Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Life is a Journey by Betty Chan Tells Her Family Story

Life is a Journey by Betty Chan
I met Betty Chan at the Threads quilt show at the Troy Historical Center earlier this month. Her quilt Life is a Journey was on exhibit. The quilt tells the story of her parents' immigration to America. The back of the quilt is her genealogy.

I asked if we could met so I could learn more about her quilt and the story it told. She kindly lent me a book she self-published which explains the images on her quilt and details her family tree and history.
Betty's parents, going to America
Betty Eng's parents

Genealogy on the back of Betty Chan's quilts Life is a Journey
Life is a Journey tells the story of her parents Din Lee Eng and You Ying Eng, born in Toishan, Canton, China. Betty started the quilt in 2012 while taking a Story Book workshop with Mary Lou Weidman. In 2013 she returned to the workshop to continue working on the quilt. The quilt was finished in 2014. (Learn about Weidman's Story Book Workshop at

The central figures represent Betty’s parents.
Betty's great-grandparents who first came to America
Pictured on her quilt to the left of her parents is a Water Buffalo surrounded by Bamboo to represent her parent’s village. 
Betty traveled to China to see her ancestral home, symbolized by the water buffalo and bamboo.

Betty's ancestral village in China
Three red fish represent the three generations which came to America, starting with her great-grandfather on the bottom. He was one of the Chinese laborers who built on the Transcontinental Railroad. He hoped to find wealth in house building, and was well liked by his employer, a prominent citizen near Seattle, WA. His investment in a hotel brought in regular money. He returned to China with gifts, and his fish holds a coin representing wealth.
Red fish with a coin, lower left, is Betty's great grandfather who brought home
wealth. Two more fish represent her grandfather and father who later came to the USA.
The other two fish represent Betty’s grandfather and father who lived in New York City.

Betty’s father came to America as a ‘paper son.”  In 1882 the Federal Government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act banning the immigration of Chinese. They were stereotyped and deemed unable to assimilate, but in truth they were competition for jobs, willing to work hard for low wages. Chinese already living in America would claim they had sons in China for which they obtained immigration papers. The papers were sold to Chinese men so they could come to America. As a ‘paper son’, Betty’s father had taken the surname Lee of his fake father, his real name being Eng.

Betty's father's fish  near the American President Line boat that brought him to America.
After 1943 Chinese living in America were able to become citizens but only 105 Chinese immigrants a year were allowed entrance.
Betty's father as a US serviceman
He joined the US Army during WWII. After his time in the army he returned to China to marry Betty's mother, a ‘war bride’.  Betty’s mother was very beautiful and always elegantly dressed, and Betty made sure her figure on the quilt had a hat.
Betty's beautiful mother
Betty’s father’s portrait on the quilt wears a blue Chinese jacket like he wore in China. In the 1960s amnesty was offered for those who arrive in America with false papers. Then Betty’s father and his family could legally take their rightful name of Eng. In his pocket is his business card for Eng’s Kitchen in Merrick, NY and his Army dog tags are in another pocket.
Betty's father with the tickets, a subway map, dog tags and restaurant business card
From Betty's book, her parents' ticket and pass
The two chicks near the central figure’s feet represent Betty's sister and brother. The chicks chase after their parents because they were left behind in China with their grandmother and did not see their parents again for ten years. They were only six and eight years old at the time.

Betty's mother's suitcase with photos of her husband and family,
the chicks representing the children they left behind in China
The New York City Subway map in her father’s hand shows where they lived in a house above his Canton restaurant. The New York City skyline and Statue of Liberty appear just left of his head, symbols of their adopted city and the welcoming symbol to immigrants.

The Statue of Liberty, NYC skyline, and the World Trade Center Twin towers which
Betty's parents saw fall while going to work on 9-11.
Betty grew up near Times Square and Rockefeller Center where she learned to ice skate. Her parents were on their way to Chinatown on 9-11 and they saw the towers go down, so the ‘brown chopstick buildings’ represent the World Trade Center buildings.

A large red house represents the house they grew up in, with Betty and her brother peeking from behind the bush in front of the house. Betty always had a ponytail like the girl on the quilt. An American flag pin from her father’s collection is in front of the house.
Betty and her brother peek from behind a push in front of their childhood home
Flowers on the quilt represent her mother’s love of flowers. She made shrimp dumplings and sewed clothing for Betty.

Her dad was a wonderful cook, played the Chinese banjo, and he loved the Yankees.
Betty's father at his restaurant
The family Chinese restaurant in NYC
It was a happy day when Betty finally met her older siblings. 

Betty with her family
The border blocks on the quilt are in colors of the US and China. The heart blocks represents “East Meets West.”
Betty working on Life is a Journey
Betty and her husband have lived in Metro Detroit for 40 years. When they arrived her community was very rural. It was quite a culture shock after living in New York City! They had to travel to Windsor, Canada to find a Chinese grocery. Now it is a thriving multicultural city. She is a retired math teacher.

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