Flo Oy Wong “made in usa” — a story in three parts by Moira Roth

This essay written by the late Moira Roth, Trefethen Professor of Art History, Mills College, Oakland, was first published on Kearny Street Workshop’s “made in usa: Angel Island Shhh” website for Flo Oy Wong’s installation in the Angel Island Immigration Station from June 17 – September 23, 2000.

Part 1, Hoo Gee Nuey (“False Paper Girl”)

Flo Oy Wong was born in America in 1938, two years before the closing of the Angel Island Immigration Station. She was the 6th of seven children. Her three older sisters had been born in China, but the childhoods of all seven siblings, both Chinese- and American-born, were profoundly affected—legally, emotionally, and socially—by the complexities of their parents’ situation as immigrants.

In 1912, Flo’s father, Seow Hong Gee, had immigrated legally at age 17 as a “son of a native” to this country. A number of years later, upon the death of his first wife, he went back to China to find another wife. “My father’s mother chose Suey Ting Yee for her son’s wife, and so my mother cared for my grandmother and my father’s first daughter. They lived together in my grandmother’s house, while my father returned to the States. Each time he visited my mother in China, another child was conceived.”(1)

The racist, convoluted, and highly restrictive immigrations laws were aimed against Chinese laborers and the permanent settlement of a Chinese-American population, and accordingly barred Chinese wives from joining their husbands in America. Family members of the merchant class and children born abroad of Chinese Americans were eligible to enter this country. Thus in 1933, when Suey Ting Gee finally immigrated to America with their three daughters, she came with false identification papers as “Theo Quee Gee”; when she was interrogated on Angel Island, she was interrogated not as Gee’s wife, but as his “paper sister.” The three children, however, came in legally as his.

“So many of the immigrants who arrived, including my mother, were fueled by stories of Gold Mountain’s streets paved with gold, only to be confronted with harsh realities, beginning with coming to Angel Island to be interrogated. Our mother kept alive stories of the hardship and the bitterness that she experienced. When she was raising us, she would tell us over and over again, ‘when you come to the U.S., you have to eat bitter.’ For a lot of us the symbol of bitterness is that of the bitter melon.”(2)

The Gees settled in Oakland. During the next year (1934), when Suey Ting became pregnant again—with her fourth daughter, Nellie—she was married “in paper only” to Sheng Wong. This arrangement with Wong—a man whom the children never met—was made in order to prevent the appearance of illegitimacy. Thus Flo Oy Wong grew up as a hoo gee nuey (“a false paper girl”), and she and her other siblings always feared a disclosure of their “paper” histories that might result in deportation.

“At home in our family and in Oakland Chinatown itself, we were able to acknowledge our real identities. But outside at Lincoln School and anywhere else, we (the American-born) always had to identify our mother as our mother but our father as our uncle. For our older sisters, born in China, the reverse was true—mother was “auntie” but they could acknowledge our father as such. And so we were always very anxious whenever we had to write all this down on any kind of registration form. I remember as a child, I would often get confused: the forms would ask for my mother’s maiden name, and I didn’t know which it was. Her authentic maiden name was Yee, and sometimes I would answer that, but at other times I would write down Gee.”

In her poem, “It’s in the Blood,” Nellie Wong, Flo’s sister, also evokes this painful tangle of family history and double identities. She writes: “…My three older sisters were supposed to be my cousins./ My father was supposed to be my uncle./ My mother was supposed to be my father’s sister./ When Theo Quee Gee confessed her illegal status,/ She became Suey Ting Gee, my father’s legal wife./ But it was too late. Bah Bah died in 1961./ Now I use the name, Nellie Wong./ Now I search for all the names that gave me life.”(3)

Part 2, Making Art/ Telling Histories

I have always been fascinated by a 1987 photograph of Flo Oy Wong sitting on the floor, sewing in her home in Sunnyvale. Wong had only been working for a year or so on Eye of the Rice: Yu Mai Gee Fon, the beginning of her Asian Rice Sack Series, and she vividly remembers the experience of “hand-sewing the first stitch with purple thread on a white sack—it was a revelation.”

