My paternal great grandfather was a merchant and arrived in America from Taishan, China, around 1880. Due to exclusion laws, the Chinese in America at that time were mainly a bachelor society. Only merchants were allowed to bring their families, and so the Dongs were able to settle in America. The U.S. immigration didn’t know how to anglicize Chinese characters, and so our last name became Dong; based on the pronunciation of our village dialect. The Dongs went on to work in grocery stores, restaurants, and laundries across America; from California, to Chicago, Boston, Salem, and finally New York.My maternal great-great grandfather, Yip Sang, was born into a poor family in Taishan and arrived in California in 1864 at the age of 19. He went to Canada to work in the goldfields with no luck. But over the years Yip Sang rose from rags to riches by working in Vancouver as a dishwasher, cook, cigar roller, selling coal, the Canadian Pacific Railroad, Lee’s Supply Company, and eventually his own import/export firm – Wing Sang Company. He also had four wives, supported a huge household and helped establish the Chinatown in Vancouver. His eldest grand-daughter from wife #1 was my maternal grandmother, Lee Foong Gnorr. She was educated and very independent.
She married Robert Cum Marhull, the first Chinese to pass the bar exam in Canada, but who could not practice due to discrimination against the Chinese. When she became widowed at 28 yrs old with five children (ages 2 months to 11 yrs old) she refused to ask for family support. Instead, she worked long hours in Chinese grocery stores and sent her children to work as soon as they were pre-teens. The great depression added to the hardship but she persevered and raised all five children by herself and even took in foster children. Because she was able to read and write Chinese and English, she also helped other women in the community to correspond with their families overseas.
My father was a bombardier in the US Air Force and met my mother at a gathering in Seattle while he was stationed in Bremerton, WA. Chinese Americans were allowed to send for their brides after WWII, and so Edward and Lillian Dong married and settled in NYC. My father received a degree in engineering from Pratt Institute, however he was always an artist at heart. My parents visited countless museums, attended art classes together, and worked on their watercolors and oil paintings in the home studio. During the recession in the 1960’s, my father decided to pursue his art career and eventually was a curator for Patterson Museum in NJ. My mother was a respected art teacher and honored by the town of Bergenfield when she retired.
We were an unusual family in our community, with both parents as visual artists and a family of five adopted children. All of us got jobs once we turned 14 yrs old and worked hard in school. Our parents also encouraged us to study the arts and pursue our individual interests. I chose to study dance and went on to attend The Juilliard School and performed with NYC dance companies. My brothers went on to careers in government, business, television and education.
Growing up, I heard many conversations of hardship within the family. But when I asked questions, my paternal grandmother would say, “Don’t talk about it”. To respect my grandmother I would drop the subject. From my elders I sensed a kind of shame of having endured hardships and working in service industries. Yet, my ancestors were good citizens and worked hard. The glass ceiling that my father’s generation faced was that one could design a state-of-the-art aircraft, ship or carrier, but you could never be a manager in the department.
Many years later, when my husband H.T. Chen created productions which addressed themes of Chinese American immigration and labor, I realized that we had to tell the stories of our people. For only in this way would the next generation understand where they came from. Over the years, my husband and I created and toured productions celebrating the history of Chinese in the Americas. We also founded a school in Chinatown where community children can study dance and music year-round, and a black-box theater presenting contemporary dance and the work of Asian American performing artists. I’m very proud of the work that H.T. Chen & Dancers and Chen Dance Center presents and the opportunities we have created for our community to express themselves through art.