A CANUCK FROM CANTON
An old Chinese proverb says that the road chosen matters more than the journey’s end. Lem Wong saw his destiny in the building of a fine family
MANY success stories begin with the boy selling newspapers in the gutter and end with him owning a string of race horses. This success story hegins with the boy washing miners' shirts in Sydney, N.S., and ends with him behind the counter in a London, Ont., restaurant. Some people mightn't see much in 52 years from laundry tub to cash register. But. there is an old Chinese proverb which says that the road chosen matters more than the journey's end.
If 67-year-old Lem Wong has not made himself rich in cash he has provided this country of his adoption with a fortune in kind. And his sagacious negotiation of the mine fields of race relations has proved an example worthy of record.
For 27 years Lem Wong owned his own restaurant on Richmond Street, London. Instead of putting profits back into this business, however, he invested them in eight children. Out of four boys and four girls he has produced for Canada three doctors Mary, Clara and Bill; a chemist —
Esther; a lawyer—Gretta; a draftsman— Norman; and a businessman—George. Only the eldest son, Victor, has not fared well. And this is through no human fault—he is in a sanatorium.
These first-generation Canadian Wongs are all affable, engaging personalities, high above average intellect, of orthodox North American outlook, and ranging in age from the early 20’s to the late 30’s.
Victor (39) is a widower. He was the only one to marry outside his nationality. His late wife was an English Canadian.
Mary (35) was for 10 years a prominent obstetrician in London. She recently married a ChineseCanadian engineer and transferred her practice to Montreal.
Clara (33) is a TB specialist in a Hamilton sanatorium and married to a Toronto Chinese businessman, a former bomber pilot.
Norman (30), now approving building plans for the Veterans’ Land Administration, was a staff sergeant attached to British military intelligence during the war and engaged in secret work among Australian Chinese.
George (28), owner of a restaurant in Watford,
Ont., was an army truck driver in Europe and now is married to a Canadian-Chinese wife.
Bill (26) graduated in time to become a captain in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps and is now specializing in internal medicine at London’s Westminster Hospital for veterans.
Gretta (24), who qualified at Osgoode Hall, is taking a postgraduate course in psychology at the University of Toronto with a view to work among juvenile delinquents.
Esther (22) graduated in chemistry from the University of Western Ontario, did postgraduate work at McGill, and today is engaged in research at the medical school in London.
The single children all live with their mother and father in an old-fashioned, large, semidetached house, owned by the eldest daughter, Mary, on London’s dignified Waterloo Street.
White society in London accepts the tawny complexions and oblique eyes of the Wong family without question. The children are popular members of middle-class professional and business circles. They think, act, and wisecrack like any other bright young Ontarians. In summer they
play golf or swim at the family country cottage. In winter they go to dances and ski.
They have only a smattering of Chinese. They know a little more about Chinese culture and politics than the European Canadian—but not much. Their interest in China is natural, yet it is not stronger than the interest of a first-generation English Canadian in “the old country.”
They are believers in the monarchy and the Commonwealth—though they would like to see Hong Kong returned to China—and are opposed to Canadian fusion with the United States.
The wisdom which Lem Wong applied to their upbringing enables them to slip with composure through that fence which divides off so many Chinese from the fuller Dominion community. This does not mean that Wong, or his family, have turned their backs on their own kin. Tliere are about 100 other Chinese in London who regard Lem Wong as their patriarch.
It is well-known in London that during the depression, when his restaurant was losing money heavily and his older children were passing through the most expensive stages of their education, Wong helped to support several poorer Chinese families.
He and Mrs. Wong have many white friends, though nowadays they play host more often than they visit. They both worship at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (where they were baptized), but since Mrs. Wong is not strong they don’t go every week.
He used to contribute to Chinese Nationalist funds but two years ago withdrew his support because he lost faith in Chiang Kai-shek.
R. J. Churchill, executive editor of the London Free Press, says of Wong: “He has been an invaluable citizen. He is known and respected through the city. He might have been well off today if he hadn’t cared more for other things.”
