The Certificate of Identity of Wong Yook Yee was shown at 22 minutes and 35 seconds in the first part of Asian Americans, a five-part documentary series on PBS. “Departed 1929 and has not returned” was highlighted on his certificate. Here is the story of Wong Yook Yee and why he had not returned.
The Ng Lee School for Chinese boys was formed in 1912 by Ida K. Greenlee, a university teacher in Seattle, Washington. Under Section Six of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Greenlee brought Chinese students to Seattle for an American education. Soon the school organized schools in Hong Kong, San Francisco and Oakland, California.
Here is an excerpt from a February 22, 1913 letter by Vice Consul General in Charge A. E. Carleton of the American Consular Service in Hong Kong.
The school in Oakland is intended to prepare the boys for the public schools or certain private schools. At the end of such period of preparation as Miss Greenlee finds necessary, supposedly about one year, the boys are to be distributed to certain churches throughout the United States which are under agreement to provide homes for the boys in Christian American families and keep the boys in suitable schools usually the public city schools, and report regularly to Miss Greenlee as to the conduct and progress of the boys. Miss Greenlee states that she will supervise the education of all her boys until they have attained to high school standing and that in any case where a boy abandons his studies before that time she will endeavor to return him to China by her personal efforts or through official action. Miss Greenlee is strongly supported and assisted in her work by Dr. M. A. Matthews of the First Presbyterian Church in Seattle. Her ability and the worthiness of her motives are well established by our observation as well as by various excellent testimonials. She is assisted here in collecting her boys by Mr. Yee On Lai, a Chinese of American birth, concerning whom only favorable reports have reached this office.Wong was eleven years old when he sailed from Hong Kong to the United States. His group of 30 Chinese students were on the steamship Minnesota. The ship departed Hong Kong on March 1, 1913, and picked up passengers in Shanghai, China and Yokohama, Japan, where Miss Greenlee came aboard.
On March 24, 1913, the ship arrived in Seattle, Washington. Greenlee and her students were news in the San Francisco Call, March 26.
Thirty Chinese HeldAdmission was granted to the students who were released to Rev. Mark Allison Matthews. The students are Chew Haw Sing, Fong Tan Jew, Jew Fook Wa, Ko Hing, Kung Mow, Kwan Fui Wai, Kwan Wing Yik, Kwan Wo Kwun, Lee Kee Tung, Lee Kwok Yew, Lee Kong Ngoon, Lee Soo Ching, Lew Lin Gong, Ma Hung, Ng Ah Yen, Ng Jow Leun, Tom Yee Kong, Wong Ak Kun, Wong Mow Sing, Wong Wa Ngoon, Wong Yen, Wong Yook Yee, Woo Ngui Shin, Woo Suey Jin, Yee Dip, Hui Sun Fong, Lau Fuk Tai, Mah Wai Shun, and Yung Tsan Sam.
Seattle, March 25.—The local United States immigration officials today refused admission to 30 Chinese boys who arrived here on the steamship Minnesota, bound for an Oakland, Cal., school, unless the Chinese should furnish a bond of $60,000. It is expected that the bond will be forthcoming. The boys are under the care of Miss Ida K. Greenlee, formerly an inspector of the University of Washington. These boys, she says, are the sons of the wealthiest families in Kwangtung province, China, and their tuition is paid by the Chinese government out of the Boxer indemnity fund.
Here is the transcript of Wong’s immigration interview on March 24, 1913.
Description: Age, 11; Height, 4' 6 3/4"; Large scar outer and right eyebrow, small scar and two small moles back of neck; Student, going to Ng Lee school, Oakland, California; Family name is Wong.At some point the Ng Lee School moved to San Francisco. In early 1914, Wong moved to Boston, Massachusetts where his address was the restaurant, Mon Yen Low, 34 Beach Street. At the restaurant he was a busboy. With postcards provided by Miss Greenlee, Wong was told to write to Mr. Monroe, an immigration officer in Seattle, and describe his activities. On the postcards and letters, Wong used his Christian name, Perry.
Inspector: Q What are your names?
Applicant: A Wong Yook Yee; I am not married; I am of the Wong family and have no other names.
Q Do you wish to have present during your examination an attorney or an independent interpreter?
Q Have you ever before been in the United States or tried to gain admission to this country?
