by Linda Wing. Posted November 29, 2022
During the 1970s, I was a frequent visitor to my grandparents’ home. I loved listening to my grandfather tell stories about how he immigrated from China to California despite the Chinese Exclusion Act and achieved his dream of buying a cafe in Wyoming. My grandfather invariably said that his upward bound journey coincided with the Spanish Flu. However, it was not until I found myself locked down due to COVID-19, that it fully dawned on me that my grandfather began his 43-year-long career as a restauranteur quite improbably, against all odds. Today in December 2021 restaurants are closing, not opening, as COVID-19 mutates and continues to spread, taking a toll on all too many lives. I began to read about the Spanish Flu.
The Spanish Flu was a virulent H1N1 virus that took the lives of one-third of the world’s population, an estimated 50 million people, an astounding ten times more than the number who have so far died from COVID-19. That the Spanish Flu (1918-1920) and World War I (1914-1918) overlapped in time exponentially increased the world’s grief. The war resulted in the fatalities of 20 million people, civilians as well as military personnel. 53,500 American soldiers were lost to combat while another 45,000 died due to the HINI virus and pneumonia. Already aware of the chilling effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act, I was sobered to learn about the devastating numbers of lives lost due to the Spanish Flu and World War I. How was my grandfather able to move forward and upward during the apocalypse presented by the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Spanish Flu and World War I taken all together?
I decided to revisit my grandfather’s archive of photographs and documents, family-published stories and biographies of my grandfather, newspaper archives, and historical resources available on the internet. I was surprised to discover that my grandfather had received a Selective Service draft card calling him to serve in World War I. And to read in newspaper archives that Wyoming, currently the third least vaccinated state, suffered greatly from the Spanish Flu. Here is the story that unfolded.
“It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.”
—Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
In January 1918, my grandfather, Wong Gin Wing, was 24 years old. He had immigrated to the U.S. from China in 1908 at the age of 15. He started out as a dishwasher working for a lumber camp in Shaver Lake, California, eventually rising to the position of head cook, first for Standard Oil in Coalinga, California, and then for a ranch in Dos Palos, California. My grandfather wanted to become his own boss and also needed to better his economic position in order to bring his wife from China to the U.S. and support his mother and brother in China, as well as his father in Stockton, who had gone flat broke. He thought buying and running a restaurant was the path to achieving his goals. However, my grandfather’s steps towards that end were interrupted when he was notified by the local board of the War Department in Fresno that he had been categorized as a member of Class 1 under the Selective Service Act of 1917. The law authorized the federal government to raise an army for World War I service through conscription. Class 1 consisted of men between the ages of 21 and 25 deemed “eligible and liable for military service.”
By the end of World War I in November 1918, 4.8 million individuals had served in U.S. armed forces; but my grandfather was not among them. He had undergone a pre-induction physical examination in February 1918 and was reclassified 5F one month later, in March 1918. An individual classified 5F was a “resident alien exempted or ineligible for induction into military service.” The regulations for the 1917 Selective Service Act stated that a resident alien who had not declared his intention to become a citizen did not fall under the act. There was not a perfect match between this regulation and my grandfather’s circumstances. Under the Chinese Exclusion Act, my grandfather was an “alien ineligible for citizenship.” The exclusion law rendered irrelevant any interest he might have had in U.S. citizenship. Regardless, the local War Department board in Fresno gave my grandfather a 5F designation, leaving him free to pursue his dream.
“Free,” of course, was a relative term. A classification of 5F could have had a stigmatizing effect on my grandfather, if interpreted to mean he was disloyal or untrustworthy. The Chinese Exclusion Act already denied my grandfather a path to naturalization based on his race. Barred from citizenship, he had no prospect of securing voting rights. He was required to annually report his wherabouts to the federal government and provide a white person’s testimony of the legitimacy of his residing in the U.S. State laws in California required “Chinese and Mongolians” to attend segregated public schools and barred “aliens” from owning land. Housing covenants in cities like Berkeley excluded “Asiatics” from buying houses. And then there was anti-Chinese mob violence. One of the most horrific instances was the massacre of 28 Chinese coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming in 1885.
Nonetheless, my grandfather did not hesitate to board a train for Rock Springs in December 1918, traveling on the transcontinental tracks completed by Chinese railroad workers in 1869. He had learned through his clan network of a cousin in Rock Springs who wanted to sell his restaurant. While I cannot be certain, my guess is that same extended family system of information and mutual aid conveyed information to my grandfather about the risks of going to Rock Springs, well as the opportunities. His father, Wong Chong Mun, and grandfather, Wong Hoy Fun, had come to the U.S. before him, also informed by the clan network. And they had their own experiences upon which to base advice. Wong Hoy Fun helped build the Southern Pacific railroad line from Los Angeles to El Paso and was living in Deadwood, South Dakota when the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. He counseled his son, Wong Chong Mun, not to come to the U.S. In his view, the risks exceeded the opportunities. Wong Chong Mun did not follow his father’s advice, came to the U.S. in 1899 anyway, and never found stable employment, going broke multiple times.
