Four travelers from East and West.
Four travelers to California.
Two brought as children, one drawn by gold, one taken in arranged marriage.
Generations pass, and their offspring fall in love.
Four travelers converge in one American family.
This story was first published Sept. 23, 2010.
BY ROBERT DIGITALE
In 1947, on the breezy docks of San Francisco Bay, Franklin Chirican Fongson was a man with a new name, a new status and a new mission.
Franklin was born “Kwong Check Fee” around 1910 in the Guangdong province of southern China. His father brought him as a boy to California, along with a sister and a cousin, a “paper son” who filled the spot of a son recently deceased. They settled in Sacramento and in time Franklin’s mother arrived. By sixth grade Franklin had made his elementary school’s honor roll. He had hopes of becoming an engineer or architect. But in order to help a growing family, he left high school before graduation to take a job in a restaurant. He later opened a small grocery store. In the Great Depression, there were few opportunities for Chinese men who lacked the papers of an American citizen.
The family wanted him to find a girl and marry (This was especially the case for a younger sister who had a beau but was forced to abide by the Chinese tradition that the older child marries first). But Franklin, known to relatives as “Chackie,” showed his independent streak by stubbornly refusing to listen to such talk. He told himself he didn’t want to marry until he first had saved enough for a family.
The outbreak of World War II provided new opportunities. Although he was in his 30s, Franklin served briefly in the U.S. Army, which made him eligible to become a U.S. citizen. At the time he was naturalized, Franklin showed his unique approach to life. Private Chuck F. Kwong successfully petitioned a judge for a change of name. He chose “Franklin” as his first name since he was a great admirer of President Franklin D. Rosevelt. “Chirican” was his melding into one word the phrase “Chinese American.” And “Fongson,” he said, meant “the Son of Fong.” “Kwong” and “Fong” were the same in Chinese, he told the court, but “Fong is the more popular.”
Franklin’s new status as a U.S. citizen opened new doors. After leaving the Army, he became a machinist with the Southern Pacific Railroad in Sacramento. He worked there, earning about $120 a month, until he had saved a few thousand dollars. He then began looking for a wife. But to him the pickings were too slim in Sacramento.
So in 1947 he found himself on the San Francisco docks looking out on an immense black-hulled steamship, soon to be underway for a three-week voyage to Hong Kong. As he waited, he stood beside a large wooden trunk he had designed and built, emblazoned with the bold-faced English letters “FC Fongson USA” and the graceful strokes of Chinese calligraphy. He was about 37 years old, just a year or so younger than was Joseph Pike, Robert’s great-great-grandfather, when he had set out from Illinois a century earlier for the California Gold Rush. Both men turned their faces west and set out on the adventure of their lives.
But Franklin C. Fongson wasn’t chasing gold. He was setting sail for China to seek out a woman. He was going as an American citizen with a name he himself invented. And he was determined to look for a bride in his own inimitable way.
My wife knew her father had gone back to China and met her mom, but she didn’t hear many details of his journey until she was a grown woman with children of her own. This made me realize yet again how little we often know about those around us, even those dear to us. Why is this? Are they waiting for us to ask? Do they think we’re unable to hear? When I first met Carol’s parents, I know I was mostly worried about how they would look at me. I never stopped to wonder about the stories from their pasts. Even if I had been curious, I probably would have been too scared to ask questions.
This is the third vignette in the saga of an American family. Next week: John Digitale: Teach a Boy to Ride.
To learn more, go to the “American Risotto” page.
The main characters of “American Risotto” are:
Carol – Robert’s girlfriend
Joseph Pike – Robert’s great-great-grandfather
John Digitale – Robert’s grandfather
Kwong Check Fee/Franklin Fongson – Carol’s father
Ng Sau Ping/Elaine Fongson – Carol’s mother