Around Town: Wealth didn’t cultivate understanding

The cherry trees are blossoming at the Descanso Gardens tea house and it’s snowing in New York.

Good weather attracts all sorts of people to the Foothills.

Several of my adventurous grandparents stayed on the East Coast, after arriving at Ellis Island. At the age of 13, one grandfather was a tailor and also made bathtub gin to earn money to bring his folks over.

In the early 1900s, our Foothills attracted a wealthier demographic than my people. The Foothills were for the well-heeled, American-born adventurer.

Take the Congers, for example. Edwin was a Civil War veteran, a lawyer, a former congressman from Iowa and a retired diplomat. Sarah was a Christian Scientist, active in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, which means she had more money than my grandparents and she didn’t drink.

In the 1890s, Edwin was appointed the “U.S. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Brazil,” which means he was the U.S. ambassador to Brazil.

After Brazil, the Congers went to China, where Edwin was the “Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to China,” specifically, to the Qing Dynasty. Their timing was perfect. The Congers arrived just in time for the Boxer Rebellion.

Newspapers in 1900 were worse than the Internet. The headlines, all false, stated that the Congers and other Westerners had been murdered. In truth, they all hid out in Beijing, under siege for 55 days, until their rescue by 20,000 international troops who then shamelessly ransacked the city.

The Qing dynasty had sided with the Boxers, so they fled. The Qing empress dowager went into exile and did not return until 1902.

The Qing dynasty earned the support of Mark Twain, who criticized the conduct of the Western forces in sacking Beijing. “The Boxer is a patriot,” said Twain. “He loves his country better than he does the countries of other people. I wish him success. The Boxer believes in driving us out of his country.”

Twain titled his essay, “I am a Boxer.”

Don’t fall too much in love with Twain, because he also said this: “Why should not China be free from the foreigners, who are only making trouble on her soil? If they would only all go home, what a pleasant place China would be for the Chinese! We do not allow Chinamen to come here, and I say in all seriousness that it would be a graceful thing to let China decide who shall go there.”

Not exactly your mama’s multiculturalism.

As for the Congers, after a brief ambassadorship to Mexico they returned to Pasadena, where Edwin died in 1907 of a disease contracted in China. Sarah Pike Conger remained in Pasadena, working on her memoir, which was published in 1909.

Sarah’s memoir was entitled, “Letters from China, with Particular Reference to the Empress Dowager and the Women of China.” She wrote that her “heart’s sympathy” was with China. She was positive about what she viewed as the necessary Westernization of Chinese life, with a focus on education and opportunities for girls, e.g. “Her small feet were unbound, and she rides her pony with ease and freedom both in thought and body.”

Sarah’s do-goodism is evident on every page, but less interesting than her vivid descriptions of the 55-day siege. Sarah, a nice lady, thought she knew what was best for the unschooled Chinese, particularly the women.

Who knows? Maybe Sarah was correct. Heck, I wasn’t there. She was.

One cannot overlook, however, the fact that in 1909, black people in parts of the U.S. were segregated, our women couldn’t vote and Griffith J. Griffith had finished his two-year sentence in San Quentin for disfiguring his wife, Mary, in a drunken rage. He got a gun and shot her in the eyeball.

Mary Griffith was a descendant of the Verdugo family, which had been robbed of their inherited land grant by the Anglo power elites, which is why our Griffith Park should really be named Verdugo Park.

The reality of the West, despite the imprimatur of Sarah Conger, was imperfect.

Not that I’m bitter or anything. Honest. I am not a Conger. I am not a Verdugo. My grandparents were penniless immigrants and I stand on their shoulders. We, their descendants, have done well in America.

Tomorrow, or perhaps 100 years from now, another descendant of my grandparents will have at it with my word. Perhaps they’ll accuse me of bias. Sorry, Sarah. That’s how it goes.


ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident and an attorney with Law Offices of Torres and Brenner in Pasadena. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @anitabrenner.