By Eddie Wong.
Each Mother’s Day, I’m prompted by Facebook to write something about the remarkable woman who brought me into this world. In previous years, my short pieces touched on her generosity, e.g., she once reached into her sewing kit and pulled out $10 so that I could buy a baseball mitt after I had come up short from collecting soda pop bottles. I wrote about her kindness and cheer as she cooked a homestyle Cantonese dinner for my Jewish high school friends. They still remember her laughter as they struggled with the chopsticks.
She passed away seven years ago, but I think of her often. I can still hear her humming a tune in Cantonese. The bell like tones falling like leaves on a windy afternoon instantly brought a sense of calm to the noisy, hot laundry that we operated in Hollywood, CA.
Last year’s stay-at-home protocols gave me plenty of time to scan the family photo albums. I hope that these photos of my mother combined with quotes from an oral history interview conducted by my younger sister, Donna Wong, will give you a sense of a woman who grew up poor in rural China in the 1920s and 1930s, endured the trauma of the war with Japan in the late 1930s and 1940s, and raised a family of four children in the U.S. in the boom years of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. She lived to see her children become artists, writers, teachers, and activists. She was delighted by her grandchildren whose talents led them to careers in the arts, education and business.
Siu Fong Yee Wong passed away on Feb. 8, 2014 at the home of her daughter Donna Wong in Marietta, GA. This is not a complete account of her life. We only managed to write some details down in the last years of her life. But I hope these pictures will give you a sense of her spirit.
Siu Fong Yee was born November 5, 1918 in Lan Hung Village, Toisan, China. Named “little child of fragrance,” she was the only girl in a family. She had an older brother and two younger brothers. Siu Fong is the ten year old girl, second from the left in the front row. She stands next to her mother. Life on the family farm was filled with chores from sunup to sundown. “I used to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning as a child and go out to gather wood to start a fire to make rice porridge for breakfast,” my mother told me. “By 7 a.m., I was busy washing the dishes and cleaning the house. Only after the chores were done did I go to school.”
She described her home life to my sister. “During the vacation time from school, in the countryside, I helped my mother at home with household chores. I went to the pastures and planted peanuts and planted rice.”
One of the big turning points in my mother’s life was going to the Toy Shan Girls Normal School, a boarding school to train students to become teachers. It was unusual for young women in the countryside to study beyond the elementary level. Siu Fong said, “My ma liked that I studied, but my (paternal) grandma said, ‘Huh, why do girls have to study? The girls can stay home and know a few words –that’s good. That’s good enough. The girls will marry and be given away.’ My ma said, nowadays, it’s not like before. These days you need to know words to be able to write to their husbands and correspond. How will they be able to manage the household? How will they be able to teach their children? You have to let the girls study.”
“My papa said, ‘Mama, it doesn’t take very much money to go to school. So let the girl go to school to study. She’s my daughter!’”
Out of their village of 100 people, only two girls went to the Toy Shan Girls Normal School. From 1936 to 1940, my mother studied to become an elementary school teacher. She also attended Canton College for a few months but had to return home to take care of her mother and father who had fallen ill.
My sister asked my mother, “What was wrong with your mother?” Siu Fong replied,” It was 1940 and the Japanese were dropping bombs and flying their planes overhead in the skies. She was “nervous” sick, scared about her sons dying. The Japanese bombed schools and buildings. So, I had to leave college and come home to cook several meals each day. I was getting ‘sick’ too with nothing to do. They finally got better.”
When they recovered, she was hired as second grade teacher at a school one hour away from her village. She stayed there until the Japanese invaded Guangdong Province, forcing my mother to move further away to Xin Tien City.
My mother spoke fondly of the farming families of Xin Tien: “In those rural farm areas, the people had good hearts. The vegetables they grew, the melons, whatever crop they had, they gave it to the teachers.” Instead of salaries, the teachers were paid with rice, which they then sold, leaving them with a few thousand dollars at the end of the school term. Siu Fong gave some of her earnings to her family to buy a small market and make improvements on the farm.
