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).