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John R. Wong

Great-grandson of Lim Lip Hong

Interviewee: John R. Wong (Great-grandson of Lim Lip Hong)
Interviewer: Connie Young Yu and Barre Fong
Date: March 7, 2013
Location: San Francisco, California
Length of the Interview: 35 minutes, 40 seconds

00:02 Connie Young Yu: Could you tell us first where you were born?
00:06 John R. Wong: Where?
00:07 Yu: Yeah. Where and when?
00:08 Wong: I was born November 22nd – the day Kennedy was assassinated – 1940, Hong Kong, China. And probably, of all the cousins I’m the only one that’s foreign-born. Right? I guess. Yeah.
00:25 Yu: Your father was born in the United States?
00:26 Wong: My father was born in Oakland, California, 1906. At 135 8th Street. The main house in Oakland. And he was the second eldest child, preceded in age by Henry, and my father, and my aunt Jenny, and then my Uncle Worley, Kitty’s dad. And he was educated in Oakland – Lincoln School – and then went on to study at Leik Nam College in China, along with Henry, and I think Uncle Worley joined him there too. And then attended USC. Go Trojans. Okay.
01:18 And I don’t know exactly what his major was, but he had an interest in aviation. And he went on to Hancock School of Aviation, and obtained his pilot’s license which was probably brought to him by Aunt Renee’s dad, my Grandfather, Art. My father loved to fly. And he worked for many years for Hancock and did aircraft inspections. And from the stories that I’ve heard, he was recruited by Grandpa Art in China to go back and to help build China’s first bomber – one of the Boeing’s. And he went back.
02:17 And the funny story that’s all connected to this is that Uncle Art is also Grandpa Art. And that’s because, my mother, Art’s daughter, and my father, were related. Now, biologically no. Because my Uncle Art, Grandpa Art was an adopted father. So if you look at our lineage, our family tree, you’ll see my mom listed with Aunt Renee and Aunt Judy. And you see my father listed with his siblings. But then you see, that we’re under both – my brothers, sister, and I are under both. So we have a very unique tie.
03:15 But I do remember Grandpa Art. My mom told me that my mom would not marry – be allowed to marry – anyone in China except for my dad, Willie. And she can go out on group dates but there will be no marriage with anyone else. She was basically – he was basically going to marry my mom. And they did so, in 1939.
03:50 So I came over here, I was born 1940 November. I think I was seven months old when I came over and came over on the, I think it was the President Cleveland or President Roosevelt ship liner. But I do remember my dad telling me that as we cruise to San Francisco pass the Hawaiian Islands that we had Destroyer escorts on the ship. And that’s because of imminent warfare with Japan. So we were escorted.
04:33 When I arrived here at the docks in San Francisco, I’ve been here ever since. And I’ve been besieged by relatives and family to go back to China to visit. And I have been away 71 years now. You know. And I do need to go back. And it’s on my bucket list, let’s say, but I felt very pleased being raised in my family. My parents were both loving. I had the benefits of Aunt Judy, Aunt Renee, my early childhood.
05:12 I won’t say what Aunt Renee did when I was 2 years old. It’s clean Auntie. *laughter* But we, we had a good time growing up in LA.
05:30 We eventually moved up to Santa Rosa, Sebastopol area because my father’s transfer from Van – was it Van Nuys Valley? – to Santa Rosa Sebastopol area had to do with his government job. And now that he’s passed I can say he was affiliated with the CIA. And the only reason I had no questions about what my father did, even though people asked me, “what does your dad do?” and I said, “well, he, he works for the government.” “What does he do?” “Well, I don’t really know. It’s classified.”
06:11 Yu: [inaudible].
06:12 Wong: Yeah – it was, they monitored radio stations. My father spoke 12 dialects of Chinese. You hear that? 12 dialects. And he was weary – he did lots of translations. In fact, I do recall, as a young teen, he would take these trips to Japan and Hong Kong in various locations and I asked him, “what are you doing?” and he says, “well, I sit on top of a mountain top and I listen to translations.” And I says, “why do you carry a gun?” He said, he said, “what gun?” I says, “the gun that you have tucked in the side of your suitcase.” He says, “I’m required to carry it.”
