Lisa See’s great-great-grandfather Fong See, a Chinese immigrant who emerged as one of the wealthiest businessmen in LA’s Chinatown, is the heart of her memoir On Gold Mountain. Yet it’s Letticie “Ticie” Pruett, a white woman from Oregon who becomes his partner in marriage and business, who stands out as one of the most pivotal individuals in Fong See’s life.
Fong See and Ticie Pruett first met when she was 18 and stumbled into his shop in Sacramento, California in 1894, asking him for a job. (Fong See owned a factory that manufactured crotchless undergarments for prostitutes.) He refused her the first time around and it took her two more times to convince him to hire her. According to Lisa See’s book,
In the following weeks and months, Fong See continued to be amazed by the auburn-haired apparition who appeared at his front door each morning. She was so different from the other Caucasian women that he had met in his years on the Gold Mountain. She didn’t wear feathers or satin or lace. She was practically and simply dressed – maybe a cotton ruffle here or there. She didn’t stink of perfume or men. Instead, she exuded an intoxicating odor of soap, powder, and lavender water. And while she was in no way like the prostitutes who came to him for their underwear, she was always kind to them, almost respectful.
“That is not a job I would want to have,” she once said. “But I can understand how circumstances could lead a person into becoming a fancy lady.”
Ticie was also kind to Fong See’s workers, who were Chinese. “She didn’t seem afraid to sit down at the work table and companionably sip a cup of tea. Lately she’d even begun to share their pot of noodles, sometimes looking over Fong Lai’s shoulder to watch how he cooked them.”
Even though “…there were few Chinese who had either the courage or the charisma to pursue a white woman,” Fong See thought of marrying Ticie. Of course it was illegal for him to marry a white woman at the time. He also had a wife he had left behind in China; they never consummated their marriage, but he sent her money every month. Still, he wanted Ticie:
….marriage to Ticie would change him from a sojourner to a resident….Fong See and Ticie Pruett made good partners and that was important in this country. For years he had thought, If only I had an American partner who could see the opportunities that I see. Letticie wasn’t a man, but she was much like him. She had bamboo in her heart.
To Ticie, marriage also made sense because “she knew she could help Fong See. He needed her, which was more than she could say for anyone else.” She had already expanded his business to include regular ladies’ underwear and curios like fans and inexpensive porcelain.
The couple married on January 15, 1897 through a contract marriage drawn up by a lawyer. It was the only pathway to a legally recognized union for interracial couples at the time. Also,
Letticie wrote her brothers of her marriage, and received a terse letter back, in which her family disowned her. How could she marry a Chinese? It was disgusting, they wrote, and she was no longer their sister. She knew she would never see or hear from any of them ever again.
Her family’s response to their marriage symbolizes the national sentiment towards Chinese and interracial marriage.
Ticie and Fong See enjoyed a good partnership in many ways. They moved to Los Angeles, where their business thrived (they focused more on antiques, as Ticie suggested) and eventually expanded into multiple stores. They had five children together, and the two would travel to China together for business and pleasure.
Yet their 22 years of marriage would eventually dissolve. As Lisa See wrote, “The way Fong See saw it, Ticie wouldn’t obey him, didn’t respect him, and refused to see him as the person he had become,” or the potential he had to truly achieve his dreams in China.
In 1921, Fong See secretly married a 16-year-old girl named Ngon Hung from his hometown in China, and the rumors of what happened spread throughout the Los Angeles Chinatown. “Finally, Ticie stole the letter Fong See had written Uncle, took it to a professional letter reader, and discovered positive proof that her husband had married again.” Consequently, Ticie filed for legal separation from Fong See; their contract marriage would become null and void.
Meanwhile, Fong See would go on to marry once again in China in 1929, to a girl named Si Ping who was close in age to Ngon Hung.
Ticie would live until 1942, passing away after the marriage of her daughter Sissee. She would eventually forgive Fong See. But as Lisa See puts it, Ticie’s “one true legacy [was] her love for the family and her belief that her children were stronger together than apart.” Fong See passed away in March 1957.
If you’ve never read Lisa See’s memoir On Gold Mountain, I highly recommend it. The book includes the full story of Fong See and Ticie Pruett and truly encompasses the fascinating and often tragic history of Chinese America itself (including the severe racism that threatened people’s lives).
