On Voice and Memory: Flo Oy Wong


Flo Oy Wong is a collector of stories. She listens with absolute attention to the stories she is told—of immigration, family secrets, barriers surmounted, unlikely friendships, of survival itself. These stories are not only personal and familial but communal, part of a broader narrative of United States social history.

Wong transforms the stories she hears into astonishing art. She honors those who tell them by creating evocative, multilayered imagery in a range of media—rice sacks, beads, sequins, embroidery thread, photographs, rice, and material objects of people’s lives, along with fragments of text. In this way she gives voice to what has often been previously unspoken.

As an artist, Wong is a keeper of history. She knows the vital importance of breaking silence: “I like the idea of us telling our stories from the inside,” she has written. “We tell them so elegantly and beautifully. Our voices are really needed. We add to the enrichment of America.” Wong’s art is an invitation to a broadened and deepened understanding of the past, offering visions of determined resistance, healing from profound trauma, and personal and social transformation.

Born in Oakland, California, in 1938, Wong grew up in Oakland’s Chinatown. She was in her late thirties when, during the height of the feminist movement that she claims as an inspiration, she started taking art classes. Her first major body of work, her autobiographical Oakland Chinatown Series, emerged from her initial uncertain attempts to find her voice as a woman artist of Chinese descent. The thirty-five drawings in this series (1983-1991), some made directly from individual family photographs and others composites of several images, pay tribute to her extended family’s tightly interconnected lives and work as restaurateurs at the Great China Restaurant in Oakland from the 1940s into the 1960s.

Wong has continued to honor the experiences of her family and other Chinese immigrants in her subsequent work. For example, she evokes the importance of rice as a primary staple and the substance of physical, cultural, and psychic survival that marks the continuity from China to Chinese America. “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 Moira Roth.

One of her works, Eye of the Rice, tells a more personal story, as well. During Wong’s infancy, her father was shot by a relative in a business dispute. While he recovered, relatives supported the family members 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.”

Baby Jack Rice Story (See Images 12)

In Baby Jack Rice Story, begun in 1993 and completed over the course of several years, Wong layered silk-screened photographic images, hand-sewn text, and beading onto rice sacks, comprising a series of panels, nearly fifty feet in length (Image 1). This installation commemorates her husband Edward Wong’s childhood in Augusta, Georgia, during the 1940s. Ed Wong’s father emigrated from China in 1919 and opened a grocery store that served Augusta’s African American community—descendants of the laborers who, along with earlier Chinese immigrants, constructed the region’s canals and railroads at the end of the 19th century. Ed’s mother and brother arrived in 1930; Ed was born in 1934. His mother affectionately called him Be Be Jai, a colloquial Chinese term for a baby boy. His African American friends in the neighborhood created the nickname Baby Jack, inspired by his mother’s endearing label.

Illustrating the illogic of segregation, the Chinese were deemed white by Augusta’s municipal leaders. But because their presence was not welcome in white neighborhoods, the Chinese lived and worked with the blacks in African American enclaves. Still, even though they attended separate schools, Ed and several boys in the African American community became friends. The sepia-toned and black-and-white photographic images and the text interwoven throughout Baby Jack Rice Story honor these deep and enduring friendships (Image 2).

My Mother’s Baggage: Paper Sister/Paper Aunt/Paper Wife (See Images34)

In My Mother’s Baggage: Paper Sister/Paper Aunt/Paper Wife, Wong tells her mother’s story in six suitcases, two of which are actual suitcases that immigrants from China brought with them to the United States.

In 1933, due to the impact of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law, Wong’s mother (Gee Suey Ting) entered the U.S. from China as her father’s “paper sister,” not his wife. She also became the “paper aunt” to her three daughters, who had been born in China. This was necessary subterfuge because the law (in effect until the 1940s) restricted the settlement of Chinese laborers and their families and prohibited Chinese wives from joining their husbands in the U.S.

When Gee Suey Ting became pregnant again the following year, she became “paper wife” to a man named Sheng Wong in order to give legal legitimacy to her first daughter born in the U.S. Two more daughters followed, including Flo Wong, and then a son. The children could openly acknowledge their true identities at home, but to officials and the world outside of Oakland’s Chinatown, Wong and her siblings born in the United States identified their father as “uncle,” while their sisters born in China called their mother “auntie.” Perpetuating this family secret left a lasting and enduring impression on Wong, who recalls growing up “with the prevalent fear of disclosure and eventual deportation, afraid that my citizenship would be rescinded.”

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.

Whispers of the Past: Edna Mae Fong (See Images 56)

In Whispers of the Past, four installations Wong created in 2007, previously untold stories are revealed in visual form and accompanying text—like whispered, fragmentary memories buried and exposed over time. Wong sought to uncover the stories of key Chinese individuals in Sacramento and the Delta region of central California. Deeply honored to hear these stories, told to her by relatives of her subjects, Wong describes their reclamation as a process of “collaborative retrieval” in which these unspoken narratives poured forth “like a waterfall that has been sequestered in a teeny, tiny faucet.”

Wong’s installations honor these individuals through collaged photographs and text, highlighted with her characteristic beadwork, fabric scrims, found objects, and materials loaned to her for this purpose by her subjects’ families. Dr. Edna Mae Fong, who is featured in this installation, was the first Chinese American woman physician in Sacramento and one of the first women physicians in the region. Her story, told to Wong by Edna Mae Fong’s daughter, Rebecca Strickland, recounts the challenges faced by Fong both personally and professionally, as well as her achievements. A woman’s dressing table with physician’s instruments, photographs, and other documents artfully arranged and displayed in drawers commands the physical space of the Edna Mae Fong installation. The text that accompanies this installation also notes that Fong aptly titled her unpublished autobiography, written at age ninety, “A Life of Overcoming Obstacles.” The same could be said for Flo Oy Wong.

Melanie Herzog is Professor of Art History and Director of Women's and Gender Studies at Edgewood College in Madison, Wisconsin. Her essay "Telling Unfold Stories," from which the above article is derived, was published in 2007 in Whispers of the Past: Flo Oy Wong. Additional published work include essays on Milton Rogovin, Elizabeth Catlett, and Mary Lovelace O'Neal.

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