Estelle Jung Kelley ’49
I was born in the US in 1929, but when I was 1 and the Depression hit, my grandfather decided we should move back to China. When I was 9, the Japanese invaded China and my grandfather thought my sister and I would be safer in America so we were sent back. My parents had already come back and were divorced by then. Since neither one was interested in taking care of me, I was placed in an orphanage in Oakland called Ming Quong. I didn’t speak a word of English. (Editor’s Note: Located on 9th and Fallon, where the Lake Merritt BART Station is now, Ming Quong (meaning “Radiant Light”) opened in 1915 in Oakland and in 1936 in Los Gatos to care for orphaned and at risk Chinese American girls. The first institution in the US to care for Chinese children, Ming Quong was run by the missionary wing of the Presbyterian Church.)
Ming Quong was pleasant enough. It was a safe place for me to be, but I didn’t form any close friendships at Ming Quong and once I left there, I lost touch with all but one of the girls. She turned out to be not very nice though and we lost touch too.
Girls usually stayed at Ming Quong until age 16, but when I was 15, they sent me to a family where I was a live-in maid, cook, housekeeper and babysitter. There wasn’t too much inspection of the people who hosted, and a lot of the people were very abusive and took advantage of the girls. That whole time, at Ming Quong and in all those homes, was very confusing. A lot of us had really bad experiences. Once you were placed, there was no follow-up from the Presbyterian missionaries. I went to them a couple of time when it got really bad and got moved, but there were never any consequences for the people who had mistreated me. I moved form one home to the next because of incidents that happened.
I went to Oakland Tech during the day, but had to go home right after school to work, so there was no time for clubs or anything like that. High school was a very hard time for me. I was always doing something at the house – ironing, washing, cleaning, cooking, and babysitting. By the time I got to my homework, I was too tired. Because I was so tired and sleepy in school, I wasn’t the best student. One or two teachers suggested I nap at school instead of going to gym, so I did that. Once I almost failed my science class. Back then you did experiments in the dark, and I just fell asleep, but I needed that class to graduate. So the teacher talked to me about napping at school and after that, I got my grade up to a C+.
My best memories are studying drama and music. I participated in drama, sang in the glee clubs, and danced. I wanted to be an actress. I’ve always loved to perform and to sing and dance, even as a child. My drama class at Tech was a salvation. It was an escape from life. You could take English or Drama, so I chose Drama. My favorite teachers were Sally Rhinehart who encouraged me in acting and all my singing teachers. I remember I was in a musical version of Little Women and I performed in various talent shows. I am proud that I was a classmate of Clint Eastwood. He was Clinton then! We were in the same drama class. He was quiet, just one of the students, but he was the favorite of the teacher. He was also in glee club with me. He was involved in a lot of music too. He was very talented. He seemed to know then that was what he was going to do.
I was friends mostly with Chinese girls. There was a sizeable number of Chinese. There weren’t too many black kid there then, but I remember singing in a performance with a black girl. I can’t remember her name. More black kids came in during my last year. Everyone pretty much stayed with their own race. You sat on the front lawn with your friends at lunch. All my friends knew about my life, but their lives were so different. There weren’t any others from Ming Quong.
I am still in touch with friends from Tech, mostly with the ones that I also went to Lincoln Grammar School with. We get together every few months.
My life was pretty tough after graduation. I got married right after high school, at age 18. I was looking for the security that I never had. That’s why I married so young. After I married him, I found out he was still married to his first wife! So we got divorced, but I was already pregnant. After high school, I moved to San Francisco and I never lived in Oakland again.
Raising children on my own was hard. I worked in nightclubs for many years. I worked at the Forbidden City in San Francisco as a singer and dancer. (Editor’s Note: The Forbidden City was one of about 12 Asian-themed nightclubs in San Francisco’s Chinatown. These clubs, which served primarily non-Asian clientele including a lot of soldiers passing through San Francisco, were popular from the 1930’s through the 1950’s. The Forbidden City was the most famous and showcased Asian-American singers, dancers, magicians and musicians. The club inspired a book (and later a musical and film) called Flower Drum Song and was the subject of a 1989 documentary film called Forbidden City U.S.A.)
It was pleasant enough working there, but it was tough too because I had a child to raise. I had someone come in and live with us to care for her. I was at the Forbidden City for almost 10 years and then at another club called Sky Room in Chinatown and then at the Club Shanghai. After that, I went on the road to Canada with another group and my daughter stayed with friends. I performed in clubs and on the road for about 18 years. I had a second husband during that time and we had a son, but that marriage also didn’t turn out. Then after all that, I married the third one, Bob Kelley, when I was almost 50 and we have been happily married for 37 years! We have a good life.
After I stopped performing in clubs, I decided to start my own group and I have been doing that for 25 years! It is called Estelle Kelley’s Performing Arts Group. We entertain at nursing homes, senior centers, adult living facilities, hospitals, and private parties. We do about 60 performances a year and include lots of different dance styles like tap, ballet, Hawaiian, Irish, ballroom and Eastern and songs from musicals of the 40s and 50s, things that appeal to older people. There are 8 of us, mostly past professionals. It is wonderful to sing and dance and bring smiles to so many!
My advice to students today is: Do your best and you will be successful!
My years at Tech taught me that if you have a dream, pursue it! Don’t let anything get in the way.