The History of Lun Fong Lim
By Suzi Lim-Au
Edited by David Lim - January 13, 1999
As I looked into my Grandfather's eyes, I realized how little I knew about this man I had known and called "Grandpa" all my life. I interviewed him on February 11, 1988 at his home in Montebello and after the first 15 minutes, I realized how similar his life and experiences were to those of the early Chinese immigrants I had learned about in school.
Yet knowing that this was "Grandpa" and not just some Chinese immigrant waiting on table at a Chinese restaurant and struggling to make a better life for himself made this part of history very personal. Hearing his experiences evoked mixed emotions -- sadness in knowing his struggle, relief in knowing anti-Chinese prejudice was fading, and pride and appreciation in the fact that my Grandfather was a vital part of America's history and was responsible for the present success and lifestyle of our family. This is my Grandfather's story. . .
Background: You Toy Lim (Great Grandfather)
On September 6, 1909, my grandfather, Lun Fong Lim, was born in Dong Wu Village, Canton, China. That year, his father, You Toy Lim, had returned to China from the United States for the sole purpose of having a son.
In 1902, You Toy had entered the U.S., despite the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which forbid the entrance of Chinese immigrant laborers into the U.S. You Toy thwarted the Chinese Exclusion Act by immigrating first to Mexico.
You Toy worked in Mexico as a farm laborer for three months, then crossed the border into the U.S.
where he continued to work on farms throughout California. By 1906, he had settled in San Francisco,
where he met with some good luck.
In the early morning hours of April 18, 1906, a great earthquake shook the city of San Francisco.
The earthquake and resulting fires destroyed much of the city, including many of the immigration
records for Chinese immigrants.
The loss of these records gave many Chinese immigrants the opportunity to "recreate" their records.
You Toy was therefore able to claim that he had been born in the U.S., that he resided on 1917 Clay
Street in San Francisco, and that he had a son back in China! Without proof to the contrary, the U.S.
granted him U.S. citizenship. This was important, because with U.S citizenship, You Toy was able to
return to China without having to worry about re-entering the U.S.
After saving up enough money, You Toy returned to China. Lun Fong was born on September 9, 1909.
In 1911, You Toy returned to the United States.
After 1911, You Toy continued to work and save enough money to return home, something that most of the early immigrants were unable to do. He was able to return to China several times, each time claiming to have had another son so other friends and relatives would have the opportunity to come over as his "paper son."
In reality, beside Lun Fong, You Toy had only one other child -- a daughter named Toy Lan, born in 1917. Yet consistent with the Confucian beliefs of the time which held that women are of little significance, Toy Lan's existence was not acknowledged. Instead, You Toy claimed "paper sons," in order to help other Chinese overcome the Chinese Exclusion Act, and immigrate to the U.S. as natural sons of an American-born Chinese.
Lun Fong's Childhood: China
In 1919, Lun Fong's mother, Wong See passed away at the early age of 38 due to unknown causes. On one of You Toy's several trips back to China, he remarried to a woman named Fong See. Lun Fong was thus raised by his mother and then step-mother in the village while his father worked and sent money back from the U.S.
Lun Fong, like most children, had no responsibilities. He "just played" as a child and at the age of eight began to attend school in the village where he learned to read and write Chinese. By the time he was 11, he had completed his education and began helping his mother and the other villagers working in the village and rice fields.
Lun Fong was born and raised in a politically unstable era in China's history. Sun Yat Sen's revolutionary movement
overthrew the Manchu Dynasty, and China was in the early years of a "New Republic." However, being so young, and
living in a rural village, Lun Fong was unaware of any significant political events affecting his life.
Life itself was primitive relative to today's standards. There was no electricity or running water. Each family in the village
was housed in a small, brick house consisting of only the bare necessities -- beds, tables, chairs, an altar and a pen for the
pigs. Since they had not experienced any better standards of living, this was not unbearable for what Lun Fong considered
their "middle class" family.
Nonetheless, You Toy recognized the opportunity to improve this standard of living by taking the initiative and immigrating to the U.S. He was courageous to take that first step and clever to take advantage of opportunities such as the San Francisco earthquake to ensure his success.
Sun Yat Sen
Anti-Chinese Pamphlett, circa 1800’s
Immigration to U.S.
