Carolyn Wing Greenlee

My Mom, the Princess, a Chinese New Year’s Story

Since it’s still Chinese New Year week, I wanted to share a story from my mother’s point-of-view as princess of the parade. This is from the book I wrote with her about her life Inside the Oy Quong Laundry.

This is what she said:

Once in awhile when it got too bad in Merced, my mom and dad would go to San Francisco to have a little social life. They got tired of small town. No culture. Catch the cab to the railroad station. Take a ride. Check in at the hotel. Mom would have dinner with the ladies and carry on the gossip—who’s got a new baby and whose child got married—you know. Sometimes I’d get to go, too. My mom loved these Chinese operas. The woman would stand there and sing two hours straight nonstop. Everybody is eating handfuls of watermelon seeds, biting them and spitting, and I’m biting them and watching.

The only thing I remembered out of the Peking Opera was that one of the women came out with a black cherng sam. It was beautifully embroidered with brilliantly colored butterflies of all sizes and shapes going from the hem of her dress, diagonally up over one shoulder, and down across the back. I just loved it. I’ve always dreamed of it. I always thought, “That is so beautiful! Some day I’ll have a black dress with butterflies embroidered on it.” The butterflies were jewel-like against the black silk background. Not shiny silk. Matte silk with all these colorful butterflies just glowing. All different colors, shapes, and sizes. I can always remember front and back! Not just front. Front and back. That’s the only thing I can remember of the Peking Opera. And the seeds. And boring. Worse than boring.

The costumes were spectacular, though. Once I got to wear one just like in the opera. When I was thirteen, there was a big New Year’s parade. Mr. Wong (the one with the gambling house) asked me to be the princess. They said I would wear fancy clothes and ride a horse through the streets. I had never been on a horse, but they said, “You don’t have to worry. All you have to do is sit on the horse and look pretty. Two Boy Scouts will lead the horse through the streets.” So I said okay.

Mom as PrincessThe costume was gorgeous—layers and layers and layers of luxurious fabrics. I had to be dressed by professionals from San Francisco who knew how to dress that kind. It had great big wings with flags flapping—very heavy—and a great big headdress with pom-poms and pheasant feathers—also very heavy. There were mirrors and pieces of metal sewed in which added to the weight. When I walked, I would clank and shine, clank and shine. So they dressed me and lifted me up to sit on the horse, who could tell right away that I didn’t know how to ride.

When we started off, we walked along pretty good with the Boy Scouts leading the horse, and that was nice. But then they threw a whole string of fire crackers under the horse. The horse and I, neither one, were used to fire crackers under our feet. It started standing up on its hind legs. I grabbed the horn of the saddle and hung on for dear life. They kept throwing strings of fire crackers under the horse the whole way. It kept rearing and pitching. The Boy Scouts could barely keep it under control. I was scared. I felt very unprincess-like. I bet they were sorry they put me on the horse. I must have looked pretty grim.

Both the horse and I were glad when the parade was over. When they took it home, it probably ran into the barn and hid.


  1. Patty

    February 24, 2011 - 3:26 PM

    Hi Carolyn, I love this story. I could feel how your Mom felt.. first so honored to be THE Princess, then the reality of a heavy costume. Yet so beautiful! Then to be placed on a horse, trusting the boy scouts. It must have been scary anyway. Then to have the fireworks! I imagine the people enjoyed the sight of a beautiful Princess on a rearing, dancing horse though. They may have thought that was how it was suppose to be. Your poor Mom, I can relate to her fear after being on a run-away horse once. Not fun! Good story later, much later. Hugs to you, and Hedy!

  2. Mary Holtz

    February 8, 2011 - 7:27 AM

    Great story, excellent photo! I did read the book also! Thank you for writing it for all to share.
    It is so funny that I love Chinese Opera! I used to sing like that before I knew it was actually a real type of singing! I must have some Chinese in me, that’s why I know I need a name for just me! xoxo

  3. gail

    February 7, 2011 - 3:19 PM

    A wonderful story — a real piece of rare history! Was that a picture of her???? Thank you. I have loaned your mother’s book to our US History teacher to use with his kids.


    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      February 7, 2011 - 3:36 PM

      Yes, that’s my mom. It was hard for me to see her in that remote, smooth face. In fact, I had my doubts, but her handwriting on the back was unmistakable and the date matched the age she said she was at the time. If you look at the edges of the wings, you can see the pheasant feathers.

      When I read this story back to my mom, she giggled like a teenaged girl. It brought back such a strong memory to her—a horror at the time now turned funny in old age.

      I’m so glad your school is using this book! That’s the main reason I wrote it. Second Generation Chinese American stories are rare for a number of reasons. It took me years to get my mom to talk about her childhood. She’s gone now, but not her story. That’s the beauty of history and personal memoir. Every voice is precious.

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