work, the original mainstays of the Chinese immigrant community. He’s one of many relatives who have converged to help the young widow manage her multimillion-dollar business empire. He counts himself lucky.

She sizes him up. Her new charge is three years older than her eldest son and will soon be useful as a numbers runner. In time she will prove her own mettle. She will revel in the notoriety of being “The Lottery Queen of San Francisco,” a title she will retain well into the 1930s.

The young boy grows up under the tutelage of a lottery expert. He’s smart, a good student. His English is perfect. He studies math at Oakland Technical High School. He wants to go to college but is not allowed to, one of his biggest regrets. At twenty he marries an American-born woman of Chinese descent and, true to tradition, takes his bride to China to meet his mother. On their journey home to America, his bride is pregnant. They have more sons. Their sons are instructed to speak English at home because he wants them to sound American.

When he’s twenty-seven, he starts his own small business. By forty-seven, he owns a building at Eighth and Webster in Oakland Chinatown. This is the headquarters of Mun Jung, his gambling club, and the Cathay Social and Educational Society, his entertainment club. Some claim there’s no difference between the two. He’s made his fortune in Gold Mountain, just as he dreamed on that ocean voyage thirty-four years ago.

Deep in the interior of the building, away from prying eyes, are the cages for the lottery drawings. Twice a day, a group of regulars gather to watch. Their job is to scour the neighborhoods for bets, carefully record each entry, and distribute the results and winnings. They’re the workhorses of the lottery industry. The bagmen. Among them stands a slim balding man smoking a Pall Mall. That’s Goong-Goong, my other grandfather. Turns out that both grandfathers made a living in Oakland’s high-stakes lottery business.

Why gamble on a career in illegal gambling? Today I know that’s the wrong question. Back then, it was a logical answer to the question, Who would hire a Chinaman?

I never met my grandfather Yeh-Yeh. My family was living on the other side of the country, and the birth of his ninth grandchild, his sixth granddaughter, warranted little attention. Two years later he was dead.

Recently, in narratives littered with awkward pauses, my eighty- and ninety-year-old relatives carefully curated their memories for me. They described Yeh-Yeh as generous and gregarious, well-liked in the community. He sang Chinese opera, hunted pheasants and deer, drove Cadillacs, and wore an Omega watch with his monogrammed cuff links.

What were they hiding?  On a hunch, I combed the newspaper archives from the 1940s. I hit gold. Here’s the damning Oakland Tribune front-page lede: “The keystone of a $3,000,000 Chinese lottery ring was cracked today after a raid by Oakland’s new vice squad on the central drawing and accounting offices at Eighth and Webster Streets.” Newspaper photos of the crime scene obliterate any claims of plausible deniability. Behind the stacks of lottery tickets, I can see the ornate inlaid mother-of-pearl chairs that now grace my living room.

Was he arrested? Yes. Was he convicted? No. Turns out, the prosecution couldn’t prove that the truckloads of papers confiscated during the raid were, in fact, lottery tickets. Printed on each paper were the first eighty characters of the Thousand Character Classic, a famous Chinese poem that Chinese kids of that era sang in Chinese school, much like American kids sing the ABCs. The sky was black and the earth yellow, heavens are vast and limitless…. So much gibberish to the white court.

Yet every Chinese gambler saw it for what it was: a lottery ticket.

I’m from a storied line of gamblers. And I’m proud of the company I keep.


AMBER WONG is an environmental engineer and writer from Seattle who writes about culture, identity, and her intimate knowledge of wastewater treatment, although usually not all in the same essay. She received her MFA in creative writing from Lesley University. Recent essays have been published in Fourteen Hills, Under the Gum Tree, CRAFT, Pangyrus, Creative Nonfiction, and other literary journals and anthologies, and short-form works have appeared in The Sun (“Readers Write”) and River Teeth (“Beautiful Things”). Some of these essays have been adapted for use in her memoir, for which she is currently seeking representation.


Featured image by Christina Boemio, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

I hate foo gwa, bitter melon. I know that’s heresy because my sly uncle once said, as he grinned and spooned a heaping helping into my rice bowl, “To be a real Chinese, you have to like foo gwa!” I hid my dismay with a smile, a few big scoops of rice, and a gulp of scalding tea to wash out the aftertaste. Such was my life. I had to prove myself to my own family. For a child growing up in the 1960s white San Francisco Bay Area suburbs, legitimacy was a constant internal struggle. Am I Chinese enough? American enough? Do people see me as Chinese or American? Today, memories like this drive me to write, to finally establish my authenticity on my own terms.

“Where Am I From?” upends a tiresome alienating question with a loud clap back: I belong here. My roots in America extend back to the 1870s. My ancestors endured America’s hatred since 1882, when the Chinese Exclusion Act disrupted their lives and forced them into secrecy. But in trying to research my great-grandparents’ and grandparents’ stories, I was almost stymied before I began. What were their names? They had Chinese names that I could never decipher because I don’t speak or read Chinese, and Cantonese “spelling” was never standardized. How could I unlock their secrets? Openly interviewing my surviving aunts and uncles would never work, and nosing around and asking questions wouldn’t be tolerated. I suspected the worst. Were we evil? So from scattered scraps of conversation—with me hastily retreating to the bathroom to jot down notes, and later trying to confirm facts through books and newspaper archives—I pieced together my version of the truth. Once the puzzle was complete, I was shocked. Were all families like this?

One craft challenge was how to blend my childhood impressions of my grandparents with the real history of their lives. I had to imagine scenes, try to inhabit their personas. For these imagined scenes, I took what I was told as fact: my great-grandfather’s death in the South China Sea, the practical yet heartbreaking choices my great-grandmothers had to make. From this, I surmised motivation. The Chinese ethos of obeying one’s elders may have brought them here, and the Western ethos of freedom enticed them to stay. But could I reconcile the hustle and deceit of my grandparents’ young lives with the staid, benign image they presented to me? This disconnect, I realized later, was purposeful. They didn’t want us to know the truth. They silently faced America’s bitterness so my generation, and generations to come, would have nothing to fear.

Breaking the silence means telling secrets, and like most memoirists, I struggled with betrayal. The unvarnished truth finally won out. I may be rationalizing—my mother was a master at it—but by uncovering history in lives that would otherwise be lost to silence, I hope they’d be proud, as I am, to celebrate our family in all its devious glory.


AMBER WONG is an environmental engineer and writer from Seattle who writes about culture, identity, and her intimate knowledge of wastewater treatment, although usually not all in the same essay. She received her MFA in creative writing from Lesley University. Recent essays have been published in Fourteen Hills, Under the Gum Tree, CRAFT, Pangyrus, Creative Nonfiction, and other literary journals and anthologies, and short-form works have appeared in The Sun (“Readers Write”) and River Teeth (“Beautiful Things”). Some of these essays have been adapted for use in her memoir, for which she is currently seeking representation.