The Eye of the Rice fans out in front of her like a huge flowering skirt—that would require bearers if she were to wear it—or a quilt for some giant bed of memories. The photograph suggests a woman immersed in a meditative ritual. At the same time it is surprisingly domestic as an image. One thinks of women mending socks, repairing curtains or frugally making quilts from odd scraps of material. I’ve often wondered if Wong sat quietly making her art while she was photographed. Was she so absorbed in her sewing that she forgot Curtis Fukuda, the photographer, was there? Or did she tell him stories about her childhood in order to explain the rich associations that the rice sack had for her?

From her start as an artist, Wong has always told stories. “I’m a narrative artist and I focus on personal stories,” she explained to an interviewer recently.(4)

In 1983, at age forty-five, Wong began to make art about her childhood experiences, based on family album photographs of the 1940s and 1950s. The thirty-five poignant and elegant graphite drawings of her Oakland Chinatown Series (1983-1991) depict scenes in the Gee’s family life—for the most part, they portray family members, together with workers, in the family’s restaurant in Oakland’s Chinatown (which they started in 1943), and the occasional festive event such as a wedding, outing or birthday. “I recall having time on occasion to play with our friends—the children of other restaurateurs and shopkeepers,” but basically “our home life centered on the restaurant where we cohered as a family—eating, studying, working. Our nuclear family stretched to include other Chinatown merchants and their families, the lonely pensioners who lived in the nearby Salvation Army hotel, the indigents who came in from the cold.”(5)

Three years later, in 1986, Wong started on her Eye of the Rice, an epic work whose narrative she has continued to enlarge and embellish for years. (As of 2000, Wong is still uncertain as to whether the piece is complete or not.) Made out of rice sacks—a medium that Wong had already experimented with while taking art classes in 1978—it is a highly intricate, object-studded, sequin-glittering, and embroidered curtain-like surface that now grandly measures fifteen by twenty-six feet, and is ornamented with over 100 little cloth and plastic ricebags.

In Eye of the Rice, Wong narrates—through objects (for example, an antique watch) and words and phrases in English and Chinese (6) (among them, “My tongue speaks,” “Pop cousin shot you,” “Ma you ran and caught the killer,” and mai/raw rice, neuy/female and oy/love)—a traumatic episode in the Gee history. This incident which took place when Flo was not yet a year old, was the non-fatal shooting of Wong’s father by a relative (the fourth bullet was miraculously stopped by a watch which he wore on his body). While the father recovered, relatives supported the family by giving them sacks of rice.

As children, Wong and her siblings were often told about the various episodes of this saga: “My mother dramatically used to talk-sing the story like a Chinese opera.” In 1996, Wong was to return again to her childhood family history—that of her mother’s. My Mother’s Baggage: Lucky Daughter consists of an antique suitcase, stuffed with a rich assortment of photographic images, and cut-out words (for example, “she wanted a son” and “daughter”) lettered, as one reviewer wrote, “in the style of a ransom note.”(7) The narrative relates Wong’s mother’s desire for a son, after having had only daughters, and the fact that Flo was the “lucky daughter” because her birth was followed by that of the longed-for boy, Flo’s brother, the journalist, William.

In 1998 Wong created a companion piece, My Mother’s Baggage: Paper Sister/Paper Aunt/Paper Wife. This was a suitcase “book,” made out of six antique suitcases, scanned photographs and recreated magazine text, which tells the story of the 1933 Angel Island entry to the U. S. of Wong’s mother and of Wong’s three China-born sisters. A wall text mounted above the suitcases gave the title and an explanation of the installation. (Each suitcase, representing a page of the book, is marked with a page number so that viewers know to “read” all six pages.) It was accompanied by a book in which viewers could record stories about their own mothers. “This work immediately preceded the creation of made in usa: Angel Island Shhh, and together they opened my eyes to my mother’s incredible courage that made a life possible for me in the U.S.”

