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East Meets South : Cy Wong, the Great-Grandson of a Chinese Immigrant, Traveled to Louisiana to Research His Colorful History

September 26, 1993|CY WONG | Cy Wong, 55, is a former soap opera actor of African-American, American-Indian and Chinese ancestry. The Mid-City resident has written a manuscript about his family. Wong is on the board of the Chinese Historical Assn. of Southern California and gives tours of Chinatown. He was interviewed by Gloria Lau.

Growing up, I was always curious where the surname Wong came from. Noting that my great-grandfather's name was Phillip Wong, I began to research where he came from when I took a biology course at Cal State Los Angeles and had to do a family tree. What really motivated me was when the professor said I was unique.

My great-grandfather had come to Louisiana with 14 other Chinese from China and Hong Kong by way of Cuba on Jan. 15, 1867.

They were the first Chinese pioneers to come directly to the South, rather than coming from San Francisco like other Chinese. My great-grandfather and the 14 others came to work as indentured agriculturists on the plantations.

They worked five to seven years, and once their contract was up, they ventured out on their own. Some remained in Louisiana; some went back to China or Hong Kong. My great-grandfather and two of his first cousins remained in Louisiana, and they married women of color.

My great-grandfather's wife was Creole. My grandfather married a black woman who was Choctaw Indian and black. My father married my mother, whose ancestors were Chickasaw Indian and black.


It was in 1971 that I really started thinking about working on a book. In 1981, I left "The Young and the Restless" to work on a book about my family. I began my research, spending my own money, venturing to Louisiana and the National Archives in Washington and to Fort Worth to do research on the Chinese.

I first went to Louisiana to check some of the records, the names of some of the people, the landowners, marriage records. Most of the Chinese who came to the South at that time joined the Baptist Church because it was very close to the disciplines in China.

The Frenchman who brought my great-grandfather to the United States stated in some writings that he brought those Chinese men to the country because he considered them smart and frugal workers.

And he wanted to test an 1862 law that prohibited the importation of Asiatic people into the South for the sole purposes of working on the plantations. The fear was that a new group of people would be enslaved. For six months, Chinese on foreign vessels were allowed into the South, then their immigration was stopped.

I found this information in the New Orleans Times and the New Orleans Bee. The reporters were there on the day my great-grandfather arrived and had found out that the Chinese were to work on the plantations.

My great-grandfather was described as looking like the Negro, with straight hair like the Indians'. He wasn't a Negro and he wasn't an Indian, but that's what the New Orleans reporter said.

Most of my information was gotten through interviews with cousins and friends of the family who were in their 90s, who knew the Chinese when they lived in northern Louisiana.

These relatives recalled that the first Sunday they saw these Chinese, the newcomers were riding horses. And they were amazed that these little people were riding horses. I understand my great-grandfather was about 5 feet, 11 inches but my grandfather was only about 5-8. Folks couldn't understand how these "strange-looking people" could ride horses as well as they did. They were great horsemen.

My great-grandfather died in 1909; his wife had died three years earlier.


It's very gratifying to know that I'm a part of a heritage of a people who had something to do with the building of this country.

The only thing ever said in most history books about the Chinese in this country is that they had something to do with building the railroads. But the Chinese did more: The Chinese had quite a bit to do with agriculture in California. It was a Chinese man who sent the first vegetables from California to New York on a train.

I was able to dig and give a little credit to these people, credit not given in the past. That's what pushed me to do the research and the writing.

The title came to me in a dream around 2:20 one morning and I got up and wrote it on paper: "The Cross-Over." Here we have a people who crossed over bodies of water, people who crossed over the vicissitudes of life, people who crossed over mountains--and here I am, a fourth-generation descendant of a pioneer Chinese.

From time to time, I have had to deal with prejudices, especially from some African-Americans. They'll say, "Well, you may look a little Chinese, but you're still black." I'm not denying that my pigmentation is dark, but the true color of a man is what's on the inside.

The manuscript has affected my life by giving me a great feeling toward the Chinese people--as though I've known them over the years. And I know now I've come from a good rock. A solid rock.

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