by Monica Woo
/ Nonfiction /
If I’d had my father’s Leica camera, I’d have taken a picture of Dad every day of his life, 32,956 images displayed on a wall made with sand, stone, lime and brick, just like the Great Wall of China. My father’s wall would encircle a pond with thousands of pink and white lotus flowers. Each morning, the lotus would break the surface of the water and bloom with magnificent petals untouched by the mud.
If I’d had the Leica, I’d take a picture of my father, Foh Yuen Woo, on the day he was born in Kaiping, located west of the Pearl River Delta in the coastal province of Guangdong in South China. In Cantonese, his first name 福源 meant the source of good fortune. Dad’s father was not there for his birth, because just barely five weeks after his wedding, my grandfather had to rush back to San Francisco’s Chinatown, where he had lived for the last ten years. Grandpa Woo toiled nineteen hours, seven days a week, working in a grocery store during the day, and at a restaurant at night. Like many other Chinatown residents, he lived in a squalid tenement where twenty-eight residents were forced to share just one bathroom and one kitchen. Finally, he had saved up enough money to buy a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and for the long journey back to China to marry a young woman from the same village. Grandpa was smitten by his bride, a petite woman with delicate features, smooth silk skin and lotus feet. The sight of the exaggerated high curve of his wife’s arches, with the toes bent down under the soles of her exquisite three-inch feet enchanted him. Before leaving China, Grandpa promised his beloved wife that, one day they would reunite in America. Little did they know that she was already pregnant with their first child. It was another four years before Grandpa could afford to bring his wife and child to San Francisco.
Had I had the Leica, I’d take pictures of my father in 1920 when he was ten years old. Dad was crouch-hiding beneath the landing of the wooden stairs leading to the dingy basement of Grandpa’s Chinese restaurant on Stockton Street. Crammed around him were burlap sacks of rice and wooden crates of fresh vegetables. He strained hard to read all the words on the pages of his thick Chemistry textbook, illuminated by the dim flicker of a single candlelight. I’d adjust the cleverly engineered knobs on top of the Leica’s chrome and black lacquered body and fastidiously tune the camera’s 50mm Elmar lens. I’d experiment with the viewfinder to perfectly frame the young boy’s face engrossed in his studies. From time to time, he glanced furtively toward the stairs, worried that his father would catch him studying and punish him with a beating. For Grandpa, education was worthless. The only way a Chinese immigrant could make a living was to own a restaurant.
Dad endured Grandpa’s frequent floggings rather than give up scholastic achievements. Even at a young age, he knew that education was the only escape from the hellish existence of San Francisco Chinatown, fraught with poverty, criminal tongs, prostitution and racial discrimination. Every day, on his daily walk to school, Dad passed by parks with signs barking, “Chinamen and dogs not allowed.” Every day, he woke up to the stench of death, which reeked throughout Chinatown, a place largely forgotten by San Francisco, except by exploiters seeking opium and cheap sex. For Dad, education was the only pathway to good fortune. Had I the Leica, I’d take a picture of Dad in 1934 on graduation day at the University of Michigan receiving his master’s degree in Engineering with honors. Dad proudly donned the academic regalia of a black gown with its long, extended sleeves, the graduation hood with orange velvet on the outside and maize and blue satin on the inside, and a black mortarboard with the orange tassel worn on the left. Dad excelled in every grade and was awarded full scholarships to the University of Michigan throughout undergraduate and graduate schools. He funded his living expenses by working as a Teaching Assistant during the day and as a cook for his Chinese fraternity at night. Even though Grandpa did not attend Dad’s graduation ceremony, he shipped a suit handmade by the best tailor in Chinatown.
As a graduation gift, his Chinese fraternity brothers presented him a Leica I camera. Touted as the innovation that transformed modern photography, the Leica was engineered with great German sophistication and ingenuity, and yet was so compactly designed that it could fit into a pocket. Dad was elated as he was fascinated by the technology and science behind the Leica, still photography and filmmaking. From growing up in abject conditions in San Francisco Chinatown, to persevering as a university student amidst the Great Depression, he had witnessed human misery and devastation all around him. With photography, my father could finally freeze time, space, people and events that mattered to him. He could finally assert his own perspectives, feelings and identity in every visual frame.