06:55 And I didn’t know he was “CIA” until I think I graduated from college, if you can imagine. And that’s when they shut down the Santa Rosa Sebastopol station and the news hit – or the headlines read – “CIA Closes Office.” And then my classmate started calling me. He says, you know, “did you know your dad worked for CIA?” and I says, “no, I didn’t know that!” So that, that was a shocker, yeah. But you know, dad never talked about what he did, other than sitting on mountain tops and going into military bases with a colonel’s rating which he was quite pleased with.
07:48 But things have progressed though. He encouraged all of my brothers and I to go to college. Unfortunately, I think I was the only one that went through a 4-year university and graduated. I got my degree, bachelor’s, and my teaching credentials.
08:08 So I ended up teaching in Oakland, predominantly black neighborhood, which in a sense had its advantages, because my clientele included children of Black Panthers. You know, the sixties, the Panther Party was quite dominant and a Panther headquarters was located about 4 blocks from my school.
08:34 And it was a big controversy going on at one time. The Panthers would walk the children to school after feeding him their needed breakfast in the morning, because parents could not afford it. And they would come to the front door of the school and walk the kids in. Well, some people started protesting the presence of Panthers on campus. So I came in through the side gate because I have a key where I parked my car and I simply told Huey and the boys I says, “I’ll leave the gate unlocked. I come through it every morning and I lock it up when I leave. That’s the an hour after school’s over.” I says, “I’ll just leave it unlocked.” Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton, all of them. I’ve knew – personally. Not totally pleased with what they did, but you know, they were looking out for their folks as I would look out for mine.
09:34 But growing up in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol area, before coming out the college was a very unique experience. I was one of two Chinese Americans in the school. We had lots of Japanese children, students, because they were all in the agriculture – apple growing business. And I dated Japanese, Mexican, Caucasian girls. I married Asian the first time, married Caucasian the second time and still married after 40 years. So we’re going on.
10:18 Racial prejudice? Lots of it going on. Even today. So I don’t know how far you want to dwell in this, but you know, experiences that I have had – housing – just being different skin color is entirely different than one would expect. You’re in the majority, even in Chinatown areas, but yet you’re a minority in the eyes of the world. When you look at the Asian population, in most of these cities here, it’s higher than Caucasian or any other race. But you’re still a minority. I don’t know what else do you like to know. Oh, living with my grandmother?
11:05 Yu: Before we get in to this, of course, you were very very aware of, you know, Chinese groups? Chinese American groups?
11:14 Wong: Very definitely. Growing up in Sebastopol, a small town, where you’re the only Asian. Because I was involved in athletics, judo, football, basketball – most of my friends were all sports addicts as well – and nobody made any comments or cracks about my nationality. And I guess it traces back to my, my grandfather, not on my mother’s side, but on my father’s side. We talked about Chinese mafia, we were connected. And even today, it’s funny – being an Asian and the grandson of a prominent Oakland Chinese businessman. I’ve gone to several functions where they were all Asians and I was introduced as being John Wong, son of Mrs. Wong Yao and immediately the elders all bow and show sign of respect. And even to, even to this day, I joke that you know, we have ties with the tongs, and we can take care of business.
12:41 In fact, you mentioned, you talked to cousin Herby and he’s mentioned the tongs. Well, I know for a fact, and I, I shared this with cousin Al, with him the other day, at a family function. That someone made a crack back in the fifties about Uncle Henry’s wife Aunt Julia. And Uncle Henry took great offense at this. Uncle Henry, Herb’s dad, continued to carry on the family gambling business. In fact, there are many documents from the Tribune about the Chinese gambling situations that Aunt Renee sent me and Uncle Dickie put together. But anyhow, the comment made against Aunt Julia was very offensive to Uncle Henry. And my Uncle Henry had something done. And I got all this from my father. My father told me, back in the fifties. But they found the guy that made the derogatory comments floating in the Oakland Estuary handcuffed behind his back, tied up, handcuffed, and one bullet hole in his forehead. Alright. So Dad thinks somebody was hired.
14:16 Well, it turned out, back in the early sixties, mid-sixties, I started working at a meat market in San Francisco Mission District. Akron Meat Market. And we catered mostly to the Chinese restaurants, but a lot of the Mexican restaurants. I worked there 13 years. And over the 13 years – I worked part-time in addition to my teaching – over the 13 years, we had this one fella that came in each week. And I finally asked Willie, who was the son’s boss, you know, “who’s that?” And he says, “oh, that’s” – I’m not going to mention his name, because I don’t want anything happening to his relatives that are surviving – “oh, he works for my dad.” And I says, “what does he do?” he says, “you name it, he does it.” Now, Bill Wong on the Meat Market had a lot of gambling things going in San Francisco. And he knew of my uncle.
