The Chinese Family History Group has encountered some remarkable people while researching our family histories. We share some of their experiences to encourage you to keep exploring your family's story and journey from China. We are also sharing stories from our writing workshop, along with the prompt used to inspire the writing process.

Members Writing Family Stories

October 22, 2023

Prompt: Write about the person that raised you. Write about the things he/she did that annoyed you or things that you are grateful for. Write about the things you realized as an adult but didn’t understand as a child.

Growing Up With Paupau

By Vicky Lowe

Hall Shee was born on March 18, 1896 to Hall Jew Yuey and Jung Shee of Jung Kai Village, Guangdong, China. The family had three sons, and she was the only daughter. She was married to Wong Lin Dong on March 2, 1919 and lived with his family in Yuen Fung village. The following year, she gave birth to my mother, Wan Ah Dai. A year later, she strapped my one-year-old mother onto her back and boarded the S.S. Nile in Hong Kong bound for America. She arrived in San Francisco on the 21st day of February, 1921.

According to the inspectors at Angel Island, Hall Shee was 5’3”, had natural feet, and carried no known diseases. After satisfying the interrogator’s questions, she was considered a trustworthy person, not a threat to the country and was permitted to land on American soil in mid-March. She lived here for the next 40 years without having the opportunity to visit China or to see her parents again.

Here is my story about Hall Shee, my grandmother whom I lived with until she passed away in 1961.

My grandmother, Hall Shee, whom I call Paupau, was a significant person in my life. As far as I could remember she was always there from sunrise to sunset, every minute of the day, and every day of the year. When I wasn’t at school, I was the one who took her food shopping. The English speakers and walking through the Italian section of town to Chinatown was a daunting trip by herself. As a bonus, I helped carry some of her groceries. At the end of the trip, I got an ice cream or a toy from Woolworth or a Hersey’s chocolate bar. It was a win-win situation for both of us.  

On occasions, we went to visit her mahjong friends who lived in one of the narrow alleys at the base of Coit Tower. She didn’t know how to play mahjong, but she was intrigued watching them strategize while chit chatting with the ah paus. Two of the women were old and wrinkly and walked with an unsteady wobble. Their feet were tiny, smaller than my feet, and they wore red or blue silk pointy slippers embroidered with red, blue and yellow flowers. Their clothes were dark brown under a layer of knitted vest and puffy black jackets. Paupau had wide feet and walked with quick steps. Her hands and face were smooth with the help of Pond’s Cream. She wore flowered dresses and smelled like Ivory soap.

The walls were painted dull yellow. The shades were drawn, and the house took on a gloomy air, void of bright lights and colors. It smelled moldy and old, almost medicinal, with burning incense in the room. I sat alone eating red and white coconut balls from Hawaii or playing jacks by myself.  

For us kids, Paupau stretched frog skins over opened cans for drums.  At dinner time she insisted we were eating skinny chicken legs for dinner. We played with rabbits in the backyard, and then one day they disappeared. She made a large pot of soup that evening, and we slurped up every last drop of sweet tasting broth and meat in our bowl.  

“Paupau, where are the rabbits?” we asked. 

“They ran away,” she replied.  

Our worn-out clothes were cut up and sewn into quilts. We loved searching for our fabrics and counted whose clothes were repeated the most. She took us shopping for peaches and pears at the orchard farms.  We returned with bags and preserved them in jars of salt and vinegar. We were delighted when she made telephones out of cans and strings.  We swore we heard each other as we shouted into the cans at the top of our lungs. She built wooden benches to sit outside the restaurant and smaller ones for the grandkids. She hammered out a shoe shine box for Uncle to earn a few quarters shining shoes. She always employed the old bachelors living at the run-down opium cottage to clean this, paint that, and gave them food and money in return.  

Her English vocabulary was limited but she knew when to use the phrases, “son no beech,” “no can do” and “tanqu la.” She didn’t read or write Chinese but she knew numbers and their value, enough to make change for the dining customers, and to play baak gup bil, the Chinese Keno.  At the English-speaking hardware store her conversations always began with “how mud-che” which always followed with “du mud-che.” 

I loved to visit Paupau’s friends especially if they had a bunch of kids my age to play with. She always brought the family a bag of fruits, cha siew, a chicken, or something she cooked. I would give them to the mother of the family, and they always exchanged the same polite formalities, “No, take it home, we have plenty; It’s fresh, I got it especially for you; stay for dinner; no, I’m cooking a pot of soup.” After a few minutes of courteous exchanges, we either stayed for a meal or brought back something homecooked, like a chicken pot pie from Mr. Low who worked at a hotel on Market St., or big round crispy jeen dui hot from the wok.  

I had to accompany her to the Chinese opera at the Great Star Theatre on Jackson Street because no one else would go with her. The actors were dressed in long sweeping embroidered costumes with elaborate headdresses, long beards, and braids. They sang and took wide strides across one end of the stage to the other, carrying a sword, book, or sometimes a fan. Their headdresses were adorned with long feathers protruding from each side of their heads.  As they walked, their heads wobbled and the feathers swayed and bobbled as the actors sang and swaggered across the stage. The guohu, a stringed instrument was played in high C sharp, the percussions and cymbals clanged, “dok dok, dok, dok chang” while the actors sang in diva high pitched voices repeating “ah, ah, ah, ah, ahhh” up and down the Pentatonic scales. Their faces were ridiculously painted white. accentuated with dark brows and eyes and bright red lips. 

