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Davis, California

Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Column: The Chan Family Prison

My sister Melody only started working for our Uncle John’s architecture firm after moving home to Diamond Bar because she no longer made enough money to pay for rent and utilities up in Berkeley.

The year before was a good one. She’d won $3,000 for the Eisner Prize in architecture and scored an internship with SOM, one of the world’s leading architecture firms with clients including the Beijing Olympics and multiple others in Dubai.

Moving back home wasn’t supposed to be in the cards for her, but after the economy tanked, after her entire internship class was laid off and after a failed attempt to start a private architecture firm, Uncle John’s firm was the only smiling face card she had left.

She says once she got there, everyone treated her like the heiress to the kingdom. We all knew that Uncle John was the Chan family’s success story – the Chinese immigrant who worked his way up from cleaning houses to making millions through his own architecture firm. But at family gatherings on my mom’s side, he was just our white-haired uncle who gave us $50 Gap cards for Christmas when everyone else gave marked-off sweaters from Broadway.

But at work, all Melody’s coworkers worship Uncle John. By extension, they compliment her work as acts of a UC Berkeley prodigy. She once opened a window for light in the drafting room. Her coworker called her a genius.

Our uncle’s current project is to redesign the surveillance in the LA County Prisons. After a string of articles published in the Los Angeles Times about prison guards abusing the inmates, LA County commissioned my uncle’s architecture firm to redesign the map for security cameras.

I asked Melody what the articles were about. She says they were all disturbing. The most shocking stories were of the female guards who sexually abused minors in prisons. In one case, a guard had boys have sex with her in exchange for certain privileges in prison. Another had other inmates beat a boy she suspected for stealing her cell phone, though he repeatedly yelled that he didn’t have it. She later found her cell phone in her car.

“The worst part is most of these women have families and children of their own,” Melody says.

At first, my sister was skeptical if new security cameras would actually work, but Uncle John said they would be very effective. He says in the post office, cameras aren’t allowed for security reasons. Instead they built this tunnel that workers couldn’t see into; those inside the tunnel, however, could see perfectly through it into the post office. Anyone at any time can go in and watch, though the workers would never know when.

I tell her it’s like the Panopticon – a prison model where inmates behave well at all times since they can’t ever verify when they’re being watched.

It’s ironic that Melody complains she’s always being micromanaged at work. She knows there are expectations of her that she wouldn’t be able to fulfill, even if she wanted to. There’s an unspoken expectation for her to take the place of Uncle John’s son, also a Berkeley graduate in architecture who refused to work at our uncle’s firm and take on the family business. She feels she has to play the role.

Melody can tell sometimes when Uncle John gets frustrated that she doesn’t learn fast enough, or if she’s disinterested or tired.

“Sometimes the Chans don’t understand that others wouldn’t want to work hard,” Uncle John’s wife Daisy told my sister once. They started talking often – mostly family gossip – since my sister was the first girl in a while to work at the office. When the firm started taking off, Daisy did all the secretarial work and has been stuck with the job ever since.

Both my father and Daisy were outsiders grafted to the Chan family dynasty once they married into it. And in a way, all of us born into the Chan family are expected to be grafted into the success story the Chan family is: full of nurses, pharmacists and entrepreneurs who all make six figures. Deviants are frowned upon.

At first, it was our mother’s surveillance that pushed us to work hard. It got my sister into SOM. It got my brother into PWC, the top accounting firm in the nation. But when my sister starts saying she’s okay with just getting married and raising a family, when my brother quits his job to pursue his dream as a writer, when my father asks me in the car if I’ve heard of a “mid-life crisis,” and when everyone in my family but my brother has been in therapy, we have to wonder – is anyone even still watching?

GEOFF MAK wonders what the LA Prisons and the Catholic Church have in common in terms of a lack of accountability. E-mail him at gemak@ucdavis.edu.


  1. Thank you for articulating something that is so prevalent yet unacknowledged for many immigrants, particularly Asian Americans. I think you may enjoy Lisa Park’s “Letter to My Sister”, there is a somewhat similar message in her story.

  2. I joined the Catholic Church and got boned up the butt. My priest went to church, and then HE got boned up the butt. What’s the deal, yo?


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