Beginning in 1989—triggered by her emotional and political responses to contemporary public events in this country and abroad, and to spaces evoking historical resonances—Wong started to create art works that took her outside the subject matter of her own family. These striking works, which certainly include the current Angel Island project, are Wong’s artistic vehicles to protest acts of violence and racism, and to mourn and commemorate their victims.(8)

On June 4, 1989, Wong was working on her Oakland Chinatown Series when the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, China took place, and Wong watched its horrifyingly graphic TV coverage. Shortly afterward she began, quickly and feverishly, to create a series of paintings, employing inks from China and Germany, applied with a traditional Chinese brush. With their agitated brushstrokes and colors, these works are almost stridently different from anything she had ever made. (Wong also wrote a series of powerful bilingual poems about the event.)

This Tiananmen Series (1989) consists of seven ink paintings on paper, with such titles as Square Gone Haywire, Say (Death) and Blood People: Sticking the Neck Out. Artist-writer Terri Cohn has described this new vocabulary for Wong as one “of gestural abstraction and intense color…an outpouring of emotion, expressed with a combination of calligraphic and more wildly gestural shapes and drips, of intense primary and secondary colors that have both Chinese and Western meanings.”(9) Wong continued with this mode of painting for the next couple of years in her Circle Series (1990), and in two works that refer to the Clarence Thomas/ Anita Hill hearings: Gender Asunder (1991) and aH, A Year Later (1992).

In the 1990s, Wong created several commemorative installations, which constitute interesting antecedents for made in usa: Angel Island Shhh.

“‘My Joss Paper Series consists of three installations, and I see them as a triptych. We burn joss paper at traditional Chinese funerals, so that the departed will have money to spend in their afterlife. The first installation (Bitter Melon Rice Blues ) is about anti-Asian violence, the second (Rice for My Ancestors ) is an altar for my unknown grandparents, and the third (District Six: A Memory ) is in honor of a former multicultural district in Cape Town, South Africa.”

Bitter Melon Rice Blues: Elegy for America (1992) is an altar-like interactive installation of Chinese joss paper and food offerings addressing, as the critic-curator Jan Rindfleisch writes, “racism and hate crimes, and is dedicated to the memory of Vincent Chin and other Asian Americans who had died in the past ten years because of anti-Asian violence.”(10)

Rice for My Ancestors (1994), an eleven by fourteen foot shrine, consists of Wong’s family’s altar—which her mother had brought from her ancestral village of Goon Do Hong—together with five mounds of dirt on which were placed five bowls, “four filled with rice as food for my forebears.” The piece resulted from Wong’s experience of visiting the village in China where her father had been born. “I asked my relatives where our dead were buried. They responded by taking us up a knoll where we found five grave sites hidden under tall grass with wooden plaques on which the names could be seen faintly. I asked, ‘Who are these people buried here?’ My second cousin replied that two of the grave sites were those of my paternal grandparents about whom we knew nothing. It was an emotional moment to see the plaques, rounded stubs of faded wood no more than six inches high, sticking out of the dry dirt. The plaques bore the barely-visible names of our grandmother and grandfather. When my parents were alive they never spoke of our grandparents nor did we ever ask about them.”

District Six: A Memory (1997), the third Joss Paper Series, was a fourteen by sixteen foot wall-and-floor installation fashioned out of a myriad of squares of Chinese golden joss paper. It is a commemorative piece about the destruction of Cape Town’s District Six, a mixed-race community whose buildings had been bulldozed to the ground during the last decade of Apartheid in South Africa. (In 1997, Flo and Ed Wong had traveled to South Africa, and while there had visited the local museum that preserved the area’s memorabilia.)

I Don’t Remember Where the Chinese Cook Lived (1994)—not part of the Joss Paper Series—is another ambitious commemorative installation from this time span. It was installed in a gallery (once a grand family mansion with servants) in Marin County in Northern California. Rindfleisch described the installation as “a tribute to the Chinese cook who once worked at the Falkirk Mansion about whom little was known: Wong installed a bed and mini-shrines to create a place for his soul to rest and hand-printed a history of Chinese in Marin County.”(11)

In the 1990s, Wong continued to make work about family history, turning again to rice sacks as the medium for a multi-part narrative about the childhood of Ed Wong, her husband of thirty-nine years. During their long marriage, Flo had listened, more and more enthralled—first as a wife and fellow Chinese-American and, finally, as an artist “looking for a story”—to Ed’s reminiscences. In 1993, she started to create Baby Jack Rice Story.