Paupau loved every minute of the opera but I questioned whether she understood the lyrics. I most certainly didn’t.  I dimed and nickeled her throughout the show running out to the concession stand to buy paper wrapped plums and prunes, gnaw yuk gon, and dried bow yee. The opera was a colorful sweep of costumes with fascinating characters but I was bored. Paupau loved every scene, every song, every movement, and laughed as their ostrich feathers bounced up and down over their heads.    

I grew up learning traditions of China.  I learned how to crochet, knit, sew, embroider, wrap won tons, and peel water chestnuts. I swept the floor at a very young age as if preparing for matrimony like in China.  I was taught filial piety, the power of the patriarch, and the strength of the matriarch.   

“Listen to your husband,” I heard Paupau teach her daughters.  “Put money aside but don’t let him know about it.”  

When I sprained my arm, she brewed the most obnoxious smelly concoction of twigs and leaves with Chinese herbs. She wrapped them around my arm which made me smell like a cow out to pasture all day and night. When I cried nightmarish dreams, she scared the ghosts out of my body as she cradled me over a pile of hot ashes arranged in a tin bucket.  

Once, she dragged me to the North Beach project houses to scold Providence in Chinese and broken English for kicking me in the groin.  

“You don do dat.  You bat gur,” she said as she gestured with hands in the area below her belly button.

She spoke Chinese and innovated English about the importance of the female organ for child bearing. I was embarrassed as the kids stood in awe of the Asian grandma in fury because she held the authority of a dragon roaring with fire.  

The next day the kids asked me, “Wow, your grandma is scary.  What did she say?”  

I replied, “She will come after you if you kick my private part again.”

One morning, I woke up, got dressed and Mom said go upstairs and say good morning to Paupau.  

What?  I never did that before, so I did.  

“Good morning Paupau.  I’m going now. See you after school,” I said.

“Um, good girl,” as she always replied whenever I greeted her the first time of the day.  “Study well at school.”    

The room smelled of Tiger Balm, and she had a cloth wrapped around her head.  I knew she had a headache.  

During my mid-morning Geometry class, the counselor summoned me to the office to tell me that my mom wanted me to walk to my parent’s grocery store a couple of blocks away from the high school.  

“Why did you call me to the store?”  I asked Papa.  

“Mama is home with Paupau because she is sick,” he answered.

Another call came in the evening, and Papa said, “We have to close the store.”  

“Why, so early?  It’s not 8 o’clock, yet,” I asked, puzzled.

“We’re going to the hospital,” he replied quietly. He knew why we were going there but I didn’t.

Paupau was sleeping.  She looked rested. Her eyes were closed, skin smooth, not a frown, knitted brow or a towel wrapped around her head. Mama told me to kiss her goodbye.  

“Why do I have to say goodbye?  She’s asleep. When is she going to wake up?” I asked.

“Maybe,” said Mom.   

Maybe? That was a puzzling answer. I waited in the room with my uncles and aunts at Chinese Hospital. The doctor came in after his rounds, took out his stethoscope, listened to her heart, and spoke to Uncle who immediately burst into loud sobs. His sobs were infectious, and it started a chain of sobbing while they hung on to each other.  

“What happened?” I asked. 

My aunt blurted out between sobs, “She’s dead.”   

I ran to her bed and said loudly, “Paupau, he sun.” Wake up, Paupau.  

I shook her until someone pulled me away. I wailed in sobs. I felt limp, my empty stomach was starving without an appetite. My feet crumbled beneath me. I was dragged away. I had a strange feeling of emptiness, my heart ripping apart, a heaviness, a coldness creeping over me. I shivered in the warm room. I never felt my body responding like this.  In movies people hung on tightly to each other as they wailed over the dead. I didn’t have the strength to hold onto anyone or anything, least of all myself. I couldn’t comprehend that Paupau would never, never wake up again. How is it that we will never walk to Chinatown again. I didn’t understand death. I only saw it in the movies. 

At the funeral, Paupau was made up with dark red lipstick. We were shocked because she never wore lipstick, not even blush on her cheeks. Her black hair was smoothed back without curls. She wore her cheong sam over a black silk qua with dragons embroidered in gold-colored threads on both sides of the jacket. I saw her move and insisted she was coming back to life. They had to take me out of the funeral parlor. I trembled as large drops of grief washed over my face, my hands, my clothes. I didn’t remember when I stopped crying. Mama would not let me go to the cemetery. This was the first death I experienced.   

I mourned for an entire year. The bathroom light was turned on at night because I was afraid Paupau would visit me wearing red lipstick and hair slicked back. Gong Gong said she came to him last night and told him she was fine. My club leader told me to let her go, start having fun again, and not be so sad.  I hated him and never spoke to him again. 

Her room was slowly taken apart. My aunts found a box under a pile of clothes in the closet. The box was filled with bills and jewelry. My aunts and uncle each took an equal share of the three thousand dollars hidden alongside jade pieces, gold necklaces and bracelets.  

Paupau was illiterate but I taught her how to write her name in English. She drew her name, Hall Shee across the signature line after she told the immigration officer there were 50 stars on the U.S. flag. After 40 years of residing in America as a foreigner, she became a naturalized U.S. citizen. She beamed from cheek to cheek when she received her first Social Security check of $35.00. She was proud of herself and deemed herself just as worthy as a man.  She died several months later and did not enjoy anymore of her well-earned benefits.  

I miss our walks up and down the hills to Chinatown. I miss her firm hand of discipline, her gentle teachings, her wisdom, her curiosity, her laughter, her joy of living. I love her forever.

Vicky Lowe was born In San Francisco and lived with her grandparents who owned a restaurant along the Sacramento River. When her grandfather sold the restaurant, they moved to San Francisco. Most of what she learned about China and the Chinese American community was listening to her grandma’s stories around the kitchen table.

More stories are coming soon!!

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