Alan Lau – IE Arts Editor – An upbringing in the Sierra Nevadas shapes an artist.
With a history as deep as the roots of the trees that grew in his original hometown of Paradise, Calif., the only ‘Chinatown’ Alan Chong Lau, the International Examiner’s Arts Editor, saw around him when he was raised was his family.
An all-white retirement community located at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas, Paradise was a place of pine trees, apple orchards and rainbow trout swimming in clear streams, he noted. But it was conservative.
“When we first went to school, kids chanted ‘Ching Chong Chinamen’ at us at the bus stop and, of course, kids always wanted you to be the Japanese enemy when they played war. But we also made friends in school, some I have to this day,” said Lau. “Still being the only minority family in town, we did know we were different. Chinatown for us was our family and especially my grandmother, who taught us Chinese and calligraphy and continued all the customs and holidays.”
Lau’s father initially moved to Paradise with the dream of starting a Chinese restaurant because he wanted to be in a place where he had no competition. His wish was granted, and he partnered with a relative to run a restaurant in the nearby city of Oroville. But there was squabbling amongst them and they closed the business. Lau’s mother, a second-generation Chinese American grew up in Stockton, Calif., where her folks incidentally had a restaurant on El Dorado Street called “The American Restaurant”, before WWI. They also ran a barber shop prior to that.
Originally from a small village in Guangdong Province in southern China, Lau’s father moved to Hong Kong as a teenager to live with a relative. He eventually joined the merchant marines, sailing often to the U.S.
“Having been to the U.S. a number of times as a merchant marine, the open wide vistas of California must have appealed to him,” said Lau. “At the risk of sounding corny, I guess he had the American Dream.”
While docked in San Francisco, his father decided to “jump ship” and never returned, becoming one of hundreds of illegal immigrants working as a laborer in the fields of the Sacramento Valley. After enlisting in the Army during World War II, he was granted a pardon and became a naturalized citizen.
Because of the Asian American student movement in the 1960s, and Lau’s participation in the student strike at San Francisco State University and before that, at the College of San Mateo, Lau was compelled to search for his roots. He wanted to go to China, but in the late 60’s, China was still closed to the West. So, instead, he decided to go to Japan where he met his future wife in Kyoto, while teaching conversational English. Lau also studied brush painting which greatly influenced his future direction in art.
Also a poet and author, Lau’s interest in writing may stem from his great-grandfather who came to the U.S. originally as a journalist.
“There’s a story going around that he worked for two Chinese newspapers in San Francisco’s Chinatown and that he would use different pen names and actually debate himself in the papers,” said Lau, adding that his great-grandfather eventually returned to China where he died.
Much like his philosophy on painting, life has been his canvas, taking him on an incredible journey.
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