Friday, July 29, 2016


Late at night, deep in the dark and cold snow sheds of the Southern Pacific Railroad near Donner Pass, Fong, the Chinese cook sat alone smoking cigarettes and reading his Chinese newspaper. The snow was deep on the sheds and as usual, Fong was waiting for the next train to stop on the nearby tracks, and the crew that would come in for dinner and the hot coffee perking in the pot nearby. Fong was the full time cook for the A.V. Moan Co. of San Francisco who operated the 24 hour commissary near Norden, California from at least the late 1940’s to the late 1960’s.
Out of the corner of his eye, Fong saw the light go out in the hall way outside of the door leading into this restaurant deep in the Norden snow sheds. He got up, went into the back room to get a new bulb and then walked thru the kitchen to the door going out to the long tunnel-ramp that led down from the tracks above. He reached up to un-screw the bulb and the light came on. The bulb was only loose. That was funny, Fong would say later,” how come bulb loose by self”. He screwed the bulb in firmly and returned to his seat behind the stainless steel counter, his cigarette and newspaper.  He turned the page and noticed the light in the outside hall went out again. It could not be vibration from a passing train that loosened the bulb since no train had passed by in some time. He got up, went out the door and found the bulb loose again.” How come, how come “ Fong would shout in his sing-song English and then suddenly, Fong was seeing stars in the light bulb with severe pain in his head and neck as the butt of a rifle crashed into his skull and caused him to fall to the floor. All Fong could think of to do was to scream in Chinese at the top of his lungs. In fact his screaming was so loud that it frightened his attackers who ran out a back door that opened out to the deep snow on the hillside below.
Leaving a trail of blood, Fong made his was back into the kitchen and in broken English on the railroad phone got the dispatcher in Roseville to call the sheriff’s office to report the robbery. The next morning the sheriff’s officers found and followed deep foot tracks in the snow, heading toward Sugar Bowl. There were two of them, Mexican track hands that were caught hiding in the trees nearby.
I first met Fong Quong back in the late 1940’s when I was working as a weekend ski patroller at the Soda Springs Ski Area. This was back when “Mad Dog Dick Buek” was the hottest skier on the summit and his father Carl, checked tickets and loaded skiers on the pomo lift and rope tow at Soda Springs Ski Area.. I remember well since my girlfriend charmed Carl into letting her ride the lift without buying a ticket. I guess we were a rag tag group of college kids with our war surplus clothing and ski-trooper white skis. A chance to eat at a very low cost was too good to pass up. The word was out. All you had to do was enter the huge dark wooden snow sheds just east of Soda Springs and walk in the dark for about one quarter of a mile to where a lone light bulb above a door marked the entrance to the long covered ramp that led down to the S.P. Commissary. The trick was to not get hit by a train that could come around a bend in the sheds with a terrible roar and noise while we clung to the walls of the shed, inches from the huge steel monster. One had to believe that there was enough space between the train and the walls of the snow shed for us to cling to life and survive this monster of a train. The noise was terrifying.
I always thought Fong must have known how poor we college kids were because a complete steak dinner, fried potatoes, canned green peas, all the coffee you could drink, and a slab of pie always cost one dollar. That was one dollar for all of us. It did not seem to matter how many of us there were, since later, when my girlfriend and I went alone, it was still “ won dallar”.  The pie was always a deep-dish fruit pie; each pie cut in four pieces and a piece a whole meal by itself.
Years later after college and two careers later, my job led me to wander over old Donner Pass on highway 40 from to time and I would stop on the edge of the highway just up the hill from the Sierra Club lodge, walk down the steep rough hillside to the small opening in the huge wooden snow sheds and brave the dark, to walk towards Soda Springs and the single light bulb above the door leading down to the Commissary and my friend Fong.
After I read in the paper about the robbery and injury of Fong, I hurried up to Norden to hear the story from Fong himself. I of course had the wonderful steak dinner, fried potatoes, and this time canned corn, with one quarter of a cherry pie. Twenty years later it was still only “won dallar”. I felt like I was home again! I asked Fong to tell me his frightening story himself and asked if he had recovered? I also wondered how he had been doing at the gambling tables in Reno. Fong’s working hours were twenty-four hours each day, seven days a week. He was given ( or took on his own) an afternoon each month when he would take the Greyhound bus to Reno to gamble. Sometimes he won which he talked about, but he never mentioned it when his “luck run out”. This time he said his “luck veery bad” and “he go home China”. I was not sure I heard him right so I asked again and he said, “ Fong luck veery bad, he go home China to die”. I heard him right this time a sat there in shock! I could not imagine Donner Summit with out my friend Fong. I tried to talk him out of it, but then he explained, he “ not want to die far from home”. He had been loosing at his gambling, and almost getting killed by the robbers was just too much. Time to go home to die.
Fong was always very polite to us, hustled around the kitchen to fix our meals when we were kids in college and years latter when we stopped by as working adults, was still very polite to everyone. The train crews that came in while we were there spoke to Fong as if he was dumb, and berated him for almost everything. A number of steaks were returned by the train crews and some nights the  racial insults were embarrassing to hear. It seems that the abuse of the Chinese who worked on the railroad was not limited to the building of the railroad in the 1870’s but continued a hundred years later.
Somehow I think Fong must have been received in China as someone special, and found his peace at last. He was a good human being and I still miss him and the old wooden snow sheds which are now gone. They have been replaced by concrete snow sheds and the train crews are on their own when in comes to eating at Norden. I can’t even find a steak dinner for $10.00 on Donner Summit now days.

Copyright 2016  Jimmy L White-Auburn, Ca.

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