“Telling Untold Stories: Flo Oy Wong’s Whispers of the Past”
Melanie Anne Herzog
Flo Oy Wong’s art tells stories at once richly evocative and revelatory in their direct simplicity. Through multilayered imagery that incorporates a range of media – unlikely combinations of rice sacks, beads, sequins, embroidery thread, rice, photographs, Chinese funerary paper, paper, lee see (envelopes in which children are given money for the Chinese New Year), U.S. flags, suitcases, and the stuff of her subjects’ lives, along with fragments of text – Wong gives voice to unspoken narratives that are variously personal, familial, and communal. In the realm of the visual, her role is akin to that of the keepers of oral history across cultures, an invitation to join her, in the Chinese tradition of “talk story,” in hearing and sharing more personal revelations.
The stories of individual lives revealed in Wong’s art also more broadly illuminate United States social history and immigration policies, and the manifold contributions of ordinary working people of various ethnicities to the rich fabric of this country. Artist, art historian, and cultural critic Margo Machida writes, “As a communicative act, a work of art projects the maker’s images, ideas, and meanings into the sphere of social imagination, where it circulates among other conversations that overlap and cut across traditionally accepted lines of communication. In giving concrete form to an individual’s sensibilities and experience, art objects are readily perceptible points of identification capturing and extending the imagination of viewers, allowing them to better recognize aspects of themselves and their lives through engagement with the work.”(1) Historically grounded and culturally specific, Wong’s visual narratives also resonate across cultures and transcend the boundaries of ethnicity in a call and response that brings multiple voices into a shared telling of stories previously untold.
“For women of Chinese ancestry,” writes literary scholar and critic Amy Ling, “writing is not solely an act of self-assertion but an act of defiance against the weight of historical and societal injunctions.”(2) When an American artist of Asian descent – as Wong describes herself – finds her own voice as an artist in the stories of her family’s and others’ arrival in the United States, she restores voices to all those rendered mute by the process of migrating to and resettling in an unwelcoming land. Born in Oakland, California in 1938, Flo Oy Wong was the sixth of seven children born to Gee Seow Hong. After his first three were born in China, he came to the United States in 1912. When his first wife died – the mother of Wong’s oldest sister – Gee Seow Hong returned to China and entered into an arranged marriage with Gee Suey Ting, whose surname was Yee. He returned to the United States, leaving his new wife in China to care for his mother and his first daughter. Flo’s next two sisters were conceived during her father’s subsequent visits to their family village.(3) When Gee Suey Ting arrived in the United States in 1933 with their three daughters, her story became part of the larger narrative of Chinese immigrant experience – a humiliating process of detention and interrogation at the Angel Island Immigration Station that resulted from United States immigration policy in effect at that time.
By prohibiting Chinese wives from joining their husbands in America, the severely repressive 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and National Origins Act of 1924 restricted the settlement in the United States of Chinese laborers and their families – though merchants and students were welcome. Like many others, Wong’s mother came to the United States with false identification papers naming her not as her husband’s wife but as his paper sister and as paper aunt to her husband’s three children. When she became pregnant again the following year, she became paper wife to a man named Sheng Wong in order to give legal legitimacy to her U.S.-born child – poet Nellie Wong. Another daughter, Leslie, followed, and then Flo was born – the sixth daughter, followed by her brother, journalist William Wong. Although the children’s true identities and familial relations could be openly acknowledged in Oakland’s Chinatown, Wong and her siblings born in the United States carried the surname of their paper father in the outside world. To officials and the world outside of Chinatown, they identified their father as their uncle, while their sisters born in China called their mother “auntie.” Wong recalls growing up “with the prevalent fear of disclosure and eventual deportation, afraid that my citizenship would be rescinded.”(4)
