Written by Mary Chang
Albert Lew was born in 1924 in Los Angeles’ Old Chinatown, on Alameda Street, across from what is now Union Station. Albert was the first in his family to be born in the United States. However, due to the Great Depression, Albert’s parents decided to move their family back to China in 1929 when he was only five-years old. Albert and his family arrived in Hong Kong and eventually settled in Kowloon where his merchant father continued to manage his business.
Unfortunately, within five years of their homecoming, Albert’s father passed away, which also resulted in the end of the family business. In 1937, when Albert just turned thirteen, his mother decided to send him back to America.
In 1937, Albert boarded the S.S. President Hoover steamship in Hong Kong and headed to San Pedro. Although Albert lived in America for the first five years of his life, he returned to his birthplace as a stranger. Albert recalls “[It was] strange to me because to me, there I was, supposedly born right here. I don’t know anything about this place. I was too young. It was fantastic because, you know, there was all this modern stuff.
Upon his arrival in San Pedro, Albert was brought in by his distant relatives, who also owned the Sun Wing Wo general store in old Chinatown where Albert would work. Being only thirteen years old, Albert lived in a room above the store with two other workers and worked in the store after school. Albert remembers, “My job was only to climb up there to wind that clock… I come back [from school], I dust the shelf, I put items on the shelf, with the open boxes. You know, it all comes from the upstairs because there’s not too much room to store downstairs. The rest of them go upstairs. I mean, those days, we don’t have an elevator. Everything gets carried up there by hand.�? During that time, Albert also attended Central Junior High School.
Six months after his arrival to America, Albert had already begun to feel homesick and yearned to see his mother once again. He soon left for San Francisco to be with his other family members. In his four years there, Albert worked at a laundry business and improved his English at school. Later on, he joined the U.S. Navy. Albert looks back, “I always idolize when I was living in San Francisco as a sailor walk the street, they look like they own the world.
In 1955, Albert returned to Los Angeles with his wife and children. By then, Old Chinatown no longer existed. New Chinatown had taken its place. Today, Albert volunteers at the Chinese American Museum, located in the historic Garnier Building, where the Sun Wing Wo store once stood. Every month, he gives visitors his personal stories about working in the store, taking them on a journey back in time.