School was in session Monday through Sat from 7 am to 3 pm with a break for lunch. After 3 pm, students could exercise and play until they went home at 6 pm. Life there was simple and spartan. “The beds (for the teachers) were not separate beds but two boards, two pieces of wood –like a chair—that’s how we slept. Just boards, balance them on a chair and cover it up with a pad, and there was a mosquito net.” Bathing was done in an iron stall where “we had a huge pail and we’d scoop up water and take a bath.”
I got the sense that my mother loved teaching young children. She told my sister, “I taught the second or third graders, the little ones. I taught addition, subtraction, multiplication, and writing words. And I taught children to sing songs (laughing).” One of my fondest memories from childhood is curling up in her bed along with my siblings on Sunday morning to learn Chinese songs. Once we entered elementary school, she stopped teaching us Chinese and wanted us to learn and use English exclusively.
After the war ended, Siu Fong returned to teach in her home village.
My mother was 26 years old when she got married. In rural China, women were married off at 16 years old, but Siu Fong’s mother said, “My girl is not going to be married off. She’s going to study first and learn words. ” My mother added, “I had a good mother.”
Many of Siu Fong’s fellow teachers were getting married to Gold Mountain veterans, i.e., Chinese Americans who fought for the U.S. Army in World War II. They returned to China to find brides who would accompany them back to America. A friend of my mother recommended that she meet a young man, who had gone to America to work but hailed from a nearby village in Toisan. Siu Fong agreed to meet him at his brother’s apartment because he was bringing some things over to him. “The first time I just saw him and didn’t even speak. I saw him and he looked at me. He didn’t invite me anywhere, so I told the woman that I was going to take a bus home because I was teaching.” A few weeks later, he asked to see Siu Fong and they went to a restaurant and had dinner with his sister, brothers and cousins. “After we ate, then they left and we, the two of us, went walking in the streets and conversed. Then the two of us decided that we would like to get engaged and set a date. I went home and told my parents. The next week, we had dinner at a restaurant with his family, and he gave me a watch and ring. And I had a ring made up for him and I gave it to ‘papa.’ It was engraved “Wong Moon Tung” and the date of our engagement. We bought cloth to make wedding clothes and new furniture. Ten days later, we got married.”
My sister Donna asked mom about the rituals of the wedding day, June 8, 1947. “Yes, we followed special traditions. On the wedding day, a special person, a woman, would say good things and put pine cuttings in my hair. She followed behind me – I was in a sedan that was carried by two people to take me to papa’s village – and she would chant ‘wish you money, good children, nice family, long life with each other, each person has white hair, and they grow older together and a hundred boys and one thousand grandchildren.’”
It took six hours to reach the wedding site outside of Cheng An Li, my father’s village. There were a hundred people present, all family and friends. My father had hired cooks to provide a lavish feast. Smiling at this fond memory, my mother said, “It was very festive. We were filled with happiness.”
Reading these comments filled me with joy. I always wondered what spark drew them together. Perhaps it was the way they talked with each other on that second meeting when my father’s honesty and directness swept away any pretense and revealed his true desire. My mother once told me that she asked ‘papa’ why he wanted to marry me, an old maid at age 26. His reply was quintessential pragmatist, “Well, if you were a young girl, I’d have to keep buying you candy.” I’m sure my mother laughed, but he really wasn’t joking. My father was very frugal, some might even say he was a cheapskate. Once when my wife and I were leaving his house to see a movie, he said, “Why don’t you just stay home and watch TV for free?” He added, “It’s pretty hard to get a dollar out of me.” Having lost savings in the Depression, my father held on to every dollar he made. But he was generous in his own way, i.e., fierce loyalty to his family and willing to spend money for a set of the World Book Encyclopedia to further our education.