The necessary subterfuge left a profound and enduring impression on Wong. “Lacking a sense of self,” she says now, “I have struggled throughout my life as daughter, wife and mother to create a path to me. When my children were still young, I took the first step on that path when I became an artist. For me to be an artist from a traditional transplanted Asian culture – which did not support self expression and which denied the value of females – is self enlightening.”(5)
She married Ed Wong in 1961. Their daughter Felicia was born in 1966 and their son Bradley arrived in 1968. During the late 1970s – the height of the feminist art movement that she claims as an inspiration - she began taking art classes. Emerging from her initial, uncertain attempts to find her voice as a woman artist of Chinese descent, her first major body of work, the Oakland Chinatown Series, was, she says, “Born of an unarticulated need to see myself portrayed in a non-stereotypical way.”(6) In its declaration of self – of presence, persistence, and survival, Wong’s work begins in what cultural critic and activist Lucy Lippard calls “Naming” - “the outward aspect of self-representation.”(7) At the same time, Wong mines what Lippard calls “the deeper ground of ‘Telling’ - the process of understanding and drawing strength from one’s past, one’s cultural history, beliefs, and values,” inextricably intertwined with Naming, “since they are the ways in which communal identity is forged and history is recomprehended.”(8) The images in her autobiographical Oakland Chinatown Series, begun in1983 as an exercise in depicting the human form, are taken from family photographs that became, in Wong’s words, “a vehicle to provide access to myself.”(9) Comprising thirty-five drawings, some made directly from individual photographs and others composites of several images, this series honors her immediate and extended family’s tightly interconnected lives and work as restaurateurs at the Great China Restaurant in Oakland from the 1940s into the 1960s. These carefully detailed, exquisitely realistic pencil drawings also disclose, from an insider’s perspective, a particular moment in the history of Chinese immigration and resettlement in the United States.
In later works, Wong interlays symbols, images, and materials redolent with memory as she honors her family and other Chinese immigrants. Her epic Eye of the Rice: Yu Mai Gee Fon, begun in 1986 and completed in 2000, like other work in her ongoing Asian Rice Sack Series, evokes the importance of rice as a primary staple for her family as well as its centrality in Chinese cuisine. Wong began cutting, reconfiguring, and sewing rice sacks together following an inspirational visit to the home of Bay Area sculptor Ruth Asawa, who was crocheting large-scale wire sculptures. “Something had awakened in me and was coming through my fingers,” she says.(10) Through the use of stitched media associated with “women’s work,” Wong pays tribute in this monumental assemblage – like a giant quilt, fifteen by twenty-six feet - to Chinese immigrants, particularly to the women who labored as textile workers in sweatshops and who sewed for their families at home. Her husband Ed remembers that his own great-aunt, Yuke King Lo, who used to sew zippers in garments, often brought home pieces to work on at night.
As she worked on the piece, however, a more personal story emerged. Eye of the Rice evokes a traumatic episode during Wong’s infancy, when her father was shot by a relative in a business dispute. While he recovered, relatives supported the family by bringing them sacks of rice (hence, the piece’s title, Yu Mai Gee Fon, which means in Cantonese “there is raw rice to cook dinner”). Eye of the Rice is embellished with embroidered fragments of text in English and Chinese that narrate, in suggestive phrases, the fragments of memory of this event that Wong has pieced together from her mother’s and older siblings’ retellings. Swirling across its surface, interconnecting these fragmentary writings, are conglomerations of beads, sequins, lee see, and various objects – such as a pocket watch similar to the one worn by Wong’s father that stopped the bullet intended for his body.
