That’s what she called them. “Two babies.” And so it was for years thereafter, among the extended family clan, that Darrell and Derrick Fong were plurally hailed, lovingly held, their identity, their interdependence, forever bound by a weld of childish prattle.
Their Chinese grandmother, Hom Shee, viewed their birth as an auspicious sign. Indeed, only the arrival of children thawed the ice, bridged the abyss, existing between the ethnically contrary in-laws. With Two Babies came a happy armistice.
Hom Shee, a wise woman, had her own technique for telling Two Babies apart. With her perceptive fingers, she would comb through their hair. There! She found it! The birthmark. This scalp would identify Darrell.
Later, in solidarity with Darrell, only Hom Shee approved of his wish to become a cop. At Darrell’s academy graduation, in a photograph, there’s Hom Shee at his side, a bodyguard, tiny and grinning.
Their Chinese American father, Mon Thi Fong, whom everybody called Thi (pronounced “tie”), in an economy of breath, simply referred to his boys collectively as “Darrell-Derrick.” Or, alternatively, “Derrick-Darrell.” In anger or delight. From Thi’s point of view, in every sense of the word, there was no difference between his two beloved sons.
Their Japanese American mother, Matsuno “Frances” Fong, could easily tell her sons apart with her eyes closed, with merely a touch of her hand. No, more like a flower’s scent, she could discern and savor each child’s subtle identity.
Matsu, as her sisters call her, is 70 years old now, her husband deceased. In a regrettable paradox, she’s an outspoken but reticent woman. She still fends insults of the past. After the scandal of her marriage, she was confronted with the equally cruel prejudices brought by news of her dual delivery.
One day, her distressed Issei mother took her aside and informed her that, in Japan, traditional wisdom held that only farm animals had multiple births.
And so the tongues wagged in Japantown.
So many portents. So much promise.
Today, Darrell and Derrick are identical adults of moderate stature, of careful manner. Each has thinning black hair flecked with gray. Even the tone of their voices is a judicious echo.
They make for a compelling study – two sides of a mirror, one reflection. Theirs is a story of boyhood inseparability, of close companionship, of comical confusion. Later, of growth, distinction, mutual admiration. In this curious dish of character development, toss in local roots and a mix of ethnic genes vying for supremacy.
Ultimately, the tale of the twins is the struggle of their singular mother, whose spirit burns in their souls like a paper lantern aflame.
Short of tousling their hair, grandma-style, there’s an easy way to tell the two brothers apart. Darrell, who typically dresses in plainclothes, has a .40- caliber automatic clipped to his belt; Derrick, all business, packs a lethal cell phone.
“D&D,” as Derrick amusingly abbreviates the fraternal Fong epic, were born March 25, 1957. “A bad year,” Darrell later grimaces, swirling his birthday in his refined mouth like an inferior cabernet. Now, 1959, that was a vintage year!
Darrell, contrary to the popular stereotype of the doughnut-eating, screw-top cop, is a food and wine connoisseur. Teased as the official sommelier of the Sacramento Police Department, he has a prized collection of 1,500 bottles under lock and key in his home cellar.
Darrell is the older brother by four minutes. “Thank God, we’re not in Japan,” says Derrick, of his delayed ranking in the hierarchy. “That four minutes would count. Darrell would inherit everything.”
The twins, in divergent professions, are equally successful. Derrick is chief financial officer of Mikuni, a successful group of Japanese restaurants in Fair Oaks, Roseville and now, Sacramento. Mikuni recently opened a spectacular sushi showplace at 16th and J streets in midtown.
Darrell is a highly regarded lieutenant in the Metro Detail, a unit that patrols a high-profile swath of the central city, from Old Sacramento to 16th and J. It turns out Darrell’s little brother’s jammed, fashionable raw-fish emporium is squarely under his protective thumb.
Darrell made his bones as a sergeant heading the Asian gang task force, where he received a state Senate resolution for his valor and a death threat for his tenacity. Which meant – since street punks, like everybody else, can’t tell the Fong brothers apart – a plausible threat on Derrick’s life as well.
Being mistaken for Darrell can be dangerous.
Being mistaken for Derrick can be expensive.
On a late afternoon, the skies salmon and cobalt, commuter traffic crawling along 16th Street, Derrick sits serenely at a table inside Mikuni. The restaurant is a stunning concoction of soaring industrial decor, with an army of happi-jacketed sushi chefs, a bank of plasma TVs and blaring music.
