Canadian Genealogy · Family history stories

The holiday read: “Finding Mr. Wong” by Susan Crean

In Finding Mr. Wong, Susan Crean (b. 1945; Toronto, Ontario, Canada) weaves together the histories of two significant men in her life: her grandfather Adam Gordon Campbell Crean, a second-generation Irishman from County Roscommon; and Gordon’s cook-cumconsigliere (see below), Wong Dong Wong (黃宗旺) (pinyin: Huang Zong Wang) (1895-1970), a first-generation Chinese from Taishan County. Their stories come together in Toronto, Canada. To get a sense of the geography at play, here’s a map showing (left to right) Toronto, Canada; Co. Roscommon, Ireland; and Taishan, China.

The setting for most of her memories was her grandparent’s large Rosedale home at No. 13, Old Forest Hill Road.

The heart of the story is the relationship between Ms. Crean and Wong. Wong was about fifty years old when Ms. Crean was born, and Wong gave her a diminutive: Sun-sii. Walking back in memory, Ms. Crean looks again at Wong’s life. Who was he, really? Where and when was he born? Why did he choose to work for the Crean family, and more broadly, why choose to come to Canada at all? What was life like for him? In doing so, Ms. Crean explores Wong’s interactions with her family, the community, and the broader background of Canada’s history of Chinese immigration. She found that Wong Dong Wong arrived in Canada in 1911 and paid the $500 head tax. Seventeen years later, he joined the Crean household, and stayed until his retirement. In Finding Mr. Wong, Ms. Crean fuses memories and research to create a compelling whole.

Every researcher will recognize the pattern of discovery. Each partial answer to a question begets more questions. Some avenues of inquiry are nearly impossible to answer, while help comes from surprising places. Some questions thought impossible are actually possible. Ms. Crean is a gifted and sympathetic writer whose perspective skillfully weaves the Crean and Wong emigration stories together, Ireland and China, tracing the push factors of famine and political strife to drive people to leave their homelands. As a writer and researcher myself, I appreciated the nuances in storytelling between hard facts and soft guesses, and the question mark of what to say when the story was unknowable. It’s this need – the need to step away from what one can research and into the treacherous territory of what one can only known emotionally – that highlights the quality of Ms. Crean’s writing. For example, in this quote she wonders how Wong came to work for the Creans in 1928:

“If you are ever looking for work, come and see me” Gramp may have said, or maybe he did the calling when he was thinking of buying the house and realized the extent to which my grandmother, by then in her mid-fifties, needed help running it.

Finding Mr. Wong, pg. 4

At the same time, the genealogist in me appreciated this section, where Ms. Crean is talking about the General Register of Chinese Immigration.

Photocopies of the relevant pages in the Register arrived in the mail from the National Archives one spring morning in 2008… Scanning down the left-hand column of names, Wong’s government name “Wong Jong Wong” materializes, the cumulated information stretching out side by side in rows like graves. The script is cramped and hard to read in spots, and you immediately sense the writer’s exasperation with the tonality of Chinese names, and the desperation behind the litany of physical detail, descriptions that read like the crude attempts to identify individuals in a sea of (perceived) Asian similarity they were. Eventually I tumble to the meaning of the Fees Paid column (the head tax) and, despite the banality of the document, to the fact that it describes the Canadian government numbering and measuring a group of would-be immigrants in order to discriminate against them.

Seeing the name of someone close to you in a lineup like that is disorienting. It personalizes history in an instant – and leaves you shaken. But who besides a few scholars has ever seen the Chinese Register?

Finding Mr. Wong, pgs. 36-37

Today, Wong Jong Wong’s record is freely available at Library and Archives Canada’s Immigrants from China database lookup. Try it out. I found him readily.

I’d like to say a few words about privilege in this context. There is an enormous risk in an autobiography of this type: the over-reliance on the first person point of view, and the under-reliance on the subject’s point of view. When the writer is white and the subject Chinese, the risk increases and a writer too often falls into a tourist view of their experience: Look at me. I’m experiencing culture. You don’t have to be white to have privilege. My first experience in writing for an audience was when I went travelling 1999-2001 and today I shrink at the overt Canadian privilege that runs through my narratives.

This one-sided view is especially strong in stories about Chinese in Canada, England, the United States, and every country where the media’s gaze has been controlled by the dominant culture. In Finding Mr. Wong, Ms. Crean was acutely aware of this dynamic, and worked hard to acknowledge and mitigate her privilege as the granddaughter of Wong’s employer. To appreciate her achievement is to recognize how little research exists – none? – about the Chinese men who worked for white households in Canada. I read the first third of Finding Mr. Wong before I felt myself relaxing, thinking, She gets it. Wong was a true consigliere, a keeper of secrets and an extraordinary administrator, and also a man with agency. He had his work, and he had his private life.

Finding Mr. Wong was published in 2018, and appears to be Ms. Crean’s eighth book. It is deeply informed by good research, by interviews, and by several overseas trips taken to both Ireland and China, as Ms. Crean traced her family roots. Wong was family to Ms. Crean, and a family historian inevitably realizes the next step in the process of learning about your family is going to the place from where they came. I won’t tell you how she found his village, but she did, and we are the better for the journey.

Is there a better term than “houseboy”?

