.George Ow’s Chinatown

GTW101013An excerpt from ‘Santa Cruz is in the Heart Vol. II’

In the spring when the willows and chickens grew fat again and the plum trees blossomed pink and white in the Chinatown yards near the river, the old man with the scruffy beard and tobacco breath sat back in the quiet splendor of the warm April sun and watched with great delight the group of young children playing at his feet.

Far off in the distance, he could hear the children’s grandmother, Gue Shee Lee, turning over the soil of her garden, and the San Lorenzo River tumbling gently through the town. He could smell the fish drying on the porches and the herbs from the kitchens and the faint, sweet wisps of Chinese tobacco in the air. The world had changed many times in his life he thought, as he watched the scene unfolding before him, and it would change many times more before he was gone.

Chin Lai closed his eyes and felt the sun on his face. Another old Chinese man, Ah Fook, hurried by carrying a gunny sack full of fish he had just caught on his daily journey to the wharf. Still another, Moon Lai Bok, carried a load of stove wood on his back. The children watched the old men amble along the gravel road as they played.

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cover1One of them, 4-year-old George Ow Jr., climbed up into the warm comfort of Chin Lai’s lap. He always felt safe there, far away from the outside world where his people were still all too often called “chinks” and “slant-eyes.” The old men always protected him and showered him with love, and he reserved for them his greatest respect and admiration. They had come to California a half-century earlier, to what they called the land of Gum Shan, Gold Mountain, a place of wealth and dreams.

It was the spring of 1947 and Santa Cruz’s aging, ramshackle Chinatown was a happy place for a young boy to be growing up. All about him, new life seemed to be singing everywhere.

Time, however, was moving quickly, perhaps more quickly than anyone realized. The world was changing rapidly. In less than a decade, Chin Lai, Ah Fook and Moon Lai Bok would be dead, and the Santa Cruz Chinatown would be dead, too. No longer would the plum trees blossom in springtime, nor the chickens grow plump and sassy. Chinatown would be gone, paved over for redevelopment, and young George Ow Jr. and his family would be living in Monterey.

Long before the final days of the Santa Cruz Chinatown, a young man from the Canton region of China journeyed to the United States to seek work and wealth, and to escape the poverty of his native land. He was George Ow’s paternal grandfather, Lam Pon, and he came to the U.S. before the turn of the century as a so-called “merchant” to sidestep the Chinese Immigration Act which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers to the U.S. after 1882.

Like many of his fellow countrymen, it is believed he worked on the railroads when he first arrived. Later, Lam Pon worked as a cook and laundryman. Eventually, he arrived in Santa Cruz, home to a small, though somewhat thriving, Chinese community, and he found work as a cook at the Riverside Hotel, along the San Lorenzo River.

cover2In 1905, notes Sandy Lydon’s superb book “Chinese Gold,” “Lam Pon entered a lease agreement with Ralph J. Mattison of Aptos and built a two-chimney apple dryer on the field behind the Bayview Hotel.  By 1910, Lam Pon was secure enough in his business to consider marriage to a young California-born Chinese woman from Pleasanton, California.” Her name was Ow Shee.

By the 1920s, Lam Pon expanded his business base by opening the first Chinese restaurant in Santa Cruz and a small Chinatown bank. The Lams’ eldest daughter, Anna, was born in 1912.

In an interview conducted in the 1980s, Anna Lam Liu remembered her father, Lam Pon, as a stern man with a great deal of drive and discipline. She recalled her mother, Ow Shee, as being “very traditional.” Although born in the U.S., Ow Shee had returned to China at the age of five to receive a traditional Chinese upbringing. “She never learned to speak English,” Liu noted. “It was as if she were born back there. The only thing was that she was an American citizen, so she was entitled to come back. Her marriage to my father was arranged—every bit of it.”

