Tuckman and Lily Ng

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stan Ng recalls that in his 1960s and 70s Los Angeles childhood, one of the main activities his family enjoyed was to simply get out on the open road and drive. His dad would go up and down the 101, or make his way towards Santa Monica and drive past the Hollywood landmarks they all knew from the shows and movies that they would watch. One particular destination they used to visit strikes Stan as he looks back on his childhood. They would “drive to the wealthier neighborhoods of L.A. and just look at the houses.” Stan’s parents both came to the United States from China’s Guangdong Province in the late 1940s, and reflecting on these outings, he recognizes why these houses were central to their own stories as immigrants to the United States in the postwar era. The allure of Hollywood glitz and glamour and the old Cantonese myth of the United States as Gam Saan, or “Gold Mountain” came together in these drives and tied them to their own stories of becoming Americans. “They really were Americans in the truest sense of the words,” says Stan. “They bought into the American Dream. Implicit in those visits was that ‘someday that could be us, or it could be you in these houses!’ It was almost like they were house shopping for their kids.”

Officially, neither of Stan’s parents were immigrants. Born in the late 1920s in Hawaii, Lily Bow Quon Yee and Tuckman Ng were both second generation immigrants, set to bridge the divide between the two worlds of China and America. They were already part of large family networks of Cantonese immigrants gone abroad for economic opportunities. Lily had established family in Hawaii and California while Tuckman’s family had spread as far as Australia and British Columbia. In Hawaii their families were well settled within Oahu’s north shore community of Kaneohe. Nevertheless, as children, they were sent back to their ancestral homeland of Zhong Shan to be raised a while by their extended families and to become acquainted with their ways and culture.

This period of acculturation and upbringing soon was derailed by the events of the following two decades. In the 1930s and 1940s China underwent dramatic periods of violence, warfare and upheaval, and these children sent to China had to remain there until 1948. At this point they were already adults, and their return to their native land turned out to be more like the journey their own family had made decades before. They had to adjust to an entirely different lifestyle in Hawaii, they had to learn English, they had to connect to families that they had never met, or at least barely remembered. Lily’s father died of polio before she could return to the US and she always regretted not having had the chance to know him better.

Back in Oahu, Tuckman found work at the United Chinese News, a left leaning Chinese language newspaper. He ran the printing press, Lily pulled the type. Soon enough the paper folded (stiffing Tuckman of two weeks of wages that he would still complain about decades later, Stan adds with a laugh). However, this would serve as the beginning of a new life, and a newly American life that would travel around the world and settle back down in the Southern California that Stan grew up in. A few years later, during the conflict in Korea, Tuckman would be drafted into the U.S. Army. As Stan wrote in a tribute to his father after he passed away last year, his father had “gone from living in rural China to being a US Serviceman in Germany in only a few years. He barely spoke English, much less German.”

“From Schofield Barracks in Oahu, he was sent to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, and then to the 2nd Evacuation Hospital in Bad Kreuznach, near Frankfurt. He was a medic. He was uncertain, in North Carolina, whether to use the White or Colored restroom. But he befriended a fellow private who was kind enough to guide him throughout his time in the Army.” The Army clearly had a major impression on him, and he loved to talk about it. “He always got a laugh out of watching Stripes and No Time for Sergeants,” Stan recalls. Importantly, his time in the Army introduced him to the experience of feeling like he could be part of America.” He used to talk about how people in New York (he stopped in New York) would offer free meals to servicemen. So, he was really into America as a concept. “He got into baseball! You know, he was a regular GI Joe,” says Stan. In fact, Stan was named after baseball great Stan Musial.

Upon leaving the Army as a corporal, Tuckman returned to Hawaii and then, in 1952, bounced over to California. There he re-met Lily, who had recently moved to San Francisco, rooming with her brother and sister. In California, Tuckman kept himself busy preparing for his civilian American future. He went to night school on the GI Bill, learning automobile and aircraft mechanics and soon enough got a job as a mechanic and sheet metal bender at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, California. After being laid off in one of the aerospace industry’s infamous downturns, he was quick to pivot to work as a cook in prominent Chinese restaurants in the Bay Area and Los Angeles. “It’s kind of amazing to talk with him,” remembers Stan, “because he names restaurants that he worked at—names that are familiar to me as a resident of both the Bay Area and Los Angeles, I would have to ask him, ‘wait, you helped found Ming’s restaurant in Palo Alto and Kan’s in San Francisco, and Madame Wu’s in Santa Monica? Those are some really ritzy places. And he just didn’t seem to realize these are some really big-name restaurants.’”

