Submit your Story
After 23 days at sea, 11-year-old Paul Zane Wong finally arrived in the United States at Angel Island on February 5, 1924, alongside his aunt and younger cousin. He would remain there for about a month and witness both of his relatives leave before him. When he was finally permitted to leave the island, he would be greeted by his uncle and a father whom he never met before, but had only seen a picture of.
Paul Zane Wong’s Early Life
Born as Wong Ying Pong in Non On Chun village in Toishan, China, on August 24, 1913, Wong described his village as an “old and shabby place” that did not produce any major industrial goods and consisted of approximately thirty houses for the entire village residents. No running water was available, so the villagers would have to carry it by the bucket. An outhouse was built in the village’s hill as a toilet. The residents would have to go to a neighboring town by foot in order to get access to mail, shopping, and healthcare because there was no public transportation.
Unfortunately for Wong, his mother passed away when he was five years old. His father, an American citizen, had returned to the U.S. to make a living before Wong was born, but being the son of an American didn’t ease his immigration to America. He then moved in with his grandparents and grew attached to his step-grandmother–his grandfather’s first wife, who had to juggle between taking care of her husband and raising Wong. (Wong’s own grandmother was his grandfather’s second wife, who died around 1904.) By the age of ten, he felt nothing but disdain for his living environment in China. His grandfather granted Wong’s wish to leave by sending him to America. In his adult life, he recalled how lonely his childhood was and reflected on how his lack of proper socialization affected his overall social skills.
The Angel Island Journey and Experience
On January 12, 1924, Wong departed for America through Hong Kong with his aunt and her five-year old son on the SS President Wilson. Due to his aunt experiencing seasickness during the entire trip, Wong had to take care of his cousin. A few of the sailors would occasionally bring cookies and fresh fruits for them to eat. When he arrived in San Francisco the following month, the three of them were taken to Angel Island. Wong later wrote about his stay at Angel Island in his memoir.
“On February 5, 1924, we arrived in San Francisco and we got a wonderful view of the city as the ship slowly moved around the waterfront to the inner bay pier. But no sooner did the ship dock then all the newly-arrived immigrants were herded onto a schooner which sailed off to Angel Island. Because I was a young boy and came with a woman, they let us stay together and assigned us to a large wing of [the administration] building with iron bars and metal gates. We were locked in and were only let out to dine in a separate hall. There were other women and children there from earlier ships. There were no greetings or friendly hellos. Everyone had his own worries. They were nervous and kept pretty much to themselves. We slept in bunk beds and washed in a common room. With my aunt and my cousin Park there, I felt rather comfortable except for a feeling like the rest of the people—wondering whether we will make it to go ashore or be rejected and sent back to China.
“As the days passed, I noticed my aunt and her son had been summoned out for what, I didn’t know. A couple of days later, the lady custodian came and motioned to my aunt to pack her belongings and to follow her. As she finished packing for herself and Park, the custodian opened the gate and the two of them went out. I didn’t know what was going on, so I also followed. But at the gate, the custodian pushed me back in and said something in a language I did not understand. She locked the gate and walked away. My aunt turned around and told me to be patient and to wait. She told me my father will come for me in a few days. I was so disappointed and stunned I didn’t know what to do but stand there like a statue with my mouth wide open.
“As the days passed, no news about my father came and I couldn’t speak the language to ask. Then slowly all those familiar faces who came over on my same ship were gone and as new arrivals came in. I had no friends or anyone to talk to. I felt very lonely and lost. And to make things worse, one day I walked into the bathroom and out ran a couple of young girls screaming. I didn’t realize it then but slowly, it dawned on me that I was a male and I was trespassing into their domain. I was so embarrassed. From then on, I didn’t dare go there unless I really, really had to. I also didn’t dare stay there too long to clean up or bathe. As a result, I suppose I looked rather sloppy with no clean clothes to change and no haircuts in months. I must have looked awful and probably smelled awful also. That could be one reason why no one befriended me. There were times I felt so miserable, I didn’t even want to go to the dining room. The custodian had to come and drag me out of bed to make me go. After meals, I would climb back into bed, staring at the ceiling wondering what was going to happen to me.”