Clearly my grandfather thought the opportunities exceeded the risk when he headed to Rock Springs. However, he never made it to his intended designation. The train broke down in Evanston, Wyoming, causing a stopover for repairs. My grandfather decided to use the time to visit Wong Beck, a clan member whom his father knew. To his surprise, he learned from Wong Beck that the Rock Springs restaurant was no longer for sale. His disappointment must have been short-lived, for Wong Beck offset the bad news with good news: a café in Evanston was available for purchase.
Evanston’s population was about 3,500 at the time. Located close to the Utah border and Salt Lake City, the town had been founded during the construction of the transcontinental railroad. Union Pacific Chief Engineer Grenville Dodge named it after James Evans, who had done much of the survey work for the railroad’s route through eastern Wyoming. Chinese contract laborers were among the town’s first residents. They worked for the Union Pacific (UP) laying tracks or working for nearby UP-owned coal mines. The 1880 census indicated that 100 Chinese lived in Evanston, eight percent of the total. However, after the Rock Springs massacre occurred, the Chinese population in Evanston dropped significantly — to fewer than a dozen in 1918. And when my grandfather stepped off the train, the town’s population was still declining, this time due to the Spanish Flu.
The October 25, 1918 issue of the Rock Springs Miner reported that Evanston was in crisis with more than 500 cases of the flu:
Never in the history of Evanston has there been such a feeling of gloom as has existed during the past week, owing to the sickness and the deaths caused by the influenza . . . There has been no other topic anywhere, and every human activity of the people has been to check the spread of the disease and in the sad duty of burial . . . Every doctor in the city has been working day and night and their efforts coupled with those of volunteer and professional nurses has been heroic . . . The town council at a special meeting Monday night ordered that saloons, pool halls, cigar and candy stores, etc. remove chairs, lounges, etc. and ordered the strictest enforcement of the non-congregating idea . . . All public meetings, theatres, schools, etc. have been closed and the work of gaining control of the disease is being done systematically.
The Laramie Boomerang reported that Evanston was the hardest hit town in Wyoming with an infection rate of 25%. A relatively high number of cases continued to be reported in the state through January 1919.
The mortality rate of the Spanish Flu was 10%. In an Uinta Herald account of Evanston deaths due to the virus, the deceased included two infants, one three-year-old, one ten-year-old and, among 22 adults, no one older than 46. Public health authorities identified especially vulnerable populations as people younger than five-years-old, 20-to-40 years old, and 65 years-and-older.
My 24-year-old grandfather was a member of an at-risk group. However, he never told me stories of falling ill or knowing of anyone in Evanston who had been ill or died, with the exception of one person – the owner of the café available for sale. He had succumbed to the Spanish Flu. The café had been put on the market following his death.
The café for sale was small. It consisted of a lunch counter with six seats. My grandfather could take orders, cook, serve, wash, clean, stock food products, manage the finances, and act as cashier all by himself. However, the present owner set the café sale price at $500 and the real estate agent representing the building where the café was a tenant wanted $150 per month in rent. $600 was well outside my grandfather’s reach, but it seems it was impossible for Evanstonians to say “no” to my grandfather. He bargained the asking price for the café down to $150 and the rent to $75. With $75 cash in hand, he convinced the café owner to take this amount in immediate payment and defer the final payment of $75 until later. To pay the first month’s building rent, my grandfather secured a $75 loan from the owner of the saloon next door to the café.
Somehow, my grandfather had learned that, in those days just prior to Prohibition, women preferred not to openly frequent the saloon. Instead, they entered the café and then went to the saloon through the connecting door in the back. Knowing that it was to the saloon owner’s economic advantage to keep the lunch counter alive, my grandfather successfully broached the idea of a loan. He subsequently opened the Ranch Café in February 1919.
The Spanish Flu, however, had not dissipated. Evanston residents remained under advice not to congregate, and businesses were closed. Who were my grandfather’s diners? How did he make money to repay the saloon owner’s loan and make good on the final purchase payment for the café?
My grandfather had inventively found the financial capital with which to buy a café. He was similarly savvy in his search for customers, not individual customers but critical masses of them. For example, my grandfather made a deal with Uinta County to provide meals to prisoners in the county jail. Evanston served as the county seat and the prison was located nearby. Moreover, my grandfather approached Pacific Fruit Express about catering meals to its workers. Trains loaded with produce from California routinely stopped in Evanston so that Pacific Fruit Express employees could refresh the produce with ice. My grandfather successfully pitched the benefits of his delivering meals to the company’s icehouse workers.
By the spring of 1919, Wyoming was no longer reporting new cases of the Spanish flu. My grandfather opened in-door seating at his tiny lunch counter café. Demand was so great that he decided to relocate to a larger space. The enactment of Prohibition in July resulted in the demise of saloons, enabling my grandfather to rent a building formerly housing a saloon at $85 per month, secure a five-year lease with no future increases in rent, and remodel the space into what town historians remember as an “elegant” restaurant. The cost of remodeling was $6,000, which was amazingly extended to my grandfather on credit. No one even asked for down payment. Only eight months had elapsed since he had serendipitously arrived in Evanston.