Tuckman’s cooking skills, enjoyed by Hollywood celebrities and Stan alike, stayed important to him for the remainder of his life. He remained a chef until he retired, when he would still make daily trips to the Chinese grocery store in order to ensure that he always had fresh ingredients. Lily worked throughout her life as a seamstress and while Tuckman spent many years enjoying retirement, Lily returned to work after retirement, enjoying the company and familiar gossip of her coworkers.

Growing up in Culver City and Monterey Park, Stan remembers feeling like a regular all-American kid. As a family, they would visit all the usual LA amusement parks, including ones that no longer exist: Pacific Ocean Park, Marineland, the old Santa Monica pier. A favorite spot was Exposition Park, in central Los Angeles, near home. His father liked to take photographs of the family at these places, especially in the middle of the rose gardens. His parents rarely spoke to him about China, and while his mother argued with his father about teaching the kids Cantonese, the father won out. “You’re an American now, you speak English,” was his dad’s policy. In the end, Stan was only ever able to understand pieces of his parents’ tongues. “I have regrets about that,” says Stan, “I wish I was bilingual. But when you’re a kid you really just want to fit in.” Throughout his life there remained a language barrier with his parents and his version of returning to his parents’ homeland was when his mother would take him to Hawaii for a handful of weeks every few summers.

Stan recalls that his family would often meet with local extended family in the Los Angeles area but the kids could only speak in English while the older folks spoke in Cantonese among themselves. There was one other language barrier within the family. Stan’s parents came from villages forty or so miles apart and in Guangdong at that time, that was enough for them to have drastically different dialects. While Lily learned Tuckman’s dialect, Tuckman never learned that of Lily’s, and at Lily’s relatives he would have to stay quiet in the corner as everyone conversed.

When Stan was nineteen years old, his mother asked him if he ever wondered why his dad’s relatives all had different last names than he did. Stan had to admit, to his mother’s surprise, that he had not. He had never worked hard on trying to decipher the great tangle of family relatives to which he was constantly introduced. He called everyone introduced to him by his parents, ‘auntie’ and ‘uncle,’ whether or not they were related. ‘Your father,’ Lily told him, ‘was not born Ng Tuck-Man but rather Lau Gwan-Coeng.’ Tuckman Ng was his cousin, born in Hawaii in 1928. His father was actually born near Zhongshan, China three years earlier.

The original Tuckman had been sent back to China as a child and had died amid the upheavals of the era. Tuckman’s family gave Stan’s father his passport and when he left for the United States in 1948 with a new identity and three years younger. Although he was not American by birth, he would be American by the strength of his will. He was detained upon his ‘return’ to Hawaii, but with the personal and legal support of his family in the U.S., he made it through the legal proceedings and was granted entry into the country. “When he gained entry,” wrote Stan, “he could no longer be known as Gwan-Coeng. He would live to the end of his days as Ng Tuck-Man.” Men like him were known as ‘paper sons,’ generations of Chinese men who shed their pasts, often permanently and completely, in pursuit of an American future.

In a moving tribute to his father, Stan noted how, although his father preserved his American identity even in the intimacy of his own family, he still managed to keep a hidden piece of his old life alive in his son.

“Lau Gwan-Coeng, in Chinese, is 劉均暢. If you split the last character (Coeng) in two, you get two legitimate characters in their own right: (son) and (yick).

My Chinese name is Ng Yick-Son: 吴易申

My name is derived from one character of my father’s birth name (). Dad lived his life as Ng Tuck-Man. But he slyly passed his birth name to me. You wouldn’t know this unless you knew he was a paper son.”

 

Stan’s father’s hidden respect for his past could also be found in his father’s persistent work ethic. While Stan doesn’t believe that his father kept very close contact with his original family back home, he knows that his sense of duty to them led him to continue to send back remittances through his life.

