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June’s grandfather Wong Ping (aka Wong Sai Ping) arrived in San Francisco in February 1882, just before the Chinese Exclusion Acts took effect, and no records are available for this first arrival in the U.S. When he wanted to return to China in 1904, he had to apply for a return permit to allow him to leave for China and return to his business in Los Angeles. He stated that he was a partner in a firm called Kwong On, which imported and sold Chinese merchandise. His merchant status (verified by two Chinese and two non-Chinese witnesses) would allow him to return to the U.S., which he did in 1907. He made other journeys to and from China and fathered two sons and a daughter during those years. Later, he changed his affiliation to another store called Horn Fook.
June noted, “I have reason to believe that my grandfather prospered in his business in Los Angeles, living frugally with a group of single men above the store, saved up a sizable nest egg and equity in the stores which he liquidated, then returned to China probably sometime in the mid 1920’s before the stock market crash of 1929. There he built himself a grand house in Canton, lived with his second wife and family until he passed away at 67 years of age in December 1932.” June was able to find many materials about his immigration at the National Archives branch in San Bruno, CA.
Wong Ping Kan followed his older brother Wong Ping to America in December of 1904. He also claimed to be a merchant, though June was unable to find his name on any partnership or other records to confirm his exempt status. She thinks that Wong Ping could have brought a notarized partnership list including Wong Ping Kan’s name with him on his return to China in 1904. Wong Ping Kan became a partner in a Chinese merchandise store called Far Eastern Company. June was able to find Wong Ping Kan’s immigration file in the National Archives in Riverside, CA.
After ten years, Wong Ping Kan petitioned to bring to America his “second son,” Wong Nea Woo, June’s father, who was actually his nephew. June embarked on a search which led her to contact archivists in San Bruno, Riverside, Lee’s Summit, Missouri, and Fort Worth, Texas to find his records. She was able to obtain 154 of her father’s 197 pages on file, with 43 pages not released because of privacy issues. June determined that these pages included her father’s three Angel Island interrogation sessions. Nea Woo arrived on Angel Island on June 1, 1915.
Immigration officials on Angel Island questioned “alleged son” Nea Woo, age 19, and officials in Los Angeles interviewed Wong Ping Kan. After records were mailed back and forth between the two offices, one inspector felt that Nea Woo was actually the adopted son of Wong Ping, not the son of Wong Ping Kan. He was close to being correct – Nea Woo was the birth son of Wong Ping! The alleged discrepancies were worked out to the satisfaction of immigration officials and finally, after three months on the island, Nea Woo was allowed to land in San Francisco on August 5.
Nea Woo’s father, Wong Sai Ping, and uncle Wong Sai Jick arrived in Los Angeles separately as two individuals from different villages in Toisan, Guangdong province. They claimed that they were only business partners in the general store Kwong On. Wong Sai Ping came to California in 1882 and officially he had remained in Los Angeles the entire time until he applied and was issued a merchant return permit Form 431 in August 1904. Immediately he left for China. Among the documents submitted with Form 431 was a list that included his brother, Sai Jick, as one of the shareholders in Kwong On, and thus allowed him to come as merchant, one of the few exceptions to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, in December that same year. Sai Jick, who arrived in California at age 36, claimed he had four sons and a daughter and later filed petitions to bring his two sons to America to learn English and business. The first to arrive in 1915 was Nea Woo, June’s father, actually Sai Jick’s nephew. Sai Ping returned to Los Angeles in year 1907. Nea Woo did not stay at Kwong On to learn his father’s business. He was sent out to a farm on the outskirts of Los Angeles where he performed chores to earn his keep and to attend high school to learn English. As a result, his proficiency in the English language was much better than many of his contemporaries. He gave himself the English name Bennie.
June noted, “My father moved to Stockton four years later to start a new life where many relatives from his village had settled. There he ran a watch repair/pawn shop on 112 Market Street. My mother, Sue Mark, born in Stockton in 1900, was the first Chinese girl to graduate from Stockton High School as most of her friends at that time were only allowed by their parents to go through 8th grade and stayed home thereafter. Through her persistence, she landed herself a job at the Union Safe Deposit Bank. Bennie and Sue met and were married in March, 1928. I was born in Stockton in June, 1929.
“By the mid-twenties, my grandfather liquidated his business holdings in Los Angeles and returned to Canton to enjoy his retirement. Upon urging by his parents, as my father had been in America since 1915, he took his wife and daughter, me, back to China in April 1931 for a visit. Within six months after our arrival, my mother succumbed to typhoid fever.” The family remained in China.
