Searching for Susie Wong: A Great-Granddaughter’s Journey through Time, Space, and Imagination

By Linda Wing. Posted June 2, 2023.

Introduction

In this 1912 photograph, a woman sits still, her hair pulled back in a timeless style. She is wearing a shimmering silk jacket; her earrings and necklace are made of Chinese gold. She looks us right in the eye, serenely, with a hint of a smile on her lips. She is Susie Wong.

Who was Susie Wong? A single paragraph captures nearly all that we know. Susie’s life spanned the 19th and 20th centuries. She was born in 1877, married in 1896, gave birth to eight children between 1898 and 1914, and died young in 1918. Susie was a Californian through and through; California was where she was born, raised, lived, and died. Her life centered on family. She was the daughter of Wong Shou Quan, the wife of James Lee Bowen, the mother of Mary Bowen Wing, the grandmother of Leland Wing, and my great-grandmother.

These facts place my great-grandmother in the bare bones of family, space, and time. The photograph provides a glimpse of her style and spirit, but it is the only one we have. Susie could not know that her children would retain few memories of her, due to her premature death at the age of 41. I wondered if I could find traces of her in the time and space of her birth, childhood, and coming of age, traces that might provide insights into my great-grandmother’s sense of place.

Beginning the Search

My Great-Auntie E – E for Elsye – was Susie’s third daughter. She recounted, when asked about her mother, that Susie was born and raised in Monterey, “near where the aquarium now stands.” I had a much-delayed reaction to the specificity of my great-auntie’s words. They were recorded in our family history in 1994, but it was not until 2023 when I decided to pinpoint the geography of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I found that it is situated on the Pacific Coast cape named Point Alones. I was excited to make this discovery. Loni Ding’s documentary, Chinese in the Frontier West, describes a fishing village contiguous with Point Alones that was settled by Chinese seafaring families in the mid-19th century. The film gives the Point Alones fishing village the extraordinary title of “the Chinese America that might have been.” What could it mean for my great-grandmother to come from a place so wistfully described? To try to answer this question, I embarked on a journey to Point Alones, traveling through time and space. Research was my mode of transportation.

The Monterey Peninsula

In the early 1850s, Chinese families landed on the Monterey Peninsula near Point Alones – in thirty-foot-long junks that they had sailed across the Pacific from China. The voyagers had mastered the ocean, sailing their ships via the Kuroshio Current north to Japan, navigating the Northern Pacific Current eastward to Canada and, finally, catching the California Current south towards Point Alones. They had a measure of luck as well; other junks were lost forever in the gyre of these powerful currents.

Chinese families were not the first to come to the Monterey Peninsula. The Ohlone Rumsen had lived in the region for thousands of years. After first sighting the Monterey Bay in the 16th century, the Spanish subsequently colonized, displaced, and nearly decimated the Ohlone Rumsen. They founded the pueblo of Monterey, built a presidio there as well, and made it the capital of Alta California in 1770. In 1821, California became a province of Mexico as the result of Mexico’s war for independence from Spain. The United States took control of California in 1848 after it defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War. The Californios had prioritized the defense of Monterey against the Americans but lacked the manpower and weaponry to succeed. In 1850, when California became a state, Spanish-speaking Californios remained the dominant population of the Monterey Peninsula. It was they, not Americans, whom new arrivals from China were most likely to encounter when they began building their fishing village along the Pacific Coast next to Point Alones.

The Point Alones Fishing Village

The Chinese voyagers who surveyed the half-mile-long shoreline from Point Alones to Point Almeja saw what was unseen by their predecessors – Americans, Californios, Spanish, Ohlone Rumsen alike  – a calm, crescent-shaped cove with a sloping sandy beach well-suited for a village of families and an abundance of natural resources that they could commercially fish. They set about creating a community. For their homes, the families built small cabins from redwood shakes; for their livelihood, they organized themselves to catch fish and squid and harvest abalone for sale to markets in California and China. They used redwood to construct sampans for fishing and junks for transporting fish and supplies. With their homes and infrastructure in place, the Point Alones entrepreneurs shipped fresh fish to San Francisco and other nearby Bay Area towns. As well, they sold dried fish to Chinese working afar in the Sierra Nevadas, mining for gold or building the railroad. The Point Alones families sent cured squid, shark fin, and abalone to China on large ocean-going junks anchored nearby and loaded seafood on steamers headed to San Francisco where the crates would then be transported to China.

