I never really thought much about my Asian American upbringing before college. I remember Chinese lessons with my grandpa in elementary school, eating dim sum with my family on the weekend, receiving red envelopes, lai see, for the New Year — bits and pieces of memories here and there that alluded to my heritage.
When you drink the water, remember the spring.
This is a quote my grandpa said in a video made in 2000 where he talked about his journey to America from Hong Kong. It’s a Chinese proverb that means remember your roots and your heritage.
I grew up in Clifton, NJ, a town that was ranked 25th in cultural diversity in the United States, and I attended a high school where 68% of students were people of color. In contrast with many people of color who grew up in towns that were not diverse, I never felt out of place in Clifton, and I never gave a second thought about who I was as an Asian American.
But when I started college at Syracuse University, my experience was a stark reminder that the United States is nowhere near a “post-racial” society. My four years at SU have seen several racist incidents that have made national headlines that reflect the tense political and social climate the United States faces. The silver lining to these incidents of hate is that I have connected deeply with my identity as an Asian American (cliché, I know, but necessary!). As a freshman, I participated in the WellsLink Leadership Program, a first-year program for students of color. I joined the Filipino Student Association when it was created when I was a sophomore. I studied abroad in Hong Kong as a junior, and I served on the Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month planning committee.
With the spread of COVID-19 around the world, Asian Americans have suffered inexcusable hatred and racism, hatred and racism that have been embedded in American society for decades, compounding the fallacy that Asian Americans don’t belong here — that we’re “other.” This, and the arrival of May, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, solidified my resolve to explore the roots that made not only my life possible but the lives of my cousins, aunts, and uncles.
As my aunt said, my grandpa was as American as any white person, even more so. He valued his citizenship and voted in every major election. She said,
He was ahead of his time, always admired women achievers, and was sure that anyone — even a woman — could be president of the United States of America. He always told me I could be anything I wanted. He was such a believer in America as the land of opportunity because he felt it paid him back, regardless of the racial discrimination he faced.
It doesn’t matter if your grandparents, your parents, or you came here. Asian Americans are a vital part of America’s story in the past, the present, and the future. And we all have stories to tell. Here is my grandparents’ story, a story that echoes the stories of millions of Asian Americans in the United States.
It all started in Hong Kong in 1916
My grandpa, Robert Ho Wong, was born in British Hong Kong in 1916. He had a brother two years older than him. My grandpa studied English at St. Joseph’s Catholic school and studied Chinese music throughout his childhood. His father and uncle operated a hotel and restaurant.
My grandpa, a storekeeper, and his brother, a mechanic, both worked for Siemens Brothers & Co. to install the telephone system in Hong Kong for the first time. After two years, the construction work was completed, and my grandpa took on a job as an assistant in the canteen working for a commissary that provided resources for British servicemen in the navy, army, and airforce. He was then promoted to manager, and after this stint, he took on a role at an office as a clerk, making less than $1 US a day.
Joining the opera
Soon after, his friend introduced him to a theatrical opera, where my grandpa became a musician. He traveled around Hong Kong and China for six months until the opera disbanded. Then there was another opera group headed to Honolulu, which hired him as a musician and actor, although my grandpa noted that he had never acted besides in a few school plays.
His mother was reluctant to let him go, but after much convincing, my grandpa departed to Honolulu in 1938 — a year where no airplanes were making flights across the Pacific Ocean to the United States. With a group of 40 people, my grandpa made his journey to Hawaii aboard the SS President Wilson, an American passenger ship. According to my grandpa, the whole group was excited to visit Hawaii, despite their seasickness on the ship.
After two years of beautiful weather and meeting hospitable people in Honolulu (my grandpa’s words), my grandpa returned to Hong Kong. However, a few months after his return, another opera group was headed to New York, and he was hired as an actor.
My grandpa’s father saw him off as he left for the US again, and my grandpa described it as an emotional moment because he didn’t know if he would see his father again. To that day, the day my grandpa recorded his video in 2000, he regretted not expressing his gratitude to his father.
En route to NY, my grandpa had ambitions to be in the import-export business. It took 21 days in September 1939 to make the journey with 45 other people in the group. In NY, they stayed at the immigration office for a few days to make sure their travel documents were in check.
In NY, the opera group put on shows that attracted large audiences. They were five-hour shows from 7 pm — 12 am. During the day, my grandpa spent his time working at a restaurant and studying English part-time.
Moving around the United States
In December 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. After President Roosevelt declared war on Japan, my grandpa and his friends enrolled in defense training. He heard that his family in China escaped the invasion by the Japanese, but his father died at 54 years old in Wai Jau, where he was born. As the war went on, many of his friends were discharged.
One of my grandpa’s cousins operated a restaurant in Washington, DC, and asked him to join him as a partner and help manage the place. The restaurant offered alcohol and food. In the 1940s, racism was rampant in the United States against Asians and Asian Americans during WWII. He and his cousin used to get into fights with American soldiers in the area. These soldiers even used to spit on them.