15:13 And I finally met his friend who came in once a week. And I said, “oh, where do you live?” and he says, “Oakland.” and I says, “oh, I live there too.” And I says, “oh, so you might know my family. Mrs. Wong.” He says, “on 8th street?” I says, “yeah, I know your grandmother.” And I says, “oh, maybe you knew my uncles.” And I named my uncles, my dad, and he said, “oh, I knew your Uncle Henry. I used to work for him.” And I says, “you worked for him?” I says, “did you do some – some pretty horrendous jobs for him?” I says, “I did a couple.” And he was a big shot in Chinatown. Even in the 50s. He says, “yeah.” He passed away in 1952. This comment was made in 1950, I believe. So I says, “Oh, you know, they found somebody in the Oakland Estuary. Did you have anything to do with?” He says, “no comment.” So I asked him about a month or two later, Blackie was his first name, I said, “Blackie, tell me the truth.” He says, “Sorta. I had it arranged.” And I say, you know, I don’t know what the payoff was, you know, how much you got for the job or how much Uncle paid to have the job done, but things like that happened back then. And Chinatown was not a place to mess around with in Oakland.
16:56 Grandma Wong was a very giving person. And very caring. I lived there two years when I was going to college. I would have lived on the Cal campus but partied around too much, like my cousin Andrea did. So I went to State College of San Francisco. I got my degree, served in the military – Reserves – which is a whole life learning experience which I share with my students about the prejudice that was going on in the South and about being a minority in quote “the world that we live in” but very educational.
17:42 Growing up Asian, no problems in a small town. There was one Chinese restaurant that I never went into, ever. And my mom was a great cook. And like many people being of Asian ancestry, I do not speak fluent Chinese. Bits and pieces, yeah. I can go to a restaurant, order, all this stuff, but I never had to. Now my mom, who was born in Java, Batavia, came over, she wanted to learn English. And so we, we spoke English in the household. And there was a Chinese School available in Chinatown but we didn’t live in Chinatown, LA. We lived about 10 miles away from Chinatown.
18:32 And I do remember, as a kid, my playmates were all in the Lincoln Park area. My best friend’s father ran the horse stables there: horseback riding, rental horses. And I remember going. My mom worked at a Chinese restaurant in Downtown LA, cross from Union Station called Chinese Village. And all the stars from Hollywood used to go in there. And I remember going down there, sometimes on the weekends, when we didn’t have a sitter. And I would bump into all these Hollywood stars. Marilyn Monroe when she was dating Joe DiMaggio, listening to Nat King Cole and his trio playing in the lounge, Jay Silverheels, the Lone Ranger Tonto, you name them, I’ve seen them all. But as a kid, you don’t realize it. But didn’t go to school there, okay.
19:32 Yu: Okay, yes, back to your childhood.
19:39 Wong: Childhood. Los Angeles. Yeah. Well, my mom and dad worked part-time at the Chinese Village, opposite Union Station. And we go in there quite a bit, my brothers sister and I. Oh, my brothers and I, my sister wasn’t born yet. And just meeting all these celebrities was something.
19:58 One day, mom came home, one evening, and said, “oh, they want you to try out for a movie role.” And I said, “okay, how much?” She says, “you have to try out to see if they want you.” So I think the next day, she had a friend drive her and myself to MGM Studio, and went into this huge office after waiting about a half hour in the waiting room. And I was introduced to this producer and he wanted me for this film. China’s Little Devils, that was the name of the movie and it’s about young kids fighting the war against the Japanese. Harry Carey, I think was the star. And he said “John, we’re doing this film.” And he gave me the details. And he says, “can you say a few lines for me?” And I says, “what you all want to hear?” And I said, in just that way, “what y’all wanna hear?” My friends that I grew up with, at home, parents owned the stables were all from Texas. So they have the Texas twang. And the guy looked at my mother and says, “thank you, Ruby. I don’t think so.” That was it. I was there for 5 minutes, inside his office.