Derrick is clad in an array of urban grays. There is a plate of leftover sushi on the table, a pot of green tea. Later, a staff person fetches him a Jamba Juice. He juggles questions, attends last-minute details of a construction crew, responds to a pleading cell phone, all while jotting notes on a yellow legal pad.
By all accounts, Derrick is a consummate businessman, a visionary, a risk-taker. When Mikuni, which was started in Fair Oaks in 1985 by the Arai family, tottered on the brink of bankruptcy, it was Derrick, an accountant by training, who stepped in and helped save, then grow, the restaurant.
Today, he heads an expanding sushi empire and more than 200 employees. “I do everything but cook,” he jokes. He personally designed Mikuni’s midtown site and has another location in the works for Elk Grove. Beyond that, he envisions a series of mini-Mikuni outlets in Folsom, Rocklin and El Dorado Hills.
As for the million-dollar question, namely, how he and Darrell are different, Derrick touches his cheek. Darrell’s face is a little fuller, he says. Then, in his best Darrell imitation, Derrick sits upright, folds his arms, sets his jaw, puts some blue steel in his eyes and looks mildly intimidating.
“Stern,” he says, in capturing his cop brother’s salient essence. He breaks out laughing. Then, back in his own, more convivial civilian skin, Derrick says, “Darrell has this presence. He can warm people. And he can shake people. He’s a formidable guy.”
Now, on a weekday morning, the day wet and somber, Lt. Darrell Fong sits in the Officer Bill Bean Conference Room, on the second floor of the Public Safety Administration complex, which is in a revamped shopping center on Freeport Boulevard.
True to his blue character, Lt. Fong is careful, precise, somewhat guarded – initially suspicious about why any of this stuff about him and his twin is at all interesting. In going over the Fong family history, he could be reading from a police report.
Much later, more relaxed and sentimental, Darrell talks about his boyhood, his more “focused” brother and his assertive mother, whom he calls “fiery.” In a tender moment, sounding wistful, looking vulnerable, he adds, seemingly more for his own sake, “I wish my Dad were alive. He would give you some great insights.”
The new cop shop is near Darrell’s old stamping grounds. He and Derrick were raised just down the street, in Hollywood Park, in a modest, three-bedroom home, which is still occupied by their stubborn mother, who refuses to move.
Their affable, easygoing father worked his entire life as a clerk behind the counter for the U.S. Post Office at its Freeport and Irwin Way station. Their strict, no-nonsense, iron-hand mother worked in the drafting department at McClellan Air Force Base.
Dressed alike as boys, they shared the same bedroom until they were 14. After that, they slept apart and tried to don original identities. Though they had no siblings, they had plenty of cousins to play with in an idyllic, integrated neighborhood.
Their mother spoke Japanese. Their father spoke Chinese. The family spoke English. Since it would have surely offended one of the clans to send the boys to Chinese or Japanese school, they went to neither. Both brothers regret their inability to speak either of their ancestral languages.
In school, the twins, who enjoyed switching classes and fooling their teachers, were often teased for being of mixed heritage. That ribbing continues even now. “They joke about it a little,” Darrell says. “They say I’m confused.”
Of his ethnic predisposition, he says he’s more inclined to take after his mother.
Both graduated from C.K. McClatchy High School – Derrick near the top of his class. Darrell, a casual student, will never forget the night he awoke and padded past his brother’s bedroom on the way to the bathroom. He noticed that Derrick was still up. It was 3 a.m.
“What are you doing?” he cried in disbelief at his brother, who was studying for an exam. Darrell realized for the first time that he and Derrick weren’t identical after all.
Derrick went on to the University of California, Berkeley, and earned a degree in business administration. He worked a few years for Arthur Andersen in San Francisco. Later, he returned home and opened his own accounting firm, Avaunt Ltd., in partnership with Perry Ghilarducci.
Darrell stayed home and attended Sacramento City College, then transferred to California State University, Sacramento, where he earned a degree in business administration. Then one day, he decided to become a police officer. His mother was vehemently opposed to the idea, even insisting that the department reject her son’s application.
On becoming a cop, Darrell says, “It just seemed to fit my personality. I like people. There is good and bad in everyone. Everybody makes mistakes. Given the choice, I’d rather not arrest someone. But, if I have to, I won’t hesitate.”
