With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
In 1986, when I was nine and my brother was ten, my parents moved us to a place I have never claimed; a place that has never claimed me. Rancho Santa Fe, California: former land of the Santa Fe Railroad, whose twisted experiments created 100-foot tall stands of rare eucalyptus across the wealthy community. Lilian Rice’s Spanish fantasy utopia. A golf course and a tennis club. The place I spent the better part of my youth; the place I first saw a ghost; the place my father died. The place where we were aliens, and alienated. And yet: it was home.
In Rancho Santa Fe, houses were full of pastels and light and high, arched entryways; they were pristine and cool as tombs. Dirt trails flanked the two-lane asphalt roads, and there were no sidewalks, mailboxes, or streetlights. The trails were made for people on horseback, an element in the landscape that might have made it feel rural, except that they led to the nearby, members-only golf course. Residents were proud of the rural fiction, though, and liked to refer to the town as “The Ranch.”
In 1986, my mother and her business partners (a trio of Taiwanese immigrants) sold their first biotech company, and there was money to move up in the world. The house we bought was modest for the area: a four-bedroom ranch house built in the 1950s decorated with old linoleum; faded, pastel-striped wallpaper; and mustard-and-brown-colored tiles in the room that would be mine. The only thing I remember from when we went to look at the house is the earthy smell of ground beef frying in a pan, a smell that to me was exotic and slightly nauseating in its plainness – devoid of the sweet pungency of sizzling garlic, ginger, and soy sauce that infused most of the meat cooked in our house.
When our parents-to-be left Taiwan for graduate school in Detroit, Michigan and Madison, Wisconsin – taking the only pathway available to them out of an island under martial law – they severed their future children’s connection to land, to our relatives, to our ancestors; to culture, customs, and language. We were born, my brother and I, as stunted blank slates, both over- and under-determined by the racial and cultural identities we would never be able to fully grasp, while those were all most other people could see.
We lost the daily fish and vegetable and fruit market in Lotung, where my mother’s mother went since she was a child in the 1930s, where everyone knew her and the fishmonger knew exactly which fish she would want; where she could walk and speak with ease.
We lost the cracked land in Pingtung, where my father’s father was an architect, and whose streets my father could traverse without a map even decades later, when he himself was an old man. (Watching him eat slices of sticky honeyed yams with a toothpick in the warm glow of the nightmarket stalls at the age of 60, I saw him become a child again.)
All my brother and I had was what we could see in front of us, every day: the graduate student family apartment at the University of Wisconsin with the red carpet and creaking metal swing set outside where we were each born and took our first steps. The small house with the brick fireplace in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego. The slightly larger house in Del Mar, where we became best friends with our neighbors’ friendly freckled children, who ran barefoot with dirty feet. And then the ranch house on the big land in Rancho Santa Fe.
In Rancho Santa Fe, even though by then it was already 1986, we were Orientals. We were Orientals because there were so few of us at first: just ___ ___, in my brother’s grade, whose family was so ridiculously rich they owned a pet monkey, and ___ ___, in my grade, whose father was white and wore a toupee. We were Orientals because my brother’s big white athletic friends decided it would be fun to call him “Yang” (this was not our last name). We were Orientals because I was afraid to invite friends to eat dinner at our house, because they were grossed out and said so about things like squid ink on rice. We were Orientals because our parents never made friends with our friends’ parents, not really, but only other Taiwanese people, who usually lived at least a half-hour drive away. We were Orientals because the local security patrol would slow down and tail my father when he was out walking by himself, and because my grandfather – who did not speak English and whose face was brown – was always assumed to be the gardener.
I didn’t find out until much later that one of the reasons there were so few of “us” was because up until the 1970s, people of color were prohibited from living in Rancho Santa Fe unless they were servants.
As in so many places, the land tells the history. But we couldn’t see – didn’t know – the Native people, the colonizers, the proselytizers, the developers, and workers who had made it so: The Kumeyaay-Ipai, who knew and stewarded every plant, animal, and season. The first exploratory incursions by the Spanish. The brutal mission period, which irrevocably transformed the land and decimated its peoples. The relatively brief Mexican rancho period, before Anglo settlers insinuated themselves into the landholding Californio families and reduced them to relics of a romanticized past. And then the coming of the railroad conglomerates and Anglo developers, who cloaked their proprietary violence with romantic fantasies of “gentleman” farming and the Spanish past. The Santa Fe Land Improvement Company (SFLIC). Developer Ed Fletcher. SFLIC vice president William Hodges. They imprinted their names on the landscape: Rancho Santa Fe (the “town” in which we lived). Fletcher Cove (the beach we went to most often). Lake Hodges (the lake 10 miles inland where we once tried and failed to catch fish; where, as a teenager, I went with friends to try to see shooting stars; and where, in 2010, a 17-year-old female jogger was raped and murdered).
In the early 1900s, the SFLIC found the alien eucalyptus wood they had planted all over the former Osuna ranch too soft for railroad tracks. By the 1920s, they had decided to convert the land into an exclusive housing development; an embodiment of the Spanish fantasy past. They consulted with Ed Fletcher, who would later be instrumental in developing neighboring, racially exclusive Solana Beach, and ended up working with architect Lilian Rice of the firm Requa and Jackson. Rice traveled to Spain and modeled the architecture of Rancho Santa Fe’s “town” after rural villages in Spain. Instead of a village well, though, there was a gas station designed to look like a well. Instead of peasants, Rancho Santa Fe’s developers sought to recruit wealthy, white, “family” and leisure-oriented residents.
