Ava Chin had never met her father, Stanley.
He had walked out on her mother, Laura, before she was born, and decades later, Chin still had no idea what had become of him.
“My father’s not being there defined me, for better or worse,” she writes in “Mott Street: A Chinese American Family’s Story of Exclusion and Homecoming” (Penguin Press).
“When I was a child I had recurring visions of meeting him. I imagined my father showing up at my honors ceremony, or any number of graduation convocations, waiting there with a bouquet of flower in the audience, clapping enthusiastically when they announced my name.”
But he never did.
“So once I hit my twenties, I did the next best thing — I set about stealth researching my Chin family from afar,” she writes.
“If I couldn’t meet Stanley, at least I could start to puzzle together who the rest of my family was.”
Brought up by her mother in Flushing, Queens, Chin’s efforts to trace her estranged father didn’t just lead her to his doorstep.
In the process, she uncovered a mysterious family history, taking in five generations of her own Chinese-American ancestors over the course of over 150 years as they tried to lay roots in the United States.
It’s a remarkable story.
In the 1860s, Chin’s great-great-grandfather Yuan Son had left his home in China’s Pearl River Delta and crossed the Pacific Ocean.
He took a job building the nation’s first transcontinental railroad, a track that started in Sacramento, Calif., and ended 1,911 miles away in Council Bluffs, Iowa.
The back-breaking work, coupled with inadequate living conditions, saw many of his workmates perish, their bodies sent first back to California and then back home.
“Because it took so long for their bodies to return to their villages in China, only the skeletal remains made it back home — transported in boxes the length of femur bones,” writes Chin.
In 1882, a little over a decade after their railway was completed, the US government enacted The Chinese Exclusion Act under President Chester A. Arthur.
It was the first and only federal law to have prevented a specific nationality from entering the United States and gaining citizenship.
Anti-Chinese sentiment was rife across the country.
In Eureka, Calif., a mob attacked more than 300 local Chinese and drove them out of town.
Vigilantes even tried to lynch one young Chinese man.
Yuan Son became a target as well, as white neighbors took to the streets, shouting, “The Chinese must go!”
“Some didn’t even bother to mask themselves as they drove him out of the home he had lived in for decades,” writes Chin.
Another of Chin’s ancestors, her uncle, Dek Foon, saw his wife, an American woman named Elva, stripped of her US citizenship because she had married outside of her race.
“Elva, in the eyes of the law, became Chinese,” writes Chin.
“How does it feel to suddenly learn that you are no longer a citizen of the country in which you were born?”
Dek Foon escaped California and headed to the comparative safety of New York and the “three small, interconnected blocks” of Chinatown in lower Manhattan.
More specifically, 37 Mott Street.
Built in 1915 after a fire destroyed a funeral parlor and a stable, it sits at the intersection of Mott Street and Pell, and has been home to many generations of the author’s family.
“Great-grandparents, grandparents and their siblings, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and now, me,” she writes. (Technically, she now uses 37 Mott Street as a writing studio, while she lives elsewhere in Manhattan with her husband and daughter.)
“When I last counted, I tallied forty-nine Chins and Ng-Doshims in total, many of whom took their first breaths as wailing newborns here.”
Mott Street is the focal point of an extraordinary tale of an extended family that throws itself into making life in America work — despite whatever it throws at them.
They start families and businesses.
They fight poverty and prejudice and endure travesties and tragedies.
One relative’s young son and Mott Street resident, Normon Dishom, for example, was killed right outside the apartment block when he was hit by a truck while playing on his bicycle.
He was 5 years old.
Chin’s family also negotiate some of the landmark moments of the 20th century with creativity and guile.
When the “Spanish flu” pandemic struck in 1918, her great-grandmother Chun swung into action, becoming a one-woman defense against a disease that would kill nearly three-quarters of a million American and tens of thousands of New Yorkers, ensuring adequate ventilation throughout the building and encouraging the regular washing of hands.
When the Board of Health nurses came to Chinatown, she was there to help distribute the fresh linens and supplies to all the Chinese families in the building.
Nobody in the family at 37 Mott Street died in the pandemic.
Business opportunities were often limited to those within the Chinese community.
Her great-grandfather Shim, for instance, was a partner in the Quong King Long Company, providing laundry supplies locally in Chinatown.
He also wrote and edited the Chinese Reform News, New York City’s first Chinese-language newspaper.
Some of her relatives were a little more innovative.
The Chin brothers had their fingers in many pies, from properties in Newark’s Chinatown to high-end silk items and porcelain they imported from Hong Kong and sold to stores like Macy’s and Wanamaker’s.
When the US government passed the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act 1909, banning the consumption of opium, the Chins saw a gap in the market and began importing it, bringing it in huge quantities “nestled inside giant soy sauce containers.”
Often, they would come home, laden down with sacks full of cash, dumping the notes on the kitchen table and getting the children to count it all.
The Chin brothers also loaned money to locals.
Whenever one of their clients couldn’t repay their debts, their henchman, Dai Lo Wong (or ‘Big Mr Wong’ as he was known to the family), would step in, Chin writes. (“ ‘Do you want me to use the gun or the hatchet?’ Mr. Wong once asked.”)
“Although Big Mr. Wong had a reputation as being a gentle and watchful enforcer, the butcher’s son was never hesitant to turn an enemy of the family into human pork,” writes Chin.
The weren’t the only ones to flout the laws.
During prohibition in the 1920s, Ava Chin’s relatives in apartment 23 brewed the rice-wine version of bathtub gin in their clawfoot tub and distributed it across New York City and New Jersey, including great-grandmother Chun.
She lived in apartment 31 on the fifth floor, while Ava Chin’s other great-grandmother, Yulan, lived a floor below with a coveted view “closer to the theatre of the street.”
The Chins, meanwhile, lived in apartment 22 on the “bad luck” fourth floor, so called because the number four sounded like the Chinese word for “death.”
Remarkably, her father, Stanley, was also born at 37 Mott Street in 1931 while her mother, Laura, would “grow up to become the most beautiful woman in New York’s Chinatown — even crowned Miss Chinatown, where she waved from floats in elbow-length gloves and sat with politicians in open-air cavalcade.”
Although Chin tracked down her father, she failed to establish the “dream relationship” she wanted.
Instead, she found a man seemingly uninterested in making up for lost time.
On one of the last occasions she saw him, in his office on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, she held out an olive branch. “‘I’ve been wanting to say this for a long time,’ I said, sitting across from him ‘… I forgive you for what you did back then,’ ” she writes.
“My father, sitting behind his desk, seemed visibly relieved.”
“Thank you,” he said.
“But I don’t think I did anything wrong.”