By Elaine Dunn, April 2021

 

It came as a pleasant surprise to Donald Wong when a relative notified him of the Congressional Gold Medal for WWII Chinese American veterans.  He submitted the application for his deceased father Tom Younom Wong online – a relatively painless process, he said.

Donald and his family are thankful to those who put in motion and pushed through the process for getting the Congressional Gold Medal awarded.  “It seems long overdue,” Wong said.  “It would have been much better if it had happened while the majority of the vets were still alive.  Had Tom lived to see it, he would certainly have been extremely grateful and proud.”

Sure, Donald knew his father served during World War II.  But, like most veterans of that war, his father did not talk much about his war experience, at least not while he was still living in Minneapolis.

Tom Wong was born in Guangdong Province China, in 1916.  He arrived in Seattle at age 19 aboard the steamer Empress of China.  He was “processed” in Seattle, which entailed lengthy and detailed interviews by U.S. Immigration officials to ascertain the authenticity of his identity and his relationship to his father and other relatives.  Tom’s father, a U.S.-born Chinese American, was living in St. Cloud, Minn., at the time, also underwent equally grueling interrogation sessions.  After Tom was admitted to the U.S. legally, he traveled to St. Cloud to join his father.

On July 18, 1942, Tom was inducted into the U.S. Army Air Force and did his basic training in Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas.  He was deployed with the 28th Air Depot Group to Burma where he served in a support role, mostly cooking, his children surmised.  They thought their father was probably struggling with English at the time, which limited the duties for which he was qualified.  Tom was honorably discharged on Jan. 28, 1946 at Camp McCoy, Wis., with the rank of Corporal.  He received the American Theater Service Medal, Asiatic Pacific Theater Service Medal as well as the Good Conduct Medal.

Tom married Helen Ma, 10 years his junior, who was from a neighboring village in Guangdong Province, in Hong Kong in 1947.  Why Hong Kong?  The American Consulate General, Hong Kong, stated that under the War Brides Act, Helen is entitled to entry to the U.S. if accompanied by her husband.  Approximately three months after their wedding, Helen was admitted to the U.S. in San Francisco.  Tom and his new bride returned to St. Cloud.

The young family moved around the state in the early 1950s - New Prague, St. Paul, Faribault (where they owned and operated the OK Café).  Donald thinks his parents were looking for a small town to open a Chinese restaurant.  Finally, in 1960, the family (four kids by then) settled in Minneapolis where Tom and Helen owned and operated the Sun Hing Café until 1967, at 4809 Nicollet Avenue S. In addition to owning and operating the Sun Hing Café for several years, at various times, Tom also worked at Howard Wong's, the Nankin Cafe and the Red Dragon Restaurant, while Helen also worked as a seamstress at Munsingwear.  Helen became a naturalized citizen in 1965.

After retiring, Tom and Helen moved to California to be with two of their children and grandchildren, of course!  Tom passed away in 2004 and Helen passed away in 2008.

Theirs was a typical Chinese American immigrant story.  They rose from humble beginnings, overcame immigration hurdles, worked long and hard to sustain a family, put all four kids through college, and were solid citizens throughout.  Not to mention Tom’s service to his country during WWII.  A worthy member of “The Greatest Generation.”

 

The writer’s source, Donald Wong, spent more than 10 years as an architect before receiving recognition in photography from the American Institute of Architects.  He then transitioned to a freelance architectural photography career centered in Minnesota that included contributing to Architecture Minnesota magazine and seven international journals.  After 25 years, he continues to pursue the light in retirement.  

  

Keywords:  Chinese American, Chinese American veterans, WWII veterans, OK Café, Sun Hing Café,

CGM WOngTom 202105 1

Tom Wong in uniform.

CGM WOngTom 202105 2

Wong at the OK Café, Faribault.

CGM WOngTom 202105 3

The Wong clan in 1989:

Tom and Helen in front row, left and middle.  Their children and children’s families are in the back row, from left, sons Donald, David, and Jeannie (in pink) and Patricia (in white patterned top). 

 

 

 

 

 

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