Ed Wong, also known as “Baby Jack,” had been brought up in the 1930s and 1940s when segregation laws in his childhood home of Augusta, Georgia classified Chinese Americans as white. (Segregation laws governing Chinese Americans varied from town to town in the South at this time.) Nevertheless, Ed Wong stubbornly made friends with two black brothers, Boykin and Cush Cade. In 1993, Ed and Flo, accompanied by their son Brad, went to Georgia to research the Southern roots of Ed’s family and to make a documentary video, To Bay Min. They interviewed Cush and his sister Alma (Boykin had already died), and collected family photographs. Wong’s much-exhibited Baby Jack Rice Story (1993-1996), which collectively measures some fifty feet when hung on a gallery wall, tells of this interracial friendship, one so central to Ed’s childhood. It consists of forty rice sacks, silk-screened with images, and bordered by embroidered commentaries, through which “I wanted to capture Ed’s love for his childhood friends.”

A year after completing this work, Wong made another piece about black and Chinese-American friendship. In 1997, she collaborated with two Nebraska-based black artists, Reese Crawford-Tocho and Pamela J. Berry (both of whom had Chinese-American relations in their family history) to create Kente Rice Women: Talking Our Connection. This wonderful three-headed throne had a huge fourteen-foot “skirt” made of Kente cloth and rice sacks. When originally shown at the University of Nebraska, the “skirt” was draped on the throne, spilling over onto the gallery floor. On the walls were photographs of the three artists, and on the floor Wong had created a border around the skirt composed of black-eyed peas, rice and Chinese soup bowls and spoons.

At the end of 1998, I saw a retrospective of Wong’s work in Sunnyvale, the town in which she lives, some forty five miles south of San Francisco. There was the Eye of the Rice in all its splendor, sprawling across two walls in a corner of the space, and on the floor in front were two rice sack covered chairs (Lee See Star Mai Aung, 1990 and Bitter Melon Rice Blues, 1992) and a rice sack rocking horse (Rice-ing, 1993), all glittering with sequins. The exhibition also contained My Mother’s Baggage: Lucky Daughter, together with District Six: A Memory, Kente Rice Women: Talking Our Connection, and several of the Baby Jack Rice Story panels.

Familiar wonderful work.

But also there was new work: the first seven flags of made in usa: Angel Island Shhh, formed from American flags on top of which Wong had sewn rice sacks (which contained such phrases as “Texas long grain enriched rice. . .”) so that one just sees the borders of the flag.(12)

On each flag Wong had stenciled “Angel Island,” and around the edge capital letters spelled out: INTERROGATE—TO ASK A QUESTION, ESP. TO SEEK ANSWERS WHICH THE PERSON QUESTIONED CONSIDERS PERSONAL OR SECRET. “For each person featured, I have printed their names on their flag, and written staccato texts, in red, white and blue, relating to their immigration ‘secret,’ and then I repeat these texts, now typed in black, and conceal them in a small pouch, sewn to the flag.”

Along with Flo Wong and Lai Wah, one of her sisters, I stood there for a while in the art gallery, looking at the flags. Wong later recalled how happy she was that day because “Lai could now witness the sharing and validation of our immigrant history in an artistic environment.” I took a photograph of the two sisters, smiling, standing to the side of the three flags dedicated to Lai Wah herself, and Wong’s two other older sisters, Li Keng and Li Hong; nearby were four more flags in honor of their mother, and Wong’s mother-in-law, brother-in-law and her uncle-in-law.

It was a deeply touching moment. What had been private history in the families of Flo and Ed Wong was now public art. What had been threatening was now transformed into something celebratory.

Part 3, “made in usa: Angel Island Shhh”

The Installation

Begun in 1997, made in usa: Angel Island Shhh (originally entitled “The American Story”) is almost finished as of March, 2000. It consists of twenty-five rice sack flags and seven or so audiotaped interviews, with an additional eight unrecorded telephone or personal interviews, all of which Wong has conducted with still-living Angel Island detainees (mostly in their seventies and eighties) and descendants of detainees. “On the flags, I alternate using the real or ‘paper’ names of these detainees, according to their wishes.”

