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A Life Imagined Half A World Away Is Now A Reality
>From the San Francisco Examiner January 02, 2000
A Life Imagined Half A World Away Is Now A Reality
by Julian Guthrie
Tom Lai Woon, who will turn 100 on February 4, says she is proof that
it's never too late to realize a dream. Her decades-old desire was to
leave China, join her children in America and become an American
citizen. In San Francisco for 13 years, she became a U.S. citizen at age
"I'm very very happy to be an American," she said, flashing a vigorous
thumbs up and speaking through a Cantonese translator at the On Lok
senior center on Bush Street, where she lives.
"If I didn't live in the United States, I think I would have died a long
time ago," she said. "I worked like a cow in China. How can you live
long working like a cow?"
Using a walker, she moved slowly from the cafeteria to her room, which
she shares with another woman. She never stopped smiling and nodding,
happy to have visitors. Before anyone noticed, she managed to push her
walker and drag a heavy wood chair into the room. She has a reputation
at the center for being head-strong.
"I always exercise," she said. "I never ate much meat, only vegetables
and fruit. I never smoked and I only have water. Nothing else. My mother
lived long, until she was 80. But I never thought I would get this old.
I'm almost 100."
Along with her two sisters and one brother, Tom began working as a hired
laborer on a farm as a young child. At age 18, her parents married her
to a 33-year-old Canadian she had never met.
After marrying, her husband returned to Canada. She stayed in China and
gave birth to the first of their three children. Years later, he moved
to China and opened a hardware store. Tom continued working in the
fields until she was in her late sixties.
"My life is good. Very good. I eat and don't want for anything," she
said, looking around the room, with its white vinyl floor and pale-pink
walls. "All of my family is near. I'm not sure why I live so long, but
Her son, Yu Kwok Tung, married an American and was the first to
emigrate, arriving in San Francisco in 1966. Yu described his mother as
"articulate, optimistic, very frugal and hard working."
A railroad driver in China, Yu worked as a janitor here and is now
"Years ago, mother wanted to go back to China and see her hometown,"
said Yu, who is 71. "I'm not sure she wants to do that now. She feels
she's maybe in not good enough health. And she's happier. She has
everything she wants here. She's living her dream."
Back when I was a freshmen in H.S. back in 1984, I wrote a report on the
first wave of Chinese immigration to the U.S. of how they endured "ku"
(surviving off the bitterness the land). The old research books that
I've poured through always indicated that this first wave of Chinese
immigrants were "Cantonese" coming from the districts around Taishan in
the mid-1800's. It mentioned the cause of the exodus was a result of
civil war and famine. In the back of my mind, I was always on the look
out for information about this civil war because these text books always
refered them as the "Tong Wars" without indicating who were to parties &
what were the issues. Ever since my invitation to this forum, I was able
to piece to gether some history about why my foreparents left TaiShan &
KaiPing literally transplanting their entire villages here in America.
Now I realized that the Punti-Hakka War was the "Tong Wars" and that it
wasn't between Cantonese vs Hakka but SiYiRen & ZhongShanRen vs Hakka,
nonetheless were all "Tongs" (TangRen). But the mystery didn't stop
The research books still said that the "Tong Wars" were subsequently
transplanted to America. But what baffled me most of all was the fact
that since all the major Chinese establishments in North America (San
Francisco, Sacramento-San Jaquin Valley, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago,
Vancouver, & Toronto) spoke TaiShanHua as the dominant language before
1965, then who were the "Tong Wars" between? It couldn't have been with
the Cantonese who intermarried with SiYiRen due to our slim numbers as a
result of the Chinese Exclusion Act. And since TaiShan was the site of a
major war, it would be highly logical that Hakkas who were escaping
famine would just as likely end up in America just as well to work the
railroads as our foreparents did in Canada and Peru.
So putting the history together, Hong Kong became the SiYiRen's port of
departure to the Americas which explains why Hong Kong at the turn of
the century was 25% SiYiRen. Macao was a slave trading port and perhaps
the Hakkas sold themselves into coolie labor in what was formerly
Spanish & Portugese colonies in the New World which explains why Hakka
is dominant in the island nations especially in the Carribian & Indian
Ocean. But that still haven't solved the mystery of the "Tong Wars" in
So off to a tangent to when I used to work for an Opthalmologist, he
insisted he was a TaiShanRen even though he counted like a ZhongShanRen
which is similar to Hakka though no patient who was a native Taishan
speaker could understand him & ZhongShanHua itself wasn't as common then
as it is today here in S.F. I've concluded that he probably was speaking
Hakka whose foreparents were displaced from TaiShan. And so, I believe
that if the Hakkas did arrive in North America in large numbers (as some
contributors on the Forum had claimed) at the same time as SiYiRen did
and resuming the "Tong Wars" here, then could they have assimilated into
the local SiYi culture since the "Tong Wars" eventually ended. I don't
think so because so often I can hear creolized Taishan-Cantonese but not
creolized Hakka-TaiShanHua and once in a Blue Moon I've heard creolized
Hakka-Cantonese. So where did the Hakka in the US go? Or did they rename
themselves as TaiShanRen since TaiShan was the major site of the
Punti-Hakka Civil War which had displaced them just as much as the Punti
SiYiRen? Something of a greater threat must have revealed its ugly head
which caused a Hakka diaspora within the US.
My guess is that if Hakka had a strength hold in America in order to
resume the "Tong Wars" in the US then it had to have been in Billings,
Montana (I believe Hakka & the SiYi subgroups of EnPing (YangPing?M?) &
SunWui (XinHui?M?) co-existed there because those two SiYi languages
never seamed to have gained linguistical influence in the dominant
Toisan-Hoiping (TaiShan-Kaiping) communities. Not much is known about
the community from Billings, Montana Chinatown but it had to be strong &
large enough of a community to pose an economic threat to the
neighboring white settlers who eventually burned this Chinatown into
ashes. As a result, I believe the Chinese of Billings eventually
scattered throughout the Mississippi River System. I always wondered why
the Chinese in the Mid-West never unified into a community or regrouped
in Chicago. Something had to have been different about them. Now I
believe its because they are from the decimated Chinatown of Billings,
Montana. They've probably learned that it was dangerous forming a
community thus causing their descendants to be the most assimilated
mono-lingual group of Chinese in America.
And since the Hakkas seem to be the dominant Chinese in the Latin
Colonies of the Carribean, it would be most logical that they were the
core Chinese group in Louisianna working the plantation during this
period like they were in Hawaii. Little is know about this group of
Chinese in Louisiana. The Chinese in Louisana (just like the Chinese
plantation workers in Hawaii) eventually intermarried with the Blacks
and Native American losing all ties to China. (That's probably my guess
to why Cantonese can still be heard in Honolulu Chinatown whereas all
other Chinese groups lost their Chinese languages because of
intermarring with the locals.) My assumption is that the Chines in
Louisiana had to be Hakka and not SiYiRen or Cantonese because the
SiYiRen & Cantonese who had wives in China always had a tradition of
bringing their children and wives into the US through legal or illegal
channels ie. the purchasing of "Paper Names" via snake heads. That
explains why our communites linking San Francisco with Vancouver with
Chicago with Toronto with New York was so tightly knit and why
TaiShanHua prevailed uncreolized up until 1960's in North America.