When asked to account for the astonishing beginning of his life in Wyoming — during the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Spanish Flu, and World War I — my grandfather simply replied: “Everybody knew me honesty; work day and night.” My guess is that five other factors were key as well: 1) sheer luck, exemplified by the breakdown of the train; 2) an extensive clan network of information and support; 3) the inventiveness of a “can-do” immigrant; 4) a remarkable ability to develop business relationships and get to “yes” in negotiations with white men even though my grandfather was an outsider in terms of age, race, birthplace, and non-native English language background, and 5) optimism, resilience, and persistence fueled by love of family, as demonstrated by my grandfather sending almost all his earnings to family members in China and California. Perhaps Robert F. Kennedy captured my grandfather’s existential life spirit when he said:
Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.
In the present time of Asian Hate, COVID-19, and a divided nation in a divided world, my grandfather’s example provides me with a guiding light to a better future.
This story is primarily based on my grandfather Wong Gin Wing’s stories, photos, and documents.
The 1918 Pandemic and COVID-19
1918 Pandemic (H1N1 virus), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, downloaded December 10, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/flu/pandemic-resources/1918-pandemic-h1n1.html
Dunn, Eric. Worldwide flu outbreak killed 45,000 American soldiers during World War I, U.S. Army, August 31, 2018, downloaded December 29, 2021, from https://www.army.mil/article/210420/worldwide_flu_outbreak_killed_45000_american_soldiers_during_world_war_i
Rezal, Adriana, “States with the Worst COVID-19 Vaccination Rates,” US News, December 22, 2021, downloaded December 27, 2021, from https://www.usnews.com/news/best-states/articles/these-states-have-the-lowest-covid-19-vaccination-rates.
WWI Selective Service
40 STAT. 76 (Pub. L. 65-12), An act to authorize the President to increase temporarily the Military Establishment of the United States. May 18, 1917.
com Editors, U.S. Congress Passes Selective Service Act, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/u-s-congress-passes-selective-service-act.
Selective Service Regulations, Prescribed by the President Under the Authority Invested in Him by the Terms of the Selective Service Law (Act of Congress Approved May 1917.
Anti-Chinese Laws and the Rock Springs, Wyoming Massacre
Chinese Exclusion Act, An Act of May 6, 1882, 22 Stat. 58, to Execute Certain Treaty Stipulations Relating to Chinese. The Chinese Act was not repealed until 1943.
Geary Act, An Act of May 1892, 27 Stat. 25, to Prohibit the Coming of Chinese Persons into the United States.
We Have Always Lived as Americans, https://chineseamerican.nyhistory.org/we-have-always-lived-as-americans/
California Law Prohibits Asian Immigrants from Owning Land, https://calendar.eji.org/racial-injustice/may/3.
Moore, Eli et al. Roots, race, place: A History of Racially Exclusionary Housing in the San Francisco Bay Area. Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, University of California, Berkeley, October 2019. Haasinstitute.berkeleu.edu/rootsraceplace.
The Rock Springs Massacre, https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/rock-springs-massacre.
Clan Network, aka Family Association
My grandfather’s father, Wong Chong Mun, was especially active in clan networks of mutual aid. In Stockton, where he lived for the last 16 years, he had twice been elected president of the Bing Gong Tong, and passed away in 1930 while serving as president of the Wong Family Association. The tong was a benevolent brotherhood of members who had immigrated to the U.S. from the same region of China. The Wong Family Association was a clan organization. For information about service-and-support organizations formed by early Chinese immigrants in the U.S., see Him Mark Lai’s piece called Historical Development of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association/Huigan System, https://himmarklai.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Historical-Development-of-the-Chinese-Consolidated-Benevolent-Association.pdf.
Evanston, Wyoming and the 1918 Pandemic in Wyoming
Evanston, Wyoming, https://www.Wyo.History.org.
Walking Tour, Historic Downtown Evanston, On Track for Our Future, https://chambermaster.blob.core.windows.net/userfiles/UserFiles/chambers/575/CMS/brochures/Historic-Downtown-Walking-Tour-Brochure.pdf.
Laramie 1868-2020: “Spanish Flu” epidemic hits Laramie — 1918, https://www.wyomingnews.com/laramieboomerang/news/local_news/laramie-1868-2020-spanish-flu- epidemic-hits-laramie-1918/article_a3f7b4c5-d175-5be8-b77c-44bb7ffd65e0.html
How the influenza pandemic of 1918 affected Uinta Co., Uinta Herald, Tuesday, March 31, 2020, https://www.uintacountyherald.com/article/how-the-influenza-pandemic-of-1918-affected-uinta-co.
$600 in 1918 is equivalent to approximately $11,000 in 2021.
$6,000 in 1919 is equivalent to approximately $94,000 in 2021.