ASTORIA REVISITED And Autobiographical Notes

By Kartar Dhillon


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If you were born as long ago as the 1910s, you mark the time in decades. I was born in 1915. In the 1960s, I decided to write down some childhood about my life in Astoria , Oregon , where my parents had taken me and my three older siblings to live from 1916 to 1922. “For my children,” I told myself, “so that they will know something about our family in that time and place.”

My children grew up mostly in large cities: San Francisco , Berkeley , Los Angeles . They might be intrigued to know that we used kerosene lamps and woodstoves instead of electricity and natural gas; that we lived on the banks of a river which appeared to me to be an ocean.

Thos memoirs remained tucked away in a journal until this year, when my granddaughter, Erika, a filmmaker with a Master's degree from film school at the University of Southern California, read them and announced that she would make a narrative film based on the memoirs. Immediatetly we were off on a journey of discovery to substantiate my childhood recollections.

I had written that we lived on a dirt road atop a riverbank of the Columbia River near the intersection of a large masonry pipe which came down from the mountainside. Below our house had been a meadow, the far end of which was lined with “company” houses. The company was the Hammond Lumber Company where my father had worked.

For factual data I knew little more that this. I had not returned to Astoria since 1922.

Return to Astoria

We arrived in Astoria this past summer, toward evening on a weekday. Where to go? We had no idea. “Let's check the tourist office,” suggested by Erika. We did. A tall courtly man named Jim Durham listened to our purpose in being here. He said, “Let me check on something,” and disappeared into his office. A few minutes later he beckoned to us. “Come talk to this man on the telephone,” he said. “If anyone can help you, he can.”

The man turned out to be Don Riswick, editor of the Columbia River Gillnetter , and he did help. Within an hour he had driven us past the site of the Hammond Lumber Mill, which is now the site of a sewage treatment plant, past the site of my school, Alderbrook, which is no longer there, having been razed before collapse of old age, an to exact site of my father's house, a few yards from the masonry pipe which drains water from the hillside. The house was not there. We talked to a family who were enjoying the summer evening in their backyard, which would have been our backyard. Their house now occupied the meadow of my memories.

Lorna Zametkin and her sons talked to us and invited us to come back the next day if we wished to explore the neighborhood. At the end of the tour of Alderbrook, Don Riswick treated us to an in-depth treatise about gillnetting and on the current state of fishing industry in Astoria. Erika and I retired to our hotel that evening shaking our heads in wonderment at the amazing hospitality we had encountered on our very first day.

As our search for our personal history began in the following days, the issue of names to identify cultures loomed large, At the Heritage Museum we saw an exhibit of Asians who had once lived in Astoria. I asked the curator, Jeff Smith, why there was no mention of Asian Indians. He brought out a picture he had in his office files, a picture of two men whose attire indicated that they were Moslem. Prominently displayed in front of the man was a “hooka,” a water-cooled smoking pipe. The picture had been labeled “Hindus.”

I explained to Jeff that these men were not Hindus, that not all immigrants from India could be classified as such, that India also had Moslems, Sikhs, Parsis, Jains, among other. I told him I could understand the confusion about the term because in Hindi, which is the official language of India, the word for India is Hindustan, and thus its citizens are Hindustanis. But not all Hindustanis, I explained, are adherents of the Hindu faith.

My parent were Sikhs. The majority of Asian Indians—numbering more than four hundred in Astoria at one time—had been Sikhs. However, as Erika and I plowed through the Astoria newspapers of the early days of the twentieth century, we read the word, “Hindu” (most often spelled “Hindoo”) so many times that we ourselves were sometimes forced to allude to that term to make our meaning clear, usually indicating imaginary quotation marks.

If we refer to ourselves as Indians, the assumption is that we are Native Americans. That is why we use the term Asian Indian to clarify the error created by Columbus when he lost his way and thought he had arrived in India and ended up misnaming a whole continent of people.

In response to Jeff Smith's request for more information about the Sikh culture, I have given him a copy of the story published in this issue of Cumtux to keep in the Museum's records, and Erika has provided him with photographs of my family which were taken in Astoria studios in 1916-22. My story, which is titled “Journey to India,” was written as a journal entry in 1973 after my first and only visit to India.

On that first research to Astoria, Erika and I spent hours on a fruitless search to find the deed to my father's house, but we were rewarded by making the acquaintance of Suzanne Johnson, who helped us throughout the afternoon, dragging up enormous record books from the vaults downstairs. I could hardly lift a single book, so heavy were they; but Shirley flew up and down the stairs, carrying them two at a time, one under each arm. Erika and I looked at each other and shook our headsin disbelief at such effort on our behalf.

When the courthouse closed, we repaired to the library, hoping to find records there of our one-time home in Astoria. Librarian Bruce Berney asked, “If there is no house any longer, what is the purpose of information on it?”

“For the record,” Erika and I responded in unison, “to find a trace of our existence her.”

