Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Asparagus Farming, Family Business, and Immigrant Sensibility: Sam Chang's Life and Writing as a Chinese-American Farmer (1)

Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Asparagus Farming, Family Business, and Immigrant Sensibility: Sam Chang's Life and Writing as a Chinese-American Farmer (1)

Article excerpt

Sam Chang was a well-known Chinese farmer in Southern California. (2) He was born in 1886 in Kaiping County, Guangdong Province, and came to the United States in 1915 on a government mission. After his official business, he stayed and joined his father Yitang Chang in Los Angeles as an immigrant. When Yitang purchased an asparagus farm around 1918, Sam became his manager and farmed it for over 50 years. When Sam passed away in 1988, he left a huge collection of family letters, poems, essays, reflections, and farming notes that covers a period from early 1920 to late 1940s. (3) Like the diary of the legendary Ah Quin in San Diego, Sam's collection is one of the few written documents left by Chinese immigrants. (4) While reflecting many aspects of Chinese-American experience, a significant portion of Sam's writing is about his farming life. Rather than offering us figures on the acreage, stock shares, or net profit of Chinese farmers, Sam's writing reflects aspirations, frustrations, and motivations of early Chinese immigrant farmers. When placed into a larger historical context, his career and writing enable us to see important roles played by Chinese asparagus farmers in Southern California. His writing helps us understand questions like: How did Chinese enter asparagus farming and operate it as a family business? What were their concerns and worries? How did they feel about farming life in America as immigrants? And how did a Chinese farmer view his Chinese and non-Chinese laborers and handle labor relations? Sam's life and writing offers illuminating insight into the subjective meaning of Chinese life in America.

FROM A POLICE OFFICER TO A FARMER

Sam Chang was a senior police officer in China with no farming experience before he took over the management of his father's farm of 25 acres largely located at 4660 Whitsett Avenue in North Hollywood. He began his farming career by experimenting, visiting other Chinese asparagus farms, and acquiring skills from other farmers. In order to learn and observe how to grow asparagus, Sam visited farms of other Chinese in Southern California and sometimes even went to Stockton or the Sacramento Valley where asparagus was grown on a larger scale and had been a profitable commercial crop that many Chinese had farmed since 1892. (5) Sam's story is, therefore, part of the collective Chinese asparagus farming experience.

When Sam took over responsibility for the family farm, he tasted the hardship of being a small, independent produce farmer. He wrote to a friend:

   I have been a farmer for three years. Life is boring, business is
   bad, and our farm loses money. Every day I have to get up at six
   in the morning and finish work late into the evening. I am too
   busy I am sorry to write you back after you have written me
   three letters. But I have no time to write. I am writing to you
   today because it has been raining continuously and I cannot
   work in the field. (6)

As the manager of the farm, Sam often worked in the field side by side with his workers from morning till sunset because he felt that he needed to accumulate farming experience, supervise his workers, and more importantly save on labor costs. Working in the field was a hardship he had never experienced in his police career in China.

During the first few years of his farming career, Sam even wanted to switch to another business on several occasions. In 1922, he wrote to his second brother, Zhongping,

   The soil is too poor, and growing asparagus could hardly make
   any profit. Many friends and relatives advised me to give it up
   and try something else. If I switch to the warehouse business,
   working for the Mexicans, I may have a more reliable job. But it
   will be difficult for father to find someone to replace
   me.... Father also found it difficult to hire more help for me.
   So someone from our family should come to help. … 
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