by Erika Alvarez
Though many detained in the purgatory of Angel Island remember it with no great fondness, for Myron Wong, it was simply part of a boy’s great adventure. It brought the 10-year-old Wong Yao Nam from the mountainous Chinese province of Guandong across the sea to America to live with a father he had never met. It is an immigrant story that begins with ancestors; is triggered, as so many are, by war; is sprinkled with hardships and hard work; and ultimately ends well, with an old man looking back on a full and happy life.
Jim was prosperous enough that after a while he was able to send his wife and children back to China “to build a new home.” When it was done, he said, he would come back to the old country to visit. So Myron’s grandmother, father Wong Wah Sui, then four years old, and three aunties went back to China to see to the construction. The tragedy is that grandfather Jim Chu never did see the building—or his family—again. He died on the voyage home.
AMERICAN-BORN DAD, CHINESE-BORN SON
Myron isn’t sure when his dad, Jim Wong, made it back to America, but he’s sure it was the doing of an uncle still living in Selma. Apparently Jim had been in California long enough to learn the language, since he spoke both Chinese and English well, but he wasn’t able to find a Chinese wife there, so he returned home for a bride. He got married and had three children in short order: a girl; a boy, Myron’s older brother, Wong Yao Sing; and Wong Yao Nam (Myron). But he wasn’t able to stay long. As Myron puts it, “In China in the old days, you got nothing. House broken, fall down. [We were] Poor, poor…That’s why [his dad] had to go to a different country to try to make a living supporting the family.”
Jim Wong became a produce buyer in Fresno, “first for David Chow, buying produce for the big grocery stores. And then later, he and my other uncle opened Wong’s Produce.” Jim was able to send enough back during the thirties to support his family and send his sons to school, which was quite a privilege, Myron notes. “I went to school in China for about four years. I was lucky. A lot of [the other village kids] were 14 or 15 and in the same grade I was because they [rarely] had money to go.” He and his brother were quick learners, though, and took advantage of their opportunity.
FLEEING THE WAR IN CHINA
Myron remembers vividly when the Japanese started massive air strikes on China sometime in 1938 or 1939. “Bombs come and the first time, my mom and grandma not home. Just the three of us kids see the plane and we got scared. Oh, man! We ran up the mountain where we lived, afraid to come home.” Sometimes, there were three planes in one day, all aiming for the nearby train depot. “The [planes] flew so low, you could see the pilot…their leather head and everything.”
Fearing for her family, their mother wrote their father back in the U.S. “Unfortunately, discrimination in the old days” meant that neither she nor Myron’s sister (“not American-born Chinese” and women to boot) were welcome in America because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. But Jim Wong and an uncle from Fresno were able to secure her sons’ passage at least. “My mom took us from our village, by river, on a junk boat to Hong Kong,” where they waited until their uncle “got all of the papers ready to board the boat.” The boat in question was the SS President Coolidge, a luxury ocean liner famous for breaking speed records on trips between Japan and San Francisco. By 1940, the ship had been commissioned to help Americans fleeing Asia and Myron, his brother, and their uncle were on board.
ABOARD AN OCEAN LINER
They may have been crammed down in the bottom of the boat in steerage class, but the boys seemed to make the best of it. “That was our first time going anywhere!” They weren’t allowed on the upper decks with the first-class passengers but they roamed the parts where they were allowed. “We played everyday, shuffleboard and so forth.” En route, the ship anchored in Shanghai; Myron is sure on this detail because his uncle badly wanted to visit the city with a friend from the upper decks, and the young boys had to stay behind on the boat.
He smiles as he remembers his first encounter with a vending machine onboard the SS Coolidge: “My grandma gave us some dimes and nickels [from] when she was in America. And we didn’t know what a dime or a nickel was, but when we saw the candy machines on the ship, my brother says ‘Let’s try it!’ He put the money in there, pull it out, candy comes out! We got a big kick out of that! I still remember the candy: Mounds, with the coconut in the center. It was a lot of fun. I’ll never forget it!”
For the most part, it was a very smooth crossing, Myron says, “only one time it got real rough. I didn’t get no seasickness, but my brother did. I went upstairs and played by myself.”
PLAYING THE WAITING GAME
Upon arriving in the Bay Area in late summer 1940, after a journey lasting approximately 28 days, the youngsters were separated from their uncle and ferried over to Angel Island. They had a physical and were each assigned a bunk. They knew that at some point they would be questioned; another cousin back in China had coached them on the kinds of questions immigration officials were likely to ask as they attempted to ferret out “paper sons” and those who were not blood relatives of the American-born Chinese.
Questions like “Which way does your house face? How many steps are there to your front door? How many brothers and sisters do you have?” might have stymied some, but they didn’t bother Myron or his brother. “We were pretty smart as [children]. We were little men. We knew a lot of stuff. When you grow up in China, you grow up fast.”