Once again, as we headed for a table to begin looking, we were rewarded by another manifestation of Astorian hospitality in the form of the editor of Cumtux , who sat waiting for us. “Jeff Smith told me you would be coming here,” She said simply, “so I Came too because I wanted to meet you.” Jeff Smith had also arrived. Seeing Jeff and Liisa with us, Librarian Bruce Berney said, “I see you are in good hands.” It was Bruce Berney himself, however, who dragged up the heavy bound volumes of newspapers for us. We were sorry for all the work we imposed on him and his staff and could not thank them enough for their help.

At the motel that evening, a message was waiting: Eileen Ystad (from the courthouse) had left names of people for us to contact. If only we had more time!

We had to leave Astoria the next day, Erika went back to her work in Hollywood, and I went to San Francisco. In January we decided to return to Astoria because four days in the summer had not been enough. Erika called the editor of Cumtux to ask if she knew where we might find reasonable lodging by the week. “Stay with us,” she said. “We have two extra rooms upstairs.” Later she told us she was afraid we had given up on our research and was delighted when Erika called. We assured her we had only just begun.

We spent two wonderful weeks in Astoria. It was arranged for us to meet people who might have known our family, four people who did have some recollections of Indians living in Astoria. We met at a clam chowder luncheon hosted by Helmi Mellin, assisted by her daughter, Karen. Erika videotaped the proceedings while the guests told us what they remembered of the men of “Hindu Alley.” Helen Johnson, one of the guests, remembered that the men had marched to the Hammond Lumber Mill each day in almost military fashion. Another guest, Aini Duoos, remembered my older brothers who had attended Alderbrook School with her. And another guest, Virginia Hendrickson, brought pictures of early days in Astoria. We learned much about Astoria through the histories of our guests and a little about ourselves. Later, at a dinner at Viola Abrahamson's, more details were filled in. Erika couldn't join us for that one. She had missed two days running through the countryside because of continuous rain, so she went swimming in a pool at Seaside that evening.

Gab(d)ar Party

Liisa and I traveled back and forth in time through Viola's stories, to Finland and back, and to the beginnings of the Finnish Brotherhood in Astoria. As I listened to the talk about Finland's struggle against Russian imperialism, I was reminded of the struggles of my own people against the British rule in India. And suddenly, like a thunderbolt from the blue, I remembered that this very place, Astoria, was the birthplace of our revolutionary organization, the Gadar Party. I had associated the party with San Francisco for so long, I had temporarily forgotten that it had been founded right here in Astoria in the year 1913. This was where the weekly newspaper was established (to be published in three languages: Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu), to become the voice of expatriates from India. It was a non-sectarian organization whose one purpose was to free India from foreign rule.

Earlier, at the luncheon, while I had listened to the guests, I had been struck by the similarities in their experiences and my own. They were working people who had waged many union battles; theirs were the families whose men fought the country's wars; and there was the grit and gristle of the work force that had rebuilt this extraordinary little city after devastating fires.

Our differences had been external: outward appearance, for instance. The Sikh men (of whom my father was one) wore turbans and beards, a tenet of their faith. My mother (who was the only woman émigré from India in Astoria at the time) always kept her head covered with a scarf. This, and our darker color, set us apart from the European immigrants. My people did the same work, however, and aspired to the same dream of a better life.

The luncheon guests had talked about the “Hindus” who had lived on a little pier called “Hindu Alley.” “They didn't bother anyone,” they had said. “They kept to themselves. Went to work in a group and came home from work in a group.”

“Why wouldn't they?” I was thinking as I listened. Where could they go? They had no social halls, no church of their own as the other immigrant groups had. They had only the security of their numbers together. They were not welcomed into the larger society and were scorned in the press for being men without families.

Bitter choices

These immigrants from India had had to make bitter choices in coming here as single men. India is at a much farther distance from Astoria than Europe. They would have had to mortgage farms, borrow money from family and friends to raise enough for a single fare. They thought in doing so that they were making an investment in the future when they could send for their families. They didn't know that their options would be shattered by racist laws which singled them out along with other people from Asia (Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos), and stripped them of privileges that immigrants from Europe could attain to.

These laws, particularly the Asian Exclusion Act of 1917, restricted Indian immigration, making it illegal for them to enter the country. They were forbidden the right to apply for citizenship. For the Indians this meant that after their sacrifices to buy passage to the United States, they could not send for their families, nor could they return to visit them in India because they would be barred from reentry to the United States.

My family lived on “Hindu Alley” for a brief time while my father completed construction of a house for us on the river bank. Except for our one family, the Indians were all single men. They spoiled us children because the missed the children they had left behind, their own or their siblings in Punjab. Each day they gave us sweets and fruits and saved the cream off the tops of their bottles of milk for us. They were our extended family.

There was sadness on both sides the day we left for our new home. The men were left without the company of the only children who could speak their language. They were also left bereft of the daily interpretive readings that my father provided for them of both English and Hindustani newspapers.

I used to think that my father was lucky to have brought his wife with him from Punkab on his third and last trip home in 1910. But now I think it was more than luck that inspired a young man barely out of his teens to venture into the unknown as early as the 1890s, when, during his work as a merchant seaman, he first set foot on American soil. It would have taken someone with great spirit and courage to embark on such a voyage.

