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The quake that toppled taboos and built a family

AIMEE LIU's novel, "Cloud Mountain," is based on the story of her grandparents' marriage.

AMONG THE MANY aftershocks of the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 is one that I am observing this centennial week with equal measures of gravity and gratitude. Just six weeks after the disaster, a wedding party that included four Chinese men and their American brides set off from the Oakland train depot, prepared to violate California law. That small band of romantic rebels included my grandparents.

My grandfather Liu Ch’eng-yu was then 31. He had come to San Francisco three years earlier by a circuitous route. The only son of the late viceroy of Canton under the Qing Dynasty, Ch’eng-yu was classically trained as a poet and scholar, groomed to serve in government. But in his headstrong teens he had resolved instead to overthrow China’s imperial system. When his plot to blow up a local armory was exposed, he narrowly escaped beheading. He fled to Tokyo, where he fell under the sway of Sun Yat-sen.

Ch’eng-yu became so enamored with Western-style freedom that he cut off his queue, the pigtail that Chinese men were required to wear as a show of submission to their Manchu rulers. He traded his scholar’s robes for waistcoats and a bowler. In 1903, he stood up at a New Year’s party and called for democracy in China, causing the Japanese and Manchu officials who were present to lose face. Sun arranged for my grandfather to move on to San Francisco, where he would edit the revolutionary newspaper Ta T’ung Daily.

There was just one problem: The Chinese Exclusion Act, which had been in effect since 1882 (and would not be repealed until 1943), forbade Chinese to enter the United States. Exceptions were made only for merchants with an established record of doing business in the U.S. or for students enrolled in American schools. All other Chinese were treated as laborers who “endangered the good order” of society and were denied entry.

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Sun pulled strings to get Ch’eng-yu a student visa. My grandfather would bang the drum of China’s revolution by night and attend classes at UC Berkeley by day. But to succeed, Ch’eng-yu needed tutoring in English. The university directed him to another student, Jennie Ella Trescott, then 25, single and living in a boarding house near the college.

Jennie was a slender strawberry blond with luminous blue eyes. Her majestic air belied her origins as the only child of pioneers, born in Fort Dodge, Kan. Her mother died of diphtheria when Jennie was 2. Her father failed first at cattle ranching and then at selling snake oil from a traveling medicine wagon. He loved his daughter but could not support her. She might have married, but Jennie was as headstrong as Ch’eng-yu. She preferred independence.

This did not mean that she was immune to the lure of men or of luxury. Much later, she would tell her daughters how her dapper and passionate Chinese pupil impressed her with descriptions of Beijing’s Forbidden City and the cache of emeralds, rubies and gold his father had amassed during his service as viceroy. Jennie became enthralled. The contradiction between Ch’eng-yu’s modern dress and politics and his exotic ancestry only made him more intriguing to Jennie. They joked that if she came with him to China, he would make her his “American princess.”

It was an unlikely scenario. He belonged to a despised minority in California. Interracial courtship was taboo. Marriage between Chinese men and Caucasian women was against the law in most of the West. I believe it took an earthquake to make my grandparents’ union possible.

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On April 18, 1906, across the Bay Area, all social conventions and laws were suspended. Streets cracked open. Houses split in two. Fire engulfed downtown San Francisco, forcing thousands to take refuge in Golden Gate Park or escape by the boatload to Sausalito or the East Bay. In the havoc, no one noticed or cared that a single white woman accepted the protection of a Chinese man. Memories and documents conflict, but from what can be pieced together, Jennie landed in a tent city, with Ch’eng-yu standing guard.

Chinatown, and with it the offices of Ta T’ung Daily, was reduced to ashes. University classes were suspended. The quake left both Jennie and Ch’eng-yu homeless, but it also left them, at least temporarily, liberated.

The nearest town where a Chinese man could marry a white woman in 1906 was Evanston, Wyo. To get there required a three-day journey on the Union Pacific. They would not be able to ride in the same car or class, and yet Jennie couldn’t travel alone without opening herself to danger and humiliation. Ch’eng-yu solved that problem by finding six other couples to accompany them. In a surviving photograph taken en route, my grandfather appears by far the most confident of the group’s four Chinese grooms.

In Evanston, the Las Vegas of the Old West, the turnaround time for a certificate of marriage was just 24 hours. The couples witnessed each other’s unions on May 29. Leander C. Hills of the Presbyterian Church certified that the marriage was legal under Wyoming law. In the eyes of the United States, however, Jennie was now Chinese. Federal regulations would not permit her to reclaim her citizenship until 1932.

My grandparents lived together between two continents for nearly 30 years. First, they returned to San Francisco and lived for a while on the outskirts of Chinatown, where my Aunt Blossom was born. Then, in 1911, my grandfather’s dream of a new republic in China was realized by Sun and his followers. Ch’eng-yu took his “American princess” and 3-year-old daughter to Shanghai, where he served as China’s first senator from Hupei Province. By 1921, Jennie had given birth to three more children. My father was their eldest son.

It took an earthquake to bring my grandparents together. A war -- and their own limits -- pulled them apart. Over time, Ch’eng-yu became more and more devoted to China; Jennie never gave up her American loyalties. When Japan invaded China in the 1930s, Ch’eng-yu reluctantly sent Jennie and the children to California, while he retreated with the Nationalists to Chungking.

Ten years ago, I had a friend search the Kuomintang archives in Taipei, and we learned that my grandfather died in Wuchang in 1951. My grandmother lived for another 22 years with her youngest daughter in the Hollywood Hills. Jennie never remarried.


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