Even though Wong was the natural born child of a US citizen, he was forced to undergo the harsh interrogations of so many Chinese immigrants at that time. It was traumatizing for a young boy all alone coming to a foreign country without knowledge of the language, customs or culture. As Wong described the interrogation,
“After spending 25 miserable and lonely days there, the custodian finally came and led me down the hall to a big room. As I entered, the first thing I noticed were three giant white men. I had never seen anyone so large before and with their uniforms on, they looked so stern and scary to this little boy just out from a backward village. There also was a Chinese man who spoke Cantonese. He pointed to a chair and told me to sit down. I was so nervous and just barely sat on its edge.
“Then the questions started. First the white man spoke and then the Chinese man translated it into Cantonese for me. What’s your name? How old are you? Who is your father? What’s his name? Who is your mother? What’s her name? Where do you live? What kind of a house did you live in? Are your Grandfather and Grandmother living? What are their names? Where are they now? How many uncles and aunts do you have? And the questions went on and on. For how long, I don’t remember, but I was so confused and tired I think I was just about to burst into tears.
“Finally they stopped and the Custodian came and led me back to my quarters. And for the next few days, I think I was going crazy trying to figure what was going on. Nobody would tell me anything and I couldn’t speak the language to ask. Then all sort of weird thoughts started running through my mind. Suppose they rejected me. What was I going to do? I certainly didn’t want to go back to the village so where else could I go? And I had heard of men being rejected and were deported back to China. Those men absolutely didn’t want to go back to face the humiliation from their neighbors. Besides where would they find the money to repay the loans they borrowed for the trip? They worried so much and saw no way to solve their problems that they would decide to end it all by climbing over the ship’s rail and quietly slipping into the sea on a moonless night.”
On March 7, 1924, Wong would finally meet his first visitors on the Island when he was released from detention – an uncle he met back in China and his father whom he had never met in person. Despite seeing a photo of his father, Wong still felt that he was a total stranger. They then departed onto a boat back to San Francisco, where he would live with the same uncle he met and his wife. Later in Wong’s adult life, he learned that his father had to quit his current job in the countryside at the time just to be able to pick up his son at the Island; Wong held no grudge against his father for abandoning him, but rather understood that his father needed to work to survive and allow him to come to America.
Life After Angel Island
Despite the lack of immediate familial support, Wong was able to go to elementary school at St. Mary’s Catholic School, graduate from sixth grade, and attend junior high in San Francisco. When asked to Americanize his name, he chose “Paul” after St. Paul, which sounded like his name Pong, and the middle name Zane after the author of the many cowboy stories he had read – Zane Grey.
The age difference between Wong and his classmates would ultimately convince him to drop out and study at Heald College for a year as an auto mechanic and live as a houseboy for various American families in the San Francisco Bay Area. His uncle found him these jobs despite the language barriers. Unfortunately, hiring discrimination toward the Chinese was widespread, so he resorted to working in a restaurant as a chef in the local financial district at the time, eventually gaining ownership of it.
After his restaurant business started to boom, Wong began to date around. He had his heart broken a number of times before he met his future spouse, Lucille, and her two sisters from Merced. After exchanging letters back and forth, she moved to San Francisco to help him with his restaurant business, and around Christmas time, they headed to Las Vegas for marriage. They then resumed the business together as husband and wife until World War II broke out, when he was drafted to serve with the Flying Tigers in the 14th Air Force in China.
Later, he went into the grocery business, working alongside his wife for twenty years, selling American groceries and produce. In addition, he founded the SF Chinese Grocers Association, was a lifelong member and past president of the SF Chinatown Sportsmen Club, a past Commander of the Chinatown post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and a member of the Chinese Historical Society of America and Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco.
Despite his lack of formal education, Wong was continuously interested in learning and bettering himself. On his own he learned about carpentry, electrical wiring and mechanics so he could build or repair things himself. He became a licensed realtor, insurance agent, and a successful chef at renowned restaurants such as Trader Vic’s and the Hilton Hotel. In his late 70’s he also learned how to use a computer to communicate and to follow the stock market. He did very well on investments.
Wong was a wonderful role model of the self-made man. He reinvented himself many times into his late 80’s before he finally retired. In his spare time, he would do pencil sketches and stone carvings, go fishing, and spend time with his family, including his five children, nine grandchildren, and many great grandchildren. Having never forgotten his own early struggles and the help he received, he was always willing to help friends and family meet their goals and challenges. Paul Zane Wong passed away on May 2, 2010, at the age of 96.
Tiffany Tai Lu wrote this story as an AIISF intern from San Francisco State University. Special appreciation to Paul Wong’s daughter Cheryl Wong-Ng for her assistance and for the family photographs, and to Judy Yung for editing help.
Submit your Story