Dad wanted to take a picture of his nineteen frat brothers on this special camera. Meticulously calibrating the knobs and dials of his first Leica, he checked and rechecked the various settings, which was snugly fitted on top of a Schroder & Sohne travelling tripod. “I’m getting cramps. Foh Yuen, please hurry up!” yelled a frat brother waiting stiffly in position.
“Even the ancient moon will fade,” another frat brother teased Dad about his family name 胡 “Woo”, which combined the radicals of “ancient” and “moon.”
After what seemed like eternity, Dad finally set the timer, turned the knob and dashed to join his frat brothers on the other side of the lens. Every photo immortalized the moments that could not be recreated. For my father, every picture needed to be flawless.
If I’d had the Leica, I’d hide behind the jasmine tree, aim its viewfinder at my father, while he daydreamed by the lotus pond of Jinan University, an ancient university founded during the Qing dynasty. Jinan was the first university to recruit Chinese compatriots overseas and international students. It was 1935. Dad took a sabbatical from his PhD program at the University of Michigan, to study Chinese Language and Literature on a Jinan fellowship. This was Dad’s first return to China since emigrating to the U.S. at age four.
I’d meticulously adjust and readjust the Leica’s focus lever to spotlight the features of my father’s face. Brilliant, intense eyes rendered even more fierce by thick, bushy eyebrows. Flat, squat nose. High cheekbones inherited from his Mongolian grandfather. A firm jaw befitting an indomitable spirit determined to conquer life’s adversities.
Dad adored the lotus and recited over and over again the lines from the classic essay “On the Love of Lotus” as he meditated by the pond.
I, for one, love only the lotus - for the way it emerged untainted from the muck
Rising cleanly above ripples of water with an unaffected grace Its hollow, straight stems eschew climbing-vines or branches
When Dad enrolled in Jinan University, he could not foresee the Japanese occupation of major Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai, the Rape of Nanjing and the unbridled atrocities inflicted on Chinese civilians. He could not predict that the outbreak of WWII followed by the political turmoil in post-war China would prevent him from returning to America for thirty-seven years – this time destined for Alaska.
Had I had the Leica, I’d snap pictures of Dad as a guerrilla fighter joining the underground resistance movement to combat the Japanese. Muscular body, taut and proud, he honed combat techniques with dagger, ax and sword and slaughtered the Japs in his mind. Three dozen of his comrades were already captured, tortured and executed by the Japanese. Was he willing to die for China – a homeland he hardly knew? Or was he fighting for his adopted country America, which came to China’s aid during WWII? Did he feel allegiance to America despite her rampant racial injustices against Chinese immigrants? Which side was Dad on? So many unprobed questions due to preoccupation with my own career and marriage. So many unknowns buried with the passage of time and life.
Had I had the wisdom to ask Dad when he was alive, I might better
understand his lifelong struggles – always standing up for integrity, honesty and dignity, even at the expense of career and material gain. I might have learned how to float above the muck of the business world and be disentangled from the vines and branches of exploitative people I foolishly loved. I might have offered him encouragement and strength to overcome calamities. Had I asked, I would not be tormented by never knowing, and forever chasing the shadows of my imagination.
With Leica in hand, I’d photograph Dad leading a government office charged with producing propaganda and films to educate illiterate Chinese peasants about Western agricultural methods. It was the early days of the new Communist government. I would follow Dad closely, flanked by his entourage of technical assistants, camera crew and scientists, and visit rural communities across the vast expanse of China, mobilizing and teaching farmers.
“My husband was a big shot in China. The government gave him a big house, fancy car with a chauffeur and a generous stipend.” I once overheard Mom bragging to her friends during a mahjong game, when I was seven.
* * *
With degrees from a renowned American university and a respectable job, Dad must have been an eligible bachelor in China. Was he a playboy with many vices and love interests? Or was he as stern and stoic as I always remember him? When he was immersed in field work in China, did he enjoy puffing on cigarettes, just like the glamorous leading men in American movies? Mom said that Dad used to drink plenty and chain-smoke as a bachelor but stopped smoking cold turkey when I was born. He wanted to be a healthy role model for his daughter. If my father was a big shot, why did he leave China for Hong Kong in 1952 to work as a low-paid film engineer? Many years later in Alaska, Dad shared in passing at a family dinner that he left China to escape the cutthroat politics and corruption consuming him, and the discrimination against overseas Chinese. It was the first time he opened up. Why didn’t I seize the moment and urge him to talk about his life and work during a transformative era that defined modern Chinese history? Instead, I muffled him with obvious disinterest, as I wallowed in adolescent discontent. Forever, there would not be one truth, but only pieces of Dad’s life puzzle fading in and out of my imagination.
