Written and photographed by Barry Wong
When Barry Wong decided to take his aging father back to the China village of his birth, his father’s dream of returning home became his own quest to understand his mixed American-Chinese background. Wong’s dream is one that’s shared by many of the 30,000 Chinese and Chinese Americans living in King County. But this story of the touching Wong reunion offers a heartfelt message for everyone.
The ragged edge of a typhoon raged outside the window as we sat in the Panxi Restaurant waiting for lunch. It was early September in Canton; for the entire south China coast, it was the hot and humid rainy season.
Below us, small pleasure boats were blown about on a rain-dappled lake. Later, we learned that three typhoons had struck Canton province, killing 34 and destroying nearly 38,000 homes.
Across the table, my father seemed to be weathering his own personal storm. He was exhausted, feeling all of his 74 years. He hadn’t slept well for the last three nights. He was losing his voice to a cough. And he was restless.
He had every reason to be restless. He was going home. Home to the small Chinese village he had left as a young man of 18. He had returned once in 1947 to bring back his bride, my mother, and hadn’t been back since. That was 37 years ago.
As so many others, my father, Dick Keong Wong, left the poverty of Hom Yu How Toon, “Salted Fish Head Village,” in 1928 to find a better life. Originally, my grandfather was to make the voyage, but at the last minute, it was decided my father would go instead. The young Keong wasn’t apprehensive about the trip. His village frowned in poverty; its people had little food and no jobs. But parting with his younger sisters, Sik Ying and Yu Hang, was painful for one who knew well the importance of family ties. Would he ever see them again?
From Canton he traveled by boat to Hong Kong. In the bustling city, he worked for two years, then took a tramp steamer to Shanghai where he hopped a three-masted opium runner bound for American. The voyage took eight long weeks and the human cargo lived on a diet of potatoes and salted pork. To this day my father dislikes potatoes.
It was a rough start for my father in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Immigration officials often stopped people on the streets to
check for proper papers. Survival meant keeping a low profile, and my father was good at that. He became invisible as hired help at a Chinese boarding house and seldom ventured out. Finally, a friend helped him get fake papers so he could work under an assumed name. My father’s counterfeit ID was so good, he got drafted and sent down to Texas for military training.
In 1947, my father returned to China where he met and married Jean, my mother. That’s when he heard about the death of his father. My grandfather was last seen being taken out to sea by Japanese soldiers. My father and others presumed the obvious: He had been killed and thrown overboard.
In 1957, new amnesty for some illegal aliens gave my father the chance to apply for citizenship, and the Wong family became legitimate.
In those early years, my father bussed tables in an Italian restaurant and my mother sewed dresses for 50 cents apiece. My sisters and I few up speaking a mixture of the Cantonese my mother taught us and the English we learned in school.
My mother and father often sent news of our life in America to family in Canton province, sometimes enclosing money or a recent graduation photo. My parents tried to raise me with an appreciation for my Chinese heritage, but I ended up, at least superficially, an all-American kid, playing tennis and eating pizzas.
My parents moved to Fresno and ran a restaurant for 13 years. They bought a home, raised four kids and sent us all to college. Now they are retired in the Bay Area, but the link to China has never weakened. When my father heard that his family home had fallen into disrepair, he thought about having it rebuilt. I remembered the stories of the simple home with no electricity and a leaky roof. I wondered what would be left of it.
In the years I was growing up, my father talked about his home and his sisters, but he never imagined he’d see them again. Last summer, when my sisters and I offered to take him home, he readily accepted. As the trip drew closer, my excitement grew. Would I find China familiar and comfortable? Or would I be just another stranger in a foreign land?
Since 1979, the Chinese government has encouraged return visits by overseas Chinese, making it easy to arrange a visa for a tour of China plus a trip to the village. None of us got much sleep on the 14-hour flight from San Francisco to Peking. We ended a three-week tour of the major Chinese cities in Canton.
That’s how Dick and Jean Wong, three of their children and a son-in-law found themselves sitting in that Canton restaurant in various states of quiet restlessness. We were anxious to get where we were going.
In a rented yellow Toyota mini-van, we swerved and bounced through the countryside for about four hours to Chengsa. Not an easy ride for Americans spoiled by smooth, gray highways. In the morning, we started our last leg – the road to Hen Gong, the town closest to my father’s village.
During his 1947 visit, my father made his way by boat along the Pearl River because the main road had been blown apart by the retreating Japanese occupational forces. This time, only a muddy road and a flat tire slowed the trip.
My father’s voice sounded terrible from laryngitis, but we couldn’t stop him from shouting instructions to the driver and pointing out local sights. He was literally on the edge of his seat pointing out landmarks (“That’s where my mother grew up.”). My mother pointed, too. When we passed the town where she used to go to market, she told us about the sweet little bananas she used to buy there. We passed stands of tall bamboo and palm trees; a boy was riding a water buffalo through the rice fields.
It was a lovely place. “Some people say that this area is the most beautiful in Canton province,” my mother said. I had imagined it as a bleak and uninviting place after hearing their stories of poverty and hardship. As we got closer, I could see that the village was in a farming area with vibrant, green rice fields, tall sugar cane and peanut plants. The village was a cluster of about three dozen two-story weathered brick homes. One – five stories high – had belonged to my great aunt, one of the wealthier villagers.
It was sunny and hot and I wondered how the older villagers, dressed in traditional Chinese black cotton blouses and pants, stayed cool. Most of the young men and women wore Western-style shirts and slacks. Everyone wore plastic sandals.
When we pulled up just inside the village’s new gate, I saw that there was no road beyond it, only footpaths. Inside, we were expected. A middle-aged man stepped up to greet us. “Are you Ging Cheng?” my father asked, seeing some familiar features in his face. “His cousin,” the man replied as he held my father’s hand in a long, warm handshake.
Behind the cousin an outpouring of relatives and friends – a village of Wongs – turned out to see my father; older folks who remembered him, sons of old friends and new generations that he had never met. My father was beaming. His exhaustion evaporated. Even his voice cleared. Cries of recognition broke the still, humid air, accompanied by the clasping of hands.
I had never met my father’s two “moi” – his younger sisters – but I had no trouble picking them out. I knew them by the smile in my father’s eyes. His youngest sister came up to him and said, “Elder brother, it lifts my heart that you’ve come back.” The last time Yu Hang had seen him, he was a scrappy fellow of 37, she was 25. Now he was 74 and she was 62. His sister Sik Ying was 72. I had never seen my father so happy. I have never been so happy for him.
My father led the way into the village with a sister on each arm. A crowd followed us to a cousin’s house where we were greeted by about two dozen more relatives: cousins and second cousins and third cousins. They had come from two neighboring villages to see us, some traveling overnight.
The Chinese words for dreams are “faat moong,” and my father was telling his old friends that even in his “faat moong” he never imagined that he would see his village again and that he would be here with his children.