ADNAsian AmericanFeatureStory

Opportunity in Every Hurdle

Karen Weliky
Karen Weliky / The Immigrant Story

Ng Lai Goon, eager to fit in with her American grade school peers, chose her American name, Sally, from an elementary school reading primer,  at the urging of her older siblings, Tom, Dick, Jane, Sam, and Butch, who had already given themselves “American” names.

“When I was going to start school in first grade,” she explains, “my brothers told me I needed to change my Chinese first name, Lai Goon, to an American name or I would be teased and called a goon! So they showed me some names in a book and I chose Sally. I liked the sound of it. Sally.”

The youngest of seven children, Sally Wong was born in 1929, in San Antonio,Texas, to Chinese immigrant parents, Ng Lin Don and Ng Gin Shee.

“My parents came from the Canton area,” Wong says. “They were poor farmers — peasants. Like many Chinese from that area, they were looking for a better life. My grandfather and father came first, sometime in the early 1900s. My mother, grandmother and a baby brother came later in 1919.”

To be able to immigrate here they purchased falsified documents and identifications  from Chinese families whose relatives were American citizens,  because the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely restricted immigration of Chinese to the United States,  only allowing entry to children of American citizens, teachers, students, some merchants and tourists.  Aimed at keeping out Chinese laborers, these restrictions lasted 61 years after several extensions and alterations to the original Exclusion Act. It  was finally repealed in 1943 with the passage of the Magnuson Act, which set a quota of only 105 Chinese immigrants annually. 

Along with hundreds of thousands of other Chinese immigrants entering in this way, they were nicknamed “paper sons and paper daughters.”

As Wong remembers: “I was told that, thankfully, my mother, brother and grandmother were detained at Angel Island (the federal immigration station in San Francisco) for only two weeks and did not feel mistreated. This was lucky.”

Some immigrants were interrogated and detained for months or years, sometimes under squalid conditions. 

“I also had an older sister who was born in China and was left there to live with relatives,” Wong says. “Finally, in 1927, when she was 16, my parents purchased papers for her and sent for her to come live with our family.”

Wong sighs sadly, “I don’t think she ever got over being left behind.”

The family settled in San Antonio, Texas because distant relatives who had settled there told her parents there were a lot fewer Chinese in Texas and so it was safer. Plus, there was more opportunity to open businesses, such as a grocery store.

“It was not a hassle there for Chinese like it was in California, where prejudice was much more prevalent,” Wong explains. “In San Antonio, Chinese were pretty much left alone to run their businesses and provide for their families.”

Wong’s father and grandfather found work as laborers until they saved enough money to open their own grocery store and purchase papers to bring their wives to the U.S. Then, in 1927, they had saved enough money to buy land and build a two-story brick building. 

“They built it all by themselves,” Wong says. “Everything had to be paid for with cash because Chinese were not allowed to take out bank loans at that time. Our grocery store was on the lower part and we lived above the store. It was very comfortable. There was also a one-story outbuilding where my father rented out several smaller apartments.” 

Sketch of the San Antonio, Texas grocery store built of brick by hand by Wong’s grandfather and father in 1927. Photo Credit: Wong Family Archives

Wong remembers her childhood in San Antonio fondly.

“After school, I would sometimes work at the store,” she says. “But because my parents were so busy, I was also free to explore the city. I remember spending summer days with one of my Chinese girlfriends. We would go to the San Antonio library and check out a huge stack of books. Behind the library was the San Antonio River. We would sit on the grassy hill by the river, reading and dipping our feet in the cold water. It felt so good.” 

“There weren’t a lot of Chinese in San Antonio, so there wasn’t a real Chinatown,”  Wong continues. “But there was the Chinese school that we went to every day after regular school, and there were other Chinese families that were our friends.” 

“We lived in a mainly Mexican community,” she says, “so our grocery store catered to the Mexican population. We carried beans, rice, meat, lard, coffee, fruits and vegetables. At my primary school, the other kids were mostly Mexican, maybe a few Caucasians, and very few Chinese. I was friends with the kids in school and never felt any harm. But after school, we all went our separate ways.”

Wong remembers her mother telling her, “Don’t go where you are not wanted.”  

“We were kind of invisible as Chinese because there were so few of us. There was prejudice but not outward discrimination,” she recalls. “We kind of lived separate lives.” 

Wong tells of watching her family work seven days a week with no breaks, no family vacations, or outings to restaurants.

“I remember my grandfather saying over and over to us, ‘You’d better work hard, better save your money, better do well in school, because no one is ever going to give you anything — or you won’t even have watermelon rind to eat!’”

Sally’s mother, Gin Shee, and all seven children. Sally is the youngest (in the front row). In the back row are her older sister, Janie, and brother, Dick, who were born in China. Dick immigrated with her mother as a baby. Jane came later at age 16. Left to right siblings middle row: Tom, Sam, Butch and Jane. Photo Credit: Wong Family Archives

In high school, Wong’s social circle still revolved around the Chinese school and the local Chinese youth social club, the Young Chinese League.

“We had a lot of fun in the club,” she remembers. “This is where we met boys, had dances and made lots of friends.”

After high school graduation in 1947, Sally moved in with her older sister’s family in Houston and worked in their grocery store. World War II had ended, the Chinese Exclusion Act had been repealed in 1943, and even though Chinese were now allowed to become citizens, Sally remembers there were still exclusions and restrictions for Chinese residents. 

“I was very active in the Dragoneers social club in Houston for young Chinese. I made friends that lasted my whole life there,” recalls Wong. “It was a place I felt safe and accepted. It really helped me with my confidence. It felt like home.”

(Last year, Sally attended a 70th reunion of the Dragoneers club in Houston with 25 members attending, all in their 90s.)

