The new edition of Fifth Chinese Daughter by Jade Snow Wong includes a new introduction by Leslie Bow, Professor of English and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of ‘Partly Colored’: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South. Prior to the book’s publication in the fall of 2019, Jade’s son Mark Stuart Ong sent Professor Bow a letter that gave more insight into his mother, especially in the context of Leslie’s introduction and the legacy of Jade Snow Wong’s book. The following is a reproduction of Mark’s letter, with permission from its author.
Your introduction reminded me of Rashomon. Nothing remains of that Kyoto gate except for a stone marker. The site reveals nothing about the story. In the same way, it’s hard to find a single narrative about Jade Snow Wong. However, her book is a gate and it still stands.
My mother grew beyond the young woman in Fifth Chinese Daughter. Over a sixty-year career, she balanced service to her parents and mother-in-law, her role as a wife and mother, her artistic goals, and her multi-pronged career. She also had to face how Chinatown and the world changed decade by decade.
The response to Fifth Chinese Daughter and her pottery may have been tainted with murky issues—racial stereotyping, fascination with Asia in the mid-twentieth-century, the reception of Asian American women (as opposed to the men), and the popularity of the memoir. You described scholars who felt that Jade Snow Wong packaged Chinatown and her family for white America. They accused her editor, Elizabeth Lawrence, of fostering a book that supported white stereotypes. Those opinions weren’t based on any facts of my mother’s life. Fifth Chinese Daughter expresses its author’s truth.
I’d especially like to address three areas: the authenticity of her name, the complex meaning of Chinatown, and the role her husband played.
The Name Jade Snow Wong
My mother’s given name was Jade Snow Wong ( 黃玉雪). Each of her ceramic bowls was incised with the ideograph jade, 玉, when the clay was still soft. Her name was an indelible part of her work.
Some have portrayed her use of the third-person as false modesty, but they are not looking at the dilemmas of a second-generation Chinese woman born in 1922 to a nineteenth-century father. The curtain she drew over many aspects of her family life—such as the existence of the first wife (a woman she never knew and who likely wasn’t mentioned often)—was a necessary decision for her. Her Chinese name was her passage between a Chinese home and an American arena. It enabled her to talk about the hermetic world of Chinatown without bringing embarrassment or shame, and it allowed her to be modest before her parents and glamorous before her audience. She steadfastly maintained a distinction between public and private all her life.
San Francisco Chinatown
Chinatown is not homogeneous, its residents depend on the outer world for income, and much of Chinatown functions as a tourist attraction. Grant Avenue could mean the glamor of the Imperial Palace Restaurant that hosted Hollywood and political celebrities. It could be the street where Jade Snow Wong went shopping on a nearly daily basis, saying hello to various people to whom she was distantly related. It could be the place of gang shootings. Fifth Chinese Daughter was Jade Snow Wong’s view of her own home community.
My mother was keenly interested in the differences between Chinese and American culture. She habitually tried to parse those differences during conversations. As much as people might imagine her as a guide to Chinese culture, she also performed the opposite role. She took my grandmothers to medical appointments, interceded when relatives had trouble interacting with the American world, and helped immigrant Chinese get established in the United States. She was an intermediary on both sides of Chinatown’s borders.
My father was born in 1916. His Chinese name was Deng Huazhan (鄧華湛). I live with his ceramics and his silversmithing, and I wonder what happened in the years before I was born. At first, he tried to be an artist along with my mother. If he had intended to make a career as a craftsperson, it didn’t happen. He gradually sublimated himself to my mother—mastering metal spinning to make the copper forms she enameled, keeping the books and managing the business, and acting as a salesperson. When my parents were offered the chance to become travel agents and lead tours to Asia, my mother hoped that might allow my father to have his own role in business. The denouement of that came in the last month of my father’s life. He demanded that my mother learn all the aspects of the business—the accounting and banking, getting accreditation with the airlines, and writing plane tickets. It was overwhelming and it added to her grief. When you met her in 1987, my father had been dead a mere two years. As I wrote to you before, she said: “Every day since Woody has died has been drudgery.”
Some part of Jade Snow Wong’s success was due to the way Chinese American women are seen in American society. Some part of Woody Ong’s disappointment was due to the way Chinese American men are torn down in American society. My father long endured being called “Mr. Jade Snow Wong.” I cannot gauge how much he suppressed his own ambitions or swallowed his own disappointment. I look at his ceramics and his silver pieces and wonder what he would have been if his hopes had also been rewarded.
What’s Worth Saving?
From childhood, every authority figure—parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, ministers, teachers, and shop owners—declared the same rule to me: “You are forever Chinese. Don’t bring shame to your people. Preserve Chinese culture. Don’t try to change it.”
What do we keep of our Chinese American heritage? We may not be able to preserve Chinatown as a distinct neighborhood. Most of the people mentioned in Fifth Chinese Daughter, as well as its author, are dead. China itself has modernized and Chinese immigration to the United States is drastically different from the 1950s. In the ensuing years, I hope that readers realize that Jade Snow Wong is her true name and identity, that Chinatown is a living community, and that it often takes loyalty and support for a person to be successful.
Jade Snow Wong’s bowls remain and her book will be here for future readers. They will still find a deeply human story in Fifth Chinese Daughter. In the Rashomon din, we should especially give room to Jade Snow Wong’s own voice. I appreciate your effort to preserve her work.
Mark Stuart Ong is Jade Snow Wong’s eldest son. He is a book designer, art director, and publishing consultant living in San Francisco.