21:23 But that’s who I associated with, in, in school. My classmates were all Caucasian, Hispanic. There was no Asians in my neck of the woods because we didn’t live near Chinatown. And it’s the same with growing up in Sebastopol. My junior high, I was the only Asian, not even Japanese, my junior high. My high school, like I said, there was one other Asian kid that ran the grocery store – his parents ran a grocery store, and a few Japanese students. But very interesting, growing up as an Asian.
22:03 My teaching experience. I had quite a few Asians teaching in Palo Alto. Not in Oakland. Oakland, it was predominantly black. About 95% of my class with black. And I have lost touch with most of my students in Oakland because that was 1963 till 70. I keep in touch with my students in Palo Alto and I have mixed students, ethnic background, some students in Palo Alto. I was invited recently to the 30th High School reunion of some of my former Elementary School students. And I went there and all sixty of them came out. And we had pictures and it was about a two hour get-together with just my, my group. I team-taught with another friend, we did Hawaiian studies and we took trips to Hawaii. In Palo Alto, you can take field trips to Hawaii, you see. The very wealthy community, very supportive of education, very supportive of me. I was besieged with request for placement in my classes even from elementary school, to middle school transfer, they still requested, which was quite pleasing to me.
23:36 When I decided to retire in 2001, a group of parents were scheduled to come in to talk about my class Direct Instructions program. This a basic, Back to Basics. Homework every night, two hours. Book reports, once every month. Research reports, every other month. And parents like that format. So the principal asked me if I would address the student – well, address the parents, one last time. And I said, I would. So I scheduled the class since I had a prep period, first period. I scheduled a meeting first thing in the morning for those interested parents. I came to my classroom to meet my students, to send them off to their PE, music classes. And I had 60 parents out there. I only have room for 35. So I said, well, I’m going to have to change it to right after recess. So I change the meeting to after recess, I had more parents then. Surprising, the word got around, I had about 90 parents. We met in the NP room.
24:52 And one parent said, “Mr Wong, there is a group of us who would like to talk to you, after the meeting.” I said, fine. So I made the whole presentation about what direct-instruction was, the expectations, the results of my last 5 years, placement in the Advanced Placement programs. High School at Paly High, Gunn High, so on. And a group of parents met with me after, and they said, “Mr. Wong, we don’t want you to retire.” And I says, “Well, I’m flattered. But due to circumstances at home, I need to retire.” I had my mother living with us then. And what, “We’re willing to make it worthwhile.” I says, “Well, what, what do you mean?” He said, “In addition to your regular teaching pay, how does fifty, sixty, seventy-thousand dollars more per year sound?” And I says, “It sounds great. But ethically, I cannot take. It’s, it’s morally not right.” “But we want you to stay and we are willing to pay.” And I says, “I’m flattered, but I think I’ve made up my mind.”
26:01 What I should have done was to suggest that we open a private school and I continue as a director. That would have been the right thing. Because after the meeting was over, the parents left. Some of the teachers came out said, “You know, you are meeting with all these parents. What’s going on?” And I says, “well, they want me to stay. And they offered me additional money. He says, “well, he’s CEO of his own company. He’s a multi-millionaire that he lives in Los Altos Hills. I don’t know why his kids come down here. They’re all rich, Johny.”
26:36 I says, “I should have told him to start my school.” But anyhow, I was flattered. Okay. In fact, I choked up quite a bit then. And just the idea that they were willing to go out. Me, an Asian, teaching mainly Caucasian kids, few other minorities. But being offered a lump sum of money to stay on for another year, not knowing if their kid is going to be at my class or not. Because I had a 33 classroom limit. And you pick names out of a hat. But starting a second school would have been great, I think it would have been fantastic. I would still be working. In fact, I am working. I was offered a summer school job. 72! And they are going to offer me a summer school job.
27:25 Yu: Did you ever teach Asian American Studies? Or do a course in -?
27:28 Wong: No, not in Chinese Studies. I did, my teaching partner in Oakland – when I first started – he was my master teacher. He was from Hawaii. He was Chinese Japanese Hawaiian. And our final year in Oakland, which was 1969, he says, “let’s teach Hawaiian Studies.” I says, “Fine. We’ll research it. It’s a research project. Study about the, the King Kamehameha’s and all of the Hawaiians.” And we went to Palo Alto.