After a few years in the business, when WWII ended, he sold his stake in the restaurant and stayed on the East Coast in the New York area. He did odd jobs including newspaper printing, going to Rhode Island to wait on tables, and then working in a bakery. At the same time, my grandpa took night classes at the School of General Studies at Columbia University.
One day, a Columbia University educator organized a Chinese cultural group to perform in public schools in New Jersey. The program consisted of a group that would explain Chinese history, civilization, written language, and music. Three Columbia graduates were hired, and my grandpa was hired to explain the theory of Chinese music and to play a song on the butterfly harp.
Every morning, my grandpa woke up at 5 am to take a train to NJ for the sessions at the schools, where he was paid around $60 a month. The culture group expanded, and it was a great experience that gave him an understanding of the NJ public school system.
The combination of working multiple jobs and going to school strained his health. A doctor found a spot on his lung, so my grandpa traveled to upstate NY to rest. The doctor told him to take care of himself and live his life to the fullest — words he took seriously and never forgot.
After running out of work, my grandpa took a train to San Francisco, where most of his friends lived. Apparently, he took the worst spot on the train because he barely had any money.
In San Francisco, my grandpa wanted to get into the import-export business, which was a dream of his. He contacted his brother in Hong Kong and started a business transferring merchandise between Hong Kong and the Bay Area. He continued to manage the business throughout the Korean war which effectively stopped all import-export activities.
(Fun fact: He used to work for an illegal keno parlor in San Francisco’s Chinatown and was arrested at one point when it was busted. Talk about badass.)
My grandpa then went to visit Seattle, where his friend, Bruce Lee’s uncle, lived. After a car accident where his friend flipped the car down a mountain, he decided it was not the place for him. At this point, he had no money, so my grandpa moved back to New York with his friends, a married couple, who had experienced a tragedy. They all wanted a fresh start. He was the only one who could drive, so he did the entire trip by himself when there was no Route 80.
My grandpa arrived in Morristown, NJ, where he worked as a manager for an old friend who operated a popular restaurant. He took a business course at Columbia on his days off. However, in 1952, after around 14 years in the US, he was now a US citizen and felt homesick.
My grandpa traversed the ocean again to return to Hong Kong to see his mother, brother, and other family members. While living with his family, his mother told him it was time to consider having a family. Coincidentally, a few days later, my grandpa met my grandma.
A rent collector was the common link between the two of them. My grandma is originally from Diem Bok, a remote village north of Hainan Island on the edge of Guangdong province, and escaped the Japanese occupation to live with her sister in Hong Kong.
Back to the US
They were married within a year of his return to Hong Kong. But he made his way back to the US once again because his visa was expiring, and he worked for a friend, Henry Lam, until my grandma joined him.
My grandparents moved to 128 Rivington Street in New York City. He worked in a restaurant while my grandma worked in the garment district. During this time in NY, my three aunts were born.
While living in NY, Henry Lam asked my grandpa to be a partner in a new restaurant, the House of Lam. And this is where our story in NJ starts. My grandpa moved to NJ in 1956, and in the next 10 years, my uncle and my dad were born.
My grandpa ran the restaurant for 20 years and became its sole owner. When the owner of the property sold, he found a vacant restaurant property that was more spacious and had more parking. And it was located 500 feet away from the old restaurant. He ran the restaurant for 8 years until most of his children had graduated from college, and he sold the business in 1983 and retired.
My grandpa went on to live a full and exciting life filled with travel and family. Over the course of four decades, 11 grandchildren were born, my sister and I being the last in 1997. My childhood was filled with big family outings and pieces of our Chinese heritage interwoven in our get-togethers, instilling my identity of being Asian American from the very beginning, even if I didn’t know it then.
But now I see who I am more clearly than ever. It’s no longer an opaque mirage that I can’t make out. Tracing my grandpa’s steps from Hong Kong to the United States has been an enlightening experience getting to know where my family came from and what made us who we are today.
It’s amazing to see how this journey, like the journeys of countless Asian immigrants who crisscrossed the world to start anew and build a foundation on foreign soil, evolved into this intricate family tree with so much history. The beauty of this country is that there is an innumerable number of families with these foundations too. The struggles and difficulties of those before us have made our lives not only possible but filled with opportunity.
With COVID ushering in racism and xenophobia against Asians and Asian Americans, it’s also critical to be aware that the torrent of epithets hurled at us isn’t new. In fact, it’s as American as apple pie. The contradiction of America, the “melting pot,” and racist, xenophobic America is painful.
But that’s what makes it all the more important for people like me to remember the spring. Asian immigrants who have been here for almost a century are as American as they get, and Asian immigrants who have just settled here also embody what it means to belong here. People like us continue to make this country great.
I’ll continue to keep this story alive because it’s a part of who I am. It’s also a stark reminder that moving forward, if we don’t remember the spring — our heritage — it’ll be lost.
A big thank you to my Aunt Margie who helped me bring this story together!