Retrieving and revealing these family secrets is, for Wong, terrifying but empowering. This process offers healing as well, for by piecing together incomplete narratives through bits of images and text Wong makes herself whole. In 1996 she turned again to family history with My Mother’s Baggage: Lucky Daughter. This mixed-media work, a “book” enclosed in an American Tourister suitcase, holds photographic images and text composed of cut out letters from magazines – like a ransom note - that Wong pieced together as she confronted the pain she felt as the unwanted sixth daughter, designated “lucky” because her birth was followed by that of a son. My Mother’s Baggage: Paper Sister/Paper Aunt/Paper Wife of 1998 expands her telling of her mother’s story in six suitcases meant to be read as a book, with photographs and cut and pasted narrative recounting the story of Wong’s mother’s and three eldest sisters’ detention at the Angel Island Immigration Station. She recalls her mother’s secretive telling and retelling of the experience of interrogation at Angel Island, the immigration station in use from 1910 to 1940 in San Francisco Bay: “It was dehumanizing. . . My mother talked about it her entire life – her entrance and how people suffered and what the Chinese went through. She’d elongate the story, embellish it, elaborate on it.”(11) These are fitting characterizations, indeed, of Wong’s own artistic practice.
Wong aptly describes herself as “a narrative artist, and I focus on personal stories – my family’s and my husband’s family’s.”(12) There are additional layers as well, meanings summoned by her media and processes of elaboration and embellishment – the time-consuming handwork, the assembling of bits and pieces into a whole - with which she has chosen to tell these stories. She variously cites as influences Robert Rauschenberg, Judy Chicago, and Faith Ringgold, all artists who bring together unexpected combinations of objects and substances to invoke the associations suggested by these materials.
“Eating rice – as a child as well as an adult – and the symbolic import of rice in Chinese culture and mythology both play a role in Wong’s fascination with rice sacks,” writes art historian and activist Moira Roth.(13) Rice is the substance of physical, cultural, and psychic survival that evokes the continuity from China to Chinese America. The Asian Rice Sack Series, Wong writes, “refers to individual and collective narratives about the Chinese experience in America.”(14) In Baby Jack Rice Story, begun in 1993, she decorated rice sacks with silkscreened photographic images and embroidered text as she commemorated her husband’s childhood in Augusta, Georgia’s African American community and his deep and enduring friendship with two neighbors, brothers Boykin and Cush Cade. In Kindred Spirit of 2001-2002 she utilized richly patterned Chinese brocade fabric, soy sauce-dyed rice sacks, and painstakingly beaded text to pay tribute to former Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was wrongly accused and imprisoned for nine months by the U. S. government for mishandling sensitive nuclear weapons data.
Incorporating rice sacks, rice, other foodstuffs, and joss paper, burned at traditional Chinese funerals to provide money for the departed to spend in the afterlife, Wong has also created installations that provide symbolic sustenance. Her Joss Paper Series of three installations (1992-1997) condemns anti-Asian violence, pays tribute to her unknown grandparents, and memorializes a former multicultural district in Cape Town, South Africa that was bulldozed during the final decade of apartheid.(15) A collaboration with Reese Crawford Tocho and Pamela J. Berry, two Omaha, Nebraska-based African American artists who also have Chinese American ancestors, Kente Rice Women: Talking Our Connection of 1997 was an installation that consisted of photographic images and a three-headed throne with a fourteen-foot-long skirt made of bands of Ghanaian Kente cloth and rice sacks. When originally exhibited, the skirt, pieced together like an African American strip quilt, draped from the throne onto the gallery floor; in subsequent exhibitions Kente Rice Skirt hangs on the wall, its majestic height bordered by small bags of black-eyed peas and rice that manifest these artists’ cross-cultural connection.(16)
Also in 1997, Wong embarked upon the creation of made in usa: Angel Island Shhh, an installation intended to pay tribute to her mother and her mother-in-law – who entered the United States claiming her brother as her son – and, she writes, “to promote healing from a shameful part of Chinese American history in the United States . . .”(17) Some of the stories entrusted to Wong by former Angel Island detainees, now quite elderly, and their descendants had not even been told to their families. Wong, a consummate listener, was deeply honored to be the first to hear them. Through their assent to have these untold stories rendered visible, she says, “They were allowing people to see a part of American history.”(18) The metaphor of rice as the essence of survival joins these stories of “paper people” into a collective whole in the rice sacks, bordered with red sequins, that Wong hand-stitched onto U.S. flags so that only the flags’ edges, also embellished with beads, are visible. Each of the twenty-five rice sacks features the name of the person whose story it discloses, and is bordered by two rows of hand-painted stenciled text, elaborated with red, white, and blue beads, that define the word “interrogate” and reveal the secret of the “paper person.” In recognition of the silences carried by those detained and interrogated at Angel Island, each secret is concealed in a small pouch sewn to the flag. Moira Roth writes of witnessing Wong and one of her sisters at an exhibition of the first seven flags in made in usa: “What had been private history in the families of Flo and Ed Wong was now public art. What had been threatening was now transformed into something celebratory.”(19) made in usa: Angel Island Shhh, which opened at the Angel Island Immigration Station in June 2000 and was shown at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 2003, also consisted of a portfolio of detainees’ written biographies and an audio recording in English and Cantonese of their whispered secrets.
