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William Tom (birth name Fong Cum Check, paper name Tom Yuck Sang) immigrated from Hoiping, Guangdong, China, to the US as a young student. After passing through AI, he served in WWII and pursued an education under the GI Bill. He became an optometrist and Chinese American community leader in Los Angeles.
William Tom is a retired Monterey Park optometrist. He is also known as Fong Cum Check, his real name, and Tom Yuck Sang, his paper name. Born in March 1922 in Song Yun Chyun 桑園村, Tong Hau 塘口, near Chek Ham 赤坎 in Hoi Ping 開平 county, Guangdong 廣東 province, People’s Republic of China 中國. From a family of merchants, William was the youngest son in a family of five sons and two daughters.
Hoi Ping (pronounced Kai Ping in Mandarin) is famous for their Diaolou (watchtowers). The Diaolou were fortress tower-like buildings constructed as defensive structures. The 1920s and 1930s presented a booming opportunity for builders and home improvement suppliers as returning emigrants bringing back fortunes they made in the U.S. and other countries built their Diaolou to protect their families and fortunes from bandits. Taking advantage of this boom in building was William’s father, Fong Fu Juk . Fu Juk owned a home improvement store, “just like Home Depot,” in Tong Hau, selling concrete and other building supplies.
Early in William’s life, when he was 9 or 10 years old, his father bought “paper son” papers for $2000 American money from the Tom family. The civil war in China, the Japanese invasion of neighboring Manchuria and the looming war with Japan prompted William’s father to purchase papers to send his son to the United States. His father was hoping that opportunities for an education and work would be better in the U.S. His father understood the benefits and needs for an education, as his family was well educated.
At around 13 years old, William was sent to Canton (Guangzhou) to learn English and prepare for his trip to the U.S. There he stayed with his 2nd older brother who was attending college. At the same time his father passed away. It was at this time that he learned about buying false papers and the “paper son” process. William spent a month at the Tom’s house, studying the Haau Gyun (literally translated: exam paper) or coaching book his father bought from the Tom family, memorizing details of the Tom family, their house and other habits. Even at the age of 13, William was very good at memorizing the details of the coaching book. He even learned what types of food they ate for breakfast.
In August 1937, one month after the Japanese invaded China, a young, courageous William Tom left China for the United States. Japanese bombers had bombed Nanking and Shanghai. He secretly departed by boat from Hoi Ping for Hong Kong with his older “paper brother,” Jack Tom. His father had paid $90 for his passage on the ship S. S. President Hoover to the United States, this included room and board. The trip included stops in Shanghai, Japan and Hawaii.
The ride, he says, was “Not that bad. Not that bad you know. But the voyage took 19 days, a long time.”
At this time Fong Cum Check became Tom Yuck Sang (aka William Tom), a “paper son.”
Their ship, the S. S. President Hoover was bombed when it docked in Shanghai, not by the Japanese, but by the Chinese Air Force. Their ship was mistaken for a Japanese ship. Fortunately, most of the bombs missed and only one person was killed and a few were injured. Interestingly, one of the crew members on the SS President Hoover was Robert McNamara; the Secretary of Defense under President John Kennedy. He was a student working in a summer job at that time.
Aboard the ship, William was fed Chinese food. He slept on a hammock.
He recalls that, “the food was not bad, what do you expect for $90.” The living conditions were OK and according to William, “For[a] Chinese [from China it was] ok. At that time as long as they’re living, that’s good.”
William was the only one in his family to leave Hoi Ping for the United States. His mother and his 2nd older brother stayed in the village and ran the business after his father passed away. It was too expensive to send anyone else. William had 5 brothers and one sister, two of the brothers and his sister had died before he left for the United States. Despite being alone, William was not afraid; in fact he was happy to leave and was looking forward to his trip to the United States.
Waiting for him in the United States was his “paper father,” the person William’s father purchased the papers from. When William arrived in San Francisco, California, his first stop was Angel Island. Though he did not remember too much of what happened at Angel Island, he did recall that it was not a bad experience. He was interrogated on his first day. He remembers being interrogated in an office once or twice. They began by asking him where he grew up and details about where he slept in the “paper family’s” house. During the interrogation there were two officers and one interpreter.
William recalls, “they asked you what’s your name, what’s your father’s name, your brother’s name, what village you come from, how many people [lived] in [your] the village, how many houses and something like that you know. Simple things you know. In Haau Gyun (coaching book), I had to know everything. How many house[s] in the [village]. Who lived there and that sort. But they just asked the simple thing, not the [complicated things].”
Each session lasted an hour or two. William remembers people staying at Angel Island for one or two years because they did not answer the questions correctly.