Had I had the Leica, I’d sanctify in celluloid frames the night when Dad discovered Ana, my mother, in 1953 at a glamorous dance hall in Hong Kong. She earned top-billing as one of the most requested courtesans on the island. Her beauty enchanted him: radiant complexion, expressive moon-shaped eyes, sensuous lips and a curvaceous body. She wore a fuchsia silk Chinese qipao with butterfly knotted buttons on the front. High slits on both sides revealed her shapely legs. Dancing the tango, foxtrot and waltz, Dad placed one arm around her elegant waist. Her leg extended from the qipao’s side slit, caressing his thighs in rhythm with the music. As Dad held Ana closer, he could feel her breasts pressing against him. That night, Dad knew that he would pay any amount and abide by Ana’s wishes to win her over. In 1956, Foh Yuen married Ana, a year after I was born, so that I would not be disdained as a “sampan kid”-- the Chinese slang for the bastard child of a scorned woman floating from man to man. He also adopted Ana’s son from her first marriage, Wei Guang. My parents never once talked about Wei Guang’s biological father.
If I’d had the Bell & Howell Filmo Sportster hand-held movie camera, I would make many silent movies. Just like my father. Dad purchased the movie camera to enshrine in film every moment of my life. My first dip in a white porcelain enamel baby bathtub. First day of bottle-feeding with just my face sticking out, while my tiny body was bundled in a pink embroidered Chinese silk quilt stuffed with cotton wadding. First walk. Baptism. First day of kindergarten. First birthday party. First swim in the South China Sea. In most of the black and white home movies, Mom was a gorgeous accessory, feeding me, propping me up, cradling and rocking me to sleep, coaxing me to wave to the camera. But, in one movie shot in a Hong Kong city park, Mom was the star. She strolled languidly and sensuously toward the camera, then gazed straight into the lens, as if to seduce the photographer. Did my parents give into each other? Did they love each other? During my growing up years, I did not observe a kiss, a caress and expression of love between my parents. I only remember Dad’s scorn of Mom’s lack of education and frequent cruel verbal abuse in front of her children.
Every Christmas and New Year’s Eve, Dad showed his home movies on an Eastman Kodak 8mm projector. He loaded the film onto the large feed reel and meticulously threaded the thin celluloid strip to a second take-up and passed it through the gate. To create wall space for the projection in our crammed 1,000 square-foot flat, we pushed the wooden dining table aside, inconveniently blocking the entrance to the bedroom I shared with my parents. During the movie showings, Mom barely paid attention and occupied herself with knitting and sipping cognac. Wei Guang stayed in his room and refused to join. I looked forward to every showing. It was the only time I got to sip Baby Champagne and snack on soy-marinated duck gizzards. I competed with Dad on who cracked peanut shells faster and louder. The best reward came at the end of the family movies, when my father inserted a short clip of the latest adventure of my favorite cartoon heroine, Little Lulu. I worshipped this smart, sassy girl with black curly loops, a flared red dress with white collar, and a red hat resembling a miniature version of the Qing dynasty emperor’s hat. That Little Lulu had no sound fueled my fascination even more.
* * *
“Don’t you ever get tired of watching the same old movies?” I once asked Dad.
“Do I ever get tired of loving you, your mother and Wei Guang? Never!” He replied with a proud smile.
Had I had the Filmo Sportster, I’d capture Dad’s morning Tai Chi practices in Hong Kong and Anchorage, even at age eighty-four. I would tilt and swirl the camera in concert with my father’s ballet of strength, so that I could convey the story evoked by each movement. “Part horse’s mane,” “carry tiger to mountain,” “snake creeps down,” “grasp sparrow’s tail,” “white crane spread its wings.” For one hour, his inner qi and serenity defended Dad from life’s afflictions.