There seemed to be no end to the business acumen of the Point Alones villagers. In the mid-1860s, they found new markets for their abalone harvests in New York, France, and Germany. They began shipping tons of mother of pearl – abalone shells – to these locations where they were used to make buttons and jewelry. Of course, mother of pearl was sent to China too where it was used for cabinet inlays and jewelry.

In his 1880 report for the U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries, ichthyologist David Starr Jordon, later the founding president of Stanford University, observed of Point Alones: “This colony compares favorably with any other on the coast. They ship daily to San Francisco, in fine weather, from 200 to 800 pounds of fish. The members of this colony . . . dry and ship to China an unknown quantity of abalone meat and sell the shells. At certain seasons they also dry many tons of different devil fish, squids, etc.”

The Point Alones families found yet another market for their skills and knowledge when in 1892 Stanford University established the Hopkins Seaside Laboratory close by – within a fifteen-minute walk. Scientists from around the globe came to study ocean life and needed specimens for their research. Jordan noted in 1902 that: “a constant stream of objects of interest comes from the Chinese fishing camp at Point Alones.” Another scientist, F.M. MacFarland, described the village as a “proven means of securing much of value from the waters of the bay . . . if the financial consideration be large enough.”

Point Alones was remarkable not only for its fishing industry, but also for its high proportion of women and families. In 1870, when only seven percent of the nationwide Chinese population in the United States consisted of women, women were 43 percent of the Point Alones population. Census records indicate that proportionately more families lived in Point Alones than any other Chinatown in California, including San Francisco.

Everyone in a family – men, women, and children – participated in fishing, harvesting, cleaning, curing, shipping, and/or selling. The women were not land-bound in their work. After all, the pioneers among them had sailed across the Pacific from China. In 1880, Jordan observed: “Some of the women here go fishing with the men. Others stay at home and dress the fish, which operation is aided by a heavy hachet-like knife.” In another report, Jordan described an intergenerational fishing family:

“The gill nets are placed among the kelp-covered rocks . . . and the boat goes around among the nets to frighten the fish into them. The old man plies the oar, sculling the boat. The young man stands in the bow, with a long pole, which he throws into the water at such an angle that it returns to him. The woman sits in the middle of the boat, with the baby strapped on her back. She is armed with two drumsticks, with which she keeps up an infernal racket by hammering the seat in front of her. This is supposed to frighten the fish so that they frantically plunge into the nets.”

Point Alones families designed their community to lie parallel to the coastline. They constructed two rows of homes and buildings for processing seafood with a main street in between. One of the rows of structures backed onto ocean bluffs. Fish drying racks hung over the water. The buildings were made of raw wood, unpainted.

The village included an outdoor altar that extolled “peace, longevity, and felicity.” Families could light joss sticks asking that “heaven preserve us.” Beyond the altar, inland, was the Chee Kong Temple. More distant still, in another direction, was the cemetery. At the far end of the community was an area for boat works – repairs and construction of sampans for fishing and junks for shipping. Junks supplied Point Alones families with goods from China and then loaded their holds for return trips to China to sell seafood cured by Point Alones families.

In 1890, approximately forty years after the Point Alones village was founded, the Southern Pacific built a railroad extension from Monterey to Pacific Grove. The extension ran parallel to the coastline, close to the village on the inland side. Southern Pacific touted the Monterey Peninsula as a vacation spot, targeting tourists as new passengers. The canny fishing families of Point Alones utilized the trains to ship fresh fish to markets along the railroad line and set up stands in strategic locations to sell abalone shells to tourists.

Trusted middlemen facilitated the interactions of the Point Alones community with everyone else. Members of the U.S.-born, second generation, these individuals represented the collective interests of the village, managing business transactions, mediating disputes, advocating for equal rights, and fighting for justice in courts of law. They were multilingual, able to communicate in Chinese when conversing with Point Alones villagers, Spanish when interacting with Californios, English when dealing with white and black Americans, and Portuguese when negotiating with competitors in the fishing industry.