The boat was approximately the size of the "Queen Mary" and the hundred or so other Chinese immigrants were confined to the lower decks of the cargo hull which were equipped with lights, bathrooms and rows of beds. Their fare included three meals a day consisting of Chinese food. Each Sunday they each received one egg. This helped them judge how far they had gone and how much farther they had to go. The trip took approximately three weeks, so by the time they received their third egg, they could expect to reach America. On November 13, 1924, Lun Fong received his third egg and arrived in San Francisco.
Steamship Ticket for Lun Fong Lim
(S.S. President McKinley)
Upon arrival in San Francisco, Lun Fong and the other new immigrants were immediately taken
three kilometers west to Angel Island. There they would wait to be interrogated in order to prove
their status as the natural sons of American-born Chinese.
All immigrants were only allowed to take their bedding. Their suitcases were left in San Francisco
and once a week they were allowed to come back to things they needed.
According to Lun Fong, Angel Island was "like a jail." It was a compound containing barracks
surrounded by barbed wires. However, there were few guards due to the isolated and helpless position
of the internees. The notion that Chinese people were obedient and passive also contributed to the low
number of guards.
Within the barracks were rows of beds with only springs, no mattresses. There was electricity,
Portable heaters, a shower, and restroom area. The 40 or 50 other Chinese immigrants on Angel
Island with Lun Fong spent most of their time gambling and waiting for the boat to arrive with the
immigration officials who would interrogate them. After two weeks of waiting, Lun Fong was
called. He was one of the more fortunate ones, as many immigrants had to wait months before
The interrogations took place on Angel Island and followed a strict set of guidelines. Immigration officials were aware of the attempts by Chinese immigrants to pass off "paper sons" as real sons. Therefore, in order to verify the relationship and status of immigrants claiming to be the sons of American-born men, specific questions were asked pertaining to their family and homes.
These questions were first asked to the sponsor of the immigrant (in this case You Toy), then to the immigrant (Lun Fong), and finally to a witness, usually a relative. The answers given had to match in order to validate their claim. If they did not, they were subject to deportation.
Many immigrants, including You Toy, planned ahead and memorized set answers. Thus, before You Toy sent for Lun Fong, he compiled and simplified all the pertinent information so that it could easily be memorized by all three parties.
For example, Lun Fong's 120-family village was shrunk down to contain only seven families. You Toy wrote down this information and sent it back to Lun Fong in China. Each day for weeks before his departure, Lun Fong studied all this information until he was able to answer each question confidently and correctly. Before boarding the boat for San Francisco, Lun Fong tore up the piece of paper and threw it into the ocean.
The interrogation took approximately two hours and each person was asked more than fifty questions. The interrogator spoke English, so there was an interpreter and also a lawyer present to protect what little rights Lun Fong had at that time. The interrogator had a large file with information about each family or village and often times tried to trick them by telling them that their answers were not the same. Lun Fong was asked such questions as:
What's your name?
Fortunately, You Toy, Lun Fong, and the witness successfully answered the questions, all giving the same answers. On December 26, 1924, Grandpa was released from Angel Island.
Angel Island postcard & baracks
Education in San Francisco
After successfully completing the interrogations on Angel Island and proving that he was in fact the son of You Toy Lim, Lun Fong was immediately released and was met by his father in San Francisco. There he lived in a boarding house in Chinatown where he shared a room with 15 to 20 other Chinese immigrants, a common living arrangement of the time.
The room cost $0.75 per week, and contained no beds -- just mats on the floor, a cooking area, bathroom, electricity, and running water. Lun Fong was supported by his father, who lived in Oakland and worked in a factory burning beef bones for fertilizer.
Lun Fong was 16 at that time and attended school for a year and a half at Commodore Stockton Public School, a school whose student body was predominately Chinese. After his day at Commodore Stockton learning English, he delivered newspapers until five o'clock and then went to Chinese school until six o'clock. Thus, Lun Fong fulfilled his father's wish in obtaining an education. Although somewhat limited, this education provided him with the necessary skills in English to survive in his new country.
Upon completion of his education at Commodore Stockton in 1926, Lun Fong began working at a Chinese restaurant outside of Chinatown in the "white" district. This was very uncommon, as most Chinese immigrants worked in restaurants within Chinatown. He was employed as a busboy earning 15 dollars a month, and was lucky if he received a dollar's tip within that time. Even though the restaurant's patrons were mostly white, they did not bother or harass him.
