On the Round
© Anna X. L. Wong
Anna X. L. Wong
The two people who influenced and shaped me the most were my parents. I see a strong part of each of them in me. My father was born in Canton, China in the year 1918. He left China in the late 1930's as a young man under a false name in order to qualify for entry into his new homeland. He was allowed into the United States because many years earlier, his grandfather had settled in Oakland where he was running a small grocery store. When he arrived he lived with his aunt and uncle and was attending school when WW II broke out. My father immediately enlisted and was stationed in the Philippines. His work there was exclusively espionage which was always dangerous and which required him to be ever vigilant and on the move. My father was a complex man whose contrasting qualities allowed him to survive with his wonderful human outlook intact. He always felt akin to the earth and would do his tai chi outdoors and take time to admire the nature around him when he would go on his numerous rural outings. He was an easy-going, carefree person who was full of laughter. He always had plans and schemes on how to become a successful entrepreneur, but more often than not, they never came to fruition.
As soon as WW II ended my father sent for his soon-to-be wife from China and she arrived in 1946. Theirs was an arranged marriage by a village matchmaker and they had never met until she set foot in America. Shortly after this meeting they were married in San Francisco and proceeded to set up a home in Chinatown. This was a relationship rich in contrast from its onset.
My mother was also born in Canton, China in the year 1922. Before my mother arrived in the states she went to school as well as teaching herself the art of handwork at which she developed an expertise in numerous disciplines. As a woman, it was important to have these skills. After all, she was a picture bride whose value was greatly enhanced by her abilities in her unique crafts. Once in the states the only jobs available to her were in the Chinatown sweatshops. She methodically worked her way upward over the decades until finally landing a position working for a non-Chinese owned garment manufacturer. She was soon to discover that the exploitation and poor wages in the industry transcended racial and ethnic barrier.
Sewing was her life. She was able to look at a piece of clothing and make a duplicate without a pattern. She could also knit, crochet and embroider with the most intricate and beautiful detail. My mother was well organized and a total disciple of self discipline She was conservative and very traditional and always stayed in the secured confines of Chinatown. She rejected American culture as crass and barbaric and rarely ever mingled with anyone who was not 1OO% Chinese. As a mother, she was often devoted, attentive, caring and instructive. It was at these times that I reaped the invaluable benefits of her immense talent and ceaseless self discipline. From this powerful woman, I have acquired unique self discipline and exceptional skills in an endless variety of handcrafts as well as a critical eye for detail.
My father, on the other hand, was always the dreamer. He enjoyed life to the fullest in America and accepted and often embraced much of its cultural differences without question. He was always on the move with some new business idea which he was as likely as not to establish in the non-Chinese community. As a child, I worked in his Geary Street downtown restaurant and consequently met and enjoyed many of his American friends and customers. My father loved to travel and go on elaborate family outings to landmarks and parks around northern California. He was our family's connection to the outside world, a talent that came naturally to him and one that he enjoyed and employed with the greatest of zeal. From this unusual man, I am blessed to have acquired a light and carefree spirit that prepares me to jump at the opportunity for any new and exciting adventure. He has given me my spirit and my freedom.
I was born in San Francisco in the year of the rat, 1948. Being the eldest of three, I carried many responsibilities upon my shoulders. I did the laundry, the sweeping, the ironing and helped with the cooking. I often helped my mother at the sweatshop, cutting thread and trimming corners off the collars. I can remember the sounds of chattering voices, the humming of sewing machines and the click clack of the scissors. And always there was food. The smell of salted fish and thousand year old eggs. I still relish them to this day. As I grew older and began to help my father at his restaurant, a new and different world opened up to me. The odors and sounds were no longer Chinese and the room was alive with conversation and loud laughter. Working in both worlds shaped me into a curious, observant, open-minded, hard working and talented young woman. I learned to do delicate and meticulous work with my hands and to be an open, accepting free spirit with my heart.
Another strong influence on my artistic development occurred in the mid to late 60's, when I began to venture out on my own into the new beat and hippie communities. This was a magical experience with the be-ins, the free concerts on the Panhandle (including a young and beautiful Jimi Hendrix), the Fillmore and the Avalon ballrooms, Haight Street, Upper Grant, Flower power, free love and endless adventures around northern California on the back of a motorcycle. Such moments make the free spirit into the free artist. This was a time of freedom and love and one of my greatest moments.
In the 70's, I went on to attain a degree in art from San Francisco State University and began teaching troubled teenagers art and reading at Opportunity High School in San Francisco. My students, whose primary interest was survival, not education, taught me the importance of art in all forms of education. They needed someone that they could trust implicitly to listen to their inner-most fears and aspirations. This experience gave me the power to teach anyone under any conditions. When Richard Nixon opened up travel to China, I was among the first to go with my mother in 1973. It was the experience of a lifetime. All the beautiful places and incredible people, especially my relatives in my parent's home village, brought home the importance of my cultural roots. This journey marked a turning point in my already tense relationship with my mother. Upon my return, much to my parents' dismay, I announced my choice to marry my long time soulmate, Tommy Langlois in the summer of 1974. This was a time of both sorrow and joy as I further declared my independence from my family and my culture.
Since then, I have co-owned for thirteen years a successful retail/wholesale corporation while raising four exceptionally talented and beautiful children. In 1990, I began teaching Chinese bilingual kindergarten at Jefferson Elementary School in Berkeley. I use art everyday in the classroom to prepare my young students for their future. Art is an effective and amazing tool for learning of all kinds as it allows children the freedom to grow in both knowledge and self confidence.
These life experiences and my parents as role models have honed the artist who blossomed inside me at an early age. Now as I reflect on my life, my powerful driving force to create comes from within my inner sanctum and its source is endless. I must create to be alive. To be alive is to create.
All text and artwork © Anna X. L. Wong.