My Southern Roots. The Authors Collection.
February 28, 2014
The Southern branch of my family can raise an eyebrow or two.
Like the rest of us, they’re of Chinese stock, descended from one of the waves of immigration that began in the 1850s and never really ended.
But when they start talking, the slow, Alabama drawl just doesn’t seem to fit the picture.
One of my cousins has a nice, deep voice. He sounds quite a bit like Elvis Presley. I’ve got to ask him to sing “Love Me Tender” one of these days.
My mother was born and raised in Mobile. Her father – my grandfather – tracked down a cousin when he arrived in the United States. For reasons that are unknown to me, this cousin had chosen to settle in Alabama rather than, say, California, the Midwest or East Coast.
The family did well there. They started a laundry. (This was pre-World War I.) Over the years, it included dry cleaning as well. With more branches and a fleet of vans, Chin Laundries became rather famous in the Mobile area. Occasionally, I’ll run into an old timer from that era and area and they’ll remember the laundry and the vans with their distinctive green and red logos.
When I was growing up in California, my mother would haul the four kids back to Mobile every other year. It was an exotic trip for us. We stayed for a month in my grandparents’ home. It was on Mobile Bay. A long wharf ran out into the water with a small boathouse at the end. Our cousins taught us to water ski. We fished with long bamboo poles. We tied bones from the previous night’s dinner to the wharf and dangle them in the water eight feet below. Every few minutes, we’d pull them up and harvest whatever crabs had latched on. By the end of the day, we’d have enough for my grandmother throw them all in a big pot of boiling water for an impromptu crab feed.
In the summer heat, there was only a single air conditioning unit cooling the living room. Otherwise, we were exposed to the humidity and the rich earthy smells of the ocean and muddy bay lands. Some of us slept on a screened sleeping porch.
In the early years, Jim Crow was firmly entrenched in the South. I remember seeing bathrooms and water fountains for “whites” and “colored,” even in the family laundry plant which employed a fair number of workers.
At the time, various state laws as well as local customs and practices determined whether Chinese were treated as “white,” “colored” or something in between. In Mobile, at least, my family was treated as “white.” My uncle became an established member of the local business community. In the mid-60s, my cousin was president of his high school. I think it would have blown their minds had they been forced to drink from the “colored” fountains. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that a family considered “colored” would have been able to grow a laundry into a successful dry cleaning chain.
The Alabama family divided when the three daughters, including my mother, reached marrying age. One by one, they were shipped to California where college and eligible Chinese men awaited. Only my uncle and his family remained.
I get there only rarely these days. In my third novel, however (Megan’s Cure, which has just become available), I set much of the story in Alabama and parts of the South. It gave me a chance to visit Mobile again so I could write those parts a little more authentically.
It was a great trip. I visited the Southern branch of the family. I caught a couple of crabs. I waded out a long way from shore in the deep mud that came up almost to my knees. My own kids got a taste of what it was like to spend chunks of my summers there. Now, if I could have just gotten Richard to sing “Love Me Tender,” it would have been perfect.
Please click the book cover image to read more about Robert B. Lowe’s newest novel: Megan’s Cure.