Second Generation Chinese Share Stories of ‘Jook Sing’

Jean Lau Chin, founder of the New York Chinatown Oral History Project, speaking at the Museum of Chinese in America (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing for Voices of NY)

Jean Lau Chin, founder of the New York Chinatown Oral History Project, speaking at the Museum of Chinese in America (Photo by Rong Xiaoqing for Voices of NY)

A hundred or so Chinese who grew up in New York’s Chinatown gathered at the Museum of Chinese in America on November 1 to listen to Jean Lau Chin, the founder of the New York Chinatown Oral History Project,  talk about the stories about “jook sing,” or second generation Chinese that she collected via the project. Common memories of Chinatown, the discrimination and identity confusion they experienced as well as their routes toward self-confidence and career success drew the audience to the speaker. They also turned the Q&A session into a passionate and emotional story sharing time.

Born in Brooklyn in the 1940s, Chin, like many Chinese children in her generation, studied the Chinese language during her childhood at the after-school program run by the community-based Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association. At the school, she became friends with “jook sing” who were born or lived in Chinatown, and she keeps in contact with many of them to this day.

Chin studied psychology in college and later became the first Asian-American psychologist licensed in Massachusetts. In 2010, after a reunion with some old friends from New York’s Chinatown, she initiated the New York Chinatown Oral History Project to collect stories of people in her generation. “Many documents about the second generation Chinese were written by the West Coast Chinese. There are very few about people who were born or grew up in New York’s Chinatown,” said Chin. “Now the older people are starting to leave this world, taking history away with them.”

This spring, Chin published some of the stories she collected in a book called “Who are the Cantonese Chinese?: NYC Chinatown during the 1940s-60s,” which triggered broad discussion among the readers.

In her memories and those of people she interviewed for the book, Chinatown was very safe in the old days because everyone knew one another. There was a café at the intersection of Mosco Street and Mott Street. It sold western style food, and therefore, became a popular place for the partially Westernized teenagers in Chinatown to hang out.

There was a grassroots organization called “Women’s Association,” which was the first female club founded by immigrant workers in Chinatown. Many “jook sing” had to work in the laundromats run by their families. “When we saw life was so hard in the laundromat, we all decided to escape from it when we were grown,” Chin said.

Many “jook sing” grew up in an environment where the fathers were absent because most fathers, men in the first generation, had to work at restaurants for more than ten hours and six days a week. They rarely saw their children. But one interviewee of Chin’s shared a memory of the glint in his father’s eyes when he did something that made the old man proud. “All jook sings should have seen such a glint in their fathers’ eyes,” Chin said.

Chin said many people she interviewed for the book are pioneers in their own fields, and some are the first Asians in their industry. But when she asked them to talk about their achievements, many people were too modest to talk much. So she had to approach the topic by asking them to talk about the achievements of their friends.

Similarly, the Chinese don’t like to talk too much about their sufferings either. Chin said she interviewed a relative who was a prisoner of war during World War II. He is in his 80s, and he had never talked about this experience to his family before.

During the Q&A, the audience members vied to share their own stories and thoughts. “Now we are all called ‘Cantonese.’ This is wrong. When I was a kid, we spoke Toishanese [Editor’s note: Toishanese is a dialect in Canton Province] at home. Cantonese sounded a like a foreign language to me,” said a woman. A man said he was in a middle school in Brooklyn in the 1950s and was the only Chinese in his class. He made some Jewish friends and started to reject Chinese culture. “That was the only way to survive then,” he said.

Some one said to join the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts was a way to conquer the identity issue because such membership meant acceptance by mainstream society. A man with white hair brought up the popular saying among older generation Chinese. “You remember what they say? ‘Jook sing is useless’ because we don’t know the Chinese culture and we don’t know the American culture,” he said. And the audience chortled.

Fangfang Chan, who came to the U.S. from China in 1968 when she was eight, said she knew no English and only spoke Cantonese then and felt excluded by her classmates. And the loneliness used to make her cry at home every day. Now she is 56 and has multiple degrees in different fields. But Mandarin, which she doesn’t speak much, has become the official language in the Chinese community. She once again feels excluded, but this time from her own community. “The young people coming from China today don’t understand what we have gone through,” she said.

But Yingsheng Lei, an immigrant from China, had a different perspective. Lei brought her toddler son, a jook sing, to the event. “No matter whether we were born here or born in China, we all have yellow skin and black eyes. We face the same challenges,” she said.

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