After a few months working at the restaurant, Lun Fong took a better job in San Mateo as a houseboy in a boarding house. He found this job through an employment agency operated by Chinese who posted job opportunities and made the necessary arrangements in exchange for a small part of their wages.
This particular job required three Chinese boys to serve as cook, dishwasher, and maid. Once the agency found three employees, they sent them to San Mateo to begin their new jobs. The agency paid them 65 dollars a month including room, board, and meals. Lun Fong's duties included washing the dishes and cleaning the tenants' rooms.
The boarding house was coed, and housed mostly whites of various ages who paid 90 dollars a month to live there. Lun Fong and the other two houseboys were not mistreated by the tenants. However, they were segregated and given inferior living conditions. The three of them shared a garage like shack separate from the main house. Unlike the boarding house, it had no running water, bathroom, or insulation. They had to run back and forth from the kitchen to get their water and were allowed to use a separate bathroom (shack) outside made solely for the servants.
Lun Fong continued to work there for a couple years until he saved up approximately 500 dollars.
Return to China and Marriage to Sui Ping Jung
With the 500 dollars he had saved from working as a houseboy, Lun Fong in 1930 bought a ticket for 98 dollars (a special rate for immigrants to encourage them to go back), and returned home to his village in search of a wife.
The accommodations on the boat were similar to those on his first trip and after three weeks he arrived home for the first time in five years.
Like most Chinese marriages, Lun Fong's involved a matchmaker. The matchmaker found a 17-year old girl named Sui Ping Jung in a neighboring village whom he thought would be appropriate for Lun Fong.
After the approval of Sui Ping's parents, the matchmaker made arrangements for Lun Fong to see Sui Ping. The first meeting proved to be unsuccessful as Sui Ping cried and refused to come out of her house. Later, however, Lun Fong was able to see Sui Ping from a distance walking along the street with her friends. He approved of the matchmaker's choice and began the traditional steps of courtship and marriage.
Lun Fong sent winter melon cakes to Sui Ping's family and 15 days later, on March 28, 1930, they were officially married in a ceremony.
Prior to that day, they had never seen or spoken to each other. As the day began, an older lady went to Sui Ping's village, and helped her comb her hair and put on the traditional headdress which covered her entire face. The lady then carried Sui Ping "piggy-back" out of her village to a waiting sedan which carried her to Grandpa's village.
Once outside of Lun Fong's house, Lun Fong came out, bowed, and returned inside. Before going inside, Sui Ping was required to jump over a cloth laid out on the ground containing ten chopsticks and other eating utensils. If she stepped on the cloth, bad luck would come, so two ladies on each side of her actually lifted her across the cloth to make sure she did not step on it.
As Sui Ping entered the house, Lun Fong stood on the third rung of a ladder signifying his superiority and dominance over the relationship (This is another reflection of the common Confucian attitude toward women consistently practiced in Chinese culture).
Once inside, Lun Fong sat on the bed while Sui Ping offered him three glasses of wine. Then both went to the alter in the house and paid their respects to their ancestors by bowing. This completed their "wedding ceremony" and they were officially married. This was followed by a banquet celebration in which the whole village participated. The women prepared the food and ate before the men so that they could serve them later.
Five months after the wedding, Lun Fong returned to San Francisco.
Back in San Francisco
Once back in San Francisco, Lun Fong returned to the boarding house where he lived the first time he arrived. This time he and his roommates paid two dollars a month for rent. The Great Depression was in full force, but Lun Fong found a temporary job in a bakery where he worked for a few months earning 20 dollars per month.
One day a lady informed Lun Fong of a white family near San Mateo who was looking for a Chinese houseboy. The wealthy Buchanon family, whose father was a bank broker, had lived in Shanghai for several years. After the parents were divorced, Mrs. Buchanon brought the children back to the United States. Mr. Buchanon sent back 1000 dollars a month, which allowed Mrs. Buchanon and her two sons and daughter to live very comfortably with a cook, chauffeur, and maid.
Lun Fong filled the position of cook, and received 85 dollars a month, a nice room, and free meals. He was well treated and taken care of by the Buchanon family. After four years of working for them, Lun Fong had saved up enough money to return home and have a son.
