From war zone to a new life in America

My journey to Seattle became possible when my parents immigrated here just as their homeland descended into war.

Crosscut archive image.

Collin Tong's parents when they married.

My journey to Seattle became possible when my parents immigrated here just as their homeland descended into war.

This article originallly appeared as one of nine International Examiner reports on staff members' roots for a special issue on immigration. Reprinted with permission.

In 1937, when my parents set sail on the S.S. Cleveland from Guangzhou (Canton) bound for Honolulu, and thence to San Francisco, they carried little with them except the typical dreams of first-generation Chinese immigrants. Forty-four years later, when my wife and I took them back to China to visit their family, those dreams of a better life for their four children were realized.

My father, Sing Yuk Tong, and mother, Chuck Gum Dai, hailed from the Zhongshan district of Guangdong province (home of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, for whom our district and Cantonese dialect were named). My father’s ancestral village was Gai Pak. In 1920, my father and grandfather came to San Francisco. Our family started a Chinese candy and grocery store, Wing Hop Company, in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

My mother was a seamstress, and we lived in a one-bedroom tenement apartment on Sacramento Street in the heart of Chinatown. My parents were hard-working and saved enough to send my three brothers and me to college. Beside myself, my oldest brothers include Benjamin, a clinical psychologist, Roland, a civil rights attorney, and David, a former newspaper editor and reporter.

During World War II, Pop worked at two jobs: at the Bethlehem Shipyard in San Francisco, building amphibious landing craft for the Navy, and our family grocery store on Grant Avenue. Mom sewed dresses at a garment shop on Waverly Place. We lived on their modest income, but our family was blessed with friends from the wider Chinese American community. Author Amy Tan and her family were members of our church. Her late father, the Rev. John Tan, was ordained at First Chinese Baptist Church, my home congregation.

My mother’s youngest brother, Chuck Yin Fei, and his family, live in Guizhou. He’s a retired school teacher, and his wife, Guang Xia, taught at the Guizhou Teacher’s College in Huaxi, a district of the capital city of Guiyang. Their son, Shao Yue, is a graduate of Zhongshan University’s medical college in Guangzhou. My father’s brother, Chum Mow Tong, immigrated to Sydney, Australia, where he and his family started a Chinese restaurant, the Orchid Garden.

For my parents, their first visit back to China in 1982 was a memorable one. My father and mother had left in 1937, shortly after war had begun, and they returned to a much different country than the one they left behind as newly-weds.  

We spent days exploring the city of Guangzhou with our extended family there. My father took me to places he knew as a child, like the Guangzhou City Museum, with its artifacts from the Opium War and Taiping Rebellion. Being reunited with my extended family in China was an unforgettable experience.

Growing up in San Francisco, our family life revolved around our friends in the Chinatown community, especially our Tong Family Association and church. I have childhood memories of going to Association picnics, Chinese New Year parties, and events like family weddings. As kids, we were all expected to go to Chinese school after regular school, and spoke Chinese at home. My Chinese school career was short-lived (one week), but I made up for it in graduate school.

My parents always encouraged us to do well in school and were very supportive in whatever careers we chose. They made enormous financial sacrifices so that their children could get the best education. Following the lead of my brother, Roland, I went away to college at the University of Redlands in southern California, and later did my graduate work in east Asian studies at the University of Washington and University of California, Berkeley.  

Journalism was never my chosen vocation, although I wrote for my college weekly. I was an undergraduate history major and began my career as an English teacher with the Peace Corps in Thailand, then later as a college teacher in modern Chinese history and Asian American studies.  

After my wife and I moved back to Seattle in 1977, I worked in a variety of public sector jobs before serving as public affairs director for the Alliance for Education and senior communications director at Washington State University.  Since taking early retirement from WSU in 2007, I began freelance writing and eventually drifted back into journalism.

Working for the International Examiner has been an opportunity to reconnect with the Asian Pacific Islander (API) American community in the Pacific Northwest. Having grown up in a non-English-speaking Chinese immigrant family has given me a perspective on many of the topics that I report on for the International Examiner, such as health care and education.  

I count myself fortunate to work alongside great colleagues and meet some extraordinary API leaders who are making a difference.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Collin Tong

Collin Tong

Collin Tong is a correspondent for Crosscut and University Outlook magazine. He served as guest lecturer at the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. His new book, "Into the Storm: Journeys with Alzheimer’s," will be published in January 2014.