The Great Escape
Jin An Wong’s 1962 journey from Kowloon, Hong Kong in hopes of attaining the “American Dream”
essay written by Michael Tong
Jin An Wong moved to America from the city of Kowloon, Hong Kong in 1962 in search of a stable job, an equal opportunity, and a better life for his children. Wong’s father offered to fund his move to the United States, so the family agreed and flew out to Los Angeles, California, giving Wong the chance to pursue after the American Dream. By making many difficult adjustments as a Chinese immigrant, Jin An Wong and his family successfully integrated into the American culture and society.
Jin An Wong immigrated to the United States from Kowloon, Hong Kong in October of 1962. In search of equal opportunity, a stable job, and a better life, he moved with his young family by airplane to Los Angeles, California, where his aspirations of attaining the American Dream could be realized. At that time, Wong was only trying to create a brighter future, and “just [wanted] to support [the] family [and do] what was good for the children.”1
Jin An Wong was not born in Hong Kong, but in Guang Dong, Mainland China in approximately 1931. He had no legal documents or recorded birth certificates, like many people in the country at the time. With no memory of his birth parents, Wong was adopted at the age of two by a couple named Shen Wong and Chin Dia, who would conceive a child of their own nine years later. In addition, this pair would not disclose the fact the Jin An Wong was adopted until he was twenty-years-old. During these pressing times of unemployment and a semiautonomous government, Wong recalls how his parents “treated [him] like a real son, and cared for [him] just like real parents. They [were] pretty good to [him].”2 All throughout his life and especially during his adult years, Jin An Wong’s parents would be financially supporting him. However, because of the Japanese invasion of China and the socialist uprising which had sprung up in Europe, Wong and his family fled to Hong Kong in 1943 and stayed for two whole years. Jin An reminisced that “[in] World War II, [he] only remembered [how] the Japanese killed a lot of Chinese people. All the red Japanese army… [never stopped] killing.”3 However, unlike the situations on the mainland, the Communist movement did not touch the island of Hong Kong or its people, allowing the seaside city to grow as a trading and manufacturing source because of its rapid industrialization, which would later make it one of Asia’s leading economic centers. Hong Kong also reshaped its culture to fit Europe’s laissez-faire approach on capitalism. Western influences completely reformed Hong Kong, shifting the province into a more business-directed society, which focused on an exponential increase of its finances and upward social mobility.
After two years in Hong Kong, Jin An Wong and his family moved back to the mainland. During this whole time, he received his education at a local public school, and upon returning to the mainland in 1945 at age fourteen, Wong attended middle school. However, unlike the safe and secure educational facilities of today, Wong stated “that in China, schools back then were just not clean.”4 After the Second World War, China had been taken over by socialism and many of the citizens feared for their life when Wong asserted that “After WWII, in China, everybody [had a] very hard time. No food, no money, no clothes, no home.”5 In 1949 after the Chinese Civil War and when the country transformed into what is now known as “Red China,” many Chinese people, just like Wong’s family, fled the country. After finishing high school, Jin An Wong “just [wanted] to stay in [his] home country”6, so he parted ways with his brother and his parents, who followed Shen Wong’s parents and other members of the family to the United States, while Wong travelled back to Kowloon, Hong Kong to finish his education. Kowloon is an urban area located at one of the southernmost parts of the main island in Hong Kong. After World War II, Kowloon became extremely congested when slums for refugees from “Old China” gave way to public housing estates, mixed with private, residential, commercial and industrial areas. Returning to Kowloon once again in 1949, eighteen-year-old Jin An Wong was just beginning his college career. He now aspired to study what is known as “Big Business” – where all the opportunities and best money were.”7 In the universities and even the regional public schools, these institutions provided something that would be very invaluable for the future: An English Education. This was mainly due to the English missionary movements which had established many churches and schools throughout all of Hong Kong. These foundations introduced the formerly isolationist Chinese people to the English language, foreign concepts, alien ideas, and international affairs. As an outcome, Hong Kong became a key manufacturer by the end of the twentieth century, and still upholds its position as a chief trade center for China today. However, Hong Kong was many years away from matching the industrialization of the Western World, where “everything was basic, [and no one] had much.”8
After about two years, Jin An Wong stopped attending college and “gave up [his dream of] working big business.”9 Instead, he started looking for work. Unfortunately, times were still hard, for there were few resources and an endless increase in population. Had it not been for his father’s support in America, Wong would have been homeless because.
