John Ng’s 1955 epic expedition from China to improve his life
essay written by Sean Lew
This story is about an immigrant from China named John Ng. During his childhood he lived a mostly impoverished life, and the Japanese occupation of his village during the war made his life even more difficult. After losing his mother at an early age, John Ng journeyed to the Philippines and, under his father’s hopes, to inherit the family hotel business. However, John still felt the Philippines wasn’t in his best interest, and soon he and his father decided that he would go to America to get an education.
Coming from a village in Canton, China, John Ng knew of little what would be in store for him in America. At the age of twenty three, he came to the United States all alone, knowing no one in this foreign country. However, because “in America it’s like the Philippines,”1 Mr. Ng adapted and assimilated quickly into the American lifestyle. He made the courageous journey in order to better his own life and gain independence for himself, and in the end his dreams would come true. Despite tough decisions and a harsh life, John Ng would have little to regret with the numerous difficulties he overcame.
Imagining an entirely rural region, with no cars, skyscrapers, and factories is hard for many Americans, but that is where John Ng grew as a child. Little technology and a mostly farming community dominated during this period of time, and John Ng was no different. Starvation, death, and illness persisted throughout the land and constantly threatened the lives of John Ng and his three sisters; one younger and two older. Since he lived in a poor region, his family’s only objective was to “luckily [survive] and having enough to eat.”2 The land was rich and beautiful and although big and affluent cities existed, little transportation could take them anywhere. The busy and populated villages of Canton gave John Ng a strenuous lifestyle to overcome, but in the end built him up to what he is today.
John Ng was born in 1932, with two older sisters and one younger. At the time in China, people considered his family to be wealthy because they owned land. By leasing the soil to neighbors and farmers, Ng and his family made a living from a percentage of the crops grown. Although they had a source of meeting ends meet, life was not always this easy. Sometimes the terrain yielded few crops and barely enough to survive, so instead of just getting food, they often had to scour their “field and clean up everything that’s green.”3 Ng’s mother died early on, however, he recalls ideals he learned from her that survive with him today. She taught him fairness, along with the importance of education. Ng’s father lived, for the most part, in the Philippines, diligently working a restaurant, bakery, and hotel that he created in order to sustain his family. He sent home money to put food on the table, and returned home every three years. It is for this reason that John and his family lived in somewhat better conditions than others in his community. Without any parents, the children were forced to raise themselves. Even though they had little to look forward to, John had one thing going for him; his education. During this time in China, only wealthy males could acquire a form of education because most had to support their family. Schooling sparked a love of learning in Ng. And soon, as he grew older, he would get even more opportunities to study.
Gradually, the war spread into John Ng’s village. The ruthless and strong Japanese army took over the village, making a headquarters out of Ng’s family’s house. Because it was the only four-storied house in the village, John Ng and his sisters were forced out of their homes and into hiding somewhere else. He said he was lucky to have survived since even “some of [his] friends, [his] schoolmates, got shot left and right.”4 Surviving may have been hard, but he and his family continued on until eventually the war subsided and new choices had to be made. Their hardships, however, instilled in them the importance of hard work and persistence; that life wasn’t going to make itself, so they had to take charge and make their own.
There were many reasons why John Ng left his home country. One day, his father came home after the war ended and just decided that it was time to better his son’s life. Ng remembers he was “fifteen years old graduated from high school,”5 when his father laid out his plans. He believed that his father just felt the time was right and his son finally became old enough to live mostly on his own. Almost a man, John Ng hoped for nothing more than to make his father proud, so he agreed to go overseas and change his life through education.
Another one of Ng’s motivation to leave their homeland, was because the war was finally over and John Ng felt that his father “have it in his mind that he want me to be close to him so that maybe like the old Chinese tradition that you could inherit the business and continues it… or somethings like that.”6 Just like in traditional Chinese culture, John’s father encouraged his only son to take over the family business that had been successful thus far. Unless John wanted to keep his meager existence, he would have to leave and make his life better. He explains that “the only route you can go is to go overseas and get educated.”6 In China, people either better their life or starve, and the only way to do so is by migrating out. However, in order to leave people needed connections and enough money, and luckily Ng was one of those people. Aspiring for a better lifestyle, he traveled with his father to the Philippines where his family business lay.