W'ong sold his own restaurant in 1941. He tried retirement for five years but discarded it. At the end of the war, because he was eating into his small capital, he took a job managing the dining room
attached to the Sunnyside Hotel in London’s east end. It is an ordinary place with compartments and a snack bar. Though wholesome, it does not compare in style with the Wong’s which he once made famous in southwestern Ontario.
“It is not good, the lazy life,” he says. “It is bad for the mind and it lets the cash in the bank go down. I tried it, but it scared me. Some of my children were still being educated and I needed money. Work is best . . . work and ed-u-ea-tion.” This word “education” breaks into the staccato singsong of Wong’s sentences with regularity. Education is clearly as much of a rite to him as the ceremony with which he conducts his personal relations. It is the key to his character.
Wong’s English is never that of the stage Chinese. Grammatically he is nearly always correct, but occasionally he fails to pronounce his “r’s”: “Velly early in my life I saw that a man
with no ed-u-ca-tion is lost.”
He understands the western mind but finds it difficult to ventilate the full range of his own thoughts through English. To this same handicap, born of the tremendous gulf between the Chinese and English languages, may be attributed the reputation of Orientals for being inscrutable.
Father Was a Playboy
SINCE coming to Canada Wong has suffered loneliness, physical beatings, insults and financial losses. But these vicissitudes have left no etchings on his face. His beardless skin is as smooth and polished as a russet apple. Rigid self-control, dictated by the eastern axiom that display of emotion is vulgar, has lighted his sloping eyes with watchful repose. He has little need of loquacity. With the flicker of a lid, a gesture, a single word, he can control the waiters in his dining room.
Standing behind the lunch counter he wears a cream alpaca jacket that is as crisp as a wafer, and his presence is one of rinsed and aseptic serenity.
He glistens as he watches
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the serving of hamburgers and coffee or takes the checks of outgoing customers with that infinite courtesy which in the Chinese requires no smile.
Wong will tell you: “I love China,
but Canada means more to me. Sun Yat-sen had a great dream for China. But those who came after failed him. Chiang Kai-shek ruled by himself for himself and his friends. He kept the people down. What he sowed he reaped. I have been back to China two times; sometimes I have dreamed of living there again. But then I think of the people I saw dying on the streets because they had no food. What kind of a country is that?”
He was 14 when he decided to quit China. His father had been dead for three years and his schooling in Canton was coming to an end because his mother had no means to extend it.
“My grandfather had been a rich merchant,” he says, “but my father and his brothers were playboys. They left my mother with only a house.”
Wong’s prospects were dark. When an uncle decided to emigrate to Canada Wong pleaded to go too. Uncle and nephew landed in Vancouver in 1897. Both got a job in a Chinese laundry and worked together for five months.
His youth, his lack of English, his quilted coat, skullcap and felt shoes penned Lem Wong in the Chinese colony. When he ventured beyond its limits he learned to shrink from the expletive “Chink!” He had been brought up to genteel standards—in Canada he found himself a menial.
He had been reared to admire sobriety and frugality. Like his compatriots, he could live on rice and vegetables with an occasional piece of meat or dried fish. Two planks sufficed for his bed. In leisure he was content with a few books of idyllic Chinese verse.
This bleak code was not popular on the west coast during the roaring ’90’s. In fact Lem was quick to see that it fired white hatred and fear of the Chinese. Because he could live on a quarter of a white man’s earnings, the Chinese could underbid the European colonists in the labor market.
Lem decided that if he was to improve himself in Canada he would find opportunity not in the overcrowded highly competitive Chinese colony, but within the wider horizons of the population.
He left his uncle and headed east from Vancouver with less than $10. He rode freight trains to London, where he halted for a while to replenish his funds by working in a second Chinese laundry. He moved on to a third in Montreal, a fourth in Springhill, N.S., and settled in a fifth in Sydney on Cape Breton Island.