Wong continually traversed through many unstable jobs without much luck. Jin An Wong was twenty-five, and his mother had been badgering him into finding a wife to settle down with. That was when he met eighteen-year-old Kao Mun Tse, who was living in the same apartment complex with her mother and younger sister. Her father lived apart from the household in the Philippines, and had enough resources to support another, larger family with many wives, since polygamy was widely practiced at the time. Jin An Wong and Kao Mun Tse began seeing each other frequently, and a year later in 1955, the couple got married. Wong moved in with his bride’s family for convenience, and he felt very fortunate, because “usually in the same apartment, [there are] maybe over 20 or 30 people. We were very lucky since we were only about 10 people in a place.”10 In this case, there were only two other families sharing the rooms, giving each family a room to rent out. After living together for a year, Jin An and Kao Mun had their first child in 1957, a baby girl named Fan Lan. With Wong stumbling from one insecure job to the next and his wife staying at home to care for the infant, life soon became much more difficult. Events soon after this seemed to come by in rapid succession one after another, for in 1958 the couple gave birth to their first son, Wu Liem, and later in 1959 their second son named Chiek Liem. With three children in the household now, Jin An Wong needed to make room for many new changes in order to support the family.
Economically speaking, this era is considered the first and most significant turning point in history for Hong Kong. During this time, the living standard rose steadily, and the number of registered factories increased from three thousand in 1950’s to ten thousand in 1960’s. Also, the government began to pursue an ambitious public education program, creating over 300,000 new primary education locations between 1954 and 1961. By 1966, 99.8% of school-age children were attending primary school, though primary schools were not free of charge, which limited access to public education. However, the per capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was relatively low in this decade, as was the continuing trend of low wages. There were demands for labor in every sector of the economy, and Hong Kong's population in the 1960’s was estimated at about 3 million. Half of the population was under the age of 25, and the age group became Hong Kong’s baby boom generation, and huge surges of refugees continued to come in from China. Wong and his family were greatly affected by these factors, as he recollects that “back in that time, in Hong Kong, it was hard to get a job, [and] was very difficult. So [he] tried to do just that, [and] tried to get a job every day [without stop]. ”11
Also, in 1959 during the beginning of Vietnam War, the US made Hong Kong a frequent resting point for the troops who were residing in the Asian region where “the towns were full of [American] Soldiers.”12 Hong Kong was considered one of the neutral zones not affected by the communist movement despite all of the political riots taking place nearby. With all of these innovative and new policies, Hong Kong took a huge leap forward in a successful attempt to make a permanent name for itself despite all of the ongoing developments. This was the wind of change for a new era and a better future.
Throughout these times of hardships and modernization, Jin An Wong and his family were in need, just as desperately as everybody else. However, a miracle landed in the laps of Jin An Wong and his family at the most opportune moment. Wong’s parents and his brother were living happily in the United States, and his father Shen Wong who had always been financially supporting him, asked if he wanted to move America. His father offered to fund the move and “said he would help [him] come over and have a better life.”13 In addition, Shen Wong proposed that on top of the five flight tickets, which cost a flat rate of seven hundred and fifty collars per person, he would let his son’s family live in the apartment complex that he personally owned, giving Jin An as much time as he needed to find a stable career. This was the much-needed opportunity of a lifetime, so Wong and his wife agreed to take up the favorable offer and move to America. So Wong and his family packed their belongings and headed towards Hong Kong International Airport at Kai Tak, which was the only airport in all of Hong Kong located on the north side of Kowloon Bay.
At this point in time, it had already been twelve years since Jin An Wong had started college and living on his own in Kowloon. After so long, he was now going to reunite with his father, mother, and brother. However, the situation was the exact opposite for Kao Mun, who would be separating from her mother and her little sister. Upon arriving at the airport, all of the family who lived in the area came by to say their farewells. Wong’s daughter Fan Lan was barely five years old at the time and she adamantly conveyed her unwillingness to leave when she said in tears that “[she didn’t] want to go. [she wanted to] stay here…[telling Wong and family to] go on ahead without [her], to leave without [her].”14 Nevertheless, that October morning in 1962, Wong and his family, including Fan Lan, boarded the massive plane and set off for the United States of America. The airline the Wong’s were aboard was known as the Pan Am (Pan American World Airways), and was referred to as "The World's Most Experienced Airline" since the airline were literally providing scheduled service to every continent except for Antarctica. The plane followed its course towards the LAX Airport (Los Angeles International Airport) and took more than twenty hours to reach its destination. Before arriving and touching American soil, Wong’s father, Shen Wong, was busy at the United States immigration offices. He had taken the liberty of applying and vouching for Wong’s and his family’s green cards. Therefore, the shift for the young family from Hong Kong to the American society was a very smooth and uncomplicated process.