The sequence of his travels evades me, but we do know that before he settled in San Francisco in 1889, he had done military service in Shanghai, Singapore, and Hong Kong. On his trip to the U.S. with my mother in 1910, they resided in California before birth of their first child. In the course of his work and travels, my father became fluent in English which he also learned to read and write. He taught my mother the written Punjabi which was their mother tongue so that she could communicate with her family in India, and he was conversant in Tagalog and Spanish. To this day, I think of the Spanish word “plancha” as Punjabi because that was what my mother called flat irons that we used to iron clothes.

The first four children and the last two in our family were born in California, and two of my brothers were born in Astoria. I tell the Saga of my parents in detail because they were like kith and kin to all our Indian brethren who had no families here of their own. In Astoria, my father helped the younger men in many ways because he alone had command of English among his fellow workers. They were untutored young men, having come directly from tilling the soil of Punjab to tilling the soil of California or working in lumber mills in Oregon.

My father was at the forefront of the strikes in the lumber industry, strikes which brought about a reduced working day and improved safety measures. He was the link between the Indian workers at Hammond Lumber Company and the whites.

When we returned to California in 1922, we were still only one of three Sikh families in the entire state, as the result of restrictions by the government's discriminatory laws. In California, our lives were enriched by access to the Sikh Temple in Stockton and to the Gadar Ashram in San Francisco. My father, Bakhshish Singh Dhillon, and my mother, Rattan Kaur, took very active roles in both the temple and the freedom party. The laws, however, were relentless.

In 1923, the Alien Land Law forbade the purchase of land by “ . . . Aliens ineligible for citizenship.” I can guess that the descendants of the Europeans had by this time established nice homes for their families. I remember that we moved from place to place wherever my father was able to find work. I remember that by the time I graduated from high school in Carruthers, California, I had attended thirteen schools, three of them in a single year. That does not seem to have affected my scholarship, however, because at the end of that year, I was personally tested by a worried superintendent of schools in that county, and because I scored so high, I was promoted from sixth to the eighth grade.

While Erika and I wer perusing a newspaper of 1916 in the Astoria library, I came upon an item which listed the names of students in the county who had made honor roll. The name of my oldest brother, Kapur, was on it. Perfect attendance throughout the year was one criterion for placement on the honor roll. I pictured my mother rushing about in our little house in Astoria in the mornings, simultaneously saying her prayers, cooking breakfast, dressing the children, and sending them off to school. It came as a revelation to me on reading that item in the paper that she had never let us miss a day of school. Perhaps that was how I scored so high even with all the changes of schools.

It was not until after India had won its freedom from Britian in 1947 that the McCarran-Walter Act enabled Asians to acquire citizenship through naturalization. By that time both my parents had died, and most of the people who had fought so hard through the Gadar Party were either dead or very old. They had grown old without benefit of family and without a home they could call their own. But they were free now to go to India and to return if they chose to do so.

Once again our time for research in Astoria was drawing to a close. Susan Lewis, an anthropologist , graciously came to talk with us. She suggested further reading in the University of Oregon and libraries in Prtland.

On our last day, we managed to see Denise Alborn to tell her how much we had appreciated her article in the Winter 1989 issue of Cumtux . Although she was hard at work, she took time out to exchange bibliographies from her own research with Erika, who was delighted to share her insights with Denise, and to compliment Denise on the comprehensive research she had done in writing her excellent article.

Erika in the fourth generation of the Dhillon family. I wish she could have known my father (her great grandfather). He had an imposing presence: six feet three inches tall, a military carriage, and a twinkle in his eye, all set off his turban and beard. My mother would seem petite by contrast, but she too commanded attention (perhaps curiosity) by her floor-length skirts and headdress, a costume which she maintained even into “flapper-era” styles of knee-high hemlines.

Erika marvels at my accuracy of detail, and frankly, I am somewhat amazed too. I always thought that children's retention of their earliest memories started at a later age, but now I think it starts as early as two or three. Otherwise, I can't account for all the things I remember. Erika is fascinated by the beauty of Astoria, its rivers and mountains and woodlands. “It's just as you described them,” she says, but I don't think I could ever describe the beauty of Astoria adequately.

I remember much more than I have written. I remember streets clogged thick with golden daffodils. I remember pussy willows—what an incredibly exotic plant! I am sure I will never be ably to describe the excitement produced by the vision of blackberry juice glistening in the sun.

Our work has just begun. Although I have a completed manuscript and Erika is already at work on her film based on my manuscript, my story is not yet finished. I will not be content until I learn more about the time and place of my origins. We will be spending many more hours digging up the past in dusty tomes. I have discovered that the dust clears away quickly when new light is shed upon it.

An interesting discovery for me was a definition of the “Barred Zone.” In 1917, the Immigration Act stopped immigration from Asia by the following delineation: “An imaginary line was drawn from Red Sea to the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas, through the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea, along Ural River, and then through the Ural Mountians.” All people living in areas east of the line, which came to be called the “Barred Zone,” were denied entry (to the United States) from then on. Asian Indians were among the excluded.

© 1995 Kartar Dhillon

(Source: CUMTUX (Clatsop County Historical Winter, 1995. pp.2-9)