- Reviewed by
Thanks to the oral histories gathered by editor Benson Tong and his students, Wayne Hung Wong's fifty-page handwritten autobiography became American Paper Son . Benson Tong is a well-suited editor. In 2004, he edited Asian American Children: A Historical Handbook and Guide , which includes part of Wong's autobiography. In this work, Wong (b. 1922) rewrote his autobiography using the transcribed interviews of himself and two of his children to fill in gaps. The final product chronicles Chinese American life in Wichita and the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II. This book complements other memoirs about life outside large Chinese communities. In Southern Fried Rice: Life in a Chinese Laundry in the Deep South (2005), John Jung (b. 1935) describes being a part of the only Chinese American family in Macon, Georgia.
Wong's narrative begins with his great-grandfather in a farming village in Taishan County, Guangdong province, and then quickly moves to his arrival in the U.S. as an adolescent in the midst of the Great Depression. In Wichita, he reunited with his father, also a " paper son, " a laborer, deemed inadmissiable by the Chinese Exclusion laws, who entered the U.S. using someone else's immigration documents. Wong's father had been working in the Pan-American Café with fellow countrymen since 1924.
The sections on restaurant work are detailed: "Young Caucasian waitresses garbed in white uniforms with laced collars worked the teeming dining room. There was no such thing as writing down the orders, so they just yelled out the orders to the kitchen staff. Such a 'system' came into being because the majority of Chinese workers did not know how to read English" (36, 37). Although there are currently approximately 40,000 Chinese restaurants in the U.S., very little has been written about this occupation ( http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId = 10069448, accessed on March 31, 2008). One exception is M. Elaine Mar's passionate descriptions of the Denver restaurant where she and her family worked in the 1970s ( Paper Daughter: A Memoir , 1999). Coincidentally, Mar's father previously worked in a Wichita restaurant. Also from Taishan, it seems likely that he is related to Wayne Hung Wong, whose real name is Mar (19).
Wong devotes the second portion of the book to his service in the Army's 987th Signal Company, comprised of "Chinese speaking American soldiers of Chinese parentage" who served in the China-Burma-India Theatre (55). Readers drawn to this topic will also appreciate another memoir based on oral history interviews, The Adventures of Eddie Fung: Chinatown Kid, Texas Cowboy, Prisoner of War (edited by Judy Yung, 2007). Fung, the only known Chinese American taken prisoner by the Japanese, survived the slave-like conditions building the Burma-Siam railroad; more than 12,000 other prisoners did not.
The last third of the book Wong devotes to family life. Wong took advantage of the War Brides Act to bring his seventeen-year-old bride, Yee Kim Suey, to Wichita, where they raised their four children. The book ends with Wong's discussion of his profitable real estate investments and three near-death experiences. He concludes with an expression of gratitude for his "productive life in the United States" (118). [End Page 215] The family section provides insight into an ideology of frugality that shaped Wong's parenting in ways that run counter to the middle-class child-centered norm. In the early years, Wong "toiled for twelve-hour days six days a week and made about $240 a month as the night chef at the Pan-American Café" (93). After work, Wong walked three-quarters of a mile home to save five cents in bus fare and carried two quarts of milk to save an additional six cents by purchasing it wholesale at the restaurant. The family ate discarded chicken feet from the poultry house and free "beef kidney, ox tails, and...