Upon arriving and receiving their green cards, the family moved to Shen Wong’s home in the Crenshaw district. On his own volition, Shen Wong promised “[to] support the whole family until [his son] could get a job,”15 giving Jin An Wong a great amount of time and an easy transition to finding a job. In a mere matter of months Jin An Wong was able to find a stable job, and it wasn’t in “Big Business.” Wong was going to become a chef! Coincidentally, Shen Wong and his father were cooks themselves, and at the time, Shen Wong was running a very successful Chinese family restaurant in the area.
However, Wong did not join the restaurant with his father. Instead a few of his friends helped him get employed at the same job as them. During this time, Jin An and Kao Mun gave birth to their fourth child, their second baby girl whom they named Lai Lan, and about a year later they would have their fifth and final child, a boy named Gen Liem. Employment wages and rates in the United States were much higher than they were back in Hong Kong, where Wong’s “first job at that time gave [him] $458 a month with an annual raise, [where] the next year would [change] to $650 a month, [making American] Employment hours… very different from Hong Kong’s.”16 However, this was not enough. Wong had to work a second job through the nights, and Kao Mun also found an at-home sewing job while taking care of the five kids, leaving these two parents exhausted every day.
Although Wong held onto his identity as a Chinese-American, he tried to assimilate himself and his family as much as possible: “I [wanted] them to [be] all American.”17 In China, a child’s education was of the utmost importance to his or her parent, due to the respect that cultured government officials received back on the motherland, for they were the direct servants of nobility. This was the greatest honor that could be bestowed on a civilian. Yet as a minority, Wong and his children were looked upon with disdain. In the local elementary and middle schools where minorities were scarce, Wong recalls that for those children, “even if they only had a quarter in [their] pocket, the [school] gangs [would] steal it from [them] just because they were [Chinese], or else the gangs [would] punish you.”18 Every day Wong and his family were surrounded left and right by the Anglo-American environment, which slowly started to erase parts of their Chinese culture. Despite the racial discrimination, Wong’s family continued practicing Chinese traditions and customs such as adhering to the Chinese codes of conduct and respect, and speaking Chinese at home. However, some customs following the traditional Chinese social system were not as propitious. In old Chinese culture the husband was the primary authority and women were dependent on them for support. Children were subordinate to their parents, and every family member fell into a hierarchy of age and importance. After many years of reflection, one of Wong’s only regrets was that “[he did] not have much time with the kids… [and] worked long hours every day, [coming] home tired and [unable to spend] much time with the kids.”19
Overall, Wong was very satisfied with his life in America. Back in Kowloon, he would have met face to face with foreclosure, and might have found himself unable to support his family. However, the open policies of the American culture allowed him to prosper. Wong never regretted his decision to immigrate to the United States, where “[he found]…a job and [got] some money to support the family. [He] thinks [that it] was the right decision to come over here.”20 Now a retired grandfather at the age of 78, Jin An Wong feels that his life was blessed with the bounty of equal opportunity that embodies the hope and freedom of the American Dream.
1. Wong, Jin An. Personal interview. 23 May 2009. 30, 56.
2. Wong, 23 May 2009, 6.
3. Wong, 23 May 2009. 8, 54.
4. Wong, 23 May 2009, 5.
5. Wong, 23 May 2009, 54
6. Wong, 23 May 2009, 11.
7. Wong, 23 May 2009, 4.
8. Wong, 23 May 2009, 13.
9. Wong, 23 May 2009, 26.
10. Wong, 23 May 2009, 15.
11. Wong, 23 May 2009, 17.
12. Wong, 23 May 2009, 9.
13. Wong, 23 May 2009, 21.
14. Wong, 23 May 2009, 41.
15. Wong, 23 May 2009, 21.
16. Wong, 23 May 2009, 25.
17. Wong, 23 May 2009, 56.
18. Wong, 23 May 2009, 28.
19. Wong, 23 May 2009, 38.
20. Wong, 23 May 2009. 21, 58.