During the past year, whenever I sit down to write about Hanford’s Chinatown history, lyrics from the musical “Hamilton” play in my mind for a few minutes. I turn on my lap top, rummage through notes and photographs and instantly I hear, “Why do you write like you’re running out of time?” And I know that I am because very simply I am losing too many of my resources.
Those I have referred to as the “Chinatown Elders” were in actuality children and grandchildren of Chinatown pioneers, individuals who grew up in the area during its prime. Only a small number of them are still here, and I have still so many questions. I wish I had asked many more questions long ago and paid greater attention when the “elders” shared their stories with me. There are gaps, even in my knowledge about my own tribe’s beginnings in Hanford’s Chinatown and even more recent history. As the saying goes, youth often seems wasted on the young. It seems only later we grasp what matters most, the things we slighted or took for granted when we were young. Mom is a great resource and sharing with her is invaluable, but she didn’t grow up in Hanford. She knew Chinatown’s earlier days when her family visited relatives who lived on the Alley. She has her own list of questions she wishes she had asked.
I was reminded again of how I am running out of time and of some of the specific things I’d like to know – and wished I’d asked about – the other day when one of our patrons, Stephen Cano, brought an old Chinese Pagoda matchbook cover to the Tea Room. I’m assuming it’s from the late 1930s or early 1940s as the telephone number is only three digits, and my family opened the Chinese Pagoda in 1937. The inside of the matchbook says: “Visit Chinese Pagoda at Visalia. Cor. Of Bridge & Center Sts.”
I have known that at one time my family had opened a restaurant in Visalia. Uncles Richard and Ernie worked there as teenagers, that’s why they didn’t attend Hanford High School but went to school in Visalia. But I don’t know why my family decided to open up a business in Visalia nor do I know why and when they phased themselves out of that restaurant, leaving it in the hands of another relative. I remember a few discussions with Auntie Harriet about the other Chinese Pagoda, and she always remarked that when he had to work there, Uncle Woodrow walked to Visalia. I don’t know why he did that, only that it would have been a very long walk.
In the Taoist Temple Museum, an old Sue Chung Kee business sign adorns the hallway wall. The address is listed as “No. 20.” This has always confused me because we have old Sue Chung Kee business cards and calendars that list the address as “No. 10 China Alley.” To further addle the mind, we also have a photograph of the Sue Chung Kee building taken in the late 1890s, and the “No. 20” sign is shown hanging above the entryway. A 1901 Hanford City Directory lists that address as “20 Chinatown,” while 1908 and 1930 directories use the “No. 10.” I also noted that the Taoist Temple’s 1901 address was “No. 22,” but in the later directories listed it as “No. 12,” which is the address we use today. I wish I knew when and why the addresses changed.
There is also the issue surrounding several aspects of our family lore as to whether they are historical or family tales. On February 12, 1958, The Hanford Sentinel wrote about one such matter. “Henry Gong Wing (my great-grandfather) was as well known in Hanford as he had been in his native China for the excellence of his cooking. It was he who developed the popular dish known as curry tomato noodles. This dish became so well known that in later years it could be obtained in every Chinese restaurant in the United States, and can now be had in Hong Kong and other Chinese cities.” I would like to know if this is true. Other than the Sentinel article, I can find no validating reference. It’s a wonderful claim to fame and could well be fact given that Great-grandfather began serving up noodles in Chinatown in the 1880s. Still, I do not know with certainty if it is a true event of our tribe’s history.
What I do know is that our stories are important. Our history, no matter how mundane, is woven of threads that are the very fabric of individual, family, clan, cultural and community lives. Share your stories, your family history with family members and write it down. Don’t wait until you’re running out of time.
And don’t wait to try this savory pie. We are running out of time for it as well. The seasonal of the bounty of lovely summer fruits and vegetables is drawing to a close. I’m always delighted when I take a bite of the first of the summer tomatoes and I slowly savor the last one when the season ends. This recipe makes the best of the season.