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Last of the Mohicans

Updated: Dec 14, 2023


Allen Wong. Conte crayon on paper. Meydenbauer Bay, 2023

My father in law Allen Wong celebrated his 99th birthday this past April. He was born and raised in the tiny Chinese American community of Astoria, Oregon. He called himself the last of the Mohicans because so many of his friends and family have passed away over the years.


Grandpa Allen has always been an audiophile. As a youth, he used to get his speakers together to arrange informal dance parties with his buddies, so that the community could have some fun together. 


Grandpa Allen signed up with his big brother Byron to serve in the US military during World War II, despite active discrimination against Chinese immigrants through legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act and later, the Immigration Act of 1924. He ended up serving in the US Navy Sea Bees from 1943 to 1946, and received a US Congressional Gold Medal for his service in 2021.


Loving


After the war, Allen was introduced through his Oregon family contacts to a girl in Hong Kong from a good family. Nancy Yee Bik Yin was born in the same home village as Allen’s own Grandpa George had been, in Hoi Ping, Canton. Allen spoke their native Toisanese dialect, but couldn’t read or write Chinese characters. Nancy couldn’t write much English, and so they corresponded with each other through letters that were read to them by family. 

The Greatest Generation knew that life was full of hardship and that was okay

Allen traveled to Hong Kong in 1956 to meet and marry his picture bride, and brought Nancy Wong back to live in Portland Oregon. Nancy could barely speak any English when she first arrived in the US, but she bravely got on with life, and they soon had a lively family of five children: Andy, Angela, Cheryl, Howie and Lennie. 


Wong Family c. 2015. Dr Em personal archives.

Grandpa Allen and Grandma Nancy were an exemplar of the Greatest Generation. They knew that life was full of hardship and that was okay. They were devoted to their family, and believed that they could survive anything through hard work and sacrifice. Theirs was a typical Asian American family story - getting through by being resourceful, frugal, and by putting education first.  



Living


I was immediately drawn to Grandma Nancy when I first met her in the 1980s. She had the kind of natural warmth and friendliness that embraced everyone she met, Her hospitality invited you in with laughter and enticing kitchen smells. She seemed genuinely delighted to be able to converse with me in Cantonese. She told me all about her life in Hong Kong and how she had started medical school in Beijing, but was unable to finish because of the Cultural Revolution.  


I couldn’t help responding to her lively generous spirit, despite my natural tendency to be shy and reserved around strangers. Grandpa Allen followed our conversation in Cantonese and chimed in with Toisanese which I wasn’t able to understand, but that didn’t deter him. It has taken decades for me to become more comfortable with the level of social intimacy that is the norm in my husband’s family. But I’ve come to appreciate how rare and precious it can be to belong to such a closely knit tribe.


In 2004, we celebrated Grandpa Allen’s 80th birthday, the same year that my own grandpa had his 90th birthday. I was struck by the contrast between these two men. One was mighty and powerful on the political stage, having earned broad respect through his industrial prowess and contributions to his country. The other had created an equally powerful impact by serving his country and imparting his values to a family that was deeply unified, harmonious and loving.


We are at our best when we are in service to others

Over the years, Grandpa Allen and Grandma Nancy taught me many valuable lessons on the importance of character. In an era when our world seems overwhelmingly complex, their reality had a simplicity and innocence that was all about honesty, integrity and love. They valued service, believing that we are at our best when we are in service to others. And they always lived humbly and modestly, bearing whatever trials each day brought with stoicism and acceptance. 


Mates for Life. Acrylic on canvas, ArtjammingHK 2017. 

Grandpa Allen usually had the latest set up in home entertainment gear. He loved classical music and Nat King Cole. He was a keen bargain hunter at garage sales and always had a friendly word or more for anyone who crossed his path at the bank, library or local Fred Meyer. 


Grandpa Allen died as he lived this past week, drawing his family together in an ever closer embrace. It’s been beautiful to witness how gently the space is being held for his wise and kind spirit, whose immense legacy will always be with us. I am comforted by the thought of all the other Mohicans and angels who were gathered quietly on the other side to welcome him home with open arms.



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