One middleman, quadrilingual Tim Wong, was born in Sacramento in 1853 and moved with his family to Point Alones when he was a young child. Another middleman was Quock Tuck Lee, born in Point Alones in 1866. In 1852, after sailing in a junk from China, his parents shipwrecked in Monterey Bay and were rescued by members of the Ohlone Rumsen tribe before settling in Point Alones.

Both Wong and Quock represented the interests of Pont Alones families at critical turning points. They spoke truth to power, persistently and courageously.

Wong, for example, negotiated with Portuguese whalers when their nets compromised the fishing lines of Point Alones sampans, a frequent occurrence fraught with tension and conflict. In at least one instance adjudicated in court, the whalers deliberately cut the Point Alones fishing lines. Wong additionally spoke for Point Alones families when he informed Go Ti, a strongarm businessman, that he was prohibited from opening a brothel in the village. He succeeded in dissuading the businessman, thereby protecting the Point Alones family culture, but was found murdered in 1885, a shocking death attributed to those who opposed his stand against the introduction to Point Alones of houses of prostitution, gambling, and drugs.

The accounts of Hopkins Marine Laboratory scientists indicate that they interacted frequently with Quock acting as the spokesperson for the Point Alones community when the laboratory sought specific specimens of fish to study. Most importantly, Quock led the villagers in contesting the actions of the Pacific Improvement Company when that company’s policies threatened to erase Point Alones in the early 1900s. The owners of the Pacific Improvement Company were no less than “The Big Four” – Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis P. Huntington, and Charles Crocker – the robber barons of the Central Pacific and Southern Pacific Railroads.

In addition to protecting and advocating for the values and interests of Point Alones families, Wong and Quock were active participants in the civic realms of the state and the nation. Wong was featured by the San Jose Mercury News for voting in the 1875 California gubernatorial election. The newspaper suggested that Wong was the first Chinese American ever to vote:

“Celestial Voting. — We learn from Mr. Clevinger of Monterey that Tim Wong, a Chinese resident of that town, cast a celestial vote for Phelps on election day. Tim was born in this State, speaks Spanish and English fluently, and is a good citizen. We think he must be the first case on record of the kind.”

In October 1888, the San Francisco Evening Bulletin reported that Quock “will cast his first vote in November for Cleveland and Thurman . . . He is bright and can speak English and Spanish.” Cleveland and Thurman constituted the Democratic ticket for U.S. president and vice president respectively.

Wong and Quock voted despite lack of clarity elsewhere as to whether U.S.-born Chinese were American citizens. Wong Kim Ark, born in San Francisco in 1873, sued the U.S. for birthright citizenship under the 14thAmendment. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in his favor in 1898, in a ruling historically considered to be of national, landmark importance. That the exercise of voting rights by Wong and Quock was considered noncontroversial and newsworthy suggests that both they as individuals, and the Point Alones villagers whom they represented, were recognized and respected by the local populace of the Monterey Peninsula.

Finding Susie Wong

Like Tim Wong and Quock Tuck Lee, my great-grandmother Susie Wong was a Chinese American and the second-generation of her family for whom Point Alones was home. Her parents named her Wong Choy Kiu when she was born in 1877. At age 19, she was match-married to James Lee Bowen, age 20, also born in the United States. It was then that Susie departed to San Francisco to become a member of her husband’s large Chinese American clan. I sought to know more about my great-grandmother beyond these few facts. That she was born and came of age in Point Alones, a community of documented historical significance, enabled me to embark on a journey to explore her sense of place, that is, the meaning she made of her cultural, social, and physical environment. While I cannot know my great-grandmother’s sense of place for certain, having taken a deep dive into the story of Point Alones, I can surely imagine its dimensions. Learning about Tim Wong, Quock Lee, and the Point Alones fishing families was my route to meeting my great-grandmother, Susie Wong.