In a February 18, 2000 e-mail to me, Wong described how she envisions the installation which will open in June on Angel Island. “The completed twenty-five rice sack flags will hang on a freestanding wall system with fabric-wrapped panels. In addition there will be an incomplete rice sack designed, stenciled, and painted by the children of the Lincoln, Nebraska Public Schools.”

“The space is a musty and dark narrow room with poems carved on the walls. The viewers will hear detainee interviews in English and Chinese. There will be mounds of red, white, and blue rice situated near the flags. At a table, viewers can explore books and materials related to the ‘paper people’ experience of former Angel Island detainees.”

“I want memories, questions, and history to float from my pieces, which feature secrets of ‘paper people’ revealed and concealed on my cloth rice sacks hand-stitched onto the American flags. I want the silence of invisibility to break as the ‘paper people’ narratives eventually permeate the hearts and minds of those who see the show. I want them to carry these stories home. I envision the show to be contemplative and healing as viewers peruse the flags that hint at the revelation of each person honored by a work of art.”

Ed Wong and Angel Island

From its inception, Flo Wong has always credited Ed Wong with inspiring made in usa through the stories he would bring home to her about his experiences as a docent at the Angel Island Immigration Station—a position he has held since 1996 following his 1992 retirement.

In a February 19, 2000 e-mail to me, Ed Wong wrote: “Ever since I learned that my mother, brother Ted, and Uncle Robert were detained at Angel Island when they immigrated to the United States in 1930, I was intensely interested in our family’s immigration history there. Beginning in the late 1970s, I visited the Immigration Station several times—once with my mother shortly before she died. This was her first and only visit to the Immigration Station since she had been released in April 1930 after being detained for seven weeks. On her first sight of the Detention Barracks, she muttered in Cantonese: ‘That is the jail.’ The station was not open for visits then, but as she walked around the grounds, she recalled many memories. For example, as she walked up a path to the location of the Administration Building, she remembered the area where she had obtained fresh linen weekly.”

“Working at the Immigration Station since 1996 has been a rewarding experience. Talking to school children who come to the station during the school year is great. I provide a history lesson that’s not commonly known. Being there with former detainees is an experience that I cannot obtain by reading—listening to a detainee on the tour openly reflecting on his or her memories as we go through the barracks.”

“One particularly memorable experience occurred in 1997 during a visit from an elderly Chinese man who came to the station with his son, a college professor at U. C. Davis. As we walked through the building, the man stared at certain locations. He pointed to the barrack door and talked about the bulletin board on which the guard posted the identification number of the detainees being called that day for interrogation. He told us how bad the food was. He recalled opening a can of salmon, sent by his uncle in San Francisco, and heating it on the radiator to supplement his meal. He stared out the window into the men’s exercise yard, wondering what had happened to the apple tree that was such a source of pleasure.”

“During our family reunion at the Immigration Station in July 1997, Flo’s sister, Li Keng and my Uncle Robert told similar stories. Robert told of the apple tree and heating Chinese sausage (lop cheung) on the radiator. He located the site of the bunk where he and Ted slept.”

E-mails from Flo Wong, 1999-2000

Over the last couple of years I have kept in touch with Flo Wong about this project through visits, talks on the phone and e-mail messages. The following section is composed of a selection from some of her e-mails to me.

January 10, 1999: “After lunch I went to the studio where I interviewed the mother of a friend of mine. This woman’s father was a ‘paper son’ in 1939 and she was ready to tell me his story. The two-hour interview went lickety-split. We spoke in a combination of English and Cantonese. Her father’s story was absolutely engaging in that he was the one who started the family nursery business in the South Bay, an American success story. She still fears being found out for her father’s illegal status in the U.S., so I promised her that I will list her as an anonymous source.”

