Interview of Li Keng Wong

On May 1, 2003, students interviewed Li Keng Wong on her experiences coming to the United States. The following is a transcript of that interview.

Q: What was the first thing you remember seeing when you arrived at Angel Island?
LI KENG WONG: It was very dark — a late November night. The first thing I remember was the pier. I stepped down, and we walked on the pier. And then we were taken to the main administration building and we were escorted to the main women's barracks. The women's barracks were part of the main administration building. The barracks was a fairly good-sized, rectangular, dark building. I noticed immediately that the windows and doors were barred. I also noticed that there were hanging light bulbs from the ceiling. Bare light bulbs.

Q: Were you scared when you came to the U.S.?
LI KENG WONG: I wasn't scared, in that I wasn't frightened, but I was awed by all the new sights and sounds.

Q: What were some of the hardships as a rice farmer in China?
LI KENG WONG: My dad was a rice farmer before he left for the United States, and my mother couldn't do it alone, so we let out our rice fields for us. Rice farming is backbreaking work, especially because there were two crops a year. At the end of the year, they didn't even sell the rice, it was all for their family's consumption. That is why rice farmers were so poor. There was little money changing hands. Wives helped their husbands in the fields and grew vegetables to eat. There were no jobs to make cash money, but it was very rare. Every village was self-sufficient and isolated. To get to the next village, you had to walk. There was no other transportation.

Q: I guess not a lot of people could afford the voyage from south China to the U.S. They may have relied on their relatives in the U.S. But for those "paper sons," who had to spend money on the coach paper and the fabricated relations to the person that had been in the United States, what were their economic conditions in China? Were they mostly the poverty-stricken villagers or those who were a little better off?
LI KENG WONG: In the years around 1933, China was a country that was so poor, many of the people had to take care of themselves. Everything was so miserable, none of the villagers had a future and they just wanted to immigrate to the United States for a better life. They had heard about "the Golden Mountain," which is what they called the United States.

For example, my dad was sponsored by his uncles, who were already in the United States. But once he was here, he said that he had three daughters and three sons to bring. However, he did not have three sons, and instead sold these papers to other Chinese friends and relatives to come to the United States.

I don't know how they got the money to buy these papers, but once they got to the United States they would earn the money and repay it in installments.

Q: I think your life has been an exciting journey. Was it hard, scary, exciting, or fun on your boat? Why?
LI KENG WONG: The experience itself was entirely new. It was not fun for me because I was seasick the entire time. On the days I felt good, I would walk the deck and watch people play shuffleboard! Every day we had a headcount, they would turn on a signal. Dad would tell us when you heard this sound in the morning, you had to go to the deck and get counted. It was like a lifeboat drill.

All in all, it was fine except when I was seasick.

Q: How did your sisters react to coming to the United States?
LI KENG WONG: My older sister had an easier time than I did. She was 11 when we arrived, and was good-natured. The changes were easier for her. My little sister was 3, and everything was a new adventure for her. She thrived in the United States.

Q: As a young child, did you have many friends that were not Chinese?
LI KENG WONG: In Oakland, in the beginning, we lived in Chinatown. There were no white people who lived in Chinatown. I met white people in school, and we would be friends, but they visited me at home. And we never visited them at their home. One thing to remember is that most of us had to help at home after school, and we had Chinese school, so we did not have much time for anything else like play dates. We didn't have a lot of time.

Q: Do you think racism against Chinese has lessened since 1933?
LI KENG WONG: Absolutely. For example, the kids who were living in Oakland Chinatown were afraid of going into downtown Oakland. They were afraid of getting made fun of so we stayed in the Chinatown "ghetto." Also, then it was very difficult for a Chinese person to buy a home outside Chinatown.

Q: Did you encounter racism during World War II from people who thought you might be Japanese?
LI KENG WONG: Yes. When war broke out on December 7, 1941, we had a lot of Japanese neighbors in Chinatown, but a few days later, they were gone. I wondered what happened to them, but they were taken to the internment camps. In order for people to know that we weren't Japanese, most of the people in Chinatown, especially the Chinese who were going outside of Chinatown, wore an armband that said "I am Chinese" because most white people could not distinguish between a Chinese and a Japanese person.

Q: Do you think the quotas for Asian immigrants are as small now compared to other ethnicities as it was in 1933?
LI KENG WONG: Today, if you are Chinese and living in Taiwan, and you get sponsored by someone, it is very easy to come to the U.S. — and that's it. You won't get detained like we were in 1933. The numbers are all the same from each country. It's all the same now.

