COMING OF AGE My dad, the Hotcake King
Gary Jang, March 26, 2018
Henry Jang, my dad, traveled by boat from China to the United States in 1925. We don’t know the circumstances, but we do know he was sponsored by a Chinese man in South Dakota.
Dad’s name was Zhang, a common name in China. Entering the states, men named Zhang, most unable to speak English, became Jang, Jung, and Chung because U.S. immigration officers had to come up with a name for their forms.
Dad was 15 and traveling alone. He couldn’t read or write Chinese, and he couldn’t read, write or speak English. He came from Kaiping, a region south of Canton. The people there were poor. At the time most Chinese in America were from Kaiping.
I know almost nothing about dad’s life in China, and I did not know him well in America either. Mostly he worked hard and had little time for family. I am still trying to learn more about him. Once I hired a man fluent in Chinese to talk to people in China who were second cousins and they may not have known him. But the man was not a professional interpreter and didn’t speak the same dialect as those he interviewed. So I did not learn anything.
Dad was what was known as a “paper son.” Between 1882 and 1943, immigration was limited by the Chinese Exclusion Act. But you could come if you had family here. A Chinese man in South Dakota sponsored him. But he had to answer certain questions, and his answers had to match those of his “father” in South Dakota. Questions like, who was the blind man on the corner in your home village? The immigration officials did not speak Chinese, and the new arrivals spoke no English, so translators were hired. Supposedly the translator worked for the government but often he made sure that the immigrant’s answers matched those of the sponsor.
My dad wound up, not in South Dakota, but in Fargo, North Dakota at a Greek restaurant. He was given room and board and worked before and after school. He learned to read and speak English in three years. We don’t know why he went to Fargo. There was a Chinese café in Fargo, but we know why he didn’t go there. There are a lot of mysteries here.
My dad married a Swedish woman, Cora Sandry. She and her sister were two of the best-looking girls in town. My Swedish grandfather hated my dad’s guts because he was Chinese. My parents had three boys. I was the youngest. My mother left us in 1944. We moved to Stockton, California with dad and I enrolled in first grade. Dad ran a café in each town we lived in.
My mom returned for a time, but could not get along with dad. So she kidnapped us in 1947 and took us to Seattle, where her sister Alvina had become a madam. My aunt also ran a nightclub for a bootlegger named Russian John. My mom was a cocktail waitress.
Mom put us up with cousins in North Bend, and came to visit once a month. Later we moved in with another family. I remember only that they were fat and poor and ate a lot of potatoes. Then we lived with two retired people. Here we had to have manners. We had to dress up for dinner. Until that point I had never eaten as a family unless we went out to dinner.
Then dad found us and we lived with him. He ran a couple of restaurants in North Bend, then in 1950 opened a restaurant in Kirkland. I sold newspapers. My brothers worked as pin-setters in a bowling alley.
In June, 1952 we came to Kenmore where my father became known as the Hotcake King. But at first, to build the business, we also served Chinese food that first summer. There was no Chinese food around then. We worked 12 hours a day. Dad was in the kitchen, my brothers waited on customers out front, and I washed dishes and cut up vegetables and peeled shrimp.
When school started, dad switched to American food only, which was much easier to prepare. We served hotcakes, bacon, or ham for breakfast, and turkey or beef or pork dishes the rest of the day. The hotcakes were 30 cents, all you could eat – bacon or ham extra. The daily lunch special cost one dollar. The customers were mostly working men. After school I washed dishes and swept the floor.
I learned a few things about my dad listening to him talk to the customers. When the restaurant was slow, he would play cards with “Old Man Mac,” a regular. Guys would come in and join the game. There was a tavern next door. Dad had quite the personality. But we didn’t talk much.
My dad died of cancer in November, 1962. That fall I ran the restaurant until he died. I got up at six in the morning to open and worked until ten at night. Then we closed the restaurant.
About this blog: I was a youngster growing up in Kenmore during the post-World War II period. I will be writing periodically about what life was like then in this sleepy little highway town at the north end of Lake Washington.