tomwong-350Thomas Wong (aka Wong Wei-Tow) was born in 1913 in Wu-Shek village, Toisan district, China. He is the son of Wong Lai-Sheng, who immigrated to Gold Mountain in 1916 and had a Chinese herbal medical practice and apothecary in San Francisco during the 1918 Swine Flu epidemic, then at 8 Doyers St in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Wei-Tow was “sent for” in 1931 when he was 18 years old to help run the shop. Although he entered as the son of a merchant, he was still detained for 2-3 weeks at Ellis Island.

Wei-Tow attended P.S. 23 (the original site of the MoCA), electrical trade school and Peter Stuyvesant HS, then enrolled in New York University uptown, graduating with a degree in electrical engineering. His father did not approve of higher education, wanting him to continue in his (at this point, not too successful) herbal business; father threw the son’s textbooks out in the street and the son ran away from home in order continue his schooling. He found refuge and support with neighbors and a restaurant owner who gave him a room and a job while at NYU. During Wei-Tow’s senior year, Lai-Sheng passed away and Wei-Tow had to use that year’s tuition money to pay for the funeral; thus, his graduation was delayed.

In 1942, Wei-Tow was able to get a job at Sperry Gyroscope Corporation as an electrical inspector. He credits the labor shortage due to WWII with his (a Chinese man) getting hired. Once he obtained his degree he was promoted to electrical engineer. Although the laws at the time prohibited a Chinese person’s application for citizenship, Wei-Tow was drafted into the military numerous times; his employer, a defense contractor, valued his services so much they obtained deferments for him each time. After the War, Wei-Tow continued to be employed as an electrical engineer until being laid off at the age of 60; he retired from the workforce 7 years later in 1980. He never had to return to restaurant work.

In 1947, Wei-Tow married Helen Chin (nee Chin Fong-Har). They initially lived near Chinatown, then made the move to the suburbs of Long Island, NY, owning their own house for more than 50 years. In 1951, Wei-Tow became a naturalized citizen and changed his name to Thomas.

Through all this time, Thomas remained the support system for his extended family back in China. His dream of reuniting with his mother and brothers came true in the 1950s, 60s and 70s as subsequent Refugee and Immigrant acts were passed.

In 1983, Tom and Helen were interviewed by The New York Chinatown History Project, an oral history. Helen is featured in the film Eight Pound Livelihood, MoCA, 1984.

Today, Tom and Helen live in upstate New York in an Assisted Living Facility, near their oldest child. Both their stories are truly the “American Dream” come true.

>> Back to Many Faces