Yes, the hip-hop musical play that tells the story about the immigrant who became our first secretary of the Treasury lives up to everything that’s been written about it. As the curtain came down on "Hamilton", I knew what we would do the following day. Visit Angel Island.

Recently I wrote about a friend’s friend whose father was born in Hanford and whose great-grandfather had a butcher shop located on China Alley. I read the records based on the grandfather’s immigration interview upon his reentry to the United States at the Immigration Station on Angel Island, which was open from 1910 to 1940. I also noted that because the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 specifically excluded Chinese from immigrating to the United States, most of the 175,000 Chinese arriving at Angel Island were detained and interrogated for weeks, months or even as long as two years. Many detainees voiced their anxieties and despair by writing and carving on the barrack walls. In 1964, the Chinese American community successfully lobbied the State of California to designate the immigration station as a State Landmark, and the Immigration Station became a federally designated National Historic Landmark.

Visiting the State Park had always been on my bucket list and after seeing "Hamilton", my soul insisted I put it off no longer. When she immigrated to the United States from China, my paternal grandmother had been briefly detained at Angel Island. The Landmark is part of her story.

When Great-grandfather made his rather hasty departure from China in order to escape political persecution, he left forty acres of rice paddies, a small eatery, a wife and five children behind. He could never return to China. When he settled in Hanford he first sold noodles from the basement of his home located on 64 Visalia Street. Eventually his success allowed him to open up a noodle house in China Alley. When his business was doing well enough he sent for one of his sons (Grandfather) to help him. Grandfather’s ship arrived in San Francisco in 1906 just days after the earthquake. He didn’t understand why everyone had told him what a wonderful city he would find in San Francisco. All he saw for miles around him was a pile of rubble.

Grandfather worked alongside Great-grandfather for a few years and then he returned to China to marry. After his marriage, Grandfather returned to Hanford. Grandmother, accompanied by Grandfather’s cousin, set sail at a later date.

Auntie Harriet told me the story of Grandmother’s voyage and that Grandmother was pregnant with her first child (Auntie Emma). Suffering from morning sickness, and possibly sea sickness, Grandmother kept her wits about her by pacing around the ship trying to memorize the answers for the upcoming interrogation interview she knew awaited her at Angel Island.

Grandmother was briefly detained, her time on Angel Island was short largely due to China Alley’s prominent businessman, Sue Chung Kee. The details are sketchy and there’s no one left to ask, but somehow Sue Chung Kee’s influence guaranteed Grandmother a brief stay at the Immigration Station on Angel Island. 

The day after seeing "Hamilton", we took the ferry to Angel Island. We left the visitor center and hiked up the one hundred and forty-four steps up to the trail leading to the Immigration Station, another mile and half away. I haven’t quite sorted out all of my feelings about this visit, but I am glad I spent some time walking the grounds, seeing the barracks, grasping this part of history, walking this part of Grandmother’s story and wondering if by chance I traced any of her footsteps.

Back in Hanford, I stood where Grandmother’s life began after Angel Island, 64 Visalia Street. In the tiny family home at this address, she raised seven children and all of the produce and other key ingredients for the noodle house and, later, for the early days of the Chinese Pagoda. Aside from the fruits and vegetables, she reared ducks and chickens and made tofu, soy sauce and rice wine. Grandmother was one of the few women in Chinatown who could read and write Chinese. She shared this gift, enjoying great camaraderie with the other wives and reading the Chinese newspaper to them in the afternoons.

I didn’t have the joy of fully knowing my grandmother. She died when I was 3 ½ years old. I do have a couple of tactile memories though, and I will always associate the smell of mothballs with Grandmother. I remember one afternoon sitting on her lap while she stroked my head and every now and then she gave me a hug. I was instantly enveloped in a mothball-scented bosom. Another afternoon we were at her home and she and Auntie Harriet had been shopping. Grandmother handed me a wrapped box (in Moe’s Toy Shop paper!) and inside was a doll that I believe still lives on a shelf in one of my mother’s closets. I was thrilled with my new doll. Mom suggested I give Grandmother a hug. I ran to her with my arms outstretched but a stopped as I soon as I came to her legs. Her pants smelled like mothballs. She reached forward, picked me up, hugged me, and once again I was wrapped in a mothball haze.

I’ve always been a little envious of those who grew up with grandmothers, especially if they were the kind of grandmother who handed down family recipes. My grandmother was a marvelous cook (I remember her squab), I wish I had grown up learning from her.

In honor of all those who suffered passage through Angel Island, this week I’m sharing a recipe for crispy baked tofu. The exterior of the tofu becomes crispy and crunchy while the interior is soft and creamy. This style of tofu was Grandfather’s favorite, although Grandmother fried rather than baked it for him. Grandmother prepared it often, and so this dish is one of their stories.

Arianne Wing is the co-author of “Noodles Through Escargots,” and co-operator of the L.T. Sue Tea Room and Emporium, benefiting the restoration and preservation of China Alley. She may be reached at ariannewing@gmail.com

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