Ed Fletcher also leased some of the land to Chinese and Japanese farmers “and directed them to prove the effectiveness of the land for cultivating fruits and vegetables” (a trick that would repeated twenty-some years later by the U.S. government when it strategically incarcerated skilled Japanese American farmers on sparsely populated lands they wished to develop for agriculture). In 1923, the farmers’ leases expired, and California’s recently passed alien land laws made it difficult for them to renew. The citrus groves Asian American farmers were forced to abandon later became a hallmark of Rancho Santa Fe’s brand of luxurious country living. (“Such plans did not include Asian farmers.”) Mexican and Native American workers contributed their expertise, too, and did the heavy lifting. But they – we – couldn’t live there unless they (we) served a white person.
While the house was plain, its grounds were not: the backyard featured a long, rectangular pool accompanied by a floral-tiled fountain that spewed water from the cement mouth of a satyr. In front of the house, along the curved, gravel driveway, was a citrus grove with fifty fruit-bearing trees, a remnant of the SFLIC’s hubristic experiments on the land.
Our parents bought the house because of the orange trees, or at least that’s what they told us. The fifty citrus trees included Valencias, Navels, Tangelos, Satsuma tangerines, Meyer lemons, and limes. (Another benefit, my father said, was that we could not see our neighbors and they could not see us.)
To the roses and palm trees, our parents added pomelo trees, guava trees, night-blooming cereus (smuggled on an airplane from Taiwan by family friends), camellias. Formosan azaleas. In the garden area, they planted yam leaves, garlic chives, and later, kale and chard. Kyoho grapevines wound across the trellis of the front entrance, shading low bushes of Formosa azaleas. When my grandparents came to stay with us, my grandmother spent long hours in the garden while my grandfather tended the orange grove.
We put crawfish, captured from the golf course creek, in the fountain. We drove to the beach and caught grunion during their nighttime mating runs, when the beach became alive with wriggling silver life.
Once, my grandfather killed a four-foot-long snake slithering close to the house with a shovel to the head; my brother kept its heavy coiled body, still twitching, in a plastic bag in his room overnight. Coyotes left their scat on the front walkway and in the backyard, and great horned owls hooted and swooped at twilight from the hundred-foot stand of eucalyptus trees that loomed over our backyard. Another time, I found a dead bunny on the driveway, probably hit by a car but looking entirely pristine. Within minutes, though, its luminous black eyes were picked out by crows.
After my brother and I left for college, one after the other, I didn’t come back with any regularity for twenty years to this house, to this land, to my parents (and my brother never really did). For me to come home, it took my father becoming terminally ill, learning how to be present during his slow decline and subsequent death; and then after that, a renewed and transformed relationship with my mother, which grew with strength and beauty and joy through our shared love of my young child. Through him, she took care of me once again; and finally, I began to take care of her, too.
During the long months of the covid-19 pandemic, the house and land brought us peace and renewal. Isolation became safety, room to breathe. The luxury to breathe, when so many could not, and still cannot, amidst this time of immeasurable suffering and murderous neglect.
Now, my mother has decided to sell the house and with it, the land. It is time. It’s all too big for just her, and my brother and I can’t – won’t – move back with our families. We will leave some of my dad here – under the camellias, in the orange grove. The places he loved the most. The trees that nourished us with their fruit and beauty for more than thirty years might be bulldozed by the next owner. The perfume of the lemons, the tart sweetness of the Satsumas – these trees that have borne witness to four generations of our family – gone in an afternoon.
A couple is very interested. They write a letter. The husband owns a business. The wife is an expert equestrian and looks forward to bringing her horse to The Ranch. (I instantly see the orange grove uprooted for a horse stable.) The husband wants to be close to the golf course. They have two young sons. (“I worked so hard to make this house perfect for a family,” my mother says.) They love The Ranch. I know they will fit in instantly, in a way we never did.
What is land when it is property?
We buy it (if we are among the fortunate). We sell it. We leave parts of ourselves in it. We move on and start all over again, until we are gone, too. And yet the land endures.
 In 1946, Carey McWilliams described the “Spanish fantasy heritage” as a key fiction upon which Anglo Americans settlers in California based their claims of rightful succession to a European past (Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land (Kaysville, UT: Gibbs Smith, 1946; 1980).
 Information on the Asian American farmers is from Phoebe Kropp, California Vieja: Culture and Memory in a Modern American Place (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008),p. 162.
 Kropp, p. 163.
Wendy Cheng is an associate professor of American Studies at Scripps College. She is the author of The Changs Next Door to the Díazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) and coauthor of A People’s Guide to Los Angeles (University of California Press, 2012). Her creative nonfiction essays have been published in Tropics of Meta and the Cincinnati Review.
- Jenise Miller, “We are our own Multitude: Los Angeles’ Black Panamanian Community”
- Toni Mirosevich, “Who I Used To Be”
- Myriam Gurba, “El Corrido del Copete”
- Jennifer Carr, “The Tides that Erase: Automation and the Los Angeles Waterfront”
- Melissa Hidalgo, “A Chumash Line: How an old email and five PDFs revealed my Native Californian Roots”
- Brynn Saito with Photographs by Dave Lehl, “Acts of Grace: Memory Journeys Through the San Joaquin Valley”
- Nicolas Belardes, “South Bakersfield’s Confederate Remains”
- Ruth Nolan, “Cima Dome, East Mojave National Preserve”
- Marco Vera, “My Tata’s Frutería”
- George B. Sánchez-Tello, “Oh Salinas! Song, Story and Punk Rock Behind the Lettuce Curtain“
- Kenji C. Liu, “To eat a fig is to swallow ghosts”