If I’d had the Leica, I would not – nor could I – capture Dad’s unfathomable anguish in 1989 in his bedroom in Anchorage, Alaska. He was sitting alone on the edge of the bed, head hung low, staring at the snapshot of my niece Jeanne’s first walk. Gnarled, arthritic fingers gripped tightly the edges of his granddaughter’s image. Since her birth, my parents had helped babysit Jeanne while her father Wei Guang and my sister-in-law worked full-time jobs. Since her birth, Dad had been taking pictures of Jeanne with a digital camera. Her first bath. Her first walk.
Just a few days earlier, on September 7, 1989, a disgruntled Chinese gambling creditor murdered my brother execution-style and shot two-year-old Jeanne in the head. My brother was dead on arrival and Jeanne expired the following day in the hospital. Breaking tradition as the fierce patriarch who presided over all family events, Dad relinquished his role at the funeral. He could not muster the strength to witness the horror leering from inside the open casket. Wei Guang’s arms folded neatly around Jeanne’s tiny body that was laid on top of his. She was dressed in rose satin with a white sash, the bullet hole in her forehead covered by the bangs of a black wig. My dead brother’s wax-like imposture. Flaccid abdomen. Tightly sutured jaws. Eyelids glued closed by the undertaker and shaped by tiny cups under the skin. My father could never exorcise the images haunting his imagination.
* * *
In 1995, in Anchorage, Dad had an elective colon surgery and stayed overnight in the hospital. I could not purge the memory of my visit the following morning. His eyes were red and his forehead burned with a high fever. His arms, legs and entire body convulsed uncontrollably. He tried to talk, but his words were jumbled and confused. I frantically rang the emergency bell. When the attending nurse took her sweet time to respond, “Don’t worry. Your dad is in his eighties and old people tend to get confused.” she quipped.
I pleaded, “My father may be eighty-five but he has always been fit. Every day, he practices an hour of Tai Chi hour and walks two miles on the treadmill. Something is terribly wrong. Please, we need a doctor now!”
When the doctor finally came, Dad was immediately rushed to intensive care for toxic shock syndrome with only a ten percent chance of survival. I took an extended leave from my corporate job in Connecticut and stayed for several weeks in Anchorage. Every day, to lift his spirit, I showed Dad photos of our family and friends, and National Geographic pictures of places and faces around the world that we could visit together some day. Even during his hospitalization, Dad suffered a stroke. After that, his health deteriorated.
The following year, I relocated my parents to San Francisco to be closer to more advanced medical care and my younger brother Wei Da. Afflicted by recurring strokes and pneumonia, Dad soon lost all abilities to walk and communicate. In the small two-bedroom flat, we set up Dad’s room with hospital-grade equipment. Two health aides worked rounds of eight hours each while Mom cared for Dad at night. As insurance would not reimburse most home care expenses, I drained most of my savings. Whenever I visited San Francisco, I shared photos of places and people I worked with throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas. Celebrated sites that Dad yearned to visit but never had the financial means. In my monologues, I recounted events which were left out of years of five-minute daily calls with my parents – calls that I too often made while checking emails on my Blackberry. I searched hard to recall his voice. I reached deep into his dark eyes for signs of cognitive connection. When, in silence, Dad smiled and touched my hand, I felt that his heart and spirit were sound. That feeling alone was worth every dollar of my savings.
If I’d had the Filmo Sportster, I’d record Dad’s ascent up the steep incline of Laurel Heights, the San Francisco neighborhood where my parents lived. Vincent, his devoted home health aide vigorously pushed Dad’s wheelchair up the hill, pausing from time to time to catch his breath. In their mutual silence, Dad and Vincent loved each other like father and son. When they got to the top, Vincent stopped to clean the spittle running down the side of Dad’s mouth, and picked off the morsels of rice clinging to his bib. On that bright, brisk autumn afternoon, Dad surveyed the Edwardian and Victorian homes, the restaurants and shops on Geary and California Streets below. Vincent massaged Dad’s shoulders, stretched his arms far and wide. On the apex of Laurel Heights, Dad owned San Francisco.
Had I had the Leica, I’d photograph Dad on his ninetieth birthday in 2000, sitting in his wheelchair at a spacious round table at his favorite Chinese restaurant on Geary Street. Our family, Vincent, friends and neighbors, savored the gourmet feast spinning round and round on a Lazy Susan. “Ganbei! Ganbei!” Whenever a guest raised the glass to toast him, Dad smiled jubilantly. Eyes sparkling.
