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Wong Poy was born on November 11, 1901 in the village of Yiu Tin, district of Jang Sing, Kwangtung Province to parents Wong Wing Shek and Jam Mew Cain. He was the youngest of five boys. His father was a farmer growing almonds, lichee nuts, oranges, sugar cane, vegetables, peanuts, sweet potatoes and many acres of rice. His mother also came from a farm family and suffered from bound feet, which was the custom of the time. His hair was worn in a queue until age 9 and attended school until he emigrated to the United States at the age of 14. His father became ill and died of tuberculosis when Wong Poy was 9.
His brother, Wong Woey Too, 22 years older than Wong Poy, had emigrated to the United States when Wong Poy was born. At his mother’s request, Wong Woey Too returned to China after his father died to care for his mother and Wong Poy. He later decided to return to the United States taking Wong Poy along. They obtained passports and permits in Hong Kong as father and son.
They sailed on December 4, 1915, on the S.S. China of the China Mail Steamship Company and arrived in San Francisco on Christmas Eve, December 24, 1915. They were sent to Angel Island and quarantined until passports and the papers and stories concerning blood relationships were confirmed.
His brother stayed at Angel Island only one night and was released because he was re-entering the United States and everything was in order. For 45 days, the 14-year-old Wong Poy was interrogated over and over until the officials were finally satisfied and issued him a permanent permit to stay on March 15, 1916. During Wong Poy’s quarantine he saw many travelers who were unable to satisfy the questioners and were returned to China. As a way to pass the time, he had a tattoo of two hands shaking put on his arm by a couple of quarantined European men who were kept in a smaller room on the same floor. The tattoo is something he later regretted.
In San Francisco, Wong Poy attended Commodore School and worked at Fook Woo Tong herbal store at 940 Grant Avenue for his keep. At other times, he had part time houseboy jobs with various people earning $1.25 to $4.50 with meals per week.
In 1919 at his brother’s request, Wong Poy left for Augusta, Georgia, to run Wong Woey Too’s grocery store. Wong Poy later purchased the store from his older brother. In Augusta, there were roughly 40 Chinese, of which two were women and both were married. He was the youngest customer and the first Chinese in town to buy a 1921 Model T Ford, 4 door convertible; it cost $400. On Sundays, he went to the Baptist Church at 4 p.m. for Sunday school and to learn more English.
In 1923, Wong Poy returned to China, stayed for two years, and married Lai Kwai Gum. In 1925, he returned to the United States without his wife, thinking he would eventually return to China to live and raise a family. Upon his return to the United States, he worked selling cooked shrimp along the highway near Daly City but eventually went back to Georgia, again operating different grocery stores in Savannah and Augusta.
Wong Poy’s personal timeline for the Great Depression ran from 1927 to 1936. He managed to find work or business opportunities even as he saw serious unemployment, bankruptcies, and people grieving openly in the streets. He worked at different times for Chandler Brothers Wholesale Grocery Company as a salesman earning $80 per month plus $30 for auto expenses. Around 1937 or 1938, he bought a store and house in Augusta for less than $2000, renting out the side house for about $12/month.
After the Japanese invaded Kwangtung in 1937, hopes of returning to live in China faded. In 1939, his wife entered the United States in Seattle, Washington, via Canada. After spending time in San Francisco they settled in Georgia where they had six children Jeanette, Jerry, Herbert, Gilbert, Linda, and Raymond. As he was raising his young family, Wong Poy made time to volunteer as “Auxiliary Policeman” for Augusta Civilian Defense in the early part of World War II.
Life in Augusta, Georgia, created fond and cherished memories of warm and compassionate friends. Wong Poy knew and earned the trust of all the Chinese. He liked Augusta because the people treated the Chinese well. There were about 200 Chinese, which made up less than one percent of the population. He enjoyed doing business with black people and white, and felt that he had good friends no matter the color. However, he wanted to give his children an opportunity to attend better American schools and a chance to be exposed to the Chinese culture and schools so he moved his family to Oakland, California, in July 1949.
In Oakland, Wong Poy owned and operated grocery stores at two different locations at different times. He became a naturalized citizen in 1955 and took “James P. Wong” as his legal name. He felt that he had a comfortable life, made a good living, sent his children off to college and retired in his 70’s. He enjoyed gaming in Reno and Las Vegas, playing Mah Jong and, most of all, enjoyed watching his family thrive and grow.
Photos provided by Linda Lum.
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