Kammy Chan was a friendly little man who worked in the Pioneer Market in La Honda. If he wasn't at the store, he was wandering around in front of the restaurant or the post office. Or he'd just be sitting on a curb staring at the redwoods and smoking a cigarette. He seemed to have no home. More than once somebody would ask him, "Where do you live, Kam?"
He'd smile vaguely and say, "I'm still in the same place."
And that's where he remained until April of 1986, when all hell broke loose in the life of Kammy Chan.
Kam came to the USA legally with his family. With some other partners Kam's family ran an export business in San Francisco, but his parents died. The partners booted Kam out. It was 1970. Kam was a young man from Hong Kong all alone in Chinatown with an expired visa.
Somehow, Kam came to the attention of a man from La Honda who was doing a job in San Francisco. The man offered Kam a sanctuary in his remote La Honda home. The sanctuary came at a price. In the words of many La Hondans, Kam became a virtual slave for this man and his wife, caring for their children, cooking, cleaning, and doing household chores.
Eventually Kam got free of this couple by moving to, and working at, the home of a more generous-spirited La Honda resident, Dick Fox. A quick learner, Kam would help with various building projects on the property in exchange for room and board.
To earn more money, Kam started working in the Pioneer Market for the owner, Pat Dancer. Kam found a room he could rent at the Church of the Redwoods.
When Bob Cook bought the Pioneer Market, Kam came with it. By this time there was no longer a room for rent at the church. Kam had to make other arrangements. This was the beginning of the period when Kam would smile vaguely and say, "I'm still at the same place."
Bob said, "Kam and I figured out butchering together. We'd cut up sides of beef and see what went wrong. We learned from our mistakes. Kam did a day and a half's work in a day and slept in the back of the store, but nobody knew." (Actually, everybody knew.)
You might hear other versions of Kam's origin. In one version he came to the USA legally on a student visa, which expired. In another version Kam's family was mixed up with Hong Kong mobsters who killed everybody else and were searching for him. Whatever the version, a kid from Hong Kong ended up in a tiny town deep in a canyon in the redwood forest.
Kam spoke passable English and excellent Cantonese. According to David LeCount, La Honda's resident China scholar, Kam "wrote good characters," which implies at least the equivalent of a high school education.
David used to joke with Kam, saying there were three Chinese expressions that could be used to answer any question. In English, the answers are:
"It's better than before."
"Right now, it's difficult to say."
Kam took those non-answers to heart and made up some of his own, such as "I'm still in the same place." He was a master of the vague smile.
After 16 years in La Honda, Kam somehow came to the attention of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which started demanding documents. Sources in La Honda claim that the man, who they say once held Kam in virtual slavery, got into a dispute with Bob Cook and reported Kam just to make trouble for the grocery store. Instead of coming after the store, though, the INS came after Kam.
Everybody who knew Kam described him as "sweet." He was too trusting. People took advantage. According to several people in town, a woman in La Honda who drove a big-rig truck offered to marry him as a way to legalize his status. They say it was strictly a financial arrangement, and Kam was the loser. He moved in with her in an attempt to make the marriage look legitimate, though nobody in town believes it was ever consummated. When the ruse failed, according to these same people, the woman dropped him but ignored his request to annul the marriage.
The town got involved. Petitions were signed in support of Kam. Bob Cook hired an immigration lawyer.
But nothing would move the INS.
According to Bob, part of the problem with Kam was: "He was secretive. He never filed any paperwork, whether out of fear or ignorance. There was an amnesty, but he missed it. And he trusted the wrong people. Except for that bogus marriage, Kam never spent money. He had fifty-five thousand dollars when they deported him."
The end came suddenly. Three black limousines pulled up at the Pioneer Market. Most people in La Honda believe it was no coincidence that when those black limousines pulled up, Kam's old nemesis, the man who first had brought him to La Honda, was standing there, watching. The INS agents pulled Kam out of the store and whisked him away.
Bob Cook and his lawyer went to San Francisco for Kam's hearing. According to Bob, he and his lawyer thought they had prevailed. They were talking to Kam outside the hearing room when three INS agents tackled Kam. Bob jumped in. So did the lawyer. It was a melee in the hallway. Bob, the lawyer, and little Kam were no match for the three INS agents. They handcuffed Kam and led him away. Bob never saw Kam again.
A few weeks later, Bob received a postcard with a picture of Hong Kong at night. On the back Kam wrote, "It's expensive to live here. I'm homesick."
So Kam did have a home. Of all this big planet, from his birth in Hong Kong he found home in the little strip mall of La Honda, sitting on a curb smoking a cigarette and gazing at the redwoods, or sleeping in the back of the store. He can never come back.
Now, 25 years later, Kam remains in Hong Kong. He has two children though he can't legally marry the mother because he is still, on paper, married to somebody somewhere in the USA.
Who knows what might have happened? Perhaps Kam's life is better than before. Right now, it's difficult to say.
Or as Kam might put it: "I'm still in the same place."