Saturday, July 9, 2011

Story about Chinese family in Mackay Idaho in the news

Check this article out about Y. Henry Gim and family.

Living History: Chinese immigrants persevered on Plum Alley

In early 1903, 12-year-old Chinese immigrant Y. Henry Gim hid under a sack of mail and rode the rails from Oregon's mining camps to the small town of Mackay, Idaho. At 15, he borrowed $115 to buy into an eight-chair lunch counter consignment in the Union Pacific Railroad depot.
Business was brisk. Within two years, Gim repaid his loan and soon married his wife, Louise. After opening a restaurant, he bought a ranch with several hundred acres of land.
"He was hoping to raise beef to use in his restaurant," said his daughter, Helen Gim Kurumada, in interviews archived at University of Utah's Marriott Library.
When the stock market crashed in 1929, he lost it all.
A harbinger of the Great Depression, the crash cruelly emphasized the economic struggle experienced by farmers throughout the '20s. Crop, beef and pork prices plummeted. Debts were high. Most farmers were mortgaged to the hilt, and few banks offered relief.
Moreover, companies that controlled irrigation water profited from land grabs and rate hikes.
"They ruined farmers like my father," said Kurumada, who was 12 at the time.
Forced to leave their home and possessions behind, the Gim family traveled to Salt Lake City. The train ride "was like a funeral train. Everyone was crying and worried," she said.
The Gim family was helped by "Chinese clan obligations," but their Plum Alley apartment in downtown's Chinatown was far from home and in poor shape.
"My mother grew depressed," said Kurumada. "She worried we would starve."
Reassuring her otherwise, Henry quickly found a business partner. He opened the Bon Ton Café on 100 South and the family settled into a new life.
In the late 1860s, some 12,000 Chinese immigrants helped build the Central Pacific railway from Sacramento, Calif., to Promontory, Utah. They garnered little recognition. Instead, the international Panic of 1873 fueled anti-Chinese sentiment among labor unionists, unemployed whites and politicians. Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was followed by more restrictive laws, and none were repealed until 1945. By 1930, Utah's Chinese population dipped below 500. Few jobs were offered other than those associated with restaurants, laundries and groceries. Inequity was public.
"Our parents paid taxes, but we couldn't go to city swimming pools," Kurumada said. "We would have to sit in movie theater balconies."
During a school trip to Wasatch Springs, it was only after a teacher intervened that Kurumada was allowed in with the manager's warning: "Don't you ever try this again."
One evening after work, Gim sat in his rocking chair. He asked Kurumada to boil water for tea, remarked he was tired and died. Shortly after, his widow suffered a fatal nervous breakdown. The children were sent to live in a blue-collar, non-Asian home in which Kurumada said her foster parents "tried their best, but their three boys felt it was a disgrace to have 'Chinks' living with them."
Appalled, Kurumada knew something had to be done and espoused her father's "can-do" philosophy.
After graduating high school at 16, she found employment through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) program, rented a small house on the west side and took charge of her three siblings.
"I was definitely underaged," she said, "and in hindsight I marvel that Judge Reuben Clark allowed me to take care of my brothers and sister."
Cautioned about monthly visits from Children's Services, Kurumada made certain "every thing" and everyone was in its place and tidy.
"My younger sister Betty was always spotless," she said. "I thought if I took her down to Neighborhood House and she seemed unkempt, they'd say, 'This girl looks terrible. Her sister brings her down, but heaven knows how they live.' "
Betty was 6. The boys were in college and home on weekends. And Helen fell in love, marrying Dr. Jun Kurumada. The kind man married "the whole dang family."
Y. Henry Gim would have been proud. Against all odds, his children did just fine.
Eileen Hallet Stone is an oral historian. She can be reached at

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