Fifth Chinese Daughter, 1950
No Chinese Stranger, 1975
A pioneering voice in Asian American literature, Jade Snow Wong was born to a large family of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco in 1922. As described in her first autobiography, Fifth Chinese Daughter, she grew up in a large building that served as her family’s home and its sewing factory, which specialized in denim overalls. She attended American public schools and excelled there, twice skipping a grade and graduating from high school with honors at the age of sixteen. By attending Chinese school in the evenings and receiving private lessons from her father, she also became familiar with Chinese customs, language, and culture. By her own account, her father was the strongest influence on her life: In many ways traditionally Chinese, insisting on firm discipline and his absolute authority in the home, he was also an iconoclast of sorts, a devout Christian convert who stayed in America because he admired its more enlightened attitude toward women.
Striving to reconcile her American and Chinese values, Wong gradually asserted her own independence, insisting on the right to see her own friends whenever she wanted, resisting pressure for an early marriage, and resolving to go to college even without her parents’ financial support. Unable to afford the University of California, she attended San Francisco Junior College for two years; then, after a friend arranged a meeting with the president of Mills College, she was offered a job and scholarship that enabled her to attend that college and graduate in 1942. While she majored in economics and sociology, an art class in her senior year inspired a lasting interest in making pottery and ceramics. After working as a secretary during World War II, she decided on a career as a potter and writer. Opening a small pottery business, where she worked in a storefront window, she was quickly successful: Her products sold well, received national awards, and were exhibited in prominent galleries. She also published two magazine articles about her family, which led to an offer from Harper and Row to write her autobiography. Right before it was published in 1950, she married Woody Ong, an old family friend.
Fifth Chinese Daughter proved a spectacular success, both in the United States and abroad, for two reasons: Its careful descriptions of foods, rituals, and decorations subtly evoked the characteristics of Chinese life, and its narrative dramatically conveyed the struggle of a young woman to harmonize two disparate cultural influences. Because of the book’s popularity, Wong and her husband were sent by the U.S. State Department in 1953 on a speaking tour of several Asian countries. In Hong Kong she met some of her family’s relatives, and elsewhere in Asia she became aware of the different problems faced by Chinese immigrants in other countries. Surprisingly, despite her obvious talents and growing reputation, she did not pursue a career as a writer; instead, she continued to maintain and expand her pottery business, and in 1957, she and her husband also launched a travel agency, personally leading tourists on extended visits to Asian countries. Her time was also occupied by a traditional Chinese family life, as she chose to accept her husband’s authority and personally raised their four children. For a long time, her only writing took the form of occasional magazine articles and a column in The San Francisco Examiner.
In 1972, after President Richard Nixon’s diplomatic initiatives, Wong and her husband were finally able to visit mainland China, a stimulating experience that reaffirmed her enduring connections to both Chinese and American culture. She soon published a second autobiography, No Chinese Stranger, which described her life in the 1950’s and 1960’s before focusing on her trip to China. This book was not as popular as its predecessor, perhaps because it was not infused with the personal and cultural tensions that made Fifth Chinese Daughter so involving; instead, it was more like a well-written travel book. For a while, Wong again enjoyed a high public profile: In 1976 she returned to Mills College to receive an honorary doctorate in humane letters; she served from 1975 to 1981 as a member of the California Council for the Humanities, and from 1978 to 1981 she was the director of the Chinese Culture Center. Following her husband’s death in 1985 she became less visible, though she continued to lead annual tours to China and wrote a new introduction for the 1989 edition of Fifth Chinese Daughter. Wong, at the age of 84, died in San Francisco on March 16, 2006.
Wong’s firm commitment to Chinese traditions may make her seem old-fashioned to modern Asian Americans, but she must be credited for her remarkable achievements in an era of few opportunities for both women and Asian Americans, and for her willingness to examine both Chinese and American culture critically.