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Jeanie Low tells the story of her father, Leon Wong Chooey as he overcame the Chinese Exclusion Act and its effects.
Twice I recall Dad, a quiet man, saying to me “Don’t Forget Whose Child You Are” as I went about blending my life with rock and roll, the women’s movement, going to social gatherings and trying to be a dutiful Chinese daughter. On official documents, he was variously known as Chooey Share Chun- his Paper Name, Leon Wong Chooey (1915-1986) and in the community he was called “Ah On.”
In researching his immigration files at the National Archives and Records Administration, San Bruno, Leon’s RG85 box was empty except for an INS (formerly called Immigration and Naturalization Service) sheet coded with the letter “A with numbers.” I called INS and was referred to file a FOIA (Freedom of Information G639) to access the file. Two months later and just before Christmas, Leon’s Alien File was received containing over 130 pages of documents and photos from 1931 to 1974. Many lost years of our community’s “code of silence” to protect family members from deportation proceedings (1953-1970) and my childhood spilled out of the envelope.
On April 21, 1931, he emigrated from Canton, Toisan, Bak Sar to the U.S. Immigration Station at Angel Island where he was finally approved for landing on July 20, 1931. He came by way of the President Jackson, an ocean liner, and his documents list him as a “Son of Son of Native.” After landing in San Francisco, 14 year old Leon became a carpenter’s apprentice. He worked with his father Wong Foon You and his uncles at Shang Git, their carpentry shop. He said at night, he slept in the loft on two sawhorses with a wood plank placed across the top. During the day, the space was reserved for supplies and work. He worked for Shang Git until 1958. He was baptized at the True Sunshine Episcopal Church where he also learned English.
In 1936, Leon returned to the Toisan area with his father and through a matchmaker visited several villages for a girl to marry. He selected Lily, their personalities and blood lines were found to be compatible. So, they were married in his village that year. The next year, his daughter Linda was born. He left Toisan to return to San Francisco as the Japanese army was moving south. He couldn’t obtain “papers” for Lily for two years. Lily arrived in San Francisco in 1940, and they were remarried at SF City Hall.** They were reunited with their daughter in 1948 when he acquired “papers” for a little girl.
During WWII, Leon’s records show that he worked at Richmond Shipyard #1, CA. building Liberty and Victory Ships. He began as a welder trainee and then as a carpenter “fitting” the ships. He taught all his children to handle hammers and nails. Perhaps, working with women in the trades at the shipyards taught him that it was acceptable to teach his daughters some construction skills.** He also taught me about safety in selecting live Dungeness crab from crates, using a cleaver, using a needle to remove the occasional wood splinters from his hands, climbing ladders to see his some of his construction projects, presenting a dish with an aesthetic eye, and the importance of maintaining my bilingual skills and that my family roots are in China.
In 1958, he opened his own carpentry shop, Leon Company in San Francisco. He would dictate his contracts to me in Chinese, and I would type them. By 1965, he received his General Contractor license and continued building projects until he retired in 1980. Most of his jobs were renovations in town and came to him “by word of mouth.” Through the years, I’d heard compliments from past clients about his honesty, work ethic, and quality of work. He was active in the Wong Family Association where they fostered donations to charitable causes. He helped many of his tenants who were newly arrived immigrants.
In 1965, Leon and Lily underwent the “Confession Program” to void their “Paper Names” and to reclaim their true names. They received amnesty and became permanent residents because in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act (CEA)was instituted to restrict Chinese from emigrating. In 1943, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was racial discriminatory and unconstitutional. Unfortunately, my parents as well the majority of Chinese who emigrated to the U.S. during the CEA period did not know that the law was unfair. By 1974, my parents applied for citizenship, their witnesses were interviewed as to their good character, and they underwent security scrutiny. Thereafter, they passed the requirements of residency, oral examinations on U.S. History, and a dictation test before they were granted naturalized U.S. citizenships. When they asked what last name we kids wanted to use, we wanted to retain our “Chooey” name with “Wong” the true name as a middle name. Afterwards, Dad was officially known as Leon Wong Chooey.
Children: Linda was born in the village and rejoined the family in 1948. The U.S. born children: Calvin (deceased, 2008), Ronald, Jeanie and Johnny.
When asked what he believed in, he said he believed in himself. He left a family legacy of his “Can Do Spirit” and Goodwill Towards Others. He was happy to see that all his children had good lives and also to play with his grandchildren. Leon Wong Chooey passed away in 1986.
* ”A Salute to the Richmond Shipyard Workers: Leon Chooey” an original quilt designed by Jeanie Low, 2014. It was juried into the travelling exhibit “WWII Homefront Effort Quilt Challenge”. She is also the author of “China Connection:Finding Ancestral Roots for Chinese in America”.
** Lily’s story is found under her Immigrant Voices story as Jin Sheung Ngaw.
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