By Charlie Chin. Posted March 13, 2023.
Tutti didn’t see the truck that killed him. I remember he was looking back at me and laughing as he got out of the van. The driver of the Ford Ram had swerved to avoid hitting a school kid crossing the street. I jumped out of the driver’s side and shouted Tutti’s name. But he was lying motionless on the ground. I instantly knew that Tutti was dead.
I first met Tutti when the Ace plumbing company had an open call for workers. I was standing in line to get a company form. They wanted contact information, next of kin, our I.D. photo, and so forth. I didn’t have a pen so I asked the guy in front of me if I could borrow one. He turned around, smiled, and extended his hand,
“Tutti Lee.” I took a good look at him. He had a nice smile, a kind of weird, shaped head with light brown hair and high cheek bones. Mixed heritage, most likely European and Asian. I gripped his hand firmly.
“Thanks for lending me a pen, I’m Jerry Ong.”
We both made the cut and ended up working for Ace Plumbing Company. The pay was good. Maybe because we signed up on the same day, the company assigned us to work together. Mostly of the work was toilet overflow, kitchen leaks, stopped sink drains, simple stuff, nothing complicated. We rode around in the big white company van making jokes, telling off-color stories, and talking about women. We found places to have cheap lunch and became good buddies, almost like brothers.
When I ran out of sexist jokes and questionable stories, I told Tutti about my life. We owned the Ong Family grocery store and my dad doubled as the local butcher in a little California Valley town where I grew up near Hanover.
After a couple of months, I began to worry that I was boring Tutti. He never said much about where he was raised and his people. Once, he mentioned something about a sister in passing, but that was it. The next Monday, things were slow. We had lunch at Heidi’s Pies on El Camino in San Mateo, and then went back to the truck to see if there any more calls. There weren’t, so we sat back and relaxed.
I took the chance to encourage Tutti to talk about himself.
“Tutti, I’ve been jabbering about my folks, where did you grow up?
“There’s not much to tell. I was born in Singapore.”
“I came over to the States when I was very young, about six years old. It’s a long story.”
“Hey, we got nothing on the books for this afternoon. We got time, tell me about it.” Tutti gave it some thought,
“Well, my great-grandfather was with the British Foreign Service, his name was Wellington Barton Lee. He was sent to Shanghai by the English government as diplomat. He was there for several years. He had an ear for languages, and he learned to speak Chinese like a native.
Japanese troops marched in Shanghai’s International Settlement in December 1941.
Tutti quietly smiled as if the story was embarrassing.
“Yeah, he had a high diplomatic job and a mansion, then World War Two happened. Just before the invasion of Shanghai, a servant warned my great-grandfather that the Japanese Army was just outside the city and were going to invade the next day. The man said that Wellington Barton Lee was on a list of Western people to be arrested and put into a concentration camp. Grandfather ran to the docks, found a poor fisherman, and paid him a hundred English pounds cash for his little Sampan boat and clothes. He shed his western suit, put on the rags and a bamboo hat, and fled Shanghai by pretending to be peasant rowing upriver.” Tutti looked out the window for a minute and continued.
“After the Japanese army left, he went back, but everything was gone, Japanese officers had taken over his mansion and stolen everything inside of value. The British foreign Service and army were retreating, he had no I.D. papers, and so to hide his identity and survive, he became one of the boat people. He lived on the harbors and rivers by fishing and smuggling. Local Chinese people noticed that he didn’t look Chinese, but he spoke Chinese perfectly and claimed he was from Xinjiang.
At one point, to survive, he was smuggling opium. Somebody squealed to the police. There was an ambush and a policeman shot him. Granddad was bleeding badly and jumped into the bay. A young girl named Peony from another sampan saw what was happening and to hide him from the police, threw a big bamboo basket into the water to cover his head. Later, she pulled him aboard her boat, hid him, and in time nursed him back to health. After he recovered, he felt he owed his life to Peony, so he married her.
A year later they had a son, born on the river on that little boat. That boy was my grandfather. In the first few years of his life, he never stepped on dry land, just slept, ate, and lived on the sampan. They didn’t have much, but they were happy and free. Then, one year a major typhoon came through Shanghai and swept most of the little boats onto the shore, smashing them to bits. Hundreds were killed. Granddad had tried to anchor the boat to the docks, but the typhoon tore it loose and the boat got swamped. He was swept into the water. He swam to the shore but when he looked back, the boat was gone. He searched for days but he never found the bodies of his parents. He wandered around the back streets of Shanghai, surviving hand to mouth.
He found a job as a busboy in a fancy pleasure house. One night a banquet party got drunk and began talking loudly. Granddad was busing the table plates and overheard a guy telling somebody to bet on a certain horse the next day at the Shanghai Racetrack because it was going to win. The guy got so drunk later, he passed out at the table. Granddad took a chance and lifted the guys’ wallet. Early the next morning he ran to the racetrack and bet on that horse. Well, it won. He sneaked back before the guy woke up, replaced the money, then quit that job with a pocket full of cash.