Here he found plenty of custom among the coal miners. The Chinese proprietor paid him $4 a week. He worked 14 hours a day from Monday until Thursday. On Friday mornings, when the week-end washing poured in, he worked right through until Saturday night, rubbing, rinsing, wringing, drying and ironing coal-caked shirts and underwear.
His bed was under the counter in the shop. Here he spent most of his spare time, developing his philosophy through the Chinese classics and wrestling with functional English. Other Chinese broke the arduous monotony of their lives by playing fan-tan or smoking opium. Lem, although he was now only 17, knew that all they lacked was a wife.
Thumbing through his Confucius he learned that man is a microcosm
expanding in value to himself and others according to his degree of responsibility. Bv striving to improve himself, by acquiring knowledge, by purifying his thoughts, by rectifying his heart and cultivating his person he might be able to regulate a family. When he could regulate a family he might be capable of governing a state. When he could govern a state he might be trusted to rule an empire.
Lem had no hankerings to run an empire, but he was convinced of the necessity of reaching the first stage in the Confucian precepts of purpose. A family became to Lem an idol, the fount of all endeavor.
At that time the Canadian regulations forbade a Chinese from bringing a wife from his homeland unless he was securely established in business on his own account. To reach this condition became Lem’s aim.
A Boot to the Jaw
He saved cent by cent, cutting his food to mere stoking of adequate physical energy. Being young and without female comfort he went off on a couple of jags. But he got back on the rails again and kept his balance with the Confucian injunction: “Do not be ashamed of mistakes and thus make them crimes.”
There were times when his employer cuffed him. But Lem, valuing his job, knowing where he was going, kept his peace.
Once, however, a miner, simmering with racial venom, raised his fist to him. The miner saw Lem turn sharply to the left and incline his body steeply sideways and backward. The miner thought the young Chinese was cringing from the blow about to fall. He didn’t know that in China boys are taught to box with their feet. As he was about to strike, the miner received the toe of a boot on the point of his jaw. It was as high a kick as ever came out of the cancan. And the miner’s prejudices exploded among a galaxy of stars.
Later Lem bought a bicycle. It was not for pleasure. It was for racing. He was never a champion, but he picked up prize money and his bank account passed three figures.
After five years in Sydney, Wong had saved enough for a return steerage passage to Canton plus $200 or $300. He went back to China to marry. Years before his mother, through a professional matchmaker, had decided on just the wife for him. But he had seen other ways, and he chose his own wife.
He returned to Canada, alone, and invested $200 in a London laundry. After they had been married 10 years, during which Wong had revisited his wife only once, she joined him in Canada with their first son and they set up a home together.
“It has not been long,” she said.
It cost him $500 head tax to get her in.
I n 1915 he opened a big restaurant on Richmond Street, London. He worked 15 hours a day to make this business go while his wife bore him children at regular intervals. By now he had learned much about the white man’s tastes. He would have liked to fill his menu with succulent and aromatic Chinese dishes. But he knew his Londoners were conservative. And he was still influenced by his mentor, Confucius, who said, “Follow the trodden paths.”
He contented himself with offering chop suey, a spurious Chinese dish mixed for western palates. The rest of his menu was European, but he paid good chefs. He introduced an orchestra and ran supper dances.
Worn's first band was led by a
London boy, Guv Lombardo. A resident theatrical company called The Dumbells dropped in often. Visiting stage folk began to patronize him. This glamour attracted London’s younger set during the ’20’s.
Clare Bice, the London artist, says: “I remember Wong’s was the sort of place every fellow wanted to take his girl. It had a romantic atmosphere and lots of couples got engaged there. Wong greeted everybody at the top of the stairs. He made every man feel be was the most distinguished guest. It was not cheap. Some of the boys sometimes couldn’t pay their bill. But Wong understood—and waited. We were all very fond of him.”
Occasionally Wong would call down one of the older children to help out. But in general he kept them away from the restaurant.
Norman Wong says: “It got so that we hardly knew Dad, he was at the restaurant so long. But he always came home for dinner. During this he would ask us about our day at school. Many’s the time he’s given us the hairbrush for a critical report.”
