Helen Wong (nee Chin Fong-Har) was born in 1923 in Pon-Tong village, Toisan district, China. She is the daughter of Chin Sing-Toy and granddaughter of Chin Faan-Gene.
Chin Faan-Gene was living in San Francisco during the 1906 Earthquake and fire and, in the aftermath, was able to claim US citizenship. As the son of a citizen, Sing-Toy travelled to Gold Mountain and back numerous times during the 1920s -1930s, finally deciding to remain in the US in 1932. He then brought his wife and daughter to the US in 1934. Although she entered the US as the granddaughter of a citizen, Fong-Har says they “lock you up (on Ellis Island) for a couple of weeks, being questioned.” She was 10 years old.
The Chin family settled in the Bronx, NY, where Sing-Toy operated a laundry. As was usual for immigrant families, children were expected to help out in the family business; Fong-Har hated this work and hated living in the laundry itself. She’d had a happier life back in Canton City. The Bronx was also a distance from Chinatown and, as a female, Fong-Har was expected to stay close to home. She looked forward to Sundays when, as a family, they went down to Chinatown to visit with other Chin relatives. Otherwise, Fong-Har’s only and best friend was her mother. Fong-Har was able to attend school, as required by American law, but further education for a girl was not encouraged by her father. Once Fong-Har realized she was in the US to stay (the Japanese had occupied Canton in 1939), she buckled down and graduated from high school. Her ambition was to get a job and get her family out of the laundry business and lifestyle. When her father did close the laundry and they moved downtown, it was “the happiest day in my whole life in the United States.”
After high school, Fong-Har changed her name to Helen. Her first job, in 1944, was with the U.S. Army Map Service, translating Chinese maps into English. Here she was able to befriend other Chinese women, her co-workers. Through these friendships, she met her future husband, Wong Wei-Tow (Thomas Wong); they married in 1947.
Helen’s husband was a college graduate and working as an electrical engineer. They were able to move from near Chinatown to the suburbs of Long Island, NY, and owned their own house for over 50 years. With Tom, Helen raised four children and supported her husband in his efforts to support and sponsor his family’s immigration to the US. She never had to return to laundry life.
In 1983, Helen and Tom were interviewed by The New York Chinatown History Project, an oral history.
Helen was also featured in the film Eight Pound Livelihood, MoCA, 1984; that’s her high school graduation portrait at the beginning of the credits as “Charlie” Chin sings:
“Someday the kids will have better than we,
Easier jobs or a college degree.”
Today, Helen and Tom live in upstate NY in an Assisted Living facility, near their oldest child.