By Katy Moeller
For The Associated Press
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Andy Louie was a teenager in the 1940s, living a hardscrabble life in southern China. Starvation was rampant, the Japanese occupied the region, and the future looked bleak.
“We were caught in the war without the presence of my father,” said Louie, whose brother, Shin Fong, died at the age of 4 due to malnutrition and lack of medical care. “My mother was devastated. It just broke her heart.”
Like his own father and grandfather before him, Louie’s father, Wing Jong, or William, grew vegetables along the river in the Boise valley, in an area that would later become Garden City and give “Chinden” its name — shorthand for Chinese gardens.
Restrictive immigration laws that had prevented many Chinese laborers from becoming naturalized citizens and bringing their families to the United States were repealed during the war. In the late 1940s, Louie’s father began the legal process of bringing his family to the United States. Louie’s mother, Helen, came in May 1949.
But the family hit a serious snag when the demands of the United States bureaucracy ran into the realities of the village of rice farmers where Louie — known in China as Chek Fong — was born.
“I couldn’t prove that I was related to my father,” he said.
He was 16 by then.
Helen was sick with worry. “Since her arrival, she has suffered a nervous breakdown due to separation from her boy,” attorney Henry H. Woo wrote to the American Consulate General on June 11, 1949.
Desperate to help his son, Louie’s father went to a family friend in Boise for help — Idaho Statesman owner and publisher Margaret Cobb Ailshie, who’d come to know the family from buying vegetables from Louie’s father.
It was more than a passing acquaintance. When Ailshie traveled to Asia with a friend 12 years earlier, they visited a young Louie and his mother in Canton.
On July 29, 1949, the Idaho Statesman ran an article headlined, “William Louie Keeps up Fight to Bring Son Home from China.”
In describing the family’s long history with Idaho, the article noted that Louie’s great-grandfather — Do Gee Louie — came to Idaho “some years before it became a state.”
Louie believes his great-grandfather was originally recruited to work on the Transcontinental Railroad, but later became a gold miner in the 1880s Idaho City gold rush.
Louie’s father mailed him the 1949 Statesman article, and he took it to the American consulate.
“They processed it very promptly,” he said. “The pen is mightier than the sword.”
Louie does not believe he would have been allowed to join his family without that newspaper article. He chokes up whenever he thinks about how close he came to missing out on his American dream.
“I just don’t know where I’d be,” he said.
On Nov. 24, 1949, he bought a plane ticket to travel from Hong Kong to San Francisco. His parents had moved to Sacramento, and they wanted to try their hand at running a five and dime store.
Louie still has the blue Pan Am airline ticket — which cost $726, about the same as that trip costs today — and it looks untouched by time.
His father had saved the money during the war because he couldn’t send any home.
“That’s real money,” Louie said.
When he arrived in San Francisco, he wasn’t met by his family. He was locked up with 20 or 30 others for five days while his paperwork was being processed.
“Immigration people met me at the airport. I was processed at a detention center,” said Louie. “I looked out on San Francisco through metal mesh window.”
He feared he might be sent back to China.
When he was released, Louie was picked up by his folks.
“My dad had a car — a two-door Ford sedan,” he recalled. “I thought, wow.”
Louie and his parents didn’t stay in Sacramento for long.
“My dad said, ‘Well, why don’t we go to Idaho and do farming again? That’s the only thing I know how to do well,”’ Louie said.
At 19, he was drafted and served two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
“Looking back, that was probably the best part of my life because I was exposed to the outside world,” said Louie.
He earned his GED while in the Army, and then went to Boise Junior College. He transferred to Idaho State University to get a bachelor’s in wildlife management, but changed course to a major he thought was more practical: pharmacy.
Louie’s parents were excited to see the first member of the family earn a college degree.
“They never expressed optimism that we as Chinese would be able to do anything beyond the menial jobs. You accept your fate,” Louie said. ♦