In my mind, there were four dimensions to my great-grandmother’s sense of place. First, she was at home in the universe. Why is this my belief? Ipso facto, the original settlers of Point Alones – the families who sailed across the Pacific from China in junks  – were expert celestial navigators and experienced sailors. They used knowledge of the sun, moon, and stars for global positioning and knowledge of the seas and seamanship for sailing as they made their way across 14,000 miles of water on a three-month-long voyage. Moreover, every member of the Point Alones community – whether or not they arrived by junk, whatever their age or gender –  lived by the Pacific Ocean, of the Pacific Ocean, and for the Pacific Ocean, a body of water that comprises one-third of the earth’s surface, whose tides are influenced by the sun and the moon, and whose bounty they expertly fished and exported across the globe, communicating in Chinese, English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Given that their surname of Wong means “expanse of water,” it seems almost destined that Susie’s family came to live in Point Alones.

All in all, I can imagine that, from birth to marriage, Susie came to understand both literally and figuratively, through direct experience, as well as through daily exposure to the examples set by her parents and other Point Alones families, that her place was not only the world, but also the universe. She was at home in the universe.

Second, I trust that at the center of Susie’s universe was her family. Why? Point Alones was definitively a community of families. The original seafaring settlers arrived directly from China as families; among them were Quock Tuck Lee’s mother and father. They were subsequently joined by other Chinese who came in family units, including Tim Wong’s family. Wong risked and lost his life by taking a strong stance against the dilution and possible destruction of the Point Alones family culture by opposing the introduction of prostitution, gambling, and opium. Lee fought the Pacific Improvement Company to safeguard the future of the fishing families in a David v. Goliath battle. My great-grandmother’s family consisted of her father, Wong Shou Quan, her mother, her older sister, her younger sister, and her younger brother, a family of six with whom she maintained close ties all her life. As such, I can imagine that Susie, from birth until marriage, spent 24-7 in close relationship with her family, which was courageous and competent, as seemed to be the Point Alones norm, and served as the gravitational center of her universe, the ballast that enabled her to grow up and come of age with calm and confidence.

Third, I believe my great-grandmother saw her place in the world as one person in a collective whole. Why? Point Alones families punched well above their weight in terms of their commercial fishing prowess. The village’s population was tiny. In 1880, three years after Susie was born, Point Alones is said to have consisted of 36 people. Ten years later, the population had increased to 155. Yet the families of this small village fished and sold hundreds of thousands of pounds of seafood every year to markets both domestic and international. The value-add of their commercial fishing to the economy of California was enormous; the one other industry in the Monterey Peninsula was tourism, which did not begin to emerge until 30 years after Point Alones was founded. All together Point Alones families constituted a whole that was greater than the sum of its parts. This phenomenon may have been due to three underlying factors. First, as Chinese, the families likely placed great importance on collectivism for social and cultural purposes, i.e., for the promotion of the common good. Second, as crews on junks and sampans, they came from a sailing tradition of teamwork, which is necessary to safety and success at sea. Third, the families worked in concert as the most efficient and productive means of fishing, harvesting, processing, shipping, and selling seafood at scale. It is for these reasons that I imagine that my great-grandmother Susie was cognizant and appreciative of how collectivism, and her participation within it, enriched the social, cultural, and economic capital of her universe.

Fourth, my guess is that Susie’s sense of place was characterized by vision and innovation. Why? Point Alones families could recognize opportunities and translate them into realities. In the 1880s, for example, they saw new possibilities for squid fishing. Drawing upon background knowledge that squids were attracted to light and more recently acquired knowledge that millions of squid came to Monterey every year to spawn, the families decided to embark upon squidding at night with lanterns. The supply of squids mesmerized by light was so big and the market for dried squid in China was so large that the Point Alones families asked fishers from smaller, nearby Chinese villages to join them every April to June, the season of the squid. They organized the enlarged collective of fishers to work at sea in teams of three sampans each, with each boat responsible for a different function in a system designed to maximize the number of squid hauled in with nets. As well, the Point Alones families coordinated the larger collective of workers on land to expedite the splitting, salting, drying, packing, and shipping of squid. In 1888 alone, the Point Alones families and their collaborators sold 230,000 pounds of squid. Almost of equal importance, the Point Alones fishers added squidding to their commercial fishery business without engendering heightened hostility from competitive Portuguese and Italian fishers. They shrewdly foresaw that night squidding with lights, even in Monterey Bay, a body of water claimed by Portuguese and Italian fishers to be their exclusive domain, could take place unnoticed by their competitors, who fished during the day, indifferent to the squid market. I imagine, therefore, that Susie’s sense of place included the disposition and skills to envision and innovate.