One of the best things about it? Meeting some other amazingly talented yangxifu (foreign wives of Chinese men) on the set, including Jess Meider. She performed an original song in the studio with her husband, Gao Fang, and I was just astounded by her voice and the music.
Jess has resided in Beijing since moving there from NYC in 1997. A songwriting graduate of Berklee College of Music, she has been gracing stages all over China with her amazing voice in various musical projects. If you’ve lived for any length of time in Beijing, you’ve likely seen Jess perform in her jazz quartet or in her singer-songwriter act. Most recently she has been performing in the electronic duo Jess Meider featuring Chinatown. Jess is one of China’s best jazz vocalists, and has spent almost half of her life practicing the art of performance in music festivals, and in Beijing and Shanghai’s most popular live music venues.
Here’s a short list of cool things about Jess:
She performed jazz in the VIP Beijing Olympics venue for the Olympians
She ‘starred’ in a movie with Andy Lau and Gong Li, and two of her jazz original tracks are featured in the movie (“Kiss” and “Now is the time”) “What Women Want” 2010
She was featured on a track for Cui Jian’s movie “Blue Sky Bones”
Her voice has been aired all over China in ads for Audi, in Japan for Godiva, and most recently, will be worldwide for Durex Condoms
She has sung for VIP Events all over China
She has performed with Gong Lin Na (famous Chinese singer) at the Forbidden City Concert Hall
You can purchase her music on iTunes and Amazon.com, follow her on Youtube and Facebook, and learn more about her at Jessmeider.com. If you’re in Beijing, you can check out Jess Meider’s Birthday Show at DDC Club on September 17 at 9pm:
In this interview, I asked Jess about everything from her path to China to her music to how she and her husband Gao Fang collaborate together.
How did you end up in China?
Fate. (YUAN) there is just no other explanation. I had never expressed any interest or wishes to travel to China. In 1997, I was living and working in NYC, and a guy I was seeing went off to Beijing. I immediately took interest and had to go have a look. I was stunned by the differences; I felt as though I’d landed on the moon. China is sensational – the smells, the tastes, the language, the history, the culture. I spent two months there and was hooked. It was the first time I’d ever left the country. I moved back in early 1998. It was incredibly inspiring and challenging on all levels.
You once told me that China helped you realize your career as a singer and musician. Could you talk more about that?
Of course! I graduated from Berklee College of Music, and upon moving to Beijing in 1997, I had privy to live stages to perform my singer-songwriter music. NYC is packed with amazing musicians, so gigging there requires a lot of persistence to get on stage, and if you’re unpracticed, as I was back then, the chance to get back on the stage after a show was much more challenging. Beijing’s music scene was brand new; it offered me countless opportunities to practice the art of performing. As one could imagine, the jazz scene was teeny tiny, and there were practically no jazz vocalists. Any jazz musician knows how much practice is involved before you can really get up on a stage. I was able to practice singing jazz for modest earnings. It was really a great experience (and still is, eighteen years later). I remember my first jazz performance…my friend took me to the San Wei Bookstore, which hosted music almost every night. David Moser, a pianist, asked me if I could sing “Night and Day.” At the time, I was quite nervous that I wouldn’t be able to remember the lyrics. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Look at the audience, Jessica…Do you think they’ll even notice if the lyrics are wrong?” I smiled, relaxed, and sang.
I recently read that I am “known as one of China’s best jazz vocalists,” which is a nice thing to read…and fortunately for China, I am not the only jazz vocalist in China.
I was also privy to the stage at the Keep In Touch. The owner let me get on stage every week to play my original material. This was a great gift to my performance confidence. Even when I was fucking up, people were forgiving, and I would talk my way back to the beginning of a verse when I forgot a lyric (I’m rolling my eyes now, but then, it really was entertaining to the half Chinese, half foreign audiences).
Your husband is also a musician. Talk about how you met each other, and how you’ve collaborated on music over the years.
I first met my husband, Gao Fang in 2004, in another lifetime. It was brief and my Mandarin was limited, so we couldn’t really connect. In 2009 I needed a bassist for the release of my 4th album, Divine. Someone suggested him. It wasn’t until I formed my rock trio, The Heavenly Stems in 2011, that I found out that Gao Fang (pronounced F-ahng) was a talented guitarist and brilliant composer.