For the next year, Siu Fong and Moon Tung had an extended honeymoon. Moon Tung had worked as a welder and foreman in a shipyard in Chicago during World War II and saved thousands of dollars. They went to Hong Kong to have an “official” wedding since U.S. immigration authorities recognized ceremonies held in the British colony and not in China. They traveled to Canton and other sites. Then, my mother became pregnant with my older sister Suzi. My father stayed in China until after she was born and decided to return to the U.S. and establish a business before bringing his bride and daughter over. Siu Fong and Suzi arrived in San Francisco on the USS President Cleveland on September 17, 1949 and were reunited with Moon Tung. They stayed in San Francisco for a week and took a train to Los Angeles where Moon Tung had opened a laundry and dry cleaning business at 6105 Melrose Ave in Hollywood, CA. They would work together at the laundry until it closed in December 1984.
The next few years were busy for my mom. I was born in 1950, my sister Donna in 1951, and my brother Warren in 1953. Between the darning of socks, turning collars, sewing on buttons, chopping vegetables, making stir fry, ironing shirts, soothing crying babies, and moderating the volcanic shifts in papa’s temper, Siu Fong had little time for herself.
My sister asked mom if she wanted to learn English. “Well, I did, but I didn’t have time. Year after year, I had a baby. So how could there be time to study? I wanted to learn, but English is difficult to learn. So, I didn’t learn it.” Over the years, she learned a little English and could follow the news and she watched “Wheel of Fortune” jotting down phrases.
The years rolled by as the children went from Vine Street Elementary School to Bancroft Jr. Hight and finally Fairfax High. All of us ended up graduating from UCLA. My parents were proud that we completed our college education even if a few of us took wayward paths into the arts.
I’ll never forget how hard they worked. We were at the laundry from 7:30 am to 9:30 pm. We lived in the back of the laundry until 1957, all of us kids taking sponge baths out of a tin tub. Because of racial covenants, no one would sell a house to a Chinese family in Hollywood. But we finally did find a kindly white doctor who sold us his home in East Hollywood, near LA City College.
I remember my mother crying one day after coming home from a house hunting trip. It was one of the few times I had ever seen her sad. When I asked her why she was crying, she simply said, “They slammed the door in our faces.” She and my father endured many racist incidents that spelled out in no uncertain terms that we were unwanted in their white neighborhood. And we got the message too on the school playground as racial taunts were hurled at us and bumps and pushes became a rite of passage. One never forgets these things and I can see the roots of my anger buried deep in these humiliations. Yet, my mother always found ways to shrug off these slights and the hateful customers who complained that their work “wasn’t good enough” or “had too many wrinkles” as they demanded their money back. She chose to remember that most of the customers were good people who treated them kindly.
At first, the laundry only earned about $80 a week, barely enough for rent and food. We scraped by with cardboard inserted into our shoes to cover up holes and we had underclothes sewn from used rice sacks. My mother always found a way to save money. And the business did grow, sometimes making $900 a week. “We started with a little, little business just a few hundred a week and at the end, we made it. We were smiling, happy,” said my mother.
Perhaps her greatest joy later in life was spending time with her grandchildren. Sonja and Hilda, my older sister Suzi and her husband Jed Rasula’s children, were dropped off at the laundry many times and learned to play hide and seek amid the mounds of laundry and rows of dry cleaning hanging pristinely shrouded in plastic. Chris, my sister Donna’s son, practiced kung fu with my father at the laundry. And my daughters Maggie and Sara enjoyed rummaging around the family home at 906 N. Normandie Ave.
After my father died in 1990, my mother lived alone for many years. My sister Donna finally convinced her to move in with her and her husband Ken in Marietta, GA. She spent 10 years with them before succumbing to cancer in 2014. Siu Fong Yee Wong lived a life that was at times turbulent and chaotic but also one shaped by a love of learning and deep reverence of family. She never lost her smile and she taught us that it is better to love and heal than harbor hatred and hurt. Mama, we miss you. We cherish you, now and forever.