With the exception of The Five Chinese Brothers, every book I read as a young child in small-town Ontario in the late 1950s and early 1960s was filled exclusively with characters who were white. When I was thirteen I encountered a non-white person in Gone with the Wind. I was in my early twenties when I finally met a Chinese person in Canadian literature in W.O. Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind. In life and in literature we Chinese, although considered a visible minority, were in fact invisible.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s and early 1990s that writers like Sky Lee, Wayson Choy, Denise Chong, and Paul Yee began to share our stories in Canada. Those early stories were about life in Chinatowns in the big city, in shops, restaurants, and laundries, rarely about domestic help in the homes of white people. As a child, my image of the Chinese houseboy was formed by characters in U.S. television shows like Peter in Bachelor Father and Hop Sing in Bonanza. Compared to the rest of the casts, these Chinese houseboys seemed meek, inconsequential, sometimes comic. As far as mainstream Canadian culture was concerned, if the Chinese in the Chinatowns flew under the radar, the Chinese domestics didn’t even make it on to the screen. Thus it was with much interest and anticipation that I started to read Susan Crean’s memoir, Finding Mr. Wong.
Susan Crean and I grew up on opposite sides of the track from each other. By the time she was born in the mid-1940s, her family was part of the upper middle class living in Toronto’s Forest Hill. My home, on the other hand, was an hour’s drive west of Toronto, in a small town where my father washed other people’s clothes for a living. If the Creans had lived in Acton, it is likely that my father would have washed and pressed Mr. Crean’s shirts. It is one of life’s ironies that in late middle age, two women from such divergent backgrounds should embark on journeys where each would mirror the other. In 2010 I published a memoir, The Year of Finding Memory, which took me back to my ancestral home in China in the hope of learning more about my parents. Finding Mr. Wong is the story of Susan Crean’s effort to understand the Chinese man who was employed as a servant for almost forty years in the home of her paternal grandparents.
There must have been something appealing about Gordon Crean, Susan Crean’s grandfather, that made Wong Dong Wong decide in 1928 to leave his position as a live-in cook at a residence in Toronto’s Rosedale and go to work for Crean and his wife at their new home a few kilometres away on Old Forest Hill Road. At that time in Toronto social geography, although not so much today, a move from Rosedale to Forest Hill would have been a step down. What possessed Wong to accept what would have been considered a socially inferior position? As it turned out, he made the right move.
It would have been easy for Susan Crean to have written an agreeable account about the Chinese domestic who worked for her grandparents, a story where the employers are kind, the hired help hard-working and loved by the family. Fortunately for the reader, Crean does more than this. Yes, Wong is loyal and hard-working. He keeps house, cooks the meals, tends the garden, and even manages Tony, the adored but mischievous African green parrot. In time he becomes that most valued servant who knows his employers better than they even know themselves. He knows that Crean’s grandmother likes her breakfast grapefruit cut into bite-size pieces with a splash of Jameson whiskey and that oatmeal needs to be served with strips of toast. On Sundays he is able to produce a roast beef dinner with Yorkshire pudding. At Christmas he decorates the house with pine boughs and knows exactly where to hang the mistletoe. He makes marmalade from scratch.
After Crean’s grandfather died in 1947, Wong stayed on for almost another twenty years, looking after his widow. Over time, the relationship took on a tinge of Driving Miss Daisy. On Friday nights they watched the fights on television, arguing about who might win. Every Christmas morning Wong accompanied Mrs. Crean to her son’s home for breakfast, and then had dinner ready for everyone back at the Forest Hill home. He seemed to straddle the line between family member and employee. However, it was a line that was never crossed. When Susan Crean was four years old and attending kindergarten, she told her class about Wong. A classmate asked, “So who’s Wong?” In that moment Crean realized that not everyone had a Wong. She was unable to explain and felt awkward. Wong was a loose end, neither fish nor fowl. There is a sense throughout the book that Crean has struggled with this all her life. Wong was a man she had known since birth. He was someone she loved and who loved her. He took her to the movies, bought her a bicycle, for Christmas he surprised her with a stuffed panda. Every May 24 he bought fireworks and, to the delight of the family and neighbours, lit them in the backyard. Susan, or Sun-sii as he called her, was his favourite and she knew it. On some level, for a bachelor like Wong, she was a surrogate daughter.
And yet the Creans knew very little about Wong Dong Wong on a personal level. They knew that every Sunday on his day off, he would dress in his suit and tie and go to Chinatown where he would meet with friends, drink tea, and perhaps visit the gambling dens. Wong’s domain was primarily the kitchen. He lived upstairs toward the back of the house. Under his care, the house functioned like a well-oiled machine. There was little need for questions. For Susan Crean, getting to know Wong Dong Wong the man only really started after her grandmother and Wong moved out of the Forest Hill home, her grandmother into an assisted living facility and Wong into a rooming house in Chinatown.
Once Wong retired, Crean and her sister visited him at least once a week. It was during these years that he introduced them to Chinese food, at first “safe” dishes like fried noodle with beef and dim sum such as shrimp dumplings and sticky rice, but then gradually braised chicken feet and bird’s nest soup. He taught the sisters how to use chopsticks. It is telling that in the almost forty years spent in the Forest Hill home he shared so little of himself and his culture and that the Creans for whatever reason never bothered to find out. That, as a young adult, Susan Crean made room and time to know Wong the man is a testament to the deep and lasting affection she had held for Wong the servant.
After Wong died of stomach cancer in 1970, Crean continued to wonder about him. Who was Wong Dong Wong? In her search to find out about her beloved Wong, she began a journey to learn about a man she had known all her life, who yet remained a mystery. She found out that he was born in Taishan county, Guangdong province, in 1895 and was orphaned not long after birth. In 1911, a village uncle who was already in Canada paid the $500 head tax for Wong to emigrate. He arrived on the steamer the SS Canada Maru on November 16 of that year. In order to pay back the head tax, he worked at his uncle’s Vancouver restaurant. By the time his uncle decided to sell the restaurant in 1917, Wong had already paid off his debt. It seemed like a good time to board a train and head east to Toronto.
Without doubt Crean was pleased to uncover these facts about Mr. Wong, but she wanted more. She wanted context. She researched the history of the Chinese in Canada, the racism that was at the heart of legislation that formed the head tax and the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act, both of which lead to the formation of bachelor societies, forcing men to be separated from their families in China until after the act was repealed in 1947. She read about the relationship between domestics and their employers, talked to academics and community leaders. And, finally, she travelled to China and visited Shui Doi, Wong’s ancestral village, where she met with surviving relatives and village officials who greeted her with a banquet and much ceremony. Along the way Crean gained an understanding of the culture and landscape that formed the man who was such a significant yet quiet presence in the life of her family.
But she also discovered that there were things which she would never know or understand, for some things are simply unknowable. “What would Wong have thought of his life in Forest Hill? How hard was it to adapt to Canadian ways?” Through her journey to learn about Mr. Wong, Crean has given us a moving account of a man, an outsider and an orphan, who against all odds found family and acceptance in a foreign land. In so doing, she has shone a light on a little-known part of the story of the Chinese in Canada, and she has done so with love. I have no doubt that wherever Wong might be, he is smiling about the gift that his Sun-sii has given to Canada.