The Dream and Reality of a Chinese America

While watching Loni Ding’s documentary Chinese in the Frontier West, I was struck by the description of Point Alones as “the Chinese America That Might Have Been.” The wording suggested that Point Alones was a dream space for Chinese who lived in America between 1850 and 1882, one that proven to be elusive and so became instead a subject of sorrow. I wondered about the implications for my great-grandmother who lived in Point Alones from her birth to her marriage.

At the heart of the elusive dream described in the film was the fact that Point Alones was a community of families. In contrast, other communities of Chinese in America were largely comprised of “bachelors.” The “bachelor” communities were not so by choice. In the 19th century, men came alone from China to work in the gold fields, on railroad lines, in coal mines – everywhere the economies of brand-new states like California were beginning to burgeon. They left their families in China, intending to return, or never had the opportunity to marry in the U.S. due to discriminatory laws. Enacted in 1875, the Page Act was particularly detrimental. It was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant to stop what he and others perceived to be the kidnapping and sex trafficking of Chinese women forcibly brought to the U.S. While prostitution of Chinese and other women was a general feature of the frontier west, the Page Act targeted Chinese women alone. It effectively banned all Chinese women, including the family members of Chinese immigrants, from entering the U.S. Consequently, the 1880 ratio of Chinese men to Chinese women in the U.S. was a lopsided 21:1. Not until 1980, 15 years after Congress enacted major immigration reforms in 1965, did the ratio even out to 1:1.

Had the Page Act not been passed, Point Alones might have been the first of many communities comprised of Chinese immigrants and their Chinese American children. Their lives might have paralleled those of the Point Alones families. And the intergenerational transfer of social, cultural, and economic capital might have transformed the future of Chinese in America.

( Film clip caption: Chinese in the Frontier West is Part II of Loni Ding’s documentary film entitled Ancestors in America. Its intriguing description of Point Alones led to my identification of the fishing village as my great-grandmother’s home from birth to marriage.)

“Might-haves” fortunately did not pertain to my great-grandmother’s Chinese America. She lived in the reality of a dynamic community built by her parents and other pioneers. To me, they all together fostered in Susie a strong sense of place where she could:

Live at home in the universe,

Count on her parents to be the ballast of her childhood and adolescence,

Value collectivism and the common good,

Turn vision into reality!

Afterword

In 1896 my great-grandmother Susie Wong was match-married to James Lee Bowen and left the Point Alones village to live with her husband and his parents in San Francisco Chinatown. While that turning point culminated Susie’s Point Alones story, the story of Point Alones itself continued for another decade until 1906. In May of that year, a fire struck Point Alones. No lives were lost, but the inferno was devastating. All but 16 of 100 buildings burned to the ground. The remains of Point Alones were vandalized and looted. The Pacific Improvement Company, the village’s landlord since the 1880s, wanted to develop the property that was the village. Taking advantage of the destruction caused by the fire, the company ordered the families to vacate the land by February 1906. It built a fence around the burned ruins and posted guards at the entrance. Led by leaders such as Quock Tuck Lee, the villagers refused, occupying buildings still standing, constructing new ones, and clashing with the guards. They filed charges against the guards and lawsuits against the Pacific Improvement Company. The standoff ended in October 1906 when the villagers negotiated with J.B. McAbee for a lease on his beach, a quarter mile away from Point Alones. The 50-year-long story of Point Alones effectively ended then, but its legacy lives on, in part, I hope, in this story of my great-grandmother.

When the Point Alones village was created in the 1850s, the town of Pacific Grove did not yet exist. When it was founded in 1875, its shared boundary with the 105-year-old town of Monterey, ran through the Point Alones community, with Pacific Grove on the village’s westside and Monterey on the eastside. Many years later, in May 2022, the city council of Pacific Grove issued Resolution No. 22-024. The title was Apology to Chinese Village Community and Descendants for Systemic Discrimination, Acts of Fundamental Injustice, Violence, and Cruelty, Seeking Forgiveness and Committing to the Rectification and Redress of Past Policies and Actions. The “Chinese Village Community” is identified in the body of the resolution as the “Point Alones Fishing Village.”