Q How old are you and where were you born?
A I was born 15 day, 8th month, K.S. 28. I am now 11 years old. I was born in Chung Hen Lee village, Hoy Ping district, China.
Q Where are your parents and what are their names?
A My father’s name is Wong Lon Seong. He died in China three years ago. My mother’s name is Jew Shee. She is now living in my native village, in China.
Q Have you any sisters or brothers?
A One younger brother* and two younger sisters. My younger brother’s name is Nook Nay, 7 years old. My sister’s names are: Chuey Git, 10 years old; Fong Gay, 4 or 5 years old.
Q Where have you been living in China and what have you been doing?
A I have been attending 5 years Chinese school in my native village. Two months and a half in Ng Lee school, in Hong Kong, studying English.
Q Why are you coming to the United States now and how long do you expect to stay?
A Going to Ng Lee School, Oakland, California, and I don’t know how many years I will remain in this country. (Applicant recites the alphabet in English.)
Q What provision has been made for your support in this country?
A My cousin Ngong Suey will pay my expenses. He is a merchant on Wing Lock Street, Hong Kong, name of his firm is Kwong Yuen Co.
Q Do you know any persons now in the United States?
A Know Ong Sow, he is a merchant, member of the Chung Lung Co., Waverley Street, don’t know the number, San Francisco.
Q What arrangements has your cousin made for your support in this country?
A My cousin made arrangements with Miss Greenlee to bring me over to this country to attend school. He give Miss Greenlee five hundred dollars gold for me.
Q Have you any money with you?
A No, I have no money with me?
Q Have you a ticket to Oakland?
A No, I have not. Miss Greenlee will attend to that.
Q Who induced you to come to this country?
A My cousin Ngong Suey wanted me to come to this country.
Q How long do you expect to be here and what will you study?
A Go to English school. I don’t know how many years I will remain here. I am going to Ng Lee School in Oakland now.
Q Do you understand that during your stay in this country you must not engage in any laboring work in the United States and if you do you may be returned to China?
A Yes, I understand.
* Wong had an older brother but named a younger brother to create a slot for a paper son.
An oral history story said nuns visited Wong at the restaurant and told him he could work the rest of life in a restaurant or get an education for a better life. Wong enrolled in the Pierpont School then the Josiah Quincy School which was near Chinatown. In 1917 he attended the Northeastern Preparatory School. His talent for drawing was developing.
On September 12, 1918 Wong signed his World War I draft card. At the time he was working as a draftsman at the United Shoe Machinery Company in Beverly, Massachusetts. For about a year he was at Camp Eustis, Virginia, where he did Army construction.
After his discharge. Wong’s drafting skills led to a job at the architectural firm Coolidge & Shattuck in Boston. In 1920 Wong took a leave of absence from the firm to attend the Bromfield-Pearson School at Tufts College where he studied civil and structural engineering. After a year at school, Wong returned to Coolidge & Shattuck.
Wong enrolled in the School of Architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). In 1923 Wong received the F.W. Chandler Prize and the Triglyph Fraternity Prize for his architectural drawings. He was a member of the Chinese Students’ Club, Architectural Society and Rifle Club. The school’s publication, Technology Review, July 1925, said ten architecture students, including Wong, visited New York City and an architectural firm in May. Wong graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1925. His thesis project was “A Residence in the Greek Style”.
After graduation, Wong resumed his drafting job at the renamed firm Coolidge, Shepley, Bulfinch & Abbott. His assignments were drawing interior structures and ornaments. Some of the buildings he worked on include the Fabyan Building, New York Hospital and Cornell University Medical College, the Washington Building, and Harvard Medical School. One of his co-workers was Edward Durell Stone. In 1926 Wong was a junior member of the American Institute of Architects.
On March 11, 1929 Wong married Lee Sue Doy, a former Cantonese opera performer, with Lok Tin Tsau, whose husband, Chin Wing, had died of tuberculosis in October the previous year. She had two children. The newlyweds’ travel plan to China ran into problems with a tong according to the Boston Herald, March 25, 1929.
Police Guard Chinese CoupleA March 25, 1929 Immigration Service letter said Wong and his family traveled on the Boston & Maine Railroad and Canadian Pacific Railway to Vancouver, Canada, where they would sail, on March 30, aboard the steamship Empress of Russia to China.