February 28, 1999: “My sister, Li Keng, and her granddaughter, Andrea, were filmed on Friday at Angel Island in a day long marathon for a TV program, ‘The Twentieth Century Project: The American Tapestry.’ Bill [Wong] and I were interviewed yesterday at a house in Oakland. The director is Greg Nava who made El Norte. He’s planning to return some time to my studio in the future to capture my work.” [There is footage in this film of Wong in her studio looking at Oakland Chinatown historical photographs, and she also appears in Gee family scenes.]

May 25, 1999: “I’m so excited that I am about to break out of my skin. Norman and Helen Gee, friends of mine from Lawrence, Kansas, stayed over last night, and Norm brought his mother, Mae Gee, along. At my studio I showed them two made in usa rice sack flags in honor of Norm’s ancestors. Mae then shared her family immigration and ‘paper people’ stories, and was a fount of knowledge and information. Turns out that the two men for whom I made the rice sack flags are Mae’s half-brother and a cousin who claimed to be a brother—but Norm didn’t know that when he first informed me about his ‘paper people’ history.”

June 15, 1999: “I’m having a productive time here at Djerassi. I have just completed Flag #14.”

June 23, 1999: “I just finished my 15th rice sack flag. In July I will be attending the Chinese-American Conference in San Diego to make a presentation on made in usa and to put out another call for ‘paper people.’”

July 2, 1999: “Sad news. Wong Win Gnay, who was age 85 and one of the last ‘paper people’ that I interviewed, has passed away in Los Angeles. I spoke with him two months ago. Mr. Wong was modest and did not tell me that he was awarded a Bronze Cross for his World War II service. It was Ed who discovered that information in a book about Chinese-American war veterans in Southern California, so I shared that information with Gary, Mr. Wong’s son. Gary then spoke to his father about his life, one of the rare times they talked about it. Mr. Wong’s flag was the last that I worked on at Djerassi. His passing makes me aware of the poignancy of my project.”

February 17, 2000: “I am back from a restful family reunion at Sea Ranch. While there, I sewed on the rice sack flag honoring Lily Wong Chooey of San Francisco, a former Angel Island detainee who arrived in the U.S. from China in June of 1940. Lily was one of the last people to come through the immigration station there. Lily’s husband searched for three years before he found someone in the U. S. who had papers for a daughter to sell (most papers were designated for sons). Her husband purchased the papers from a man who accepted Lily as his ‘paper daughter.’ When Lily came she entered the country as a single woman. In reality, of course, she was married and the mother of a daughter she had to leave behind in China. Lily recalled being coached to appear as a simple country peasant and was told not to perm her hair. She was not to look too sophisticated.”

“Several years later, Mr. Chooey then purchased papers from another family to bring their older daughter to this country. So, both Mr. Chooey’s wife and daughter came under different false identities to the U. S. I was introduced to Lily through her daughter, Jeanie Chooey Low, a genealogist who has authored the book China Connections, which teaches people how to research their family’s Angel Island histories.”

“I have been a teaching resident in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Artist Diversity Residency Program for several years. Since 1998, I have been presenting—mostly to fifth and sixth graders—my family’s Angel Island stories. This January, a student, after hearing me speak, commented that it was clear that I ‘wasn’t out for revenge.’ I looked at him and responded, ‘You’re right, Noah. I just want to tell the story.’ That’s what making this project allows me to do—to tell the painful stories aesthetically.”

March 1, 2000: “I don’t remember if I told you that the twenty-five flags honor a mixture of people: ‘paper people’ (16 men and 3 women), sponsors of ‘paper people’ (3), and those who arrived at Angel Island with ‘paper people’ (4). This includes one person (my father) who was both a ‘paper person’ and a sponsor.”(13)

Conversation with Flo Wong,
January 15, 2000

I begin this taped conversation with Wong by asking her to free associate with the word “immigration.”

FW: “Departure. Voyage. Ragged clothing. Wavy ocean. Ballast. Ship. Fear. Excitement. Sadness. New life. Courage. New identity. New boundaries. Redemption. Memories. Challenge. Re-identification.”

MR: “And Angel Island?”

FW: “Rickety. Cold. Old. Dusty. Lonely. Despair. Hope. Poetry. Separation. Longing. Authority. Questions. Interrogation. Lying. Secrecy. Foreign. Alienation. Isolation. Surprise. Cramped.”

