Combining American know-how with a Chinese legacy
Jade Snow Wong has never forgotten the Chinese proverb her father was fond of quoting: "When you drink water, think of its source." In all her fields of endeavor -- as a distinguished ceramist and author, as an active participant in community affairs, as a wife and mother of four children --she has followed her father's advice well.
For tourists and art lovers, the bright blue awning that bears her signature and hangs over her small shop on Polk Street is a familiar sight. Inside are Miss Wong's highly prized handmade pottery, an assortment of Chinese imports, and the select travel agency from which she and her husband, Woodrow Ong, lead occasional tours to the Far East.
Countless others who have never been to San Francisco or even the United States know her from her two autobiographies, "Fifth Chinese Daughter," published by Harper & Row in 1950, and "No Chinese Stranger," which followed it 25 years later. The first, a now-classic account of San Francisco's Chinatown during the 1920s, '30s, and early '40s, was published in 25 languages and is still available in both hard cover and paperback (Harper Crest). "No Chinese Stranger" takes up where the first left off, recounting her marriage to Mr. Ong, their travels in Asia, and their struggle to nurture both an expanding business and four growing children.
Shortly after its publication. "Fifth Chinese Daughter" was translated into Chinese and serialized in Hong Kong newspapers. But the story of a working-class Chinese-American female who had managed to work her way through an exclusive women's college, become a successful potter, and then write a book about it was hard for many Chinese to accept.
"In 1950 no one had heard of women's lib or ethnic lib," recalls the tall, slender Miss Wong as she takes a break from her busy routine in the shop. "But I never let those concerns stop me from what I wanted to do. However, for someone in Hong Kong to learn that a poor Chinese woman had written a best seller and started her own business was something nearly impossible to believe. So in 1953 the State Department sent me through several Asian countries on a speaking tour. They wanted to show that I wasn't just American propaganda."
The extended tour, during which Miss Wong met dignitaries, family members, and fellow potters, led to the establishment of the travel business. The Ongs, who were among the first to tour China when it opened to Americans in the early '70s, now take tour groups on month-long excursions which, not surprisingly, emphasize the nation's art treasures.
On one of her first trips to China, Jade Snow Wong visited the ancestral village that her father had left 70 years earlier. "There I met two relatives, including my father's niece, who was in her 90s. She lived in a dark loft and had the bound feet of old China. To meet them produced quite an emotional impact, but I could also see why my father had left. There was no opportunity at all, not even electricity or the barest comforts. I could also see why my mother now has no desire to return."
In Chinatown Miss Wong's father established a small overalls factory, which was also where his wife and eight children called home. As the fifth-born daughter, she was regarded as of little importance, painfully learning at an early age that privileges and expectations were reserved for sons. Still, she was given a rigorous education that included attending Chinese school for several hours after the regular school day ended.
Learning how to speak Cantonese with an impeccable accent and to appreciate China's artistic heritage proved to be time well spent, she says.So much so that her own children were required to spend six years studying their ancestral language and culture.
"They protested, but now the older ones are glad that they can converse with their grandmother," she says. "A lot of young Chinese-Americans who profess to be rediscovering their heritage do not know the language. It's an interest, like anything else worthwhile, that requires a lot of sacrifice."
From her interest in Chinese art came an interest in creating pottery based on classical Chinese designs, some of which is now in the permanent collection of major museums, including the Metropolitan in New York. Her one-woman shows and participation in group exhibitions have been featured in museums and galleries around the world.
Miss Wong did not fully realize her talent and interest in ceramics until she took a fine arts course to fill a requirement during her senior year in college. Immediately after graduation in 1942 she went to work in a shipyard office to help with the budding war effort.
When she finally did start to earn her living at the potter's wheel, she did so in the shop window of a local merchant. As craftspeople were far less common in the 1940s than they are today, she instantly drew a crowd of curious onlookers. "No one in Chinatown cold believe that a college graduate would be so crazy as to do work that got her hands dirty," she says.
After working around the clock to get the fledgling business started, she wrote several magazine articles about her life's story and then completed "Fifth Chinese Daughter." The success of it both surprised and impressed Chinatown and, most gratifying of all, her parents.
In 1976 the story reached television viewers through a film called "Jade Snow ," which PBS made as part of a series on the American immigrant experience. Miss Wong, who acted as technical adviser and chose the actress to play the title role, was the only living American portrayed in the series. The film is now widely available to schools and libraries, which may partly account for the many field trips that schoolchildren make to the shop on Polk Street.
She laments the fact that few Asian-Americans, Maxine hong Kingston being a notable exception, have taken up the pen to write of their experience. "I'm surprised that there aren't more writers, especially when there is such a crying need for understanding between the two cultures," she says. "One reasons for it may be economic. My father's generation was too busy trying to survive. My generation has felt the pressure to go into professions where they could make money steadily. Because most Chinese support their elderly parents, their financial needs are especially pressing."
In her own experience, writing "No Chinese Stranger" had been a tremendous challenge because of her dual concerns of family and business. "Fortunately, a friend loaned me an apartment," she recalls. "I had to leave home, shut myself away for a few months, and write continuously in order to get the book done."
As the book reveals, the Ong household functioned as a cooperative unit during the years when both the children and the business were growing. The two sons and two daughters all had a hand in cooking, housekeeping, and helping in the shop after school. Eldest son Deng Ming Dao, now an acclaimed artist, even contributed by illustrating his mother's second book with stunning block prints.
It is also the story of a family enjoying the benefits of being both American and Chinese. "It's a real advantage to have two cultures," says Mis Wong. "My children love knowing both. We have double holidays and double enrichment. My kids have been exposed to a wider variety of food, sports, art, and other types of culture because of it."
For their mother, contact with the world outside of Chinatown had been much more limited. "When I was growing up my whole world was Chinatown. We might venture out to shop at a department store, but then we would always hurry right back to our territory. But for my children life has been much more diversified. We do not live in Chinatown, but they still feel a part of it. They can go there and enjoy it and yet not be bound to it as I was."
Miss Wong believes that Chinese-Americans, despite the fact that many now live in integrated suburbs, need to make themselves more visible to the larger society. "I try to get Chinese people out of the community and to stop slinking around with a low profile," she says. "It's necessary if the greater majority are to see what they have to offer rather than still being caught up in the old Charlie Chan stereotype."
But her call for greater visibility does not include making militant demands. "A new generation of Chinese have learned from the civil rights movement to make noise, but I don't think that gets you very far.I believe far more in practicing Chinese wisdom than I do in noisemaking. For one thing, you can't shout your way into people's living rooms, you have to be invited. Respect has to be earned."
For Jade Snow Wong, earning respect has clearly started with her own deep respect for her Chinese legacy. With plenty of American know-how, she has used it for the enrichment of herself and others.