Carolyn Wing Greenlee


As a Third Generation Chinese American, I felt a responsibility to collect the stories of my clan because there were not many books from the inside of a Chinese immigrant family. The first book was Inside the Oy Quong Laundry, my mother’s memoir.

Kathleen Wing

My mother was reluctant to tell more than the stories I had heard all my life–about the eight-pound sadiron she had to use when she was only eight years old, about the red rooster who attacked her mother every time she went in to get one of his harem, about the customers who were named for their laundry (Two Towels and Stinky Socks). She said I was wasting my time. Who would care about life in a Chinese laundry? It wasn’t interesting. She told me I should write a best seller and make a lot of money and be famous. But as I transcribed and edited her voice into vignettes that I read back to her, she began to see how serious I was, and she began to remember.

At first it was the bitter things—the hairy mold that grew on the inside of the walls, the sweltering heat of Merced summers inside a brick building with a coal-burning stove and only one small fan. But then she began telling me about the clock weeds that would wind into corkscrews when you stuck them into your sweater and the geese that flew in Vees honking across the autumn sky. She remembered funny things, tender things, and beauty. It healed her. Surprisingly, it healed me as well.

A friend of mine once said that some people have been hit by exploding bullets, and what you hear coming out of them are cries of fear and shrieks of pain. There are always reasons, and if we knew them, we might marvel that the person is not worse.

When I heard my mother’s stories, I began to see her as a person with a past. She was no longer just my mom; she was the voice of all she’d gone through, some of which was wars with exploding bullets flying everywhere.

On the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death, I am again so grateful that I took the time to hear and gather stories. They helped me understand why she was the way she was, and why I was the way I was. They helped me cherish the wisdom she’d gleaned from her adversities, and choose to honor the strong and courageous woman she had become.


  1. Gwyn Ramsey

    April 17, 2012 - 8:29 PM

    Carolyn, what a loving and interesting blog on your mother. As a genealogist my interest is always sparked by family stories. I met your dad and have read his book. Extremely interesting. Now I would love to read your mom’s book. Is it available?

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      April 17, 2012 - 8:37 PM

      I remember the Albuquerque, NM, Women Writing the West conference that my dad drove me to after Mom died in 2004. That’s where we met you. We spent an entertaining afternoon at the museum of natural history. What a good memory!

      Yes, Mom’s memoir, “Inside the Oy Quong Laundry,” is available on Earthen Vessel’s website:

      After all these years, Mom’s memoir is still my favorite. I think you will enjoy her spunk, spirit, and wry wit. She, like you, had a hard life full of trials and, like you, met it with grit. You’ll see why she was such a good match for my dad.

      C and H

  2. Alice Trego

    March 27, 2012 - 9:31 PM

    Carolyn, it’s wonderful that you developed a rich relationship with your Mom and her stories. I envy that you had this opportunity…



    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      April 17, 2012 - 8:40 PM

      Enviable indeed! And if it weren’t for my dad’s cancer and mom’s severe neurological degenerative disease, I would not have had that relationship with her. God knows how to use the most horrible of circumstances to mend shreded relationships and create new ones that become better than you could have imagined possible.


  3. Mia

    March 25, 2012 - 9:55 PM

    As always, I am touched by your memories of your family and I know we shared similarities in this way when we met.
    So you know, my dad is about to be 99 and sometimes there seems to be no peace between us. Perhaps you understand. I will miss him like no one else on earth but right now it just breaks my heart to be locked in such a battle. So it goes, I guess. I read your stories and memories of your mother and father and love them.

    I send whatever blessings to you that I can,


    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      April 17, 2012 - 8:45 PM

      Mia, when we strolled around the fake lake, dragging our IV poles as we received treatment for our “incurable” conditions, we talked about our parents and found so much in common. I guess many struggle with their parents, especially when those parents are gifted and famous. I do understand the fight, and will be praying for you in yours. Mine are over now, and I treasure the time I had with both of my remarkable and difficult parents. They were a gift from God. I’m still learning from our struggles. You will, too.

      Blessings and hugs,

  4. Sue Gong

    March 25, 2012 - 4:29 PM

    As always, Carolyn, your telling and retelling of the story of your mom’s life always evokes such pain and sadness and a wonderful appreciation for the value of living. A wonderful story is happening whether we realize it or not. Love, Sue Gong

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      March 25, 2012 - 5:03 PM

      We do tend to minimize the wonderful story that’s happening and it’s often because we’re in it. We don’t realize history is what we’re creating by our choices. How wonderful to see how we all fit together, our colors adding to this tapestry of life. What a privilege God has given us!

  5. Betty Helf

    March 25, 2012 - 2:10 PM

    It was Oliver Wendell Holmes who wrote, “So everything in me passes on through my children. I am a drop of water in the flowing river of time; a molicule in a mountain; a cell in a great family tree.” As one who has been interested in genealogy for over 35 years, I applaud your efforts and know what a valuable gift you have given your children, grandchildren and those as yet unborn. Our anscestors went through many trials and hardships so we could be born in this wonderful country with its unlimited opportunities. Our children need to know this.

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      March 25, 2012 - 5:00 PM

      You are so right, Betty. I have a granddaughter who has taken an interest in the family due to a class that requires papers on ancestors. It has given her such a great sense of her “place at the table.” When we know what our ancestors went through so we could have a better life, it enobles our lives and gives us a sense of destiny that helps propel us through hard times. If they could do it, then so can I and, in a way, I owe it to them to continue their legacy of triumph and courage.

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