I stumbled across a 30-minute documentary last night that stirred something deep in my soul.
Sing Me a Lullaby traces the story of Tiffany Hsiung, a Taiwanese-Canadian documentary filmmaker on a quest to help her mom find her birth mother in Taiwan.
Hsiung is the director, the narrator and a central character in the movie. Sing Me a Lullaby has touches of a home movie and an award winning documentary film. It is deftly made, going from the present to the past and back to present.
I have visited Taiwan a few times so the sounds and sights of the country are familiar. I could feel the humidity and smell the sea air. My parents went to Taiwan for college and my aunt and cousins lived in Taiwan.
Hsiung’s story, while not mine, feels like a shared experience. Almost every child of immigrant parents has questions about how their parents lives unfolded.
Roger Hon Chung Chan was born in Macau in 1951, the seventh of nine children. He was born into a full house and grew into a smart, mischievous, young man with a sharp sense of humor.
Like many young people at the time, he moved to Hong Kong in search of better educational and job opportunities. He attended Kowloon Evening High School and started his accounting studies at Chu Hai College of Higher Education, Hong Kong.
In 1985, Roger and his mother, Lai Yee Ho, immigrated to the United States to start a new life in California. Los Angeles became his home, and he quickly became a loyal purple and gold Laker fan. He chose the name “Roger” after watching Roger Moore star as James Bond in the movies. He liked the connection of being number 7 in the family and Agent 0-0-7.
In Los Angeles, he continued in the field of accounting, which appealed to his sense of order and structure. At the time of his passing, Roger worked at the Los Angeles Federal Credit Union, rising to senior accountant’s rank. Roger was well-loved by his colleagues, many of whom became close friends and regular meal companions.
Roger bought a house in West Covina where he grew a small grove of orange, kumquat, and grapefruit trees that he lovingly tended. His home became a frequent gathering spot for friends and family when they visited the Los Angeles area.
Roger loved and was loved deeply by family and friends. Roger, known lovingly by his family as “Uncle 7,” was incredibly close to all his nephews and nieces, acting as a confidant, translator, and cultural bridge between the generations. He made friends quickly and was the first to introduce himself to new people and crack a joke to put others at ease. He was not shy about sharing his opinion about every subject, especially Kobe Bryant, Garth Brooks, and the Monterey Park Hong Kong cafe scene.
Roger was always there to serve others. He cared for his mother in her later years and his best friend, Jerry Quigg, until his passing. He looked after his neighbors, including the stray cat that frequently visited his backyard. More recently, he would drive to Palm Springs on the weekends to visit and care for his friends.
Dancing is Roger’s passion. He was a dance machine who taught his niece to dance the cha-cha 30 years ago, and was the most sought after dance partner at the annual Credit Union holiday party. He was introduced to country music and line dancing by friends, and hardly a weekend went by when he was not two-stepping in a dance line or hip-shaking at a Zumba class.
Roger passed away from complications of COVID-19 after a brief stay in the hospital. He was 69. Roger was preceded in death by his father, Nai-On Chan, mothers – Lai Yee Ho and Shun-Wah Tam. It was Roger’s wish to be interred at Forest Lawns – Hollywood Hills, next to Jerry and near his mother. Roger is survived by eight siblings: Wai Chung Chan (Hong Kong), Chun Chung Chan (Henderson, NV), Shu Chung Chan (Hong Kong), Kin Chung Chan (Merced, CA), Susan Ma (Monterey, CA), Teresa Ng (Victoria, BC), Chi Chung Chan (Kirkland, QC) and Cat Chan (Macau). And by nephews and nieces: Peggy Chan, Kwok Ching Chan, Clement Chan, Jacqueline Chan, Eugene Chan, Wayne Chan, Eric Chan, Kevin Ma, Celia Ma, Raymond Ng, Amy Poon, Gary Ng, Jennifer Chan, Jeremy Chan, Jason Chan, and James Chan.
He was a kind, loyal, loving man with the biggest heart and smile, and he will be missed forever by his family and friends.
This obituary was written collaboratively by Uncle Roger’s nephews and nieces.
Joseph was born May 1, 1937 in Faat Au Village, Toisan, Guangdong, China to Wong Yow and Yue Kam. He learned to be independent at a young age. In 1950, when Joseph was 13 years old, he boarded the “American President” steamship in Guangdong, China and crossed the Pacific Ocean. He landed at Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco. In January 1951, he was able to reunite with his father in Minneapolis.
Joseph Wong could accomplish anything he set his mind to do. As a teenager, he had a passion for building things. He enjoyed fixing cars, motors, and all things mechanical. He graduated from Minneapolis Vocational High School in 1954. One of his fondest memories is buying a “clunker” car with a rusted floorboard. Together with his cousin, they fixed it up and drove (sometimes pushing) the car around town and making trouble.