Actress-Bride Who Defied Tong Starts with Husband for China
Are Placed Aboard Montreal Train
While leaders of the Hip Sing tong, police say, were secretly meeting to formulate a plan to delay the departure of Mrs. Loo Shue Yee [sic], pretty Chinese actress who defied tong laws, and her husband, Yee Yook Wong, graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the couple were placed aboard a Montreal-bound train under police guard yesterday morning.
Special Patrolmen Amelotte and Sullivan, of the Lagrange Street station, who protected the Chinese while they were packing their effects yesterday, met them at the Hotel Touraine, where they were taken after darkness Saturday night, and escorted them to the North station on the first lap of a trip intended to leave them at Nanking, China.
Special arrangements for the protection of Mr. and Mrs. Yee while enroute to the Canadian city, and from there to the city where they will embark for China, were made. The conductor of the Montreal train was informed of the facts, railway police were on hand and the passengers carefully scrutinized before the train left. None of the scores of strange Chinese noticed in Boston’s Chinatown Friday and Saturday were found. There is a powerful Hip Sing organization in Montreal and police feared that the Yees [sic] would suffer at their hands. The Chinese pair will not enter the city under present arrangements.
Meanwhile, Chinatown seethed as word of the defiance of Mrs. Yee, widow of a respected leader of the Hip Sing tong, Yen Shue [sic], went around. The Hip Sing tong headquarters at 23 Harrison avenue, and on Hudson streets, were filled with Chinese yesterday talking over the case.
Mrs. Yee had often declared to police that her life and the life of her husband were in danger as a result of her marrying the man of her choice long before the time limit, according to tong custom, had passed.
It is rumored that Yen Shue left a considerable sum of money which the tong lay claim to as funds of that organization. Mrs. Yee told police that tong leaders wanted to keep her in Boston for an immoral purpose, and that she had married her husband and decided to go to China, where he will be engaged in a reclamation and city planning project, to escape the law of the tong.
In Shanghai the Wong family went to Nanking (Nanjing) the capital of the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang. A national competition was held to design the new capital. In November 1929, Wong and Shinn-hong Howard Jee received a third prize award for their entry in the Nanking Capital Plan competition. First and second prizes were not awarded. Wong worked on other projects in Nanking. An oral history story said Madame Chiang Kai-shek sent her car to pick up Wong for an official event.
In 1930 Wong moved his family to Canton (Guangzhou). He was a professor at Lingnan University’s College of Engineering. (The university was originally called the Canton Christian College and is now known as Sun Yat-sen University.) Wong assisted American architect Henry Killam Murphy who designed the new engineering building known as Chit Sang Hall. Wong designed the New Girl’s Dormitory, also known as Moon Palace, which was finished in 1933. Wong’s projects in 1934 include the Canton Hospital (later renamed Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hospital) and the Hua An Hotel. Wong’s article, “How to Appreciate Good Architecture”, was published in the Journal of the Lingnan Engineering Association, June 1935. Photographs of Wong’s house are here.
When Japan invaded Canton in 1938, Wong moved his family to Hong Kong. He resigned from the university to work for the Nationalist government. In 1942 Wong was sent to an aircraft factory in Baoshan, Yunnan Province. On April 18, 1942 U.S. bombers attacked Japan in what is known as the Doolittle Raid, named after Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle who led the raid. In early May Japan retaliated by bombing Baoshan. On May 4 Wong was severely wounded and died at the age of 40. After the war his family returned to Canton.
It took about forty years for Wong’s family to settle in the United States. The American-born son and daughter went in 1947. The 1970s brought his wife and a daughter. Three more daughters and their families came in the 1980s. His son passed away in 2011. His five daughters visited China in 2014.
“Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion” was an exhibition at the New-York Historical Society from September 26, 2014 to April 19, 2015. One of the exhibits was an immigration office. In one of the filing cabinet drawers was a tablet with images of certificates of identity. The certificate of Wong’s wife, Lee Sue Doy, was included. The entire exhibition is now in San Francisco at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum.
That is the story of Wong Yook Yee. I am one of his sixteen grandchildren.
Two Accounts of Yook Yee Wong’s Death at Baoshan
(Next post on Friday: Sun Fong-Lin, Long Tack Sam and Paul Fung, 1926)