Although John Ng found a way to leave the country, the government left him stuck in Hong Kong waiting for papers to be processed. Finally once regulations and procedures finished, he traveled to the Philippines where he stayed until 1955. Finding little comfort in the Philippines, this phase of his life was not a reassuring one. Discrimination, especially toward foreigners, dominated the Philippine lifestyle and degraded many people. Ng explained that “one reason [they discriminate] is because they are jealous… the Chinese took over the country commercially, so they are uh… envious and jealous.”7 The native Filipinos believed the Chinese came over with nothing and exploited them for money and material goods, but they forgot that people work for these things and no one just gives it to them.7 Yet, these troubles were not the only thing on John Ng’s mind.
Education was the most important thing to Ng, but in the Philippines he would have to start all over again. Even though he already graduated from high school, he had to study and learn new languages. In the Philippines, Ng’s English education system was different from his original Cantonese roots. This was not the only problem. The English school in the Philippines only translated from Mandarin to English, much different than his Cantonese language. So every morning he would study Mandarin in Chinese school and English in the afternoons. Despite these troubles, John Ng felt that his work and school life was “easy because you know I don’t have to work I just go to school and that’s all I do.”8 Still learning his ABC’s, Ng began his schoolwork in the American system’s third grade. When all his peers started reading newspapers and books, he learned his alphabet and how to spell and define words. Eager to catch up with his contemporaries he studied day and night, learning and reading everything he could find. Vigorously working, John rushed through his schooling, graduating elementary in three years, and eventually high school in another three years.
For most of his peers, getting used to life in the Philippines came eventually, however, for some reason, it troubled Ng. The discrimination of the Chinese people bothered John Ng, and Filipino lifestyle did not suite him. To make matters worse, he found little comfort in the terrible environment. Thinking “there is no way out” John Ng remained in the uncomforting country until one day “[he] figured out there is a way… [he] could migrate again.” Weary of the land, John said to his father, “look I don’t wanna inherit your business I don’t like the Philippines and I cannot go home because the communist took over the mainland the only way I can go is west. Why don’t you maybe let me try going to America.”9 Little more could be done in the Philippines, if Ng didn’t want to inherit his fathers business and continue the family line. After long conversations, the two decided that was the best decision and soon John would venture off into the majestic land of America.
Expecting a living paradise, John patiently awaited his departure. “You got Hollywood, you got city of angels, you got all this glamorous places that you see in the movies on advertising,”10 he recalled. He envisioned beautiful cities, marked with wonders of the world and friendly people welcoming him to the magical land of the United States of America. Since he was coming to America alone, John hoped that America would just breeze by, go to college, and educate himself with no troubles in the world. However, once he arrived at the busy airports of the United States of America he realized exactly how naďve he really was.
Finally, in 1955, John Ng’s commercial airplane landed in the Los Angles International Airport. Expecting the epitome of paradise, John rode the bus into downtown LA searching for school he got into, the University of Southern California. However, he remembers the arrival in America as the most disappointing thing he ever saw. He recalls “riding the bus going to downtown five times back and forth, back and forth” in search of the University of Southern California where he conversed with the bus driver and finally realized what he expected of America was the antithesis. The driver traversed through the streets until finally saying, “’I don’t know about you but I’m tired so where are you going?’ and I told him ‘I’m going to downtown Los Angeles!’ he say ‘we pass by that 5 times!’ I say ‘no way it supposed to be nice city big and beautiful right?’”11 But this was not the case, and finally the bus dropped him off in a park further away from USC, explaining that that was as close as she could get him to the college. Without another option, John scouted out a motel to stay in for the weekend until he could check into the school. However, once he applied for boarding on campus, the school rejected him saying they had no room for anyone else to live in. Chances waning, Mr. Ng felt the loneliest he ever felt; in a foreign country with no friends, no family, and without a home.
When Ng landed in America, he was the most frightened he had ever been. Since he, for the most part, raised himself throughout the years he thought, “surprise me… and they did.”12 Once he found USC, devastation hit him. Because there was no room for any more boarders, John Ng had to find another place to stay since motels were too expensive for him. But, once again, Ng luckily made his way out of the situation. While lining up for his enrollment in USC courses, he came across another man of oriental decent from Jamaica. Although the man knew little Chinese, Ng promptly made friends with him and explained to the man the awkward situation he was in. In order to help Ng, he informed him of someone who he believed planned to move out of the apartment the man stayed at. Sure enough, two days later John Ng survived another tight spot finding housing in the apartment complex the man resided.