All of these elements - photographs, biographical narratives, the material objects of peoples’ lives, embellished surfaces, and layers of evocative text, visually obscured and revealed like whispered, fragmentary memories buried and exposed over time – are at play in the installations created specifically for Wong’s exhibition at Sacramento, California’s 40 Acres Art Gallery. The installations are a part of the Gold Mountain project, a collaborative partnership between 40 Acres and the Sacramento Philharmonic. Through previously untold stories that demand careful listening, presented in visual form that is at once narrative and symbolic, Gold Mountain celebrates the historically important contributions of Chinese people to the state of California. The installation evokes the lives and work of four individuals from Sacramento and the Delta region: restaurateur Frank Fat, barber Ming Nee Mah, Chinese Air Force pilot William King, and Dr. Edna Mae Fong, the first Chinese American woman physician in Sacramento. Through a process Wong describes as a “collaborative retrieval,” relatives tell the stories of her subjects. These narratives, the core of Gold Mountain, pour forth “like a waterfall that has been sequestered in a teeny, tiny faucet.”(20)
Sharing space with these narratives are objects that contain and embody the stories being told. “There is a power in seeing an object from the past,” writes Japanese American artist Kristine Yuki Aono, who incorporated artifacts from several internment camps in her installation Relics From Camp in honor of the tenacity and resilience of Japanese Americans interned during World War II.(21) In collaboration with the Japanese American Museum in San José, Wong’s 1942: Luggage From Home to Camp also investigated and recounted the experiences of Japanese Americans incarcerated by the U.S. government in these internment camps. In a series of suitcases carried by the individuals whose experiences are represented, Wong assembled fragments of text, objects belonging to these individuals, photographs, and other materials invested with their stories. These suitcases were exhibited at the Japanese American Museum in a space replicating a barracks at one of the camps, with a stove from the Tule Lake camp and a barracks window – an installation that, in its scope and historical emphasis that is both documentary and interpretive, suggests a precedent for Gold Mountain.
Wong’s personal and family stories transcend the individual to embrace the communal. They offer further possibilities for reclaiming memories, breaking silence, broadening and deepening our understanding of the past, and establishing connections across cultural borders. Underscoring the power of voice in these individual and collective stories she says, “I like the idea of us telling our stories from the inside. We tell them so elegantly and beautifully. Our voices are really needed. We add to the enrichment of America.”(22) Through her art, Flo Oy Wong honors the stories of people’s lived experience - stories of resistance, healing, and personal and social transformation. As she continues to sow seeds of wisdom for future generations by keeping ancestral memory alive, she reminds us that we are the ancestors of the future.
(1) Margo Machida, “Visual Art and the Imagining of Asian America: An Editorial View,” in Elaine H. Kim, Margo Machida, and Sharon Mizota, Fresh Talk, Daring Gazes: Conversations on Asian American Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), xv.
(2) Amy Ling, Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry (New York: Pergamon Press, 1990), 1.