Wong knew she did not want to be in the grocery business with its long hours.

“In those days,” she says, “a Chinese girl was supposed to marry at age 18 and spend her life raising a large family, and I did not want to do that.” 

She decided to go to college, instead, graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with a bachelor of fine arts.  

Meanwhile, Wong and two of her girlfriends from the Dragoneers, looking to meet potential husbands, traveled to Philadelphia to a Chinese Christian Conference. While on that trip, they went to a dance at a Chinese social club in New York City, where she met her future husband, Allen Wong. After she returned to San Antonio, she and Allen, a successful graphic designer in New York,  kept in touch with cards and letters. She saved them all and shows off the beautiful, funny cards that Alan lovingly created for her. 

Celebrating in a club in Canada with friends. Sally on the right. The two girls on the left are her best friends who traveled with her to the East Coast where she met Allen (not in this photo). Photo Credit: Wong Family Archives

“Here’s one,” she says, holding up the first page of a small booklet with a drawing of a large-headed stick figure sharpening a huge pile of pencils. “It says ‘A Day in the Life of a PS,’ which stands for Pencil Sharpener.” As she turns the next five pages, she describes the card, “Here you see the PS carrying the huge pile of sharpened pencils to distribute. Then he trips over a ball and falls over. The pencils fly in the air, but it’s OK because they land in the shape of Chinese characters which say ‘I Love You’ in Chinese.”  

Wong smiles.  “I fell in love through his letters,” she says.

The couple married in Houston in 1954 and began their life in New York. Wong worked as a fashion illustrator for the sewing pattern companies, Simplicity and Butterick, and for Mays Department Store, drawing pictures of apparel for advertisements in newspapers and magazines. 

Allen and Sally Wong in 1985. Photo credit: Wong Family Archives

After their son and daughter were born, Wong left her job as an illustrator to raise the children until they were old enough to go to school. By the time she was able to return to work, photographs were taking the place of hand-drawn illustrations, so she followed her passion to a new career.

“One day, I saw a story in the newspaper requesting donations to aid local families in need,” she remembers. “I decided I would like to be someone who helps those families. So I looked into it and went back to school to be a social worker. You have to change with whatever is out there. If what you’re doing isn’t usable anymore, you have to think about what you can do.” 

In 1966, she enrolled in the social work master’s degree program at Hunter College in New York City.

About that time, a friend who was an art professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis recruited Allen to join him and develop a graphic arts program at the university. Allen, who grew up in Portland and was ready to move back to Oregon to be closer to his family, relished the idea of living in a smaller town. So, in 1967,  after completing one year of a two-year program, Wong put her social work degree on hold, and the family moved to Corvallis.

“Our family was happy in Corvallis. I missed city life and the ethnic diversity of New York, but I adjusted,” Sally says. “And Allen loved being at the university and realized he loved teaching. He became a mentor to a lot of students, and they loved him. We finally had a house with a yard and room for the children to play. But I feel sometimes they might have done better living around more diversity, like we had in New York. In Corvallis at that time, almost everyone was white.”  

The unspoken segregation in Corvallis took a toll on her children’s social lives and self esteem, Sally recalls with sorrow.

“I can’t forget how helpless I felt when my daughter was the only little girl in her class not invited to a classmate’s birthday party,” she says.

After taking a year off to get the family settled, Wong completed the last year of her social work master’s degree at Portland State University. She worked at jobs in Corvallis, eventually working in the Oregon State University counseling center for 19 years.

Sally’s graduation from Portland State University with a master’s degree in social work (1969) . Photo Credit: Wong Family Archives

The Wong family enjoyed trips to Portland to visit with Allen’s relatives. Here there was a booming Chinatown where Allen’s brother owned the iconic Hung Far Low restaurant, whose sign was declared a historic landmark after the restaurant closed in 2015.

After retirement, the couple moved to Portland in 2007 to be closer to family and to their son in Seattle. Allen’s calligraphy art, for which he became well-known, was a featured  exhibit at the Portland Chinatown Museum. Allen died in 2014, and Wong still lives in their Portland house, travels, helps to register people to vote, and has been a docent at the Portland Chinatown Museum.

“I try to walk around my neighborhood every day, probably about one mile”, Wong says, “It’s important to keep moving.”

Sally and Allen with children Lisa and Tom in 1975. Photo Credit: Wong Family Archives

A passionate social worker at heart, she tells the story of how she changed the life of a neighbor she met while on these walks.

“I often used to stop and talk to a very nice woman who lived around the corner,” she says. “One day she was very upset because her rent was being almost doubled and she was going to have to move. And she even has a good job, too! I suggested she live in the lower floor of my house, for a small monthly fee to cover utilities and such, if she would promise to save her extra money to buy a house someday. After four years she has saved up enough money to buy herself a house. I am really happy for her.”

When asked if there is anything she would like to say about her long and full life, Wong responds: “I hope people will start to understand that being different isn’t a bad thing. When you meet all kinds of people and have all kinds of experiences, your life is enriched — it really is. You learn from others. That’s what makes living in the U.S. so great. We do have so many different kinds of people living in this country. Every time you learn something new, it enhances your life.”

3 thoughts on “Opportunity in Every Hurdle

  1. A very nice family stories Sally. It’s nice to write or have someone help you write about the past. Great job.

  2. Sally, you have given us a wonderful story filled with love, humor and optimism. Your experiences facing prejudices influence your actions combatting all social injustice. You find hope in accepting those who are different and learning from them.

  3. Aunt Sally, Thank you for the glimpse into the past and your family history of which I am a part. Now events are immortalized and can be recalled. The few of us that do remain can have fond memories of Sang Tai from the picture of the lithiograph.

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