After a few months, we were together, engaged, married, and now have an almost 3 year old daughter.
We now have a new electronic-ish project, billed under my name, Jess Meider. The album “Chinatown” will be coming out at the end of September. Soon after the birth of our daughter, Gao Fang began composing well-crafted electronic pieces. I wrote the lyrics based on the stages of raising our daughter, from birth to present. Last year in 2014, we began performing the material. It’s just him and I on stage, which is a real treat, because the focus of the audience is more on the music; my vocals and Gao Fang’s layers of guitars. You can have a sneak peak selfie video of a song entitled “Light” and our wonderful song, “Cozy,” shot by the brilliant Maysha Lin.
How would you describe your music?
I think just to be complete, I’ll describe a few of the projects that I’ve done:
My songwriter material is very auto-biographical. Lately, I have not been performing this music. I have always felt comfortable sharing my life experiences, as we all are in this life together, and every little bit helps. My songwriter music is helpful. I have received much feedback about these two albums, Jess Meider Songwriter and Divine, saying it’s very cathartic, healing, soothing. Fans play it to lull their babies to sleep. Friends listen and feel comforted.
My jazz is jazzy. It’s listenable and interesting. My favorite track off of Dao is “Now is the Time,” a piece I wrote based on the Hafiz poem “Now is the Time.” The title track, “Dao” was written by Moreno Donadel, the Italian jazz pianist I’ve been playing with since 1998. I wrote the lyrics and the song is just a wonderful walk through the steps of the practice of the “Dao.”
This electronic music we’re producing now is intelligent and very comfortable (舒服SHOO-FOO) on the ears; all of the lyrics are positive and fun. It’s danceable. Kids and adults love it. I highly recommend it.
You’ve released 4 albums in China and are releasing your latest one this fall. How does your upcoming album compare to your past work?
I’ve self-released 4 albums. Candy (2000), Songwriter (2008), Dao (2009) and Divine (2009). Chinatown will be released in the fall of this year (2015). The new stuff is exactly the kind of music I’ve always wanted to write, but didn’t have the programming savvy to write it. Because Gao Fang composed, arranged and programmed all of the new material, it has the groove of electronic but the allure of a intelligent musical composition. It has deliberate melodies carved into really comfortable beats. Gao Fang’s layers of guitars are memorable, and my vocals are like a hip icing on a cake.
Are there any other exciting music-related projects you’re working on that you’d like to share with us?
Other plans include making videos for the Chinatown album, applying for music festivals abroad, and of course, writing new material. I would really like to travel using Chinatown as a vehicle!
In terms of the future, you’ve said you plan to remain with your family in Beijing. Why?
Well, aside from the sometimes acute pollution, I love Beijing. The culture, the language, the history, the food, oh god, the food…Chinese really know what they’re doing culinarily. It’s been my home for 18 years, and my husband is a Beijinger. I can’t possibly imagine leaving Beijing to live somewhere else, and believe me, on bad pollution days, I’ve tried. My Chinese Medicine Doctor (TCM) actually said to me once, “Jess, you can’t leave Beijing, it’s already been so long; your “life artery” (ren mai人脉）is here.
I am also fascinated with Chinese Medicine and the motto “Shun Qi Zi Ran,” which means, “follow the natural path.” I’ve been regularly seeing a Chinese Medicine doctor for 4 years now, and have recovered from most of my “chronic” ailments because I’m repairing my “qi” roadways (meridians). I’ve been keeping a blog about my experiences. I compare Western ‘health’ culture/mindset with the reality of Chinese Medicine. It’s really incredible. I feel like there is so much that I can write about, that at times, I just don’t have the power to voice it all. I continue to try.
Beijing and I are long term…I do think that there are possibilities in the future to have real estate in other parts of the world, but I will always have a home in Beijing.
Thanks so much to Jess Meider for this interview! Remember, you can purchase her music on iTunes and Amazon.com, follow her on Youtube and Facebook, and learn more about her at Jessmeider.com (where you’ll find her bio, music, videos, and blogs about traditional Chinese medicine, yoga and having a child). And if you’re in Beijing, check out Jess Meider’s Birthday Show on September 17 at 9pm at the DDC Club (50 RMB cover charge).
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