That early maturity was probably also why the two boys didn’t feel scared there waiting on Angel Island, the only children surrounded by adults at least 20 years their senior. They had no reason to fear. They were American citizens already because their dad, who was waiting for them on the mainland, was born in this country. Not to mention, their dad was able to send them money and treats. “We used to like tomato ketchup, but you [needed] to pay extra for it. Special. My dad sent in the money so everyday, instead of [eating] the Chinese food they feed us, we ate dishes with tomato and ketchup.” Dad also sent a big box of oranges that went down well with their fellow detainees: “The people around us, they loved us. The oranges tasted…good and sweet.”
ADVENTURES ON THE ISLAND
Angel Island had no school for the children, so their time was their own. “When we finished eating breakfast, we go and play all day. We chase each other. We use the tennis ball to play basketball. When nighttime come, too early to sleep so we go downstairs to watch the grownups play pool. They shoot the jive with each other.” The grownups would tease the boys, he said, and “older people would tell ghost stories,” often ones about previous occupants who had hanged themselves over the shame of being refused entry into America. These spooky tales combined with the noise made by the building’s rackety old water pipes, would scare Myron a little if he woke up in the middle of the night.
One scare that no one could have predicted was the fire that broke out in the kitchen late one night during their stay. It quickly spread to the women’s dormitory and they were awakened by the guards coming to wake them, yelling “Fire!,” which they did not understand. With their bunks located close to the door, the two boys were among the first to hear the alarm. “The sky was so red. It looked like the fire was on our roof. Real red…It was dark and cold to death. The wind was blowing, too. Boy, we got so scared. So we ran and got a blanket and put our pants on and ran back outside again.”
They spent that night, and a couple of nights afterward, in the horse stables behind the dormitories, up the mountainside. They were allowed to return to their dorms after that, but with the kitchen destroyed, Myron remembers with a grin, they had to rely on canned army rations for a whole week.
It seems the fire delayed the boys’ interrogations as well, so they ended up spending about a month or six weeks on the island. Myron remembers two interviews. They took “my brother and I on this little boat and put us in one of those vans with the wires and everything to the office where they questioned us.” (The supporting documents apparently were stored over in San Francisco.) The brothers were quizzed separately in their native tongue. “To tell you the truth,” says Myron, “they didn’t ask me much.” He didn’t feel the interrogations were strange or weird. “That’s just the way of life, you know what I mean? What are you gonna do? You want to come to America, you’ve got to do what they ask you, to answer [the questions].”
REUNION WITH THEIR DAD
Shortly thereafter, Myron and his brother were reunited with the father they had never known. It was the first time he had laid eyes on them since they were babies. “We were so happy because we were going up,” remembers Myron. “It felt great. My dad, he was happy. We [couldn’t] say much. He put his arms around us and everything.”
Besides seeing the big city for a few days, “dad took us to the barbershop, cut our hair.” Myron also remembers being disappointed they weren’t able to visit the Treasure Island World Fair, which had been entertaining Bay Area residents and visitors for the previous two years. It closed for good on September 29, 1940—just “two days after they let us out,” he notes. Sometimes, the Angel Island detainees had been allowed to walk down to the beach to see the Fair’s fireworks across the bay and he remembers them shooting up high against the dark, night sky. They returned to Fresno shortly thereafter for their dad’s work.
A worn photo of a smiling Myron at age 11 unearths fond memories. He is on a dusty road next to an old pickup. It is summer 1941. “In the old days, before the war first start, in Santa Maria, they had a lot of Japanese tomato farms. So my dad hired this truck driver. He had a big truck.” Myron and the truck driver would head out from Fresno and “go pick up tomatoes…lettuce, potatoes, onions, everything.” Back then, the way from Fresno to Santa Maria was completely undeveloped. “[It was] dirt roads, all desert” as far as the eye could see and there was little in the way of entertainment. The irony was that Myron “couldn’t speak English or nothing at the time.” And his companion, the Armenian truck driver who delivered the vegetables and gifted him the photo “couldn’t speak Chinese…we had a lot of fun, though.”
These salad days of childhood were not to last, unfortunately. The family had been together little more than a year and a half in Fresno when America entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. According to Myron, Jim Wong contemplated active service, but settled for a job supplying produce to the U.S. Army in Los Angeles so he could stay close to his sons. The downside of this work meant that he traveled and would be away a lot, so he was relieved when his eldest son opted to stay behind in Fresno with his cousins. How to look after Myron while he was away was also a problem. And, well meaning though he was, the solution Jim Wong settled on proved profoundly humiliating for his younger son.