(3) Florence Wong, “There’s More to Being Chinese in America than Chop Suey: Narrative Drawing as Criticism in Oakland Chinatown,” in Pluralistic Approaches to Art Criticism, Doug Blandy and Kristin G. Congdon, eds. (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1991), 116. Also see Moira Roth, “Flo Oy Wong: made in usa, a story in three parts,” 2000. Available online at http://www.kearnystreet.org/AngelIsland/Pages/Project/MREssay.html. I am grateful to Moira Roth for her extensive research and documentation of the life and work of Flo Oy Wong and other underrepresented artists; see as well Kaleidoscope: An Exhibition of Ink Paintings and Drawings by Flo Oy Wong, Moira Roth and Diane Tani, eds. (Oakland, CA: Antonio Prieto Gallery, Mills College, and Berkeley: Visibility Press, 1992). Additional sources for this essay include my various conversations with Flo Oy Wong, and telephone interviews on June 26 and July 1, 2006.
(4) Florence Wong, “There’s More to Being Chinese in America than Chop Suey,” 119.
(5) Flo Oy Wong, quoted in Moira Roth, “Entering Unstable Ground: Chinatown, Oakland/Sunnyvale and Georgetown, Maine,” in Kaleidoscope, 14.
(6) Florence Wong, “There’s More to Being Chinese in America than Chop Suey,” 115.
(7) Lucy R. Lippard, Mixed Blessings: New Art in a Multicultural America (New York: Pantheon Books, 1990), 19.
(8) Lucy R. Lippard, Mixed Blessings, 56.
(9) Florence Wong, “There’s More to Being Chinese in America than Chop Suey,” 115.
(10) Telephone interview with Melanie Herzog, June 26, 2006; also see Moira Roth and Diane Tani, “Flo Oy Wong: A Narrative Chronology,” in Kaleidoscope, 73; and “Flo Oy Wong: Artist,” in Yellow Light: The Flowering of Asian American Arts, ed. Amy Ling (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 181.
(11) Kimberly Chun, “Secrets & Lies: A Sunnyvale Artist Sheds Light on Sacrifices by Asian Immigrants,” San Francisco Chronicle (Peninsula edition), October 23, 1998, “Friday” section, page 2.
(12) “Flo Oy Wong: Artist,” 179.
(13) Moira Roth, “Entering Unstable Ground,” 11.
(14) See Flo Oy Wong, “Asian Rice Sack Series,” available online at http://www.flo-oy-wongartist.com/gallery/asian/.
(15) See Flo Oy Wong, “Joss Paper Series,” available online at http://www.flo-oy-wongartist.com/gallery/joss/; also Moira Roth, “Flo Oy Wong, “made in usa.”
(16) See “Flo Oy Wong: Artist,” 191.
(17) Flo Oy Wong, “made in usa: Angel Island Shhh,” unpublished manuscript, c2000.
(18) Telephone interview with Melanie Herzog, June 26, 2006.
(19) Moira Roth, “Flo Oy Wong: made in usa, a story in three parts.”
(20) Telephone interview with Melanie Herzog, June 26, 2006.
(21) Kristine Yuki Aono, “Artist’s Statement,” in Relics from Camp: An Artist’s Installation by Kristine Yuki Aono and Members of the Japanese American Community (Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 1996), 7.
(22) “Flo Oy Wong: Artist,” 189.
Melanie Herzog is Professor of Art History and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. She holds an M.F.A in ceramics and a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Recent publications include Milton Rogovin: The Making of a Social Documentary Photographer (Center for Creative Photography and University of Washington Press, 2006); Elizabeth Catlett: In the Image of the People (Art Institute of Chicago and Yale University Press, 2005); “Mary Lovelace O’Neal: Painting Outside the Borders,” in Mary Lovelace O’Neal: A Retrospective (Jackson, MS: Mississippi Museum of Art, 2002); and Elizabeth Catlett: An American Artist in Mexico (University of Washington Press, 2000).