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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.