As a boy growing up in southern China, Sam Wong, author of Stories Not to Be Forgotten: My Journey Through a Chinese Village, found the subject of history tedious. After all, studying Chinese history requires the memorization of 4,000 years’ worth of events and hundreds of emperors. But in junior high, during the intermission between the Sino-Japanese War and World War II, one of Wong’s teachers changed the youngster’s mind.
“He taught history by telling stories,” recalls Wong, 77, who now lives in Springfield, Va. “He just sat on the corner of his desk and told stories, connecting the past with current events. That’s why I liked history, because of him.”
That teacher’s lessons stayed with Wong as he traveled from Hong Kong to D.C., where he worked as an engineer at the U.S. Department of the Navy for more than 30 years. After he retired in 1993, he stayed busy as a volunteer with local Chinese organizations. As he spoke with Chinese-American men and women from younger generations, he heard a familiar refrain: Many wanted to know more about how their parents had lived in China, but they had trouble getting the information out of their elders.
That reticence to talk about the past was all too familiar to Wong. Much of it, he says, has to do with feeling ashamed for having come from a low class. Many also still fear reprisal from the government for speaking out about the Chinese Civil War. “Based on my experience, I know the older generation doesn’t want to reveal its past,” explains Wong, 77. “Over there, the culture is closed, not as open as the United States.”
But Wong, who came to “Gold Mountain” in 1948 to attend college at George Washington University, found it unacceptable for so much history to die with its owners. So three years ago, he set out to write a book about everything he wanted people to remember about his generation.
Stories Not to Be Forgotten, self-published this past summer, is equal parts cultural, family, and personal history, and it has many of the characteristics of a DIY project—spelling and grammar errors; literally cut-and-pasted photographs, diagrams, and maps; and a meandering, steam-of-consciousness narrative. Despite its lack of refinement, the book gives readers an evocative glimpse of Chinese village life, where the fishmongers slap blood from a recently butchered catch onto their old fish to make them look fresh and plain rice dabbed with pork fat is a wartime delicacy.
One thing that Wong doesn’t do, however, is editorialize. He offers no opinion on Japanese aggression or the rise of communism in China, which prevented him from returning home after college. “I just want to tell the facts,” he says, “and the conclusions—it’s up to someone else to do it.”
And grim conclusions can be reached from some of the facts Wong shares: watching a soldier beat his father one morning, scavenging for food during World War II, or suffering nightmares of being captured by the Japanese. Perhaps most wrenching is when Wong reveals that the Chinese history teacher who so inspired him committed suicide after the Japanese stormed Hong Kong.
Writing the book has fulfilled Wong’s goal of keeping his stories alive, and he has no plans for another book. “I figure I had accomplished something in my lifetime,” he says. “I always wanted to put this down in document form, so people can have it in later days. Otherwise, it would all be forgotten.”
“My own story reflects what happened in society,” he concludes. “This is what really happened to more than myself.” —Huan Hsu