It was not until he reached Angel Island that he began to feel lonely. William remembers sleeping in bunk beds at the Angel Island Detention Center. His living quarters consisted of all immigrant Chinese, “one section men and one section women.” There were lots of young people and most, if not all, spoke Cantonese or Hoeng Haa the country dialect. There were restrictions including being confined to certain areas. He remembers playing basketball a lot as there was nothing to read or do.
Altogether he spent approximately one to two months at Angel Island. He remembers being treated fairly. They got two meals a day and lots of vegetables and tofu.
Again, “the food was not that bad compared [to] the standard Chinese [cooking].” He believed that most of the immigrants were young boys and as he put it, “Most Chinese come from the villages in Toisan, Hoi Ping, Sun Wui and Chungsan [the farm areas in] China. So compare to [the rural cooked] Chinese meal, it’s not that bad.”
In San Francisco, William and his “paper brother”, Jack Tom, went their separate ways. William, happy to have been released from Angel Island, united with his cousin, a grocery store owner in San Francisco Chinatown. There he lived and worked with a cot to sleep on at the store. But William was still happy to be in the U.S.
He attended a special class for Chinese boys at Washington Irving School in the North Beach area of San Francisco during the day and earned $10 a month after school working at the Man Fung Huo grocery store. After one year at Washington Irving, he transferred to a junior high school.
After working approximately a year at the grocery store, William became a houseboy and earned $25 a month, good wages for the time. He found the job reading an English newspaper. Chores included washing dishes and cleaning the house. He now had an opportunity to learn and improve his English. The employer’s house was located in the Nob Hill District on Washington St. in San Francisco. The employer, a judge from a French family, named DeLore, treated William very well and included his room and board.
After 2 years of working as a houseboy and as William was graduating from junior high school, World War II began for the United States. Prior to the war it was difficult to find work, but the war created a number of opportunities for the Chinese, including William. He quit high school and learned to be a welder. He found work at a shipyard in Richmond, California earning $1 an hour. William was about 18 or 19 years old. At the shipyard, overtime pay abounded. He would work up to 12 hours a day and on “Sundays you get paid $1 in addition to the $1 per hour.”
When William turned 21 with the war still going on, he volunteered and joined the Army Air Force, becoming an aircraft painter painting B-24s and DC-3s (the military designation was the C-47 Skytrain). William got his basic training at La Junta, Colorado along with hundreds of other Chinese. It was “Just like Chinatown,” he recalls. He couldn’t become a pilot as a high school diploma or a college degree was required. After the war, William was discharged honorably from the Army Air Corp.
The war presented William with the financial opportunity he needed to afford better education and subsequently a better life for him and his future family. He says, “I learn my lesson from the army because I had no high school diploma. So I had to go back to school.” He went to junior college to get his high school diploma. After getting his diploma, he wanted to study Engineering, but after a couple years he changed to Optometry. Upon finishing at San Francisco City College, he applied and got accepted to the Illinois College of Optometry in Chicago, Illinois. With the help of the GI Bill ($40 per month) and some hard work, William successfully graduated and became an Optometrist.
William considered initially working in New York, San Francisco and Oakland, but felt that the greater opportunity was to work in Los Angeles. There, he worked for the U.S. Army as an optometrist for 6 months. After the stint with the Army he went to work at the Los Angeles General Hospital. In 1954 while still working at L.A. General, he opened his own practice in L.A. Chinatown (on North Broadway).
It was in Los Angeles in 1956 where William met and married his wife, a third generation native. As William says, “My grandchildren will be 5th generation.” He has one son, Wesley and one daughter, Jacqueline. His daughter is currently a housewife and his son-in-law is a surgeon practicing in Santa Clarita, California. His son Wesley, currently a graduate of UC Berkeley, has taken over the optometry business.
In 1960 William was able to help his oldest brother and his family immigrate to the United States from Hong Kong. He never saw his mother again after leaving Hoi Ping in 1937. She passed away in the 1980’s.
William continued to work in Los Angeles until his retirement in 2002. He lives in Monterey Park, California. He revisited Angel Island about 10 years ago while he was President of the Los Angeles Chinese American Citizen Alliance, a civil rights group. He was very active in registering voters and helping elect Chinese candidates for political offices. He returned to his village in Hoi Ping on several occasions; he even brought his grandchildren to visit so that they could learn about their heritage. No one lives in the village now. His nephews, former residents of Hoi Ping, have since vacated the village having immigrated to Canada and the U.S.
With William completing optometry school and obtaining a degree, he has fulfilled his father’s wish to provide an education for his son. This ultimately provided him the opportunity to create a better life for himself and his children.
This story was written by Steve Kwok based on an interview by Roy Chan with William Tom in Monterey Park California on March 15, 2012.
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