Q: Why were the immigration officers so strict with Chinese? Were they strict with other immigrant groups?
LI KENG WONG: I can only tell you about my own experiences. The big influx of Chinese who came in the 1870s to work on the railroad came at a time of a recession and white people were afraid of Chinese taking their jobs. So in 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Acts. China was so isolated for so many years, and the government did not do a good job of representing China as a nation. So many westerners were particularly suspicious of Chinese because they didn't know much about us. I am pretty sure this happened to other immigrant groups, but to a different degree. The Chinese were singled out.

Q: On the Scholastic site it says that you were so upset by your experience at Angel Island that you couldn't talk about it until 1985, 50 years later. What changed your mind and allowed you to speak about it?
LI KENG WONG: In 1985, I was attending a writing class about writing autobiographies. At first, I glossed over my trip through Angel Island. A classmate suggested I write about my experiences, but it took me two year to think about it. After two years, I decided that it was an important story to tell, so I wrote about it. Putting it all on paper made it feel like a huge weight lifted from me. I did not want to keep it a secret any longer. I think I wanted to forget it because it was a bad experience. Many immigrants felt the same way. Some people have felt ashamed of the experiences. Once I wrote about it, I felt like I could start talking about it. Soon people started reading it, including the founder of the Angel Island Foundation. After he read my article, he put into the archives about immigration. One of the people who also read it was a documentary maker. When he came to Angel Island to work on his documentary, he asked me participate. After he finished his segment, they showed it on public television — Including my story!

One of the people who saw this documentary was a producer. And in 1999, this producer called me and asked me to participate in another documentary, which was sponsored by Disney! They decided that I would be one of five people featured in "The American Tapestry: Searching for the American Dream." They showed the documentary in 1999 on Showtime. Later on, it went to different film festivals. I went to one of the film festivals with all my family. Now the film is in the Smithsonian. I went for a big event at the Smithsonian, and I went with my younger sister and sat on a panel where people asked me lots of questions about my experiences. It was the highlight of my life!

Q: Do you ever visit Angel Island today?
LI KENG WONG: I bit there about ten times since I wrote the article. It was no longer a place for me to dread. And when they made the documentaries, we filmed there.

Q: What kind of things did you do for fun in China? Did that change in the U.S.? LI KENG WONG: I was only 7 when I was in China — we never had toys, what we did was made up stories, climbed trees, played hide and go seek, played hopscotch, and swam in the lake by my house. Sometimes, our maid and my sisters would go on a picnic in the hills behind our house. When we came to the U.S. we were so poor, we envied the people who had toys and skates. So we didn't have any toys. We were lucky if our father would buy us a jacks set. We used orange crates to play house, and we cut out paper dolls from the newspaper. Once in a while, we would make toffee candy, and that was a big deal.

You have to remember that this was during the Depression. But we never felt that we were deprived.

Q: Why did you have to work in your father's restaurant?
LI KENG WONG: It was a family-run restaurant. If my dad were to hire someone, he would have to pay them. However, he didn't have to pay my mom and my sisters. Instead, all the money would go back to the restaurant. We had to do it in order to survive.

Q: Whom did you get married to?
LI KENG WONG: Roger Wong. We were married in 1954. Roger hung out with my good friends, so once in a while, I would visit my friends in San Francisco, and that's how I met him.

Q: How many children did you have?
LI KENG WONG: I have two: one boy and one girl.

Q: What are some of the things you do today?
LI KENG WONG: Since I retired, I have taken a number of classes like aerobics and writing. I visit with my family and my three grandchildren. I love to play mah jong, which is a Chinese game. I've gone back to China two times, and I have traveled with Roger quite a bit. But I have also talked to schoolkids about my experiences in Angel Island.

Q: Do you still live in Oakland?
LI KENG WONG: I live San Leandro, which is a suburb of Oakland.

Q: Did you ever tell your own students about Angel Island?
LI KENG WONG: It was only after I retired that I started talking about Angel Island, so I never talked to my students about it, unfortunately.

Q: Do you like your life so far?
LI KENG WONG: Yes, absolutely. At my age, there is not much to worry about. The main thing is I want to be healthy and my husband to be healthy, and to live each day to the fullest. I'm just happy being myself.

MODERATOR: We're almost out of time. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
LI KENG WONG: You have to make up your minds on what you want to do with your lives. You have to make up your minds to achieve your goals by deciding not to get into mischief, not to do drugs, and not get into gangs. Think about your role in this world. How can you make this world a better place for you and future generations to come?

 

American Asian Heritage Home Page Angel Island Home