Chinatown Live! READ

Children were a visual rarity in Chinatown before 1900. Although the Exclusion Act exempted merchant families, according to the federal censuses, only two percent of Portland’s Chinese residents were children. Chinese merchant family histories indicate that having four to eight children was normal, but the census perpetually undercounted Chinese. Only after 1900 would Chinatown’s wives and children begin to appear in numbers in official records.

Founded in 1911 by the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the School for Overseas Chinese offered Chinese language instruction to Portland Chinese youth by instructors from the new Republic of China. Along with language training, the teachers used history and culture lessons to instill Chinese pride and identity. Nearly all children growing up in Chinatown between 1911 and 1950 attended Chinese Language School every weeknight and Saturday morning for eight years or more. Their shared experience created enduring bonds during the last decades of Chinese Exclusion. Such language and heritage schools continue to be a fixture of Chinese American childhood across the country, particularly among the children of more recent immigrants. 

Text from Beyond the Gate: A Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns

Patsy Fong Lee

I think we were very fortunate when we grew up, because we lived in an area where a lot of the Chinese were settled…So we didn’t feel like we were out of place at that point…I enjoyed my childhood, because we had a lot of friends. And every night, we would sit out on the sidewalk and converse with our neighbors across the street. And we even played games out in the street because of course, there weren’t that many cars in those days. So we really had, I think, a very good childhood.

Patsy at 18 years old, 1947.

I think there were sidewalks, but the streets were cobblestone instead of paved…and we lived at our address which was 109 Southwest Pine Street. And we were very close to the waterfront. In those days…there wasn’t any business down there other than a huge farmers market…and we used to play at the waterfront all the time…And there were streetcars in those days. There were no busses. So we took streetcars to school if we had the money.

Patsy at 19 years old (on right), 1948

When I was young, I played with my friends who were about the same age as me and we would play normal games like hopscotch, and we would play ball out in the street…there weren’t that many cars. In fact, there weren’t any cars…Once in a while our ice truck would come and we would chip ice from the back of their truck when he was delivering ice to neighbors. Because in those days, they didn’t have refrigerators, they had ice boxes…But I think that we did a lot of street playing. And we would play tag and hide, and go see everything that you can think of in those days just to amuse ourselves. And then we would just go home and have dinner when they called us, because we were within calling distance.

Patsy at 8 years old (third from left), 1936. 

So we were pretty innocent in those days, but there were enough older friends and siblings to take care of us. So we didn’t really, you know, get into trouble. And we did go to Chinese school when we were little, and go to American school at the same time. So it kept us busy.

Patsy (middle) with sisters Betty (left) and Ester (right), 1947. 

Mary Nom Lee Leong

We would go to [Chinese] school on Saturday morning from 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. And daily, we went to [Chinese} school from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Since I only lived two blocks away, I would walk to the school after we had dinner…which did not give us much of a chance to get into mischief!

Mary N. Leong and friends, 1934.

We studied calligraphy in Chinese school. It took us three months to learn how to write correctly with our ink pen, our ink brush. And on our desk, on the right hand corner, was a little pot to put our ink. The seats we sat in had adjoining seats and there was another desk attached to the back of the chair…I was taken to the principal’s office one day because the girl in front of me had a great big bow around her waistline. And me being kind of mischievous I took her bow apart and tied her up behind her chair in the back. So I had to go to the principal and get a big lecture. That didn’t change me much. I still like to play tricks on people.

Mary at age 10, 1931.

We studied reading and writing, and history…and one of our teachers tried to teach us how to sing opera. He was a very quiet, small teacher. Very, very polite, very tiny. And we did learn some Chinese music. The school building, on the third floor…was where we had an assembly hall. There was no assembly hall on the first floor at all. And the seats that we sat in upstairs on the third floor, there was a great big organ on the right side of the stage…and we sat behind that.

Early Chinese Language School performance.

I met my husband when actually he was going to Chinese school at the same time I was. And at that time, he was already living in Southeast Portland in Ladd’s Addition, which is most unusual. Because in those days, Chinese were not allowed to buy houses anywhere in the city. There’s discrimination that’s been going on for a long, long time, even up to after WWII.

Mary with husband George, 1970s.

Norman Locke

I lived on both sides of the river, and as a result, I went to four different grade schools and the first one was Atkinson, and one of the highlights of going to Atkinson [was that] they had a certain day they called Hot Dog Day and everybody got hot dogs. I mean, the strange thing to remember about a school was hot dogs. But then I went to Hosford Grade School. I spent most of my time at Hosford.

Norman Locke, 1932.

I remember WWII, the early parts of the war…I’m in grade school at Hosford, and it was damp and raining and I threw up some pebbles at some seagulls. And I got hauled into the principal’s office for throwing pebbles at sea gulls. And she was a tall gaunt, German type lady. I still remember her name…and then she got me in the office and stared down at me, a grade school kid, and said in a terse voice, “What would Chiang Kai-shek say about what you did?” And I looked right up to her and I said, “What does Chiang Kai-shek got to do with anything that I do? I say anything bad or immoral or unethical?” She was using race to slam a grade school kid and I threw it right back in her face.
I went to high school from 1942 to 1946. I was completely bored, because we covered all the material practically in grade school, and I felt completely lost. In retrospect, I blame the school systems in Portland for allowing schools to take you so far ahead. And then when you went to high school, you got completely bored. And I felt lost, completely lost. 

Norman (right), father Frank (middle), and brother Ron (left), 1945.

So I tried to fight my way back to the social structure of the school. I joined social clubs and did other things that other kids did, but I still felt like a loner…I went out for sports, I did everything…but this trauma carried on through college. When I went to college, I was still sort of lost. I just felt like the system dropped me in a void. So, in college, I just read what I was interested in and I just attended class enough to pass the courses.

Norman Locke, 1946.

Top image: Mary Nom Lee Leong at age 15 with her friend Phyllis in Portland Chinatown, 1930s.

Slideshow images: photos courtesy of Patsy Fong Lee and family, the family of Mary Nom Lee Leong, and Norman Locke.