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Who is the Chinese Gardener at the Whaley House?

By Lawrence Ko, Volunteer

You might be wondering who the Chinese man is pruning the plants as you wander about the Whaley House garden. Why is he wearing his bib overalls with the pockets removed and placed in the front?

The man is I, Lawrence Ko, a native of San Diego. The 1896 style bib overalls were modified to have them resemble what they might have looked like between 1870-1891. There were no pockets on the bib or the back, or a ruler pocket with hammer loop. Two prong buckles on the bib held them up. With the less faded fabric exposed where the pockets had been, the garment becomes an object for conversation.

I retired in December from San Diego County just short of 32 years of service as a pediatric occupational therapist with the Medical Therapy Program of California Children's Services. I provided rehabilitation services to children with diagnoses, which included cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, spinal defects, and limb deficiency. I decided to retire since my body was starting to show wear and tear of age making it a challenge to do hands-on therapy.

I am a volunteer at the Whaley House on Mondays and Thursdays and at the Cabrillo National Monument on Fridays.

For the past 10 years, I have been enjoying my hobbies of making and wearing Renaissance period clothing, and doing history interpretation (educating the public about the life and customs of the period) at Faires and events outside of San Diego.

About 2 years ago, I decided to explore doing living history in San Diego. Since I knew very little about the history of San Diego and its early Chinese immigrants, I started my study of these topics. It has been an incredible journey. Finding the answer to one question creates many more.

Did you know that the Whaley family had a Chinese domestic named Ts Yow? The Chinese immigrant workers contributed much to San Diego's history. They were successful fishermen, railroad workers, farm workers, cooks, laundry men, construction workers, and household domestic workers who had to live in the ghetto of Chinatown, located in the Stingaree District, located south of Market Street in New Town.

Federal "Chinese exclusionary laws," starting in 1888, allowed blatant "Jim Crow"-type discrimination. These laws were repealed in 1943, fifty-five years later after much hardship. The Chinese persevered, were proved hard workers, and gradually integrated into the community. There are only remnants of Chinatown as later generations, prospered, and moved away seeking the American Dream.

I learned that the Whaley House Museum needed a volunteer familiar with gardening and sewing, so I gladly joined the team as these are among my favorite activities. I feel like a child let loose in a candy store. There is so much to learn about San Diego's early history and customs, period clothing, and gardening of the time. The SOHO staff have been most gracious and patient in sharing their knowledge and references to facilitate my learning. I have started pruning to prepare the garden for spring and will soon begin the process of removing incorrect period plants and dividing and propagating others.

I am excited and privileged to be a part of the Garden Committee, chaired by Jessica McGee. The mission is to bring the garden back to what it might have looked like when the Whaley family resided on the grounds.

The garden seems to appreciate the grooming and attention. It can be comfortably viewed while sitting on the raised porch or brick patio of the New Orleans Creole Café while savoring a cup of coffee with Southern cuisine or dessert. It is a peaceful, magical oasis away from the noise and congestion of the busy street. Do come by to play, visit, and witness the garden's metamorphosis!

2005 - Volume 36, Issue 1

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