Reunion magic: Family intersections and crossroads

Chapter three of three

Uncle Fong finally stopped playing lumberjack at about age 90.

Short and spry like a jack rabbit, he had tackled handyman jobs all his life, from dripping faucets to erratic outlets, cluttered gutters to unruly trees.

Chan house uncle yee gets to work
Uncle Fong installs a sink around age 80.

His energy was matched only by his self-confidence, often to the dismay of his two sons, my father or anyone else involved in the project of the day.

Ah Fong Yee is now 94. My Mom and I visited with them the weekend of Sept. 18 when we went back to Chicago for a reunion. While Mom was struck by how much Uncle Fong has slowed, he was still getting around amazingly well.

I am related to him via his first wife, Wai Yok, who was my father’s eldest sister. They were the ones who brought us around the world from China to Chicago in 1967, when I was 7. (See “Coming to the golden mountain” column.)

In the journey of life, there are nearly imperceptible curves over which you have no control, and monumental forks that you choose to determine your destiny.

Spreading out into the horizon and back into history, these paths define not only each of us, but all those we touch.

Uncle Fong came from the same impoverished southern region of China as our family. Everyone sought a better life, and no destination was as alluring as the golden mountain called America. But the pathways were limited.

In reaction to the stream of Chinese laborers who came to dig for gold and help build railroads, the U.S. instituted its first two immigration policies, both targeting Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 wasn’t repealed until 1943 when the U.S. and China became allies during World War II. Over the decade of 1941-1950, there were only 16,709 immigrants from China among the one million total to the U.S.

Uncle Fong was one of those. He came in1947 as a “paper son.” That was a common illegal practice in which precious identity documents were typically sold to an immigrant who was a son on paper only.

His uncle, who owned a laundry in Chicago, had three sons, one of whom died in childhood. Uncle Fong took on that persona to get into America, which required him to pass for 21 instead of his actual 26. Forever in the eyes of the U.S. government, he would be five years younger than his real age—which meant he was 70 before he could retire and claim social security.

To ensure Uncle Fong stayed connected to his native country, his uncle insisted that he get married before he could immigrate.

Uncle Fong and Aunt Wai Yok were matched as so many marriages were in those days. The story of their introduction looked like this:

Matchmaker, pointing to the distance where a woman labored in the field. “That’s her.”

Uncle Fong: “OK.”

They had a customary village wedding before he left for America, sailing on a cargo ship for 21 days via Shanghai, Japan and Hawaii. He recalls undergoing extensive interrogation by U.S. Chans Wai Yok (dad's sister) and Ah Fong Yeeimmigration officials in San Francisco for several weeks before being approved to join his uncle in Chicago.

It was seven years before Uncle Fong saw his bride again. Wai Yok was the eldest girl of six children (my father was the second youngest boy) and so I called her Big Aunt. Like all brides after marriage, her life was devoted to serving her new family. She cooked, cleaned and fetched for Uncle Fong’s aunt and her two sons, and Uncle Fong’s sister-in-law and her son. Big Aunt eventually made her way to Hong Kong, where the couple had an official wedding that allowed Uncle Fong to bring her to America in 1954.

While Uncle was lean, Aunt was stocky. Generous and boisterous, she dominated any setting with a tongue just as quick to scold as to laugh. I thought she oversized him but the pictures prove that it was just her giant personality.

The couple lived in Chicago’s Chinatown, had two sons, brought a hand laundry on Foster Avenue, sold it to buy a modest middle-class home, and went to work at clothier Hart Schaffner Marx.

Chan family
Uncle Fong and Big Aunt, on the far right, with the two families they sponsored to America (I’m on the bottom, second from left). Circa 1970.

They sponsored not just my family, but my uncle’s as well. When we arrived in America, truly with naught but the clothes on our backs, Aunt, Uncle and their two boys warmly welcomed, supported and nurtured us. Their entry into Hart Schaffner Marx opened the floodgates for scores of immigrants who saw gold in the sewing sweatshop, including my mother.

Grandma, Aunt, MM making graduation dress
Big Aunt and my mom sew my grammar school graduation dress in 1973.

Uncle and Big Aunt’s home on Sawyer on the north side of Chicago, which seemed to me like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, became our sanctuary and inspiration. Their furniture stayed pristine underneath plastic wrap—so ours did, too. They had a sparkling fake Christmas tree, so we did, too. (See “My magical first Christmas tree” column.)

As a youngster, I would ride my bike from our Uptown apartment three miles across the city to visit. I loved Big Aunt’s confidence, and her love of life. I loved Uncle Fong’s sweet nature. I loved inheriting two big brothers.

Without them, our journey would have been completely different. Mom thinks she and Dad could have scraped and borrowed enough to put me through school. “Then you could have worked your way up to be a secretary,” she says.

Nearly 30 years ago, I was in Hong Kong on assignment for USA Today. I attempted to local our rural home in the New Territories with a friend of the family. We didn’t find it but we did come across a distant relative, wearing loose work clothes and sandals. How’s it going, we asked. “Enough for one meal a day,” he responded. That could have been me, I thought then, with a shudder.

Big Aunt passed away of colon cancer in 1978, not even hitting 50 yet.

As we stood at her gravesite last month, I was overcome with gratitude and love. I am who I am because they invited us to join their journey.

Thank you, Uncle Fong and Big Aunt.

Chicago 9.15 259 Chicago 9.15 236

Left: Uncle Fong and his two sons, Stan and Tony, at Big Aunt’s grave in September 2015.

Right: Mom, Uncle Wing, Uncle Fong and wife, Wendy. Uncle Fong was the paper son to Wendy’s grandfather and paper brother to Uncle Wing.

Reunion magic

Chapter one: Yes, you can go home again

Chapter two: Returning to old haunts of grammar and high schools


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