MR: “What were some of the challenges in creating made in usa ?”

FW: “I had to penetrate the wall of silence with the former living detainees. It was an issue of trust. Why should they tell me the story? If they told me the story, what would happen to them? They needed hand-holding and I was willing to provide this—as were many of their children and relatives. So an infrastructure has sprung up spontaneously to support these people who are so bravely telling their stories. Since starting this project, I have witnessed many people’s excitement; they in turn have become the town criers for it. For example, one of my nieces lives in San Gabriel, and I am doing a flag for her father-in-law. She talked to other people about my project and so I received two interviews through her.”

MR: “In addition to these walls of silence, together with the challenge of obtaining funding for the project—surely always an obstacle, although you and Nancy Hom of the Kearny Street Workshop have been brilliantly successful in that arena—what were some of the other difficulties?”

FW: “The actual hands-on making of the work. It takes so long to make each one! If I am at home, it takes me one month to do a flag—although I have hired several interns to help me with this (and they are learning so much). When I attend an artist’s residency, however, I can make three flags in a month. Luckily I have had a series of residencies: in California at Villa Montalvo, Saratoga and Djerassi, and at the Vermont Studio Center, and in Lincoln, Nebraska. I always ask for a studio space where I can have an exhibition, and so this allows me to mount my flags to see them sequentially year by year.”

MR: “And the most pleasurable aspects of the project?”

FW: “I get to speak Chinese again. With this project I can re-use a language that I love. I get to be with old people who share their memories, and are delighted that someone outside of their own families is interested in them. Sometimes I talk to people who don’t understand the significance of what they have done by coming to America under these circumstances. When I finish the interviews, I hope that I have conveyed my respect to them for their acts of courage.”
“I like the fact that these former detainees are speaking up. They are beginning to understand—through involvement in this project—that they are a significant part of the American landscape. Their past is an American story, a story indeed ‘made in usa.’”

Conversation with Flo Wong,
February 20, 2000

MR: “Given that in June of this year you are going to transform that memory-laden space of the Angel Island men’s barracks into the made in usa installation, what is that ambiance like usually?”

FW: “It’s a haunting space. It’s dark, although there are windows placed along the walls that let in areas of light. In the winter it’s cold and chilly, but in the summer time, it is a comfortable place because it never gets too hot inside the building.”
“It is a place where I can hear echoes. I can hear my footsteps, I can hear the voices of the people who were there, and see the empty poles that used to hold up their bunks. (I am so grateful that when the place was re-opened, they left those poles there.) All in all, it is so amazing to do an art piece in an actual historical place instead of trying to recreate that space elsewhere.”

MR: “And the poems that detainees carved into the walls?”

FW: “Many of them are still covered up with layers of paint although there are several that are uncovered.”

MR: “So these poems will constitute another way—in addition to the sound booths for your detainee interview tapes—of bringing memories (voices) from that time into your exhibition?”

FW: “Yes. I see the poems as a cocoon for my installation. I love the idea of discovering my present time and knowing that my present came from the past. This was brought home to me when I interviewed Ed’s Uncle Robert because, when he was on Angel Island in 1930, he witnessed a man carving a poem on the second floor. This was the first time that I had found anyone who remembered seeing someone carve a poem—everyone else just remembered that the poetry was there. So there are still living people who are eyewitnesses to history.”

“What I want to do is to honor these people who have gone through challenges and provided me with the opportunity to have the blessed life that I have had.”

MR: “Does that apply to your parents?”

FW: “Yes. I realize that they had a vision. I admire my mother for her strength and her power, for her ability to withstand the tests that she was given in order to complete her life cycle, which began on the continent of China, and ended here. She is very symbolic of the powerful strong Chinese women who held the families together. A lot of the fathers in the immigration history period were absentee fathers because they had left China to come here to establish a life and make money so they could send for their families. I really respect my father for following through and sending for our family. Many men did not: they had a family in China but eventually established a second family here in the U.S.”

