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Lo-Yi Chan

Lo-Yi Chan was born in Canton, China, in 1932. Fearing a Japanese invasion of southern China leading up to World War II, his parents initially fled to Honolulu, Hawai’i. There, they experienced the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Concerned about the new possibility of a Japanese invasion of Hawai’i, the family once again emigrated, this time to the continental U.S., where Lo-Yi’s father was hired for a teaching position at Dartmouth College. Lo-Yi subsequently spent the rest of his childhood in Hanover, New Hampshire.

In this interview, Lo-Yi describes his life during World War II, including growing up in Hawai’i. He recounts his experiences during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the ensuing fear that rose in Hawai’i, and his father’s attempts to move his family to the mainland U.S. He also speaks about living in New Hampshire and how the war manifested itself there.

My Mother’s Precautions After Pearl Harbor

After that, I remember my mother pinned a five-dollar bill on my underpants, in case we were ever separated. I promptly went out and lost it [laughs]—I promptly went out and lost it. It was the biggest loss of my life. Five dollars was a lot of money, and I still remember that. It was a tragedy.

Pearl Harbor on O’ahu

My mother called me in. I was downstairs playing with my friends—we were playing marbles. One of the things we could do is scratch a little depression in the ground, and then draw a circle maybe ten feet around. And each person has a marble, and you could flick it with your thumb. And if you could flick it and hit somebody else’s marble and knock them away—and the more marbles you got into that depression, the more you could keep them from other people. And then we had “biggies,” which were big marbles, and those were highly prized.

We were playing out[side], and I remember my mother said, “Come inside, everybody come inside!” My sister and I went in, and we huddled around the radio. And that’s when we heard the announcement that just over and over again said, “This is not a drill. All military personnel report to their base; all medical personnel report to their hospital.” Just over and over again they said this.

And so, we stopped listening to it after a while. I recall—but my recollection, I think, is faulty, because I don’t think it’s possible—I recall seeing smoke on the horizon. But I don’t think it’s possible—Pearl Harbor was too far away for me to have seen any smoke on the horizon.

I also recall looking at Koko Head, which is probably five miles away across the valley, and they were bombing Koko Head. And I had this recollection for years, until only ten years ago, maybe fifteen years ago, I was back in Honolulu, and talked to a Park Service person whose mother was exactly my age. And I told him I saw this bombing on Koko Head. And he said, “No, there were no radar installations on Koko Head. What you saw were planes going over to bomb Hickam Field,” which was directly, from where the aircraft carriers were—they would pass right over Koko Head to go bomb Hickam field. So, I had seen the airplanes, but I had added this other layer. [laughs]

But that’s all I remember. And then the other thing I do remember having to do with Pearl Harbor was that one of my friend’s fathers was fireman, and he was injured in a shrapnel injury or something like that—I never did find out. But those are my only direct recollections of Pearl Harbor.

Carrying a Gas Mask After Pearl Harbor

The other thing that we had was, we had to carry a gas mask. We had a little musette bag with a gas mask in it, and I recall being tested for gas. A big flatbed truck would pull up, and inside that truck, there were two benches along the side of the truck, and some steps up. And all the schoolkids, like twenty schoolkids would go inside, sit on the benches facing each other. They’d shut the door, and on the signal, they would put tear gas in there. And you had to quickly take your gas mask out and put it on and test it.

I remember they had a can, and you had to put your hand down here. And your hand was just big enough to cover it—something to make sure it was tight. And if it wasn’t tight, that stuff seriously stung. So you learned how to put your gas mask on in a hurry.

But we had to carry that around with all—everywhere we played, bicycled, you had to have this gas mask.

KG: Was it heavy?

Yeah, it was—.

KG: Yeah, for a little kid.

Yeah, it was an adult-sized gas mask—it wasn’t made for kids.

KG: And they actually put tear gas in there?

I don’t know what it was. I think it was tear gas.

KG: But something.

Something that hurt.

KG: That was annoying, that hurt.

Well, yeah, it stung. You had to—otherwise you weren’t doing it right.

Getting a Job at Fourteen

And toward the end [of the war], the labor situation, even in Hanover, was really severe. You couldn’t hire anybody because all the men were gone.

I was at the time fourteen, so now I was old enough to work. And so I ended up as a cook. Can you imagine that, a fourteen-year-old cook in the Hanover Inn, which was the best inn-hotel at Dartmouth College? Now, I didn’t do any cooking, [laughs] but it enabled me to eat with the chefs. And since there was rationing, I could eat stuff that nobody else could get: all the butter, all the milk, all the lobsters I could eat.

How My Parents Originally Came to Boston

She [my mother] was a musician, but she did not play professionally. My father met my mother when they were both students at Lingnan University, where he eventually became the secretary, the provost. And they did something unusual. Before they were married, she was accepted to the New England Conservatory in Boston, in the piano.

KG: Oh my goodness, that’s unusual.

But she couldn’t go alone. So my father was going to escort her to Boston, drop her off at the New England Conservatory, and then he was headed to Chicago to study mathematics. So they went around the world, ended up in Boston. And they were in a tea shop called—what was it called? “Traps,” or—not Traps. It was a famous name at the time, it’s no longer there.

When one of the Harvard professors who had taught at Lingnan University recognized them and had sat down and had tea with them, and asked them “What are you doing?” Well, my mother’s going to conservatory in piano and my father was going to Chicago. And the professor said to my father, “Why don’t you stay here and study philosophy?” And so, my father said, well, he’d much rather stay here than go to Chicago. So that’s what he did, and they were married in Boston a year later.