His hobbies included, fishing, stereo systems, listening to Chinese opera, flying airplanes, playing games – Pacman, shooting pool, placing bets sports games, eating well, telling jokes, and taking road trips. Mr. Wong served in the army from 1956 to 1960. Stationed in Ladd Army base Fairbanks, Alaska, his service included flying Cessna planes from Ladd Army base to Fort Lewis (Tacoma Washington).
After being discharged from the Army, he turned down a job offer to be Northwest Airlines pilot. Instead, he chose to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a restaurant entrepreneur. He had a strong work ethic often working 12-18 hour days to build his restaurant business. He did the best for his family and was proud of his ability to send support to his mother and sisters abroad while providing for his own family in the United States.
Joseph had a big heart and often provided financial support to those around him who needed it. He believed that many times, people sometimes just need a boost to get them over the hump. And, with this in mind, he never hesitated to offer assistance when asked.
Over the next 35 years, he operated several successful restaurants which included Lan’s Garden Café (Minneapolis), Wong’s Teahouse (Mound), Statesman Restaurant and Bar (Chaska) and Jerry’s Restaurant (St Paul).
After selling Jerry’s Restaurant, he retired in 1997. Not being able to sit still in retirement and having a desire to hit the open roads, he took on a part time job driving busses from Minneapolis to Chicago. In 2001, he entered full retirement and found his 4th career as grandpa. He enjoyed walking, traveling, meeting up with his friends, watching the news, and spending time with his grandchildren.
On Monday, November 9, 2020 at the age 83, he passed away peacefully following a fast moving liver infection complicated by low blood pressure at North Memorial Hospital.
Joe’s pride and joy were his children and grandchildren who learned from him that food, life, and love are interconnected.
This obituary was written as a collective effort by Joe’s children with support and input from his wife Zenaida Wong.
It was Christmastime 1989 when I walked off the plane at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport and I met the family.
As I came out of the jetway and into the gate, I am greeted by all the Wongs, big-eyed and excited and I get hugged and welcomed to Minnesota.
This was back when visitors could go all the way up to the gate. Before 9/11 changed things.
The entire Wong family had come to pick me up not just Vonnie. If you have ever traveled to Asia or China, you know that this is how our people receive you at airports.
And this is how the Wongs do it—they come as a unit to greet you, to welcome you, to love you, and to check you out.
Dad was a restaurant guy who had recently sold his restaurant, the Statesman, and hadn’t yet bought his next restaurant, Jerry’s.
“Do you like steak?” he asks.
Because we’re in Minnesota, the heaviest snowstorm this California kid has seen is happening outside with snow that looks like a ticker tape parade down Wall Street.
Undeterred or maybe even unnoticed, Dad puts on his parka, shuffles out to the garage, opens the garage door, and fires up the barbecue. He proceeds to grill ribeyes in the garage, filling up the place with smoke.
In the oven, he has ten pounds of crab legs slowly roasting in a butter bath.
“Go get me more butter!” he asks Wylie, Vonnie’s brother. The butter comes in 1 pound sticks because that’s how restaurant people cook.
We had the best surf and turf dinner that Christmas.
Dad was an immigrant and his father, Vonnie’s grandfather, was also an immigrant. And so his story is also the story of America.
Joseph Wong was born in Toishan, China, a region in Guangdong province. His father was already in Minnesota and would come back periodically to visit his family every few years.
Joe immigrated to the United States when he was 13 or 14, getting on an American President Lines ship and landed, as many Chinese people did, at the immigration detention center in San Francisco. He was not a paper son in the true sense but was caught up in the mistrust, bureaucracy, and barriers that the government put up for immigrants who don’t come from Europe.
Immigrating to the United States before 1965 was an arduous and awful process.
I will miss how he would call us—with concern and care in his voice–when he saw on the news of something bad happening in California. It didn’t matter that the actual thing happening might be miles away.
We would get a phone call:
“I heard there was an earthquake. The bay bridge collapsed. Are you okay?”
“Oh I saw on the news that the fires are bad.”
“Be careful, I heard there was a shooting nearby.”
I will miss how much he loved dim sum and beef chow fun. We would inevitably be on the hunt for a dim sum restaurant whenever and wherever we went on vacation with him.
I will miss how he would drop into Toishan to speak with family and friends from the village. It was, in many respects, when he seemed most at home.
I will miss his unwavering love for his kids and grandkids. He worried about them and bothered them to make sure that we were taking care of ourselves.
Joseph Wong, age 83, is survived by his wife, Zenaida Wong, five children, ten grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.