Return to China and Travels with the Buchanon Family (WW II)
In 1937, when Lun Fong was twenty-eight years old, he went back to China for the second time since he had
first left, this time to have a son. On January 30, 1937, his first son, Doon Ming was born.
After 13 months in China, Lun Fong received a letter from his former employer, Mrs. Buchanon, asking him
to return because they needed his help. She offered 150 dollars a month as salary.
Lun Fong accepted and flew to Los Angeles, where Mrs. Buchanon sent him airfare to meet them in San
Antonio, Texas, where they were vacationing. After a month in Texas, they settled in Washington, D.C., until
the outbreak of World War II.
At that time, all Japanese and Japanese-Americans were being placed into internment camps because the
government felt they were a threat to national security. Living only half a block from the Japanese embassy in
Washington, Lun Fong was twice mistaken for Japanese. Lun Fong notes, "They catch me two times. The boss,
they get a Scotty dog. I take him out to talk. The FBI, they follow me and my boss just got up. (The FBI said,)
'Well, I want to ask, is this boy a Jap or Chinese?' My boss said, "Well, what do you think? This is not a Jap. This is a Chinese. Chinese-American. You don't believe it . . . I'll go talk to somebody.' After, they (the FBI) went away. The second time I (was) getting off a bus and the same way. They (the FBI) followed me but now (I) got a card. I gave them the card. They looked at it (and said), 'This is a Chinese, okay.'"
Once the war had begun, Mrs. Buchanon became afraid of living in Washington, D.C. Since it was the capital of the United States, she feared getting bombed so she moved the family to a farm in Virginia.
Move to Los Angeles
In 1945, one of Lun Fong's cousins opened up a grocery store in Los Angeles and wrote Lun Fong in Virginia asking him to come help. They offered him the same amount he was getting paid by the Buchanons so he accepted. His cousin sent him the money for the seven day train ride to Los Angeles. Once there, he lived in the store with his cousin and his family and helped run the store until 1949.
Purchased a House
In 1949, two years after restrictive laws prohibiting Chinese from buying homes in Los Angeles had been lifted, Lun Fong had saved up enough money to buy a house and bring over his wife and son. He purchased two houses that had been uprooted to make room for a school and moved them to a lot on Hammel Street. He paid 10,000 dollars for both houses, and the lot. He lived in the front house while renting out the back house.
By 1949, there was a partial relaxation of immigration restrictions due to World War II, the Communist takeover in China, and the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943. It was therefore possible for Sui Ping and Doon Ming to join Lun Fong in America. They arrived in San Pedro, and after two weeks on Terminal Island, they passed the interrogations and went to live on Hammel Street. Lun Fong continued to work in the grocery store, Sui Ping found a job packing vegetables and Doon Ming attended school while working weekends at a Chinese restaurant.
Doon Ming “Harry” Lim
By 1954, Lun Fong had saved up enough money to buy a grocery store of his own. This store was in a predominantly white neighborhood on Hoover Street. With Sui Ping, Lun Fong purchased the business for 6000 dollars and the inventory for 1000 dollars. They rented out the houses on Hammel Street and lived behind the store while all three worked to build the family business. In 1956 there was an addition to the family with the birth of a daughter, Mary Jane.
Over time, the neighborhood around the store fell into urban decay, and was transformed into a predominantly low-income nieghborhood. Business boomed, but so did the problems. In 1961, Doon Ming entered the army, leaving Lun Fong and Sui Ping, with their limited English, to run the business alone. With crime on the increase in the area, and Doon Ming not there to help, the store fell prey to several robberies.
Nonetheless, the family business profited, allowing Lun Fong to purchase a 10-unit apartment building, and later in 1962, a new home costing $32,000 in Montebello.
Conditions in the neighborhood around Hoover Street continued to deteriorate, however, culminating in the
Watts Riots in 1965. In the riots, the family business was destroyed. Lun Fong decided to sell the store and
apartment building. He purchased another grocery store in San Gabriel. There, with Sui Ping, Doon Ming, and
Mary Jane, he worked hard to rebuild the family business into a once again profitable venture.
In 1976, at the age of 67, Lun Fong retired to his home in Montebello. In November 1999, Lun Fong Lim passed
away peacefully in his home.
Watts Riot Damages
Grocery Store in San Gabriel
Lim Family: Sui Ping, Harry, Lun Fong, Mary
dlim Last updated: 4/20/10