Next thing we knew, we were doing Hawaiian Studies. After – we were five years apart, he went to a different school, I went to another school, but we reunited – and he started Hawaiian Studies and he says, we can teach them dance with all the cultures. So we brought in kumu hulas, kumus, which were Hawaiian masters, they teach them Tahitian, Hawaiian, Mauri, and what other, one other.
28:35 And then, next thing I know, the PTA President says, “let’s take them on a field trip.” I says, “Fine.” This is 1985, it was the first trip. “Let’s go to Hawaii.” “Okay, we’ll see if we can raise the funds.” I had to submit all these papers to the district to justify the course study for going to Hawaii for two weeks. And one of them was – “to teach them skills in balancing and agility while riding a surfboard on the waves.” That was a PE. It was accepted. All my little things were all accepted.
29:13 Asian studies, no. But during the free time they had, to do reports, they had a choice of any country they wanted as one of the choices. And a lot of them did report on China. I had a few Japanese in there. So Japanese was also.
29:31 Now what they have started in Palo Alto is to have Mandarin Immersion Schools. I guess you’ve heard of that already. They’ve already started in several schools. They have Spanish Immersion, up at that school by the campus. And now they’ve started Mandarin Immersion, which is great. Japanese was the big push, back in the 80s, 90s, because of all the trade going on with Japan. And I encouraged my students to take Japanese then. And a lot of them did. Four years of Japanese, starting at Middle School, which was great. And now the big push is in Mandarin, which is great.
30:15 Yu: Well, how about talking about the Chinese American experience? Because I know that, that became in, part of the curriculum, in, starting in the seventies. You know, the feeling of ancestral pride and the fact that there’s a long history of the Chinese in America?
30:34 Wong: You know, they, they put them in the supplementary textbooks. Now, I don’t know if they, they starting that. Usually, you get U.S. Studies in fourth grade, U.S. History in fifth grade, and World History in 6th grade. And there is a section of the state textbooks that covers Chinese Americans. And as far as I know, the research reports that the kids do, a lot of them do pick them, Asian Americans ones, because of the information available.
31:10 Yu: Trying to get back to your own sensibility, being a descendant of Lim Lip Hong, who did work on the Transcontinental Railroad, and you know, did what we considered the West, [unclear], and sort of that legend, which a lot of young people now want to know about and have a sense of pride. So, how does that relate to you?
31:38 Wong: Relating to me? You know, coming here, Andrea told me that, you know, “they’re going to deal with the railroad workers and the grandfather.” I had no idea of it at all. And that’s why I was interested in coming. And I’m here. This is my grandmother.
32:01 Yu: The daughter of your grandmother is the daughter of [unclear] Lim Lip Hong
32:09 Wong: Of Lim Lip Hong. Right. And, you know, if I had known more about this, I’ve talked about the Chinese working on the railroad to my students. I’ve talked about things that my father told me, about how our, some of our descendants went to various small towns. I don’t know if there were cousins of our grandparents.
32:33 But my father, I remember coming back from Yosemite National Park and we drove through Placerville, I guess that was called Hangtown at one time. And I said, “why is it called Hangtown?” “Because they hung people here.” And I, and then he told me that one of our relatives ran a laundry in this little small town and was eventually hung. And I says, “For what reason? For being Chinese?” He says, “No. Because over-starched the collar of one of the businessmen. So they hung him.”
33:07 And I, I just couldn’t believe it. You know. And I relate this, these stories to my relatives, or to my students. Even my experiences in the South with the minorities and the racial prejudice that goes on. And you know, they just can’t believe it. Now, I’m losing a train of thought here. But you know, this going on in Hangtown.
33:36 And my father told me about the railroad workers hanging a Chinaman over the side with the dynamites to put inside the rock drilling’s so that they they can blow up. And if you, if you were one of the guys on the ropes and you didn’t like the Chinaman below you, you don’t pull them up. You let him go.
33:57 My father told me all of this when I was a kid, when I, you know, you think of it – it was such a cruel world to, to be living in, where the racial differences can lead to death of somebody over minute or minor things. Too much starch in the collar. You know this old slang, “no tickee, no washee.” Yeah. You began to wonder.
34:21 It’s good?
34:23 Yu: That was – very good finish.
34:26 Wong: No tickee, no washee.

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