“I apologize for disturbing you, sir. I just can’t get over that smile of yours. So radiant and charismatic. Are you in the movies?” a middle-aged white man with a full red beard asked Dad, as he awkwardly approached our table.
Dad held the stranger’s hand, looked straight into his eyes, and smiled brim-to-brim, overflowing with gratitude and grace.
“My father. He is bigger than a movie star. He makes movies!” I chimed in, trying not to tear up.
If I’d had the Leica, I’d take a picture of Dad on the afternoon of March 14, 2001 when he and I were alone in his hospital room. For the past eleven days and nights, Dad was intubated and heavily sedated. The only sign of life was his gasping for breaths inside the ventilator. Every night, Mom, Wei Da and I slept in rollaway beds set up by the kind hospital staff, as we kept vigil.
On the afternoon of the twelfth day, I prayed the rosary as I stood beside Dad’s bed. Suddenly, he opened his eyes. Skin smooth and lucid. Breath calm. He smiled and mouthed inside the ventilator, “Lixian, how are you?” That moment, I knew that my father was ready. Ready to spread his white-crane wings to ascend the peak of Yao Shan. He passed at four the following morning.
Had I had the power to turn back time, I’d have followed through with my plan to visit Alaska on Christmas Eve 1994. I wanted to record Dad recounting the events and people in his life. I also wanted to learn how to operate his Leica and the Filmo Sportster. So many questions to probe, so many secrets to unveil. What were my father’s thwarted dreams, biggest regrets and fears? Was his marriage prompted by love or by honor? How did he survive the double homicide of his son and granddaughter? What was his hope and aspiration for me? When I was growing up, he always urged me to aim high, first earn a PhD, then go for the Nobel Prize. Was my father disappointed with my career as a businesswoman peddling unessential products instead of doing good for humanity?
Recently, I discovered a storage carton that held Dad’s Leica I camera in its original brown leather case. Stitches are missing from the strap well-worn by his shoulders. I can inhale Dad’s scent on the leather, feel his touch on the rangefinders and knobs. Alongside it was the Bell & Howell Filmo Sportster. In the same box were also a Leica M3 in its black leather trapezoid case, an Argus Cintar camera proudly made in America and a Rolleiflex movie camera with double lenses. I had forgotten that, the day after his funeral, my younger brother Wei Da had packed up Dad’s cherished possessions and shipped them to my Connecticut home.
And the family movies that Dad had crafted to not let go of the happiest and most loving moments of his life?
“I threw all of that garbage away. Just taking space,” my mother told me. A year after Dad’s death, she dumped all his home movies, the Little Lulu cartoons and the vintage movie projector.
* * *
“Who wants to watch these silly films? Instead of making money, your father was a fool who wasted his life taking pictures and making movies.”
To this day, I cannot forgive my mother’s act of negligence. Or was it an act of defiance against a husband who sacrificed good fortune for righteous ideals? Or was it an act of final spite to vindicate years of verbal evisceration of her dignity?
If I’d had the Leica, I would display my father’s images on a great wall encircling a pond with thousands of lotus flowers. Each morning, exquisite petals would blossom above the water’s surface untouched by the mud. Each night, the lotus would close and sink below the water only to resurface at the kiss of the morning sun.
If I’d had my father’s boring silent movies now, I’d project them on the great wall. And I’d watch them over and over again.
Author's note: This 4,075-word personal essay, "Leica of My Heart," is inspired by her father's stranger-than-fiction life from 1910-2001 in China, Alaska, and San Francisco. From growing up in abject conditions in San Francisco Chinatown, to surviving the Great Depression, to resisting the Japanese's barbarous occupation of China during WWII, Woo's father had witnessed human misery and devastations all around him. By taking pictures with his Leica camera, her father could enshrine time, people and events that mattered most to him. In every visual frame, he could assert his own perspectives, feelings and identity. It is only through the Leica of her heart that she can imagine her father's thwarted dreams, love and loss, buried with the passage of time and life.
Photos below: Mr. Woo's Leica camera
Photo credit: Monica Woo