Ben Toy, longtime resident of North Central San Mateo, has a family story full of California history which deserves a book, not just a column. Toy’s great-grandfather came to California in the 1800s as part of the Gold Rush. His family was from southern China, specifically the “fourth county” in Guangdong province or the equivalent of the Arkansas hills. He joined many young men, primarily from the poor south, who came to California to find work and never planned to stay. When they had earned enough, they returned home to visit a wife or find one and, if possible, bring her back to the United States.
As part of that back-and-forth journey, siblings were typically spaced 10 years apart.
So it was with the senior Toy. He worked on the railroads and dug tunnels and also picked grapes. He brought back his son (Toy’s grandfather) and the two decided they didn’t like the hard life on the railroads. Instead, they opened a gambling casino in a tent which they moved throughout the valley to serve Chinese workers. Grandfather next became a cook and was serving an elaborate dinner on a ship for wealthy patrons when the 1906 earthquake struck. He didn’t like cooking on boats after that and found a culinary job in San Francisco. There he came to the attention of a Mr. Hyde (Hyde Street Pier, Hyde Street), a prominent and wealthy citizen. Hyde hired Toy to take charge of the household and when Toy asked to be called a butler, he was told as a Chinese he could only be a houseboy.
The Hyde family moved to a ranch in Visalia and with them came the Toys. Ben Toy’s dad was hired as houseboy #2. He was 16 years old when he arrived and started third grade in the local school. No one picked on him because he was so big. When World War II arrived, Toy’s father was assigned as a drill inspector in Florida. Later, he saw action in Burma and received a Purple Heart.
After the war, Ben Toy’s father returned to China to find a wife. The marriage was arranged but happily for both bride and groom, they were in love. Ben was born in China and came to the United States when he was 1. He and his mother were naturalized citizens while his three other siblings were born here.
Ben’s father moved to San Mateo, became a butcher and opened a store next to the old Econ Market ( now Hacienda) on Monte Diablo Avenue and North Amphlett Boulevard. The family lived around the corner on Humboldt Street. Young Ben, who could not speak a word of English, attended Lawrence School. He was not as lucky as his dad and was constantly beaten. Up to then, Asians were not allowed to buy homes in North Central but things began to ease as the complexion of the neighborhood changed. Originally, North Central was home to primarily Italian and Portuguese. By the early 1960s, it was primarily Asian (both Chinese and Japanese) and African-American. His father was able at last to buy his own home on Idaho Street and Poplar Avenue. Ben transferred to Turnbull School. At this time, North Central had two elementary schools, Lawrence and Turnbull. His public school education continued at College Park Middle School and San Mateo High School.
In 1973, Ben bought a house in the 19th Avenue/Park neighborhood for his wife and family. It was the first time he lived outside of the North Central neighborhood. They raised two children there and then when his marriage ended in divorce. His elderly parents were ailing and he moved back to North Central in 2006. He found a house right next to his parents’ home. Today, the elder Toys are deceased. Ben has been retired for 13 years. He heads San Mateo United Homeowners Association, while keeping active in his own association, the Home Association of North Central San Mateo, or HANCSM. Like many of the old-timers, his children have not remained in the area.
And, according to Toy, North Central is a neighborhood in transition. The primary residents are Hispanic who mainly live in rented houses or apartments. As the older residents die or move out, their homes are being bought by a new generation. Some of the old-timers are against the gentrification of the neighborhood, but Toy feels the economic investment is positive. He also supports the startups in downtown and feels the city needs to be more business friendly. Under the leadership of Toy and Anna Kuhre, United Homeowners now plays a major and constructive role in city affairs. Ben Toy represents a lot of old history but also projects the new future for his neighborhood and city.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.