LONELY IN LOS ANGELES
Fourteen-and-a-half-year-old Myron would go to live with a rich, white family in an upscale neighborhood of Los Angeles and, in return for room and board, would work for them as a houseboy. “In the morning, I make coffee, make breakfast—toast, soft-boiled egg. I take it upstairs for them to eat. After they eat, I wash the dishes and go to school.” After school, he would help the lady of the house “cut the vegetables, things like that” to prepare the evening meal. He would then serve them the evening meal and wash the dishes. “The first week, I didn’t like it. I told the lady, ‘I’m too young to work.’ When I went back home, my dad said, ‘Hey, you go back!’ And that was it. In the old days, you have to obey your father. You don’t talk back.”
Myron worked seven days a week for the McKees. He had Sunday afternoons off, which he spent with his father or with friends playing ball and going to the movies “where the poor people live in the old days…over near 27th and San Pedro.” (He got Wednesday afternoons off as well, during summer vacation.) At John Burrow Junior High and later L.A. High, he had friends from many different backgrounds and ethnicities. “Only a few [were] Chinese.” One family, the Chans, was rich and owned an import-export business. Others were less well-off; their fathers ran laundries. He made friends with kids from all social strata, but he kept them at a distance.
He hid the fact that he had to dress up in Chinese clothes (“white shoes, white pants”) and answer to his Chinese name,Yao, not Myron. “I never wanted to get too close to be good friends because I didn’t want them to know where I lived. I [couldn’t] bring them to the house. Houseboy was an insult in the old days. A low-class insult.” He was invited to birthday parties of the lo fan (white friends), but politely declined. “Even with the Chinese, I keep secret.”
OUT ON HIS OWN
Myron quit working for the McKees as soon as he graduated from high school, shortly after the end of the war. “[It was] tough, I know. I lived through all of that stuff. Nobody went through what I [did].” The sad irony is that had his mother been allowed into the country when he came in in 1940, Myron wouldn’t have been farmed out to strangers. “I missed my mom…After the war, she didn’t want to come. She was too old and everything, you know, so she never did come.”
But Myron didn’t dwell on this sadness. “Even when I go to high school, I never feel angry about anything. That’s how life [is]. I believe in Chinese way, that the day you are born, you’re destined to be there. The way you’re going to be, you do the best you can.” When he left high school, he worked “first in wholesale produce at night in San Pedro for six or seven years.” Then he drove a truck for Thrifty Mart [later Smart & Final] to earn a living. “I worked for them for 15 years. Load up the produce from the dock and deliver it to the store. They got 19 stores when I started with them, when I quit they got 99.”
TIME FOR FAMILY AND A BUSINESS OF HIS OWN
In 1955, he settled down and married his wife, Irene. They had two children, Tina and Kirby, Kerwin. In the late sixties, he decided to open his own store, the Liquor Box, in Pasadena, near the site of the Rose Bowl. Selling alcohol and a few groceries was “good business. People came like crazy.” He remembers one night before the annual Rose Parade. “People at nighttime, they come to help with the flowers. They came to my store and they buy cake. A lot of young people, a lot of fun back then.” Sadly, progress meant the end of the Liquor Box. “They took the place down when they made the freeway.” He had had the Liquor Box for 13 years and was ready to retire.
Even now in retirement with two grandchildren, Casey and Dustin, friends try to get Myron to move to newer, fancier districts of Los Angeles—“Montery Park, Alhambra, all of them”—but he is happy in the same Mid City neighborhood. “I don’t want to move. You know what? I like this section because…when I get old, I can’t walk, I cannot drive, [but] I can take the bus. Right in front, I can go to Chinatown, the airport, everywhere. [I’m] right in the center. Hollywood. Beverly Hills. I love it. I still love it.”
RETURN TO ANGEL ISLAND
It was grandson Casey’s school project about his roots that inspired Myron to return to Angel Island for a visit in 2003; he took his entire family. “I wanted to show my kids what my experience was and how things looked, you know?” He found “almost everything empty, changed a lot, too.” Though he did recognize the floor where his bunk had been. “They took out the beds, but they still have the poles up there…and the three levels.”
He also noticed something that the young Myron hadn’t paid any attention to in 1940—“the words the people carved in.” This time around, he found the poetry on the walls of Angel Island dormitories “beautiful. See most of the [Chinese] people who came to America were all good, educated people. They knew how to write, so they put a lot of beautiful stuff up”—everything from their feelings about leaving China to their time in detention and even advice to future detainees to work hard to achieve their dreams.
Overall, Myron was glad he had made the trip north and had shared the experience with his family. “I think people should…know about it. You know, it’s history.”
Myron Wong and his brother were among the last immigrants to be processed at Angel Island. Two months after Myron’s stay, in the winter of 1940, the government closed down Angel Island Immigration Station for good.
Place of Origin
Place of Settlement
Los Angeles, CA