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The following story is based on a two-hour video interview by Judy Yung with Benson Wong in his home in San Francisco on May 31, 2015. Videographer Grant Din and Benson Wong’s son, Arne Jin An Wong, assisted in the interview. Ninety-nine years old at the time, Benson had an incredible memory for details and an infectious laugh as he recalled his journey to America and his one-month stay at the immigration station hospital in 1928.
Benson Wong, aka Wong Ben Soon, was born in Wing Sing village in Toishan District in 1916. He was the oldest of four children. His grandfather was the first in his family to immigrate to the United States. He worked as a cook in one of the railroad camps and later opened a Chinese restaurant in Minneapolis. Why Minneapolis?
“Well, because in California, discrimination was very prevalent. But as you go inland, there are fewer Chinese and people are more friendly. So my father happened to have a cousin who owned a restaurant in Minneapolis and he said, “’Why don’t you come out to Minnesota? People here like to have chow mein and chop suey, and there are whole sections in Minnesota with no Chinese restaurants. You come here and you will make money.” So my grandfather and three uncles took over the lease of a Greek restaurant that had closed, and they opened a Chinese restaurant. They became very prosperous. And the restaurant was called Fook Chew Café. One day this policeman named Bob (he’s German) came over and said, ‘The name is not good. You should drop the K and name it Foo Chew.’ (Laughs.) They didn’t know English so they just didn’t know what was wrong with the restaurant’s name.”
In 1928, 12-year-old Benson accompanied his father to America. He remembers that their journey on the President Lincoln took 22 days and cost $99.00. “That was a lot of money then. I had a wonderful time because I didn’t get seasick. It was a big ship with a couple hundred people. All the Chinese men stayed together in the hold of the ship. There were two tiers of bunk beds along the walls and in the middle were tables where we ate our meals.”
During the trip, one of Benson’s uncles got into an argument with one of the Filipino passengers. “They wanted to beat him up. So my father came over and said, ‘If anybody wants to fight, must fight me first.’ You know, my father’s very husky. He’s 5 feet 6 inches and a half and he weighs 160 pounds. And he’s a gung fu master. Whenever there’s a fight, he would say, ‘You come fight me first.’ Nobody wanted to fight with him.”
When the ship docked in San Francisco, his father was allowed to land whereas Benson was taken to Angel Island. “The first thing they do is a physical examination. And they found out I had sai dei, little sores all over the body [scabies]. In China we don’t have good sanitation, so that’s why all the Chinese kids have that. Then they immediately segregated us—seven or eight Chinese boys–and detained us in the hospital instead of in the main building. I was in the hospital for 30 days. There was a lady who took care of the kids, and I’m one of them. She made us sleep between two linen sheets after they covered our bodies with sulfur every night. Then we had to take a shower every morning. So in 30 days, they really cleaned me up. We used to hide ourselves from that fat old lady, and she would have to give us candy before we tell her where we are. (Laughs.) It was a nice place. We ate in the dining room at the hospital and got better food than in the main building, the place was not as crowded, and we had a playground all to ourselves.”
Sometime during his stay at the hospital, Benson was called for an interview before a Board of Special Inquiry in the Administration Building. “A lot of us were not real sons and fathers. My father bought me a paper saying that I was the son of a U.S. citizen. It cost $1,800. At that time, $1,800 was a lot of money. You know, you only worked for a dollar a day. He spent only $200 to buy a two-story building in Toishan. My paper father was really my uncle and he was really born here. Before I came, I had to study the coaching book for a whole year because he’s not my real father. I had to learn what his house is like, the living room, and if there are any windows in the living room and dining room. And I never lived there, so I said something wrong. They asked me if there’s a window in the kitchen and I said no. There was a hole in the wall with bars. You know, they were going to detain me. Then I think the lawyer told me, ‘Just tell them it’s not a window. It’s just an opening with bars on it.’ And I got through! They only interrogated me for about an hour. You know, with kids they’re pretty lenient. And my paper father is related to me, so I knew his background. When they questioned me on what the house looked like, how things are arranged, and the rows of houses, I seemed to know.”
After he was cured of scabies, Benson was admitted into the country. His father met him in San Francisco and they took a long train ride to Minneapolis. “At that time I didn’t know any English, but I learned English by just playing with the kids. I was the only Chinese kid in the whole school. One day, I noticed that all the kids had a girlfriend and they carried books for her. So they asked me, ‘Where’s your girlfriend?’ I happen to know an American girl named Mary. So every morning I go to school, I would carry books for her. I was only 12 years old and I didn’t know what was going on! (Laughs.) I didn’t experience any racial discrimination there. In fact, they all admired me because my father had a restaurant about four or five blocks from the school and their parents came to eat at our place quite often.”
Benson helped out at the restaurant after school. He recalls that chop suey was very popular with the women. “All the doctors say that if they eat chop suey and chow mein, they will have better figures, because there is no wheat in it. Just bean sprouts and celery. We had to make the bean sprouts ourselves in the basement. We had four big cans. Then they put the green beans in the can and water it four times a day. Not too warm and not too cold. And when the bean sprouts come up, the whole tank is full of it. They grow very fast.”
When Benson turned 18, his father sent him back to China for a Chinese school education and to get married. His daughter, Loretta, was born before he returned to the United States in 1938. He was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II and served his time as a typist in Germany. After the war, he earned his high school diploma and sent for his wife from China under the War Brides Act. They settled in San Francisco, where they raised six children. Benson opened the Hong Kong Café in the Fillmore and then became a French chef at Normandie Restaurant, a four-star restaurant in North Beach. He worked for the post office for thirteen years and became a successful realtor at the age of 50, selling homes in the Richmond and Sunset districts to Chinese clients who paid in cash because they could not get loans from banks. He retired at the age of 72.
As the following story he told reveals, longevity runs in his genes. “When my father was a teenager in China, he somehow caught the Bubonic Plague. So my grandfather carried him out to the storehouse in the fields because it is contagious. Next morning when he woke up, he was all well. They couldn’t believe it because there was no cure for that plague. He was the only one in the village who survived it. So everyone said that his children and grandchildren would have immunity to it.”
Judy Yung is professor emerita at the University of California at Santa Cruz. She is the co-author, with Erika Lee, of Angel Island: Immigrant Gateway to America, and with Him Mark Lai and Genny Lim, the new edition of Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910-1940.
Special thanks to Lara Hayner for her excellent transcription of this interview.
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