The resolution includes a brief history of the founding and contributions of the Point Alones village and, in greater detail, implies the complicity of Pacific Grove in looting and vandalism following the 1906 fire and in the subsequent implementation and passage of policies and practices of structural racism impacting the villagers and their descendants. Specifically described is Pacific Grove’s Festival of Lanterns. The resolution details the festival’s “racist and stereotypical caricatures of Chinese women and men, insensitivity toward the history and prejudice and Chinese persecution in Pacific Grove, and cultural appropriation of the authentic Chinese heritage looted and destroyed in the fire.” Prior to approving the resolution, in February 2022, the city council permanently cancelled the annual Festival of Lanterns, originally held in 1905 and revived in 1958.

Pacific Grove’s actions regarding the festival and the resolution took place after the passing of Gerry Low-Sabado in September 2021. Low-Sabado worked for more than ten years to bring national and local attention to the little-known Point Alones Fishing Village. She was on a mission of passion, having grown up in Monterey but discovering by pure happenstance later in life that she was a fifth-generation descendent of Quock Mui, the first Chinese woman born in the Monterey Peninsula in 1859. (Quock Mui was the older sister of the Point Alones middleman Quock Tuck Lee. Their parents were among the seafarers who made their way from China to the Monterey Peninsula by junk.) Low-Sabado advised other Chinese Americans not to “let people sweep our stories under the carpet.” She tried to “bring about change through kindness,” persisting even after years of conversation with the likes of the Festival of Lanterns resulted in nothing but tokens of incremental change. I know Gerry Low-Sabado solely through the lens of the internet, but in my view, she epitomizes the heroic spirit of our Point Alones ancestors. Endless credit is due to her as the ethical and educational impetus behind the Pacific Grove apology and festival decision. Low-Sabado received the Northern California ACLU Ralph B. Abernathy Civil Liberties Award in 2017. Her oral history of “Chinese Monterey” is archived by The Museum of Monterey here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4MvQC7YEyzc.

References

 Chinese in the Frontier West. Written and directed by Loni Ding. 2001. Program Information. PBS. https://www.pbs.org/ancestorsintheamericas/program2_1.html. This documentary film is available on Kanopy at https://www.kanopy.com/en.

 “Chinese Fishery, Monterey, CA,” west coast scenery. NOAA Photo Library. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. https://photolib.noaa.gov/Collections/Historic-Fisheries/Other/emodule/710/eitem/25594.

 City of Pacific Grove (May 12, 2022). Resolution No. 22-024. https://files.cityofpacificgrove.org/22-024%20Chinese%20Village%20Apology%20Reso.pdf.

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Jeung, Russell (May 22, 2022). “Stop AAPI Hate: The Point Alones Chinese Fishing Village and Intergenerational Trauma,” Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BrIfbS7TQzg. Jeung is a descendant of a Point Alones family.

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Wang, Claire (March 31, 2020). A Chinese Fishing Village Regains Its Rightful Place in California History. Atlas Obscura, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/how-chinese-fishermen-helped-build-california

Wong Chinese Last Name Facts, My China Roots, https://www.mychinaroots.com/surnames/detail?word=汪, accessed May 24, 2023.

Author’s Bio: A fifth-generation Chinese American, Linda Wing worked for 50 years to empower invisible, disenfranchised and underrepresented students by advancing equitable and excellent education at the PreK12 and postsecondary levels. She had the unique opportunity to pursue these goals in school systems and universities throughout the U.S. — the Bay Area, the Inland Empire, the South Side of Chicago, and Boston. Linda is glad to be back in the Bay where, as a beginning high school teacher, she joined Asian American parents to develop an Asian American Studies curriculum and gained their trust to teach their children Asian American History and Literature.

1 Comments

  1. Sharyn Bowen on June 5, 2023 at 10:35 am

    Wow! All about US! Amazing work and an important legacy.



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