Farewell to Sarah Fong-Torres Watkins by Ben Fong-Torres
Farewell to Sarah Fong-Torres Watkins
We said goodbye to Sarah, my sister, on Sunday, the third of November, at Rancho Nicasio in Northern Marin County. The restaurant and club, owned by close friends, was one of her favorite hangouts.
Sarah, the oldest of the Fong-Torres children, died in mid-October. It was cancer; she was 72. She was the third sibling I’ve lost in three years. As the last two of the kids, and with a 92 year-old mother in nursing care, we had a responsibility to take care of family matters. We had a special bond.
But there were other reasons for our connectedness, and I noted some of them in my remarks at the memorial. Sarah was remembered for her humor, her spunk, her candor, and her heart, by best friends Annie Sampson and Ellen Blonder, husband Dave Watkins and son Jason, attorney and friend Ken Coren, and by others who stepped up to the microphone and told stories.
Here, edited for space, are my remarks.
On behalf of the Watkins-Fong-Torres family, welcome to this Celebration of Sarah Watkins.
This is not a memorial service. Sarah would have none of that. She would not want us grieving, although we do. She would want this to be not about her, although it must be.
I can see her off in the distance, smoking a cigarette, tapping her feet. Let’s go, already. And so we will.
It seems like forever that it was the five of us. The five Fong-Torreses. Even after Barry died, too young, in 1972, I thought of us as five kids. Even after Sarah and Shirley married and had different names. We were the Fong-Torres family, five kids bound by one weird name.
Sarah was the first born; the first who’d have to explain that name—the product of an immigration scheme. She’s the one with whom I had the longest time, and whether by circumstance, by genes, or by personalities, we had an especially strong bond.
We were raised in Oakland’s Chinatown and spent a lot of time at the New Eastern Café, in the early to mid-‘50s. We were kept in a back room—the rice room—while our parents worked, and it was Sarah who, between chores and homework, ran the radio, and we all got a mix of comedies, crime stoppers and the pop music of the day, on Lucky Lager Dance Time and the Burgie Juke Box. And that’s how I fell in love with radio.
Although she was only three and a half years older than me, Sarah was clearly the Big Sister. She was a pace setter, a ground breaker. And when you’re growing up in the Fifties, in a family whose immigrant parents are bound by strict Chinese customs and expectations, that’s big.
Sarah was the first to break away from the restaurants, and from the family home. She had gal pals—Gerry Yip, Maeley Wong, Darlene Joe, Lucy Ng, Nancy Gee and two Elaines, Lee and Hom. Since there were two, Elaine Lee got the nickname, “Ditto.” They met at Lincoln Park and played paddle-ball, softball, and basketball, and Sarah came up with the name for the basketball team: the Royalettes. Good times. Sarah graduated from Oakland Tech, entered Cal Berkeley and checked out the Beat scene. Not that she became a Beatnik, but the sense of rebellion she found in that world appealed to her; rubbed off on her.
Among the five of us, she was the only one who never worked at the restaurant our parents bought in 1960, in Hayward. She was at UC Berkeley and couldn’t be bothered. Soon, she met and started dating Dave Watkins. A white guy. When, in April, 1966, they married, my parents did not attend.
They would come around to accepting “Day-VOOD,” as my mother calls him. But it took many years, as Sarah and Dave forged a marriage that would last a lifetime, and created a strong and beautiful family, with Lea and Jason.
Before all that happened, Sarah lived in San Francisco in the early ‘60s. At one time, she had an apartment on Powell Street, and I stayed there one night, and couldn’t get over the romanticism of the sound of the cable cars and tracks clacking away, just outside. The city itself was an inspiration for my applying to attend San Francisco State.
And it was Sarah who, in 1963, got me a record deal. After the success of the First Family, the parody of John F. Kennedy, she was hanging out with some friends in a bar in Chinatown, the Red Dragon, and one of them was a partner in a record label. They did jazz and pop, and someone came up with the idea of a teen, Top 40 Kennedy parody song. Sarah said, hey, my little brother writes parodies of hit songs and he can do JFK. Within a couple of weeks, we were in a recording studio, cutting “Hey Jackie.” The musicians included Ron Meagher, future member of the Beau Brummels, and Annie Sampson, Sarah’s buddy since college years, and a singer and future member of Stoneground and the Blues Broads.
Sarah held various jobs over the years, ranging from Pacific Telephone in the early Sixties to public service organizations like Queens Bench and New Perspectives, which helped people with drug and alcohol problems.
Sarah loved her work, her friends, and her family. She loved food and bargains. Inexplicably, she and Dave never went to New York City, but that didn’t stop Sarah from asking me to go to Canal Street to score fake Cartier watches for her. She wanted to hear “deets” on all the restos – that’s Sarah Watkins e-mail shorthand for “details on the restaurants”—that Dianne and I went to. Sarah loved music—even dabbled in songwriting, with tunes like “Easier to Say Goodbye,” with Rich Wolitz. And who can ever forget her run as editor and writer of the Pablo Cruise fan club newsletter? See? We had so much in common.
In more recent times, we could turn our gripes about our mother—her idiosyncrasies, demands and occasional lapses in etiquette – into laughs.
Our mother, who lives in a nursing care facility in Oakland, is obsessed with how much anything costs. Bring her some dim sum: “How much is that?” Bring her some flowers. “How much?”
Sarah wrote about that, not long ago, in a post-visit report. “I gave her a Clinique lipstick, a freebie from years ago, in a hideous shade called Raspberry Glace. She loved it. Then she demanded to know ‘how much?’ Enough already. I told her it was rude and can she just say thank you and stop asking what things cost. She seems to place no value on time, consideration, travel, and such. Only ‘how much.’ We wheeled her to her MJ table (that’s Sarah short hand for mah-jongg) …Gah! Sorry to be so negative. Go, Giants!”
I visited Mom shortly after Sarah did and wound up scolding her for interrupting—loudly—while I was talking to a nurse about some of the food I’d brought to her. She was all upset, and so was I.
Sarah wrote back: “Never mind yer bitchin’ and moanin’. The question is, How much?”
The day after Sarah passed away, Dave and Lea and Jason and Wendy joined me at Bellaken to give Mom the news. After she cried, she spoke. She looked at Day-VOOD and said, in Cantonese, that Sarah had a sour mouth, but a sweet heart.
I’m sure Sarah would’ve made a joke out of that one. Calling ME Sweet and sour? What am I? A spare rib? Where am I? In a resto?
Wherever she is, there’s music, there’s food, and there’s laughter. And probably some fake Rolexes. There’s a Fong-Torres and a Watkins in the house, all in one dynamic woman. One wonderful sister. It helped to read, in her final note to friends: “My life at 72 is happily fulfilled.”
… We conclude with a few lines from a favorite poet of Sarah’s, e.e. Cummings:
“I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness”
But the final word should go to Sarah. In her message to friends, she concluded, “I love you all, and will miss you more than you might know.”