During the apple-drying season, the Lam family would reside in Aptos, then return to Santa Cruz Chinatown for the remainder of the year. While her father was able to come and go as he pleased, Liu remembers that her mother was “a prisoner of the house … The farthest she could go was maybe a few blocks away, and even that would cause a stir among the old men who lived there.”

While Lam Pon was not constrained by his gender, he continued to feel restrained by the anti-Chinese laws and public sentiments which were still very much extant in the U.S. During the 1920s, he and his family had traveled back and forth to China (on one such journey, he adopted a son), and even though he was a successful businessman, by 1930 he had decided to return permanently to his home in China.

“He was a proud man and had been financially successful,” his adopted son, the late George Ow Sr., remembered, “but like most Chinese in America at that time, he still felt a certain amount of discrimination. He couldn’t buy property or become a citizen. In other words, he couldn’t fully enjoy his prosperity, so he went back to China.”

During the 1930s, China was a world waiting to be transformed. The once quiet, feudal nation was on the verge of being caught in a vortex of internal revolution and international conflict. In 1937, as the Japanese were invading Shanghai, miles to the north of Canton, Lam Pon saw the writing on the wall. He had made his peace with his homeland, but his son, he decided, should return to Gold Mountain.

In strict terms of the law, Ow was an illegal alien. Although his mother was indeed a native-born American, she had lost her citizenship when she married a non-citizen, Lam Pon. He was thus a “paper son,” claiming to be the offspring of his mother’s brother living in Arizona.

George Ow Sr. arrived in the City of St. Francis with two American dollars in his pocket, a strong will, and the name of an uncle, Lam Sing, who operated the Canton Market, located on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz. Ow Sr. began working at the market, started school at Mission Hill Junior High, and graduated from Santa Cruz High in 1940.

cover3GueSheeLeeGeorgeDavidChanges, however, were once again imminent. The Pacific war, which the 16-year-old boy from Canton had sought to escape, crossed the ocean in December of 1941, and by 1942 it had caught up with him. After Pearl Harbor, Ow was drafted into the U.S. Army, but not before marrying a young Santa Cruz woman he had taken a fancy to, Emily Lee.

They were married in February of 1942.

By the beginning of the Second World War, only a few families were still residing in the Santa Cruz Chinatown, one of which was the clan of Sung Sai Lee and Gue Shee Lee.

Sung Sai Lee was born in the village of Sien Toon, China, in 1881. His father was of the generation of Chinese men that had come to the U.S. to build the railroad, and, near the turn of the century, Sung Sai himself journeyed to the U.S. for seven years.

In 1919, well after his first wife had died, Sung Sai married a young woman from the neighboring village of Heang Sun. Her given name was Han Thein, meaning “a heart of no worry”; she was 19 years old at the time of her marriage and assumed the married name of Gue Shee Lee.

Three years later, Sung Sai Lee decided it was time for him and his wife to return to the U.S. Because his father had been to America, Sung Sai was able to claim citizenship for himself and his wife. The couple left China by boat in October 1922, with Gue Shee seven months pregnant.

In 1925, the Lees moved to Santa Cruz, where they had often visited during the summers. They purchased a home on Bellevue Place in Chinatown, and Sung Sai was hired as a cook at the Wilder Dairy Ranch, a few miles north of Santa Cruz. It was a job he was to keep until the end of his life. He worked and stayed at the ranch six days a week, returning home on Sundays to visit his growing family.

The task of raising the family brood was thus left almost entirely to Gue Shee. Eventually she had seven children—George, Emily, Rose, Wee, Young, Luella and Jun—and they all were raised in the small, wood-framed home in the last Santa Cruz Chinatown, often referred to as “Birkenseer’s Place” or simply “China Lane.”

By the winter of 1942, George Ow Sr., and Emily had married. Their first child, George Jr., was born in January of the following year. Emily went from taking care of her mother’s youngest children to taking care of her own.