Stan knows that his mother Lily was quite close with her relatives back in Zhongshan. They had raised her from the age of three to adulthood, but she had to keep up ties through letters and audio tapes. Throughout her life and into Stan’s youth, her relatives would send her reel-to-reel audio tapes and she would record over them and send them back like a long distance, always delayed, never concluded telephone call. Not all were taped over, of course. She would store her favorites on a back shelf. She would also send and receive care packages. Stan remembers receiving boxes with biscuits and wafers sent all the way from China. He was confused back then.  He could get all those in California! On top of that, some were perishable items and they would arrive mealy and ruined. “But it was just the thought that these items were picked directly and sent by relatives that mattered,” Stan admits.

In the 1980s China opened up to visitors from the United States. Neither of his parents had been back to China since they moved to the United States. Stan had never been, with only secondhand memories of his parents’ China to loom large in his imagination. “As a kid, I would hear my mom and dad talk about the old country and it was almost a mystical place because I ‘knew’ that I could never see it, I could never visit it, so I looked at it like a land beyond. It was kind of like Oz.” By his early twenties Stan had been putting efforts into connecting to his roots. He had even taken a few language classes at the local junior college. So, in 1982, when his parents planned their first return in almost forty years, Stan, then twenty-two years old, jumped at the chance to finally see China with his own eyes.

Seeing his mother’s hometown, Stan was struck by both how different it was than any place that he had known, as well as shocked by how real the mystical land actually was. “When we went there it was very rural,” Stan says. “They were still getting water out of wells. They had just been electrified like six months before then. And when we were there, people were huddled around TVs, watching Hong Kong TV shows over the airwaves. It was a real novelty at the time.” What Stan remembers most, however, was how excited the people of the town were to welcome back Chinese from abroad. The hotel that his family stayed in was in Stan’s words, “quite rural,” but also “as grand of style as they had,” as the town came together to pull out all the stops for family members who hadn’t been seen in decades. In this hotel made for Chinese emigrants “we were welcomed with open arms, they cooked up a feast for us, and you know, they rolled out the red carpet.” His mother reunited with her family, crying tears of joy, and Stan saw the pain of years of separation, an ocean apart, wash away.

Stan returned to China with his parents in 1992 and 1999. His parents, who lived in their ancestral hometowns with little means during periods of wartime never had the chance to truly see their countries. It was on these trips that they were able to take in their sightseeing tours, hitting major tourist centers like Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’an. At this point everything was changing. “There was probably not much changed from the time that they left to their first return in 1984,” Stan says, “but even in 1992, the old village was completely obliterated. You couldn’t even recognize a place anymore. There were high rises, there was no village. There was no city wall, no water wells.”

In 1997, when Stan’s brother finally came along, with the remnants of his parents’ China gone and the modern comforts he was used to widely accessible, he found himself not nearly as affected. As China modernized, it was no longer a frozen memory to access while his American family progressed through their own American life. Stan recounted a story from his trip to Beijing with his parents, where his father, after exhausting the other possibilities resorted to what he had learned in his American life. They had stopped at a tourist center on the roadside where his dad was trying to haggle over the price of some calligraphy. “My dad was really into good calligraphy, as a good Chinese person always is,” he remembers. “He was doing his darndest to speak Mandarin but he wasn’t making himself understood and the shopkeeper was struggling to make himself understood. Eventually they both gave up and began speaking English.”

Today Stan lives in the Bay Area. After graduating from Harvey Mudd College in eastern Los Angeles County, Stan, a self-described “electronics geek” was eventually drawn to Silicon Valley where he worked as an electronics engineer until his retirement. Now, he is active in an old hobby of his, sound engineering for short films. Reflecting on his own life journey, Stan sees echoes from his father’s life in that of his own. “My dad, I think to a fault relied on himself. He had relatives but he had to forge his own way. I think I’ve grown up with that same streak. So I think that’s why I’ve been able to make my own way in the world.” Both of his parents struggled to make their way in a new land and it that ethic of perseverance that has carried Stan to where he is today. “There was that author who wrote Confessions of a Tiger Mom,” he says, referencing Amy Chua, “who says, ‘you know what I see when I hear somebody speaking with an accent? I see courage.’ And that is their story.”

The story of Tuckman and Lily Ng was written by Miguel Wise, of Ventura, California after his interview of Stan Ng. Miguel volunteers for the Made Into America initiative.

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