So, on a rainy morning, Lt. Fong sits in this conference room, which honors a fallen officer. He is wearing hiking boots, blue jeans, a gray turtleneck. Unlike his brother, who wears contacts, Darrell sports thin, steel-framed glasses, which give his face a look of cool appraisal.
Otherwise, he looks just like Derrick.
On another morning, a welcome winter sun spilling on the cold concrete floor, Matsuno Fong, a stoic portrait, sits alone at a table in the middle of Mikuni, which is slowly stirring to life.
Fong is an austere woman, with a grave expression, a wave of black and silver hair that is swept back. She’s impeccably dressed – black boots, black pants, black coat, a chic silver scarf. On a sunny morning, she’s a dramatic shadow.
She was born and raised in Sacramento. Her childhood home was on Fourth Street, between L and M, in the city’s once-populous Japantown. Her mother, the talk of the neighborhood, had 11 children. Her father, Toyotara Kamikawa, worked as a farmer. As a girl, Matsuno was interned, first at Tule Lake, later at Amache.
Back home, she graduated from Sacramento High School. She was always free-spirited, even unconventional. One day, she and her Japanese American girlfriends happened by the Sacamento Bowling Alley on I Street, near the city’s small Chinatown. There, she spied Mon Thi Fong in rare form. He was bowling in a money game. They went to the State Fair on their first date.
“My father was furious,” she says, when she announced her engagement to this Chinese boy. “My mother just said, ‘If you’re going to marry one, why don’t you marry a rich one!’ “
Matsuno arches her eyebrows, amused. Then, she adds, “I told her, ‘I’m going to be just like you. I’m going to marry a poor man.’ “
Matsuno had grown so enormous near the end of her pregnancy that her alarmed doctor was advising a Caesarean delivery. But, first, a precautionary X-ray was taken, which only then revealed the surprise of twins. Apparently, the two boys’ hearts beat with deceptive synchronicity.
Asked if she’s proud of her sons, Matsuno nods her head. “Of course,” she allows. But she says that she does not wish to appear proud, that it’s unseemly to gloat. Of this woman’s steel resolve and cool fire, one sees a distinct resemblance in both her sons.
Her reserve melts when she recalls her twins as little boys. How Derrick would always get lost in stores and cry out for his mother. How Darrell once pulled up a chair below the freezer, took out ice cream, scooped equal portions. How days later she found two bowls hidden in the boys’ toy chest. At that, Matsuno’s dark eyes glisten, her face is aglow.
Today, the brothers are physically distant. Darrell and his wife, Joy Hananouchi, a fourth-generation Japanese American from San Mateo, live in the Pocket area. They have three children.
Derrick and his wife, Young Hei, moved from the Pocket several years ago to a palacial home in Granite Bay. They have two daughters. Young Hei, a native of Seoul, Korea, met Darrell while she was a student at the University of California, Davis. At first, her immigrant parents weren’t too pleased when their daughter married a non-Korean. For the Fong family, it’s more Asian gumbo.
As always, the two brothers are often mistaken. At a recent Asian Police Officers Association banquet, a Superior Court judge greeted “Darrell” with a warm embrace. “I didn’t have the heart to tell her I wasn’t Darrell,” chortles an impish Derrick.
(Derrick, to be honest, enjoys being mistaken for his influential cop brother. It’s a nice free pass sometimes.)
While lunching recently at the Esquire Grill, a regular Mikuni customer approached Darrell and kept calling him Derrick. “Finally, I had to slap my badge of the table,” Darrell says. “Even then, the person didn’t believe me. He thought I was kidding him.”
Such confusion comes with the territory.
“It’s just like having a friend,” says Darrell of Derrick. “I’ve always had someone to talk to. But I wished he had stayed here (in the Pocket). It’s been hard not having him around as much. I want the family to be close. I wish I could see him more. But now that he’s downtown (at Mikuni), maybe I will.”
“I look at my brother as a figure of authority in the city,” says Derrick of Darrell. “But I’ve always felt that I could depend upon him. There was always that sense of security. If we were together, I was never afraid. I always knew we would be OK.”
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The Bee’s Bob Sylva can be reached at (916)321-1135 or email@example.com.
Copyright 2004 The Sacramento Bee
Record Number: SAC_0404884977