Across the ocean, in the Pacific campaign of World War II, George Ow Sr. encountered the brutalities of war he had sought to escape as a 16-year-old in China. As a member of the Army’s 40th Division, he was a part of the Guadalcanal campaign and the force that invaded the Philippines, then controlled by the Japanese.

War weary and ready to get on with a business career, Ow returned to Santa Cruz in 1945. Opportunity soon struck when some distant family members were selling a grocery store on the Monterey Peninsula. So the Ows moved 40 miles south, where they began operating the New Monterey Market, just up from Cannery Row. The Ows first two children, George and David, stayed with their grandmother in Chinatown while their parents built their business across the bay.

In 1960, the Ows were hit with some unexpected competition. A Chinese family from Visalia built the Monterey Peninsula’s first true supermarket, Monte Mart, only three blocks from the Ows. Although still able to hold their own financially, the Ows knew that another move was in order. Two years later, it came. By now the Ows had seven children. In addition to George and David, there were Terry, Richard, Tom, Mary and Jeannee.

George Ow Sr. had been fascinated by business ever since he was a young boy watching his father, Lam Pon, and he was an avid reader of business journals. In one such journal, he read a story that indicated that the most valuable commercial property in any given locale was that at the first major intersection off a freeway cloverleaf. Ow searched Monterey, Salinas and San Jose for such a property, but the land was either unavailable or too expensive.

Finally, he turned to Santa Cruz and found just the piece he was looking for at the corner of 41st Avenue and Capitola Road. Ow named the family’s new 25,000-square-foot store “King’s Market.” Employing his first intersection-off-a-freeway theory a few years later, Ow purchased 36 acres in Scotts Valley on Mount Hermon Road. Ow’s brother-in-law, Jun Lee, who later served as mayor of Scotts Valley, arranged the sale of a former dairy farm. The Ows built King’s Food there in 1966 and developed the area’s first large shopping center.

Once again, the elder Ow foresaw the tremendous growth that was to hit the area, and his business ventures flourished.

All the while, the Ows’ son, George Jr., was being groomed to take over the family business. Traditional Chinese custom dictated that the eldest son be prepared to handle the rights and responsibilities of the father, and thus was George, Jr. raised. Ow Sr. always believed that his eldest child had been born under a lucky star and he developed a confidence in him at an early age.

covwer4His Chinese name was Ow Wing Hong, and the year of his birth, 1943 (the Year of the Horse in the Chinese calendar), was the same year in which the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. Unlike his ancestors, he would have the full rights of a U.S. citizen. With his parents establishing their grocery business in Monterey in the years following World War II, George remained with his grandmother, Gue Shee Lee, in Santa Cruz until he was 7 years old. It was not an altogether easy time.

Even as late as the 1940s, Santa Cruz still hadn’t fully accepted its Chinese residents, and the Santa Cruz Chinatown in which George and his younger brother were raised remained a community somewhat separate and apart from the rest of the city. When the 6-year-old Ow first attended Laurel School (now the Louden Nelson Community Center), he remembers being “teased and jostled” by his classmates for being Chinese.

“It was terrible,” he says, the pain still evident in his face. “Every day during recess I would be harassed. It was very hard. I’m not sure if the teachers were aware of it, or if they just didn’t care, or if they thought the kids were just having fun. It didn’t matter. After a while, I just wouldn’t go out there anymore. I’d stay in and read. And so I became an avid reader.”

The confines of the rickety wooden Santa Cruz Chinatown thus became a sanctuary for the young Ow. There, he felt safe and secure from the taunts and viciousness of the outside world. He developed a special bond with his hard-working grandmother and with the aging Chinese men who still lived in the Tong house overlooking the San Lorenzo River.

“They were very old then; many of them had been born in the 1860s,” he recalls. “And, of course, the laws at the time prevented them from marrying. So the kids in Chinatown—and I was one of the first—were kind of like their family. They were always warm and friendly and seemed to enjoy us kids a lot … Chinatown was actually a great place to grow up. There was the river and the fields and the fruit trees, and we played all over. It was really nice down there.”

