Whenever I go to Los Angeles, my Mom has a list of things for me to do. I’m not complaining. My brother’s list is much longer. This time my task is to clean out a bedroom closet. Not all of it, just a few designated eyesores. One of those items is a beauty case Grandma once owned.

There’s hardly anything inside, Mom says, Grandma’s funeral announcement and some condolence cards. But Mom knows I’m interested in family stuff so maybe I’d like to have a look?

I find neatly bundled stacks of correspondence, incoming and outgoing, as was my Grandpa’s wont. Funeral bills and letters from the bank. Hidden among that paper detritus, I find four little treasures.

an American adventure

When my grandparents married in 1909, Grandpa left Grandma in Shanghai while he went off on a Boxer scholarship. That scholarship took him to Tsinghua College to prepare for his American adventure. Then on to the University of Wisconsin for English language competency.

In 1912, Grandpa transferred to the Massachusetts Institute for Technology to study mechanical engineering. His senior thesis, co-written with fellow student G.T. Woolley, Jr., bore the riveting title Comparative Economy Tests of a 20 H-P Internal Combustion Engine using Kerosene and Gasoline.

But before Grandpa could get that far, Grandma caught up with him. A rumor had reached Shanghai that Grandpa might fall in love with an American woman. And so, Grandma got packing.

finishing school

At the time, however, the Chinese Exclusion Act was still in force. All Chinese laborers were barred from entry into the US. Only teachers, students, tourists and government officials could come in. And so Grandma enrolled into a girls’ finishing school in Glendale, Ohio.

The Certificate of Identity, issued by the US Labor Department on 4 September 1915, displays her photo. Age 22. Height 4 foot 11 inches.

Physical marks and peculiarities: Small pit between eyebrows.

immigration treasure

Grandma’s task was to learn English though easier said than done. Her teachers had to start with sign language. Eventually, Grandma learned to read, write and speak English though she remained illiterate in  Chinese for the rest of her life.

poll tax

After graduation, Grandpa got a job that took him from Boston to Middleton, Ohio and back again. In Grandma’s treasure chest, I find a bill in Grandpa’s name, demanding payment to the city of Boston for the 1918 poll tax.

A poll tax of two dollars shall be assessed on every male inhabitant of the Commonwealth above the age of twenty years, whether a citizen of the United States or an alien.

The poll tax is a so-called head tax and is one of the oldest and least popular forms of taxation. In the US, you once had to produce proof of payment of your poll tax in order to exercise your right to vote. As such, poll taxes functioned to suppress voting by the poor, persons of color and women.

Grandpa paid his poll tax on 26 November 1918, as evidenced by the punch mark this bill bears. It’s a mystery to me why he kept this receipt or how it got into Grandma’s treasure box. Maybe Grandpa wanted a souvenir of his American adventure.

there and back again

By 1918, Grandpa had been in the States for 7 years and Grandma for 3. It was time to settle down. The next year, they returned to Shanghai. Children soon followed and Grandpa bought a house on Avenue Haig. From 1919 to 1937, he and Grandma lived the good life.

Then war with Japan intervened. For a while, the family scattered to India, Chengdu and Shanghai. After the 2nd Sino-Japanese War ended, the family reconvened in Shanghai only to be confronted by yet another war, this time among the Chinese themselves.

One by one, family members left China for the US. Grandma arrived in 1953 and soon converted from Buddhism to Christianity at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis. Her Certificate of Confirmation is as crisp and clean as the day it was signed by the Suffragan Bishop of Tennessee.

Grandpa arrived in 1957. He and Grandma settled in San Francisco. He worked for a printer. She made the social rounds: weddings at Old St. Mary’s Church and banquets at the Four Seas Restaurant.

Form OAAN-7006 (1961)

Grandpa preferred his friends at the Free Masons. He was proud to be the first Oriental board member of his Cavalry Presbyterian Church.

At some point, Grandpa and Grandma became US citizens. Back in the day when you needed a brochure to explain how to use a social security card.

the last treasure

Grandpa’s American adventure ended during a trip to visit his only daughter, my Guma, in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. He died in 1966 at the age of 75.

Grandma came to Los Angeles and lived with us for a while. I remember taking her to the grocery store. I cringed every time she palpated the fruit, mulling over each purchase as if it were a pearl of great treasure.

The last treasure I find in Grandma’s beauty case is a small bronze coin. I don’t know its vintage or its value, then or now. All I know is that it’s old. Old enough to predate my grandparents’ last American adventure and maybe even the first one, too.

My bronze treasure. Photo credit: Karen Kao

The coin is thin and smooth. Fingers have almost succeeded in rubbing away the ridges. My treasure is light and easy to lose. How did my grandparents hold onto it for so long? It’s a talisman powerful enough to send me back to a time and place that no longer exist. A place we can now call Old Shanghai.