Despite the minor troubles he faced in the beginning, Ng almost immediately settled in securely to his college life. He soon realized the money his father sent back to him could not carry him entirely through college. After training in “a school in Los Angeles called National Schools that specializes on vocational electronic training,”13 Mr. Ng traveled around town as a repairman and made a little bit of money here and there. Having little to no money made social life difficult for John, as everything in America cost something. But John, still found friends and held on to them. Not before long, John graduated from USC with a degree in electrical engineering. The next step was his master’s and possibly PhD. Yet, he didn’t have enough money for the next level of schooling. After massive searching he found a small, private and less expensive university called California University where he easily passed courses and finally majored in electrical engineering.
Probably the only thing Ng found hard to get used to was the racism in America. Living in the Philippines for a time helped John transition into American lifestyle because the two countries had similar educational and social systems. Although John experienced racism in the Philippines, he still could not get used to it, even in the Americas. While looking for apartments he recalls someone responding, “’we don’t want Chinese.’ So I said ‘yeah but I’m paying the same thing.’ They say ‘no we don’t want Chinese in our town here.’”14 No matter how difficult the situation, Ng managed to shrug off the incidents and continue on with his life. Once he graduated and achieved his degrees, John had to look for a job. Throughout this time, the government mostly financed electrical engineering jobs through their government contracts. It was hard for Ng to find a job since he never applied for a citizenship since it was too much trouble. To make ends meet, John lowered his expectations and began working for a commercial company at half the earnings that he would be making as a government electrical engineer. Slowly but surely, through hard work and intense study on how to better manage his job, he rose through the ranks, soon becoming the department head. Once again prejudice impeded Ng’s goals and although he qualified for higher paying and harder jobs, the company bypassed Ng time and time again. After saving up a six month cushion to live on, he quit and ventured on to new and different jobs.
During this time, John Ng met and married his wife, Judy Ng. She had three children from a previous marriage named Chuck, Clarence, and Lila, but soon after they had a fourth daughter together named Susie. For John, besides the racism, assimilation into American culture came easy, however for his wife it was much more difficult. They tried to break away somewhat from ethnic groups and communities in order to practice their English and to meet different people. In regards to his children, Ng wished to teach them both the old and the new ways of living. Traditional Chinese culture appealed to him in teaching his children because it emphasized the value of family and respecting your elders. On the other hand, the American way of independence also played an important role in his life, as well. Ng took from American culture the lesson that independence “is what everyone should strive for because you don’t want to rely or lean on somebody all the time like in the Chinese system.”15 In combining both of these different values, John hoped to retain old traditions yet accept new customs and strike a balance between the two.
After quitting his job in engineering, Ng went into business where he lived in Torrance. Using the six month savings as a cushion, Ng attempted to switch occupations, and worked with a brokerage house called Equity Funding. After he learned most of the tricks of the trade, he left the company, and started his own with his friend Phillip, which became great success. Meanwhile, John moved to Palos Verdes, an ideal community for raising his children and giving them success. As they continued to make money, Phillip suddenly became ill. In a last attempt to preserve the company, Ng bought out the entire company, but soon realized the responsibility was too great to handle, so he sold the it. And he and his wife, since the children already moved out, went into retirement in Monterey Park during the 1980s. Besides a brief period from 1989 to 1992 Ng where he joined another business that did reverse mortgages, he stayed in his retirement. Ng and his wife continued to live there until April of 2009, when they moved to Laguna Niguel in order to help raise their grandchildren.
John Ng came to America not knowing what was in store for him, but he lives today lucky and grateful for what his life has given him. Everyday he enjoys seeing his children and grandchildren grow into “into one big happy family and that’s what we love and enjoy the most.”16
1. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 8.
2. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 2.
3. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 2.
4. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 3.
5. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 4.
6. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 4.
7. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 5.
8. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009. 5,6.
9. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 6.
10. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009. 6,7.
11. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 7.
12. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 6.
13. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 9.
14. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 10.
15. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009, 18.
16. Lew. Personal Interview. 19 May 2009. 20, 21.