In the fall of 1950, however, Ow and his brother David joined his parents permanently in Monterey. While he missed the friendly confines of Bellevue Place, he was relieved to discover a more liberal racial atmosphere on the Monterey Peninsula. “It just felt more relaxed. There were a lot of different types of people—Italians, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, Slavs, recent migrants from Texas and Oklahoma. It was more tolerant.”

But not perfect, and Ow still received an occasional taunt at school. This time he responded differently. “In Santa Cruz, I didn’t have the confidence to fight back. There just seemed to be too many of them. But in Monterey, I didn’t feel so alone, and for the first time I fought back. And after that, they didn’t bother me anymore.”

Ow graduated from Monterey High School in 1960. He was a good student, though not all that academically inspired until he got to Monterey Peninsula College. Still working full time in the family business, he nonetheless graduated summa cum laude in 1963 and was accepted into San Francisco State. From there he graduated cum laude with a B.A. in Business Administration, and in 1966 he earned an M.B.A. at the University of California at Los Angeles.

cover5Two years later, Ow received an education of a different sort, this time in the jungles of Vietnam, where he served as an officer with the Army’s 101st Airborne Division and ran a medical supply station near Hue in the grim months following the Tet Offensive.

It was Ow’s first time in Asia, and though racist remarks were commonplace when referring to the enemy (“gooks,” “dinks,” etc.), Ow felt completely at ease with his fellow soldiers. “I was very much a part of my unit,” Ow notes. “In their eyes, I wasn’t anything but American. I was very proud to serve my country as an officer. My father had served during World War II, and I felt a continuity there. But just like everyone else in Vietnam, I could hardly wait to get home.”

Ow returned home to Santa Cruz from the Army in 1970 after achieving the rank of captain. By then his father had decided it was time to pass on the responsibility of running the family enterprise to his eldest son. He was 27 years old.

After taking over the reins of the family finances, Ow Jr. quickly expanded the Ows’ holdings at both their shopping centers and also supported several of his younger siblings in establishing businesses of their own. Today he works closely with various siblings, his children, nieces and nephews in overseeing the family’s shopping centers.

“My mind is always open to new ideas,” Ow notes. “I learned from my father that the key to being a good businessman is trusting your own intuitions, of being open to possibilities. For me, business is very exciting. Flexibility is the key to success. You have to dance lightly.”

The family enterprise continues to expand.

Ow’s wife, Gail Michaelis-Ow has worked as a nurse practitioner at Planned Parenthood for more than 30 years. “One of the things that first impressed me about Gail,” says Ow, “was that she was a nurse—a person in a field that helped people.”

Today, two of Ow’s sons, William and Benjamin, have assumed major roles in the family operations. A third son, Andrew, practices law in Los Angeles. Several of his nieces and nephews are also currently involved in the family enterprise, including Karen Ow, Chris Ow, Jasmine Ow Hurst, Matt Turner and Courtney Turner.

Lest anyone think otherwise, however, the Ows are hardly all business. With George Jr. as the driving force, the family has established itself as one of the biggest supporters of the arts, scholarships and community services in the Monterey Bay area. At a time when federal economic policy has cut significantly into public coffers, the Ows have generously contributed to artists, community service programs, and aspiring students in need.

One night in 1979, Ow was driving down Mission Street with his eldest son, William. Near the juncture of King and High streets he spotted someone painting a whale mural on the side of the building. “I was completely engrossed in business at the time,” Ow said, “and here was this young guy painting at night with his headlights pointed at the wall. It was remarkable. It touched me. I could see how great it was to have an artistic vision that you could live for. I thought this must have been what Mozart was like—to be connected with the infinite.” The artist was Daniel Burgevin, and Ow soon commissioned him to complete a mural at his 41st Avenue complex.

