Port Townsend MFA faculty member Aimee Liu’s opinion piece about political correctness and her family history was published in the LA Times on March 27.
Today it’s popular to say that political correctness is destroying America, but a recently discovered set of century-old clippings offer a cautionary reminder of what our country was like without political correctness. From Oregon to South Carolina, journalists and their editors in 1906 felt free to trumpet racial epithets and outright lies, including those they printed about my American grandmother and my Chinese grandfather.
Beginning with their engagement, my grandparents’ union was national news, simply because of their races. Front-page headlines ranged from the seemingly benign San Francisco Call’s “Charming Miss Dolly Gives Her Hand to Len Shen Yu” to the Denver Post’s virulent “Los Angeles Heiress Elopes with a Chink Editor of San Fran.”
Reporters couldn’t be bothered to learn my grandfather’s actual name, Liu Chengyu, instead concocting random approximations. And in true tabloid fashion, the Denver paper fabricated the notion that my grandmother was an heiress eloping with her Chinese lover.
In fact, until the 1906 San Francisco earthquake one month earlier, Dolly Trescott, then 29, had been struggling to support herself by tutoring students in English. One of them was my 30-year-old grandfather-to-be, then enrolled at UC Berkeley and the editor of a newspaper in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When the quake struck, Liu Chengyu helped his tutor escape her boarding house on Jackson Street before the Great Fire engulfed it. He then protected her in the tent city for refugees that was erected on the Presidio. Homeless, and with no family other than her naturopath father in Los Angeles, Trescott understandably accepted when this wealthy son of a former Viceroy of Canton proposed marriage.
Liu was a protege of Sun Yatsen. In an ironic twist, his newspaper was an instrument of Sun’s campaign to overthrow the imperial dynasty that had employed generations of Liu ancestors. My grandfather wanted to see China remade as a Western-style republic. It’s not clear that my grandmother knew any more about these revolutionist activities than did the American reporters who dubbed her fiance an “embryo diplomat.” Regardless, she was prepared to go the distance to marry her “Celestial.” That alone made her fair game for the papers.