In the 1920s, the common term for adult male Chinese servants in Canadian households was houseboy (always lower case). Why houseboy, I wonder? Why not servant, or better yet, butler? If not butler, what about footman? At least there’s a “-man” in footman. The media had no trouble using “-man” in the context of Chinaman, so why houseboy? I did some searching for the term in old newspapers and found – brace yourself – Mexican, Chinese, Korean, Jap [sic], and native [sic] houseboys. I think we can agree that the use of houseboy when referring to full grown adult men was not meant to be complimentary or respectful.

In her book, Ms. Crean discussed the pejorative nature of this term and avoided it, but had trouble finding a good substitute for the central role Wong played. Personally, I lean toward consigliere. Aside from the criminal overtones, a consigliere is a trusted adviser, a keeper of secrets, and a superior administrator. Wong was all of these and more. Reflecting on what Wong meant to her grandfather, “Gramp,” Ms. Crean wrote:

What can I conclude about Gramp and Mr. Wong beyond the fact they shared something more than a work relationship. My father saw it as a shared philosophy of life and and understanding of human nature that united them.

Finding Mr. Wong, pg. 89

And while Wong was important to Gramp, he was essential to Gran. His invisible talents became apparent as she grew more senior and Wong approached retirement.

Gran owed her independence to Wong – not just to cook meals, but as the other half of her daily life… Gran’s “independence” would be over when Wong retired.

Finding Mr. Wong, pgs. 142, 143.

For the Creans, Wong was confidante, chef, housekeeper, butler, babysitter, and after the death of Gramp, primary care worker for Gran. For Ms. Crean, Wong was more, the one who made growing up at Gran’s possible, who guided and influenced. There are many books and shows about life in service, but very few about Asian consiglieres: the Pink Panther’s Cato, and the Green Hornet’s Kato (and naturally neither is meant to reflect real life). In Finding Mr. Wong, Ms. Crean offers an intimate portrayal of a rare relationship and we are the better for it.

Afterword

I enjoyed every aspect of Finding Mr. Wong. It was a pleasure to read a book which expertly tackled the big and small themes, from racism to relationships, privilege and poverty, family and the childhood memories that are unforgettable.

As you can see, a title carries weight, and as genealogists we respect the power of names. In this piece I opted to call Mr. Wong by his surname, Wong, and dropped the “Mr.” in the British tradition of calling servants by their surnames. Similarly, I am following the convention of calling a published author by a title: in this case “Ms.” Crean instead of by her given name of Susan, as I have no relation to her and this is a public blog, both of which call for a bit more formality.

What’s coming up?

I’m excited to be close to releasing my new project.

There’s growing curiosity about Chinese genealogy but there are only a handful of recorded resources to help the would-be historian. Over the years I’ve done dozens of talks, and I think a collection of videos, complete with transcripts, slide decks and notes, would be a wonderful resource to offer. I’ll be releasing the collection to a select group for free access beta-testing before a wider release to subscribers. What do you think? Curious about genealogy? Want to get in on the beta-testing? Let me know!

Thank yous

Thanks to my friend Margaret S, who saw a story she thought I’d enjoy and sent it to me. Thanks also to Susan Crean and to Wong Dong Wong, for their stories.

References

Susan Crean, Finding Mr. Wong, 1st ed. (Vancouver, British Columbia: Talon Books, 2018).

Canada, Immigrants from China,[online database], Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa, Ontario. Available at link. The Immigrants from China database contains data on the 97K+ names of Chinese who were processed by Canadian Immigration and listed on The General Register of Chinese Immigration, 1885-1949, plus selected digitized collections of Chinese Immigration export certificates (C.I.9s) which a Chinese person, regardless of place of birth, required in order to leave the country and return. Thus, the Immigrants from China contains information on Chinese who immigrated to Canada and for Chinese who were born in Canada.

7 thoughts on “The holiday read: “Finding Mr. Wong” by Susan Crean

  1. Hi Hilda, Happy New Year and thank you so very much for writing. Do please feel free to come back and comment after you’ve had a chance to read the book. As for the archives, well, do I have something for you! If you’re not sure how to use the archives, or would like a demo, I run a monthly free Chinese Genealogy chat. If you are interested, it’s next Thursday at 10 am Pacific. Please just let me know.

    1. You’re welcome! That sounds familiar! I recently saw something about an event on a Thursday and registered for it but now I can’t find it! I also neglected to mark it on my calendar. Please do send more info. And thank you so much for mentioning it! My memory is going (literally). I would love to attend to learn more. BTW, I just tried to find my grandfather’s record and was successful!

      1. That’s fabulous! I can’t wait to hear all about it. I will send you an invite by email, if that’s alright with you. Sadly we can’t post open invites on the internet for fear of being spammed. I hope you can make it tomorrow.

  2. As always, a wonderful post, Linda. And shining a bright light on past [disrespectful] views of the Chinese immigrants in our midst. This book seems well worth while finding and reading – it’s available in the Vancouver Public Library – and one of the copies is currently at my local library!. Happy New Year 2022!!

    1. Hi Celia, HNY! Thank you so much for reading my post. I’d love to know what you think after you find a copy at the library.

  3. In Finding Mr Wong, Susan Crean has written a very personal story that reveals so much about Mr Wong and yet leaves you wondering about what more there was to this person. His story is but one page in a book that continue to be written.

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