When Mom was still in high school, she wanted to become a journalist. She had won a school competition for writing and the prize was publication in the local newspaper. No surprise, I suppose, as Mom was a good student. She graduated at the top of her class from the National Taichung Girls’ Senior High School in Taiwan at the tender age of 16.
a sea change
She could have gone to university in Taipei or returned to Hong Kong. But Mom was ambitious. She left Taiwan in 1954. She boarded the boat to America with a $100 loan from her father and a full scholarship from Immaculate Heart College.
It was a sea change for her. From having her own amah, Mom went to cleaning house for her room and board. The language barrier was huge. She relinquished her dream of writing and majored instead in chemistry.
Immaculate Heart College was a private Catholic women’s college in the heart of Los Angeles. The main campus was located at the corner of Western and Franklin Avenues, an easy walk away from Hollywood Boulevard. One day, homesick and hungry, my mother walked into a Chinese restaurant looking for comfort food. That restaurant was called Gong Ho.
It was a family restaurant run by Lem and Pong-see Fong. They were members of the extended Fong family immortalized by Lisa See in her memoir On Gold Mountain. Not that either of these Fongs would have regarded themselves worthy of a book. Lem and Pong-see were plain folk.
They originally came from Fujian, the southern province of China that was also once home to my paternal great-grandparents. When Mom heard the Fongs speaking fújiànhuà, she responded in kind.
more than an employee
Mom started to waitress at Gong Ho. But she soon became more to the Fongs than a mere employee. Mom wrote their checks and their letters home. She became a member of the rambunctious Fong family. My brothers and I addressed Lem and Pong-see respectively as Gōnggong (公公) and Pópo (婆婆), a term of affection and respect for a member of the older generation.
Gōnggong was a small man with stubby fingers and a tobacco-darkened laugh. He manned the woks at Gong Ho in his white t-shirt, long white apron and perky white cap. Pópo was a roly-poly woman with iron curls and a gold incisor. They had a half dozen children or so it seemed to me. Howard, Lois, Jane and Sanford, Mojing (sp?) and Shirley. I might have mixed up some of the Fong children with their spouses in that list just now, but it would never have mattered to Gōnggong and Pópo. Everyone was family. Everyone was welcome, at home or in Gong Ho.
I wish I could show you what Gong Ho looked like back in the day. But the restaurant no longer exists in real life or on the Internet. I can remember some booths in a faux red leather. The tables had formica tops like the ones Ha Jin describes in A Free Life. The menu included dishes like egg foo young and chicken chop suey, foods Mom had never seen in Hong Kong but never mind, that’s what “the Americans” liked.
Mom stopped waitressing at Gong Ho when she graduated from college in 1959. My parents married that year. They moved first to Echo Lake and later bought a house in Montebello, far from Hollywood Boulevard. Mom stayed at home with my brothers and me until the youngest was old enough to walk to school alone. Then she went back to school to get her teaching certificate. Mom taught high school math for the rest of her working life.
Of course, none of that stopped us from seeing Gōnggong and Pópo or from them being a part of every major event in the Kao family.
I have vivid memories of parties at the Fong family house. They didn’t live far from Gong Ho, in one of those terraced homes that dot the foothills of Griffith Park.
It was a long narrow house. The adults monopolized the top floor. Pópo served the food and the mahjong tables stood ready. We kids hung out downstairs in one of the many bedrooms that lined a long dark hallway.
In my memory, the place was teeming with kids, much older and savvier than me. The girls were already wearing make-up and going out on dates. I both feared and revered them, just as I did the cholas back in Montebello. Those tough girls with their fake eyelashes and street sweeper jeans.
Gong Ho and Immaculate Heart College no longer exist. Gōnggong and Pópo are both dead. But each of their death announcements listed my parents among Lem and Pong-see’s children. Family lives on.