Shanghai Race Club with Palace Hotel in background.
Granddad knew the fastest way to get rich in Shanghai was black market heroin. But there was a crime boss in Shanghai named “Sugar Tai,” who was the head of the heroin market. You couldn’t sell dope without his permission, so Granddad requested a parley. They met and as they talked, Grandfather asked for a drink of water. When “Sugar Tai’s” bodyguard left the room to get a glass, my grandfather pulled out a 45 automatic and shot the boss in the head point blank. The bodyguard rushed back into the room and Granddad said,
“Well, you can’t protect him now. Why not work for me?” The bodyguard accepted the offer. Within the next five years Granddad became the richest drug dealer in Shanghai.
When the Communist took over China in 1949, granddad fled to Singapore and set up there. With his connections and business skills, he was soon rich again. One night when he went to the banquet of one of his wealthy friends, he saw a girl. She was so beautiful he stopped breathing for a minute. On her father’s side, she was the descendant of an old Cantonese merchant family. They made their money by being compradors during the China Trade in the 1700’s. On her mother’s side, they were upper class Russians, who had fled to Singapore after the Bolshevik revolution. He spared no expense in courting her. He gave her diamond bracelets, silk qi pao dresses, and a Rolls Royce convertible car. Even though he was from a lower class, her family relented and let them marry.
They were very happy together and in time, my dad came along. Granddad was always afraid of kidnappers, so as my dad grew up, there was always a bodyguard with him. Of course, with his money and family connections in Singapore, Dad grew up trading in stocks and bonds and playing polo. One night on a business trip to Paris, he went to the ballet and there he saw my mother performing. She was Taiwanese and educated in France, a stunning beauty, fair skin, slim, and elegant. A perfect match. That very night he went backstage and proposed. Their wedding was the event of the season. Even the Prime Minster of Singapore was a guest.
One of my earliest memories was of the nights when mother went to play Mah Jong with her high society friends. We lived in a rather large house, and after she gave orders for the next day to the servants, she would come upstairs to wish me good night just before I fell asleep. I remember the scent of her French perfume, the softness of the White Fox fur jacket she was wearing brushing against my cheek, and the gentle jangle of the jade and gold bracelets that she wore. I would fall asleep with my mother’s kiss on my forehead.” Tutti sat back smiling at the memories.
Gong Li in the film Shanghai Triad.
I was amazed.
“But how did your parents end up in California?” Tutti smiled,
“I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.”
That was the last thing Tutti said before he opened the door, stepped out of the van, and was hit by that truck. The police were there in a minute. I just stood there in shock. As they put Tutti’s body on a gurney, the ambulance paramedic asked if I knew how to contact Tutti’s family.
I pointed to Tutti’s chest.
“Check the I.D. card hanging around his neck.” The guy looked and commented quietly,
“You want us to call them?” It occurred to me it wasn’t a good idea to have a total stranger informing his people that Tutti was dead.
“No, I’ll do it.”
I drove the van up into Oakland Hills searching for the building listed as Tutti’s home address, but when I got there it looked more like a school than a family home. I went in the big front doors and asked the person at the desk if this was 810 Ellsworth Street, she said yes, so I asked if it was ever a family home. The girl at the desk looked confused and called out,
A pleasant looking middle-aged woman came through an office door,
“I’m Margaret, can I help you?” When I asked how long the building had been there, she said,
“This school has been here since 1955.” I was perplexed,
“Was there ever a family home at this location?”
Chung Mei Boy’s Home in El Cerrito, CA operated from 1935 to 1954. Photo from Chinese Historical & Cultural Project.
“Not that I know.”
I drew out Tutti’s I.D. photo and pointed at it, and asked,
“Have you ever seen this man before?” She took a long look,
“Oh my, that’s Timmy! He was already here when I arrived.” I scratched my head.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” She pointed to a high school soccer team photo on the wall. There was a young Tutti in the front row.
“Oh yes, Tutti was abandoned as an infant at the local train station. The janitor found him in a trash bin. He was wrapped in a towel labeled, “Lee’s Hotel’. The Police said there was no hotel of that name in the area. The poor child had been abused. Somebody had beaten the infant and he had several skull fractures. He got the nickname Tutti, because as a child he couldn’t pronounce the name that the Mother Superior had given him, Timmy. I think he was the longest student to ever stay at the Orphanage, from pre-school, to kindergarten and then high school. When young Tutti was found, it was in all the papers, but nobody ever came forward to claim him.”
Author’s Bio: Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).
Chung Mei Home for Chinese Boys. Orphans and sons of families who could not care for them were not accepted in white orphanages due to racism. The Presbyterian Church founded home for Chinese boys and girls in Oakland and El Cerrito, CA.