“My father remarried in Canton in 1934. We spent the war years, 1939 to 1945, in Shanghai under Japanese occupation and after liberation until January, 1947 when he was able to obtain a business visa so he could accompany me, still a minor and a citizen of the U.S., back to the States. He was given permission to remain on the basis that he was sending me through college. He found an old friend in San Francisco who was also in search of a job change. Together they purchased and managed a small neighborhood grocery store at 3901 18th Street, and named it Bennie Market. They lived in an apartment a block away. In late spring of 1953, when I was about to graduate from Stanford University, the Immigration Service notified him that he was subject to deportation since my education was complete. He was given a very short period of time to sell the store. Through the Freedom of Information Act, I found a memo from the Honolulu Immigration Service that certified my father departed on board S. S. President Wilson on July 23rd, 1953. He took the advice from his immigration attorney to leave on a voluntary basis upon my graduation so he could return again if and when there was a change in immigration laws.
“From his second marriage were four daughters and a son. My stepmother passed away in 1960 in Hong Kong. With the exception of one daughter who immigrated to Australia with her husband, my late husband Clement Chen, Jr. and I managed to bring my father, my three sisters and my brother to California through President Kennedy’s Refugee Act in the sixties. My father’s proudest moment came when he became a naturalized citizen of the United States on November 16, 1971. My brother Paul and his wife Carol took care of him till he passed on at age 90.”
June describes her own story as one filled with good fortune, though “when I left Shanghai in 1947, I did not bring much of anything, not even pajamas. The war years had been hard.” When the family arrived in Stockton in January, 1947, “My father took me to meet Mr. E. C. Stewart, President of Union Safe Deposit Bank, who gave my mother a job after she graduated from Stockton High School. At the end of WWII, my father had written to Mr. Stewart to let him know we would be returning to the States and immediately he offered to have me live with him and his wife and to go to school. That was simply arranged. I was to be a “school girl” which meant that I was to attend school weekdays, and to perform household chores evenings and weekends to earn my keep. Thus I spent two years at Stockton High School, two years in Stockton Junior College and Mr. Stewart paid my tuition and room and board for two years at Stanford University where I received my B.S. degree in June of 1953.
“I then returned once more to the Stewart household to get back my old school girl job for two more years so I could again live with them for free while I took a job teaching third grade. I needed to reduce my expenses so I could help support my family back home.
“Clement Chen and I were married in 1955. We were classmates back in Shanghai in elementary school and stayed in touch all those years.” Clement and June had met in the fifth grade in Shanghai, when as punishment for misbehaving in school, the teacher made him sit next to the smartest girl in the class, who was June! He studied architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Their son, Clement III, was born the following year and their daughter Barbara was born five years later.
Clement, born in Shanghai in 1929, was attending St. John’s University when it was shut down in 1949 when the Communists gained control of China. His mother urged him to apply to college in the United States and his English teacher, Grace Brady, suggested he apply to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. She recommended him for a scholarship, and when Clement was offered admission and a full scholarship, he was able to apply for a visa to come to the U.S. He boarded the last plane to fly out of Shanghai before it fell to the Communists.
After two years at Sewanee, he transferred to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, to study architecture, and after graduation, he moved to San Francisco. His big break came when he designed the Holiday Inn Financial District on Kearny Street on the edge of Chinatown in San Francisco, and met the founder of Holiday Inn, Kemmons Wilson. This led to Clement developing substantial ownership stakes in Holiday Inns in Palo Alto, Pasadena, Buffalo, and Orange County, and then the first international joint venture hotel built in the People’s Republic of China, the Jianguo Hotel in Beijing. When submitting his proposal in 1978, Clement sought to develop not only the tourist business, but the skills of the Chinese hotel staff, designing a process where they learned from experienced foreign hotel managers and eventually the entire management staff were Chinese.
Clement designed and developed an 800-room hotel in Xian, the home of the famous terracotta warriors, but sadly did not live to see its completion when he died of a heart attack at the age of 58. June notes, “My son and I have carried on since then.” Clement Chen donated funds for a building at the University of the South which is known as Clement Chen Hall, and is the official residence of the university’s vice-chancellor.
Special thanks to June Chen for her extensive research, stories, and photographs, and Eddie Wong for his initial interview with June.
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