“It struck me that with just a little money and some wall space, there could be a great work of art. There is so much talent in Santa Cruz that only needs a little support to make it blossom. I see myself as a conduit.” Since the first mural many years ago, Ow has supported a series of dance, drama, film, sculpting, writing projects, and founded the Capitola Book Company in homage to his love of reading.

cover6Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston, who wrote “Farewell to Manzanar” with her late husband, James D. Houston, says she feels “empowered” by her friendship with Ow.

“George’s sense of community and creativity reflects my own notion of Asian sensibilities,” she explained. “He has a deep feeling of interdependence, of understanding that his own destiny is linked to those around him. He has a unique way of looking at purpose and of encouraging creativity because his own yin and yang energies are in balance. He’s been strongly influenced by the Chinese philosophy handed down by his father: you’re only as successful as the rest of your community.”

Educational opportunities for the disadvantaged are also a high priority for the Ows, and the family currently sponsors 50 scholarships annually for re-entry women and underprivileged students attending Cabrillo College, now totaling nearly 1,000 over the years. In June of 1988, George Ow Jr. was named an Honorary Fellow at Cowell College in recognition of his commitment to education. In 2012, George and Gail were honored by the University of California at Santa Cruz with a Fiat Lux Award.

Ow, who turned 70 this year, and stays active in the family business, is also focusing his energies on his immediate clan. He now has three grandchildren—Jaden, Weston and Jackson. “My wife, Gail, is my teacher in respect to being a father and grandfather,” he says. “She’s great with the kids, and I feel like I still have a lot to learn from her. I feel very lucky to have her as a partner.

“Because of the various laws aimed at the Chinese, the old Chinese men I grew up with were never able to have wives or children. How lucky I am to be blessed with such a large family. Sometimes I think it must have been very lonely for them.” He paused, as though saddened by the thought. “Yes. Very lonely.”

Another project that Ow has helped fund is the rehabilitation of the old Chinese section of Evergreen Cemetery (run by the Museum of Art & History) in Harvey West Park. “I think that the spirits of Chin Lai and Ah Fook and the other old bachelors are coming back to life again in the new generation,” says the man who sat in their laps as a young boy.

“I have a feeling that they are all here with us today, pulling for us,” he says with no small amount of emotion. “If you look at their oppression as a pushing down of their energies and opportunities, today it’s like a volcano exploding. And I can feel them here with us. It’s a much better time for them to be living.”

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FRIDAY, Oct. 11. Book Signing and Interview. The Museum of Art & History will host the book launch of Geoffrey Dunn’s “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II,” from 6-8:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 11, in the Museum of Art & History atrium. Interview with Wallace Baine from 7-7:45 p.m. Free Friday at the Museum. 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. Call 429-1964 or visit mahsantacruzmah.org/event/santa-cruz-is-in-the-heart-book-launch/

Monday, Oct. 21. Book Signing and Reading. Bookshop Santa Cruz will host a book signing and special reading from Geoffrey Dunn’s “Santa Cruz Is in the Heart: Volume II” at 7 p.m on Monday, Oct. 21,. Free. 1520 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Call 423-0900 or visit bookshopsantacruz.com/event/geoffrey-dunn-0

The Santa Cruz Wharf is in the Heart Saturday, Oct. 12, 12 noon–2pm
Celebrate 100 years of wharf history with a very special Pop Up Museum serving as the kickoff of the wharf’s centennial celebration. Historian Geoffrey Dunn will be on hand to facilitate the activities (co-sponsored by the Museum of Art & History and the City of Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department) along with special guest Santa Cruz Mayor Hilary Bryant and members of families that have worked on the wharf for decades. Bring photographs, artifacts, stories and maybe even a fishing pole. Dunn says he promises to bring some wharf photos from his personal archive never before seen in public. Fine wines by Vino Prima will be available as well as hors d’oeuvres by Firefish Café, Olitas and more. Santa Cruz Wharf (Main Stage). Info click here.


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