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Chinese Culture Binds Families in Virginia


Linda Mah Ark sat in the restaurant holding Tiffany, her youngest daughter. The child was unusually cranky, Mrs. Ark explained to nearby diners because she had been attending late night dinners to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Chinese American families in Tidewater gathered often during the recent two-week holiday season to ensure family togetherness throughout the Year of the Rooster.

Unlike in American New Year celebrations which generally exclude children, Chinese children accompany their parents to social events. Their participation in celebrations helps explain why most Chinese American families are close knit.

“We include the children because we want to emphasize family unity and our culture,” said Wong Tor Ark, Tiffany’s father, a 1970 Old Dominion University graduate who is vice president of Ying’s Chinese American Restaurant, Inc.

Despite the emphasis on cultural heritage, local Chinese Americans fear that many youngsters are becoming so Anericanized there is a decline in traditional Chinese social attitudes such as polite behaviour and respect for elders.

“Some younger members of the Chinese community see no value in being unique and preserving the heritage. They see no value in our culture,” said Mrs. Ark, 33, a former teacher who graduated in 1969 from James Madison University in the Shenandoah Valley.

Hoping to reinforce traditions, many of Tidewater’s 1,000 Chinese families have joined the Chinese Community Cultural Association of Tidewater. “We want our children to see themselves as unique in a positive sense. We also try to preserve the culture,” said Mrs. Ark, secretary of the association.

Many younger Chinese Americans do not speak Cantonese, Toishanese, or Mandarin because they are two, three, or four generations removed from China.

“When I was little, I spoke strictly Chinese,” said Mrs. Ark, who is still bilingual. “Stacey, my 8-year-old, did before she went to school. Even when playing with Caucasian kids, she spoke Chinese. They wouldn’t understand what she was talking about. She learned when to speak Chinese and when to speak English.”

The cultural association hopes that when younger people master Chinese, they can help older people learn English.

“Some people have difficulty communicating with their neighbors because they still speak only Chinese,” Mrs. Ark said.

The Arks, who have three children, are trying tp glean what they believe is the best from each culture.

They want their children to be independent like American children but embrace the Chinese trait of demonstrating respect for others.

“In the past, Chinese children have been very dependent on their parents and have consulted them on every step.”

Some Chinese customs observed by older family members call for compromise, Mrs. Ark said.

Recently, when the Arks planned to add a room to their house, they were discouraged by an older relative who suggested the addition would give the building the shape of a Chinese character meaning “down,” which would be unlucky.

But Mrs. Ark pointed out that the unlucky shape would occur only if the house were viewed from the back. From the front, it would be shaped like a symbol meaning “up.”

The relative was not thoroughly convinced, but she was happier about the Arks’ plans to proceed when she was asked to pick a lucky day on the Chinese calendar to start construction.

Few of the younger Chinese Americans follow the observance of auspicious days. Nor do they follow other old customs such as arranging marriages, giving dowries of money to brides, and having extended families living under the same roof. These customs were observed by many of the first Chinese immigrants.

Chinese began migrating to the United States after California’s Gold Rush in 1848. Others came in the 1860s to build the Central Pacific Railroad.

Migration to Tidewater started at the turn of the century. Many stayed in the Chinese Christian Mission House in the 200 block of Bousch Street, founded in 1919. This is where the Rev. Sidney W. Quong lived when he came to Norfolk from Oakland, California, to work in a friend’s restaurant.

In 1936, the Rev. Mr. Quong became the first Chinese ordained in the South. He later became pastor of the Chinese Baptist Church on Freemason Street. Many of Tidewater’s Chinese Americans are Baptists because of the influence of Baptist missionaries in China.

The Chinese Baptist Church was torn down in the late 1950s. Some Chinese American Baptists worship and attend Sunday school at Talbot Park Baptist Church on Granby Street, the Rev. Mr. Quong said.

Park Wong, who owns the Norfolk Noodle Factory, remembers a time when getting into the country was difficult for Chinese. The Oriental Exclusion Acts from 1880 to 1924 restricted the number of Chinese entering the United States. These laws kept families estranged for years.

“I came by myself when I was a little kid,” recalled Wong, now president of the Chinese Merchants Association. “My father was running a laundry. There were only four or five families when I came here. The immigration laws were not fair to the Chinese.”

When Mr. Wong came to the United States, he was put into a Boston jail for two weeks awaiting a hearing.

The immigration authorities compared answers to questions from Mr. Wong and his father about their family. Their answers matched so Mr. Wong was allowed to stay.

He attended grade school in Norfolk while working and living in his father’s laundry in the 300 block of Bute Street. He went to high school in Boston and attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Laundries provided economic survival for many first-generation Chinese, according to Mountain of Gold, a book about the Chinese in this country. These pioneers avoided prejudice stemming from competing with whites for jobs because they carved out their own economic niche. Also, the overhead for getting started in business was not prohibitive. The essentials were a shop, a scrub board, an iron, and an ironing board.

“Nobody cared about the laundry business. It was boring. It was lonely. But in a situation like that, you have to do it. When you’re getting hungry, you don’t care what you do. My father’s generation were hard-working people. But they didn’t invest. They didn’t know how. And they didn’t trust the people who made the investments.

“My father told me to go to school and study hard. ‘Get a better education so you can get a better future.’ They knew how much hardship they met. They didn’t want that for their children. Even I wanted my children to do better.

“The laundry closed more than 30 years ago. Nobody wanted to take it over. Younger Chinese don’t want that kind of business. There is no future in it. I’m sure my father would be proud of me and what I’m doing.”

The Chinese American community is a mix of two cultures. Park Wong visited his home, Canton, two years ago. He said about his trip:

“I felt like it was home, but I acted like a tourist. I’m comfortable right here. I’m a citizen – all settled.”


This piece was first published on Monday, March 2, 1981 in The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Virginia.

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