When the children complained of being kidded about their color Wong would tell them: “You must win the
esteem of the others. You must show them you are neither better nor worse than they are. And then they will forget you are Chinese.”
When Wong and his wife turned to Christianity they joined St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Norman comments: “This was a great thing for us kids. The church went right out to bat for us.”
Esther, the youngest daughter, adds: “The churchfolk saw we were honest and sincere and they opened up their homes to us.”
Lem Wong felt he would never return to China. He gave his children pride in their ancestry hut never rammed China down their throats. He exhorted them to be Canadians.
They joined the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, the Canadian Girls in Training. At school they were aggressive in games and diligent in study. At high school Esther was president of the Girls’ Athletic Club. Earlier Gretta had been vice-president of the Students’ Council. The father saw his children advancing nearer to the goal he himself had only half reached and he was proud.
During the depression poor trade and family sickness involved Wong in heavy loss, hut he resisted all temptation to push the children out to work early for the sake of the family budget.
He shouldered his share of the charitable work performed by the Chinese freemasonry, hut avoided its deeper social life. He did not care for sitting around in a club all night talking about China. His life had extended beyond China.
There’s No Turning Back
One Chinese dragon, however, still occasionally reared its head. Norman, a lithe young man with a wry humor, will tell you: “1 met the wife of a
white friend of mine on Dundas Street. She is a lovely girl. She was going my way so we walked together. A fellow passing made a remark which was overheard by others. My friend’s wife said she didn’t care a bit. But I did. I hated to embarrass her. It is incidents like this that make us think. They don’t ruin our lives. But they make us careful.”
Although, until her youthful death, the family got on well with the white wife of Victor, the younger children have all decided to marry Chinese.
Plump, pretty Esther says: “At
high school we used to fall in and out
of love with white kids just like all the others. But marriage is different. 1 shall marry a Chinese-Canadian, not merely because he is Chinese, hut because it will be easier for both of us.”
The slender Gretta, who is the family beauty, and much sought after at the University of Toronto by white male students, agrees.
The brilliant and successful eldest daughter Mary, who has the severe clothes and stimulating conversation of a career woman, who moves in affluent and intellectual white circles, and who contributed generously to the younger children’s educations, could have married outside her race but chose otherwise.
They have all seen the success of Clara’s marriage. Her Chinese-Canadian husband was a flight lieutenant bomber pilot in the RCAF based in Britain during the war. From this union was born Lem Wong’s first grandchild, an exquisite China doll of a girl who, dandled on her father’s knee, is learning to recite “Little Boy Blue.”
It is doubtful whether this tiny second-generation Canadian Chinese, the joy of the entire family, will ever learn a word of her ancestor’s tongue.
Wong doesn’t care. He knows there is no turning back. He sees his gracious little wife hobbling around the visitor with tea, cookies, candy and cigarettes, a perfect hostess, crippled because in her youth her feet were bound. Deafness, due to some ailment she contracted in China and incompetent medical attention, hindered her English and has barred intimate communion even with her own children. Talk between them is largely in sign language or she lip reads their few words of Chinese. At these reminders of the past Wong shakes his head.
His home is comfortably furnished in western style. The banter of his gay, happy children is essentially Canadian. Only one meal of the day, the evening dinner, is Chinese. It is cooked lovingly by Mrs. Wong, and this is something of a ceremony. Wong sits at the head of the table, surrounded by his single children and often by one or more of the visiting marrieds. He is usually tired after his long hours in the east-end restaurant and leaves the conversation to the young folks.
But on these occasions it is clear he has preserved what is best in his heritage. For his few words there is a respectful hearing. The atmosphere is charged with filial piety.
By teaching his children reverence of the parents Wong enjoys their sincere affection, of which reverence is merely the outward sign. In his home he has been the supreme authority against whose dicta there has been no appeal. In consequence there has always been discipline, dignity and peace.
Often the conversation hinges on the old adage, “Blast is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet.” And then Lem Wong smiles sceptically for, looking at his children, he knows that in one or two generations he, the poor boy from Canton, will have proved it false. ★