“It was our parents who enthused in us this compelling and obsessive will to live. It’s part of my feeling so driven—I am driven by their hardships and their wanting to make life better for us.”

E-mail from Flo Wong,
March 27, 2000

“Yesterday, I finished sewing on the last flag for made in usa: Angel Island Shhh. Now, except for a small patch that I need to sew on my father’s flag, I have completed the making of the flags.”


  1. Flo Oy Wong statement, February 20, 2000.
  2. I audiotaped Flo Oy Wong on January 15, 2000, and all statements in this essay, unless otherwise noted, are drawn from this interview, together with a series of e-mail exchanges during January-March of 2000.
  3. Nellie Wong, “It’s in the Blood,” The Death of Long Steam Lady, Albuquerque, New Mexico: West End Press, 1986. Reprinted in Kaleidoscope: An Exhibition of Ink Paintings and Drawings by Flo Oy Wong, ed. Moira Roth and Diane Tani, Oakland/ Berkeley: Antonio Prieto Gallery/Visibility Press, 1992, pp. 43-45.
  4. Flo Oy Wong, “Flo Oy Wong, Artist,” Yellow Light: The Flowering of Asian American Arts, ed. Amy Ling, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999, p. 179.
  5. Moira Roth and Diane Tani, “Flo Oy Wong: A Narrative Chronology,” Kaleidoscope, p. 61. Our catalogue, which includes texts by Hung Liu, Lucy R. Lippard, Nellie Wong, William Wong, Tani and myself, has been the singly most extensive source of information about Wong until now.
  6. When Wong includes Chinese words and phrases in her work, she usually employs the Chinese Cantonese fourth dialect, which she learned in her family home as a child.
  7. Kimberly Chun, “Secrets & Lies,” in “Peninsula Friday,” in the San Francisco Chronicle (Peninsula edition), October 23, 1998, p. 2.
  8. In addition to Wong’s long career as an artist, she has always been deeply engaged as an activist, including her role as the co-founder (with Betty Kano) of the Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA) in 1989, a Bay Area organization that has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. See account of the evolution of AAWAA in Cecile Nelkin McCann, “A conversation with Flo Oy Wong,” Artweek (June 3, 1993, vol. 24, No. 11). Also, see Of Our Own Voice (Berkeley: Asian American Women Artists Association, 1998) for illustrations and individual short artist statements of 26 AAWAA artists, including Wong.
  9. Terri Cohn, Flo Oy Wong: Essences, unpaginated brochure, Saratoga, CA: Villa Montalvo, 1995.
  10. Jan Rindfleisch, Flo Oy Wong Honoring, unpaginated brochure, Cupertino, CA/ Sunnyvale, CA: Euphrat Museum of Art and Sunnyvale Creative Arts Center Gallery, 1998.
  11. Ibid.
  12. I first saw slides of the early flags when Wong gave a presentation, “made in usa: Visual Stories of Chinese in America,” at the Chinese Historical Society of America, San Francisco, March 20, 1998, at which time she handed out a printed appeal to the audience: “…If you are a paper person or know of one in your family or among your friends, and would like to participate in this exciting historical visual art project, please contact me…”
  13. In an e-mail from Wong to me, March 2, 2000, she writes: “There are indeed only 25 flags, but in my counting, I have credited my father in two categories—the ‘paper person’ and ‘sponsor’ segments. Perhaps a footnote is needed here to state that I have given my father ‘paper people’ status although I have very ittle proof. The reason is that when my family and I researched our archival documents and saw the photo of our alleged grandfather, we noticed that there was no family resemblance to the man my father claimed for his father. I also remembered as a child a distant relative who visited us with much respect and acclaim. I think that he was my father’s ‘paper father’ but I do not have any actual proof other than memories.”

Moira Roth, Trefethen Professor of Art History, Mills College, Oakland, is a feminist critic-historian who writes primarily on contemporary art. In 1998, a book of her writings, Difference/ Indifference: Musings on Postmodernism, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, was published (with commentary by Jonathan D. Katz) and she is currently engaged in writing a series of essays collectively entitled “Traveling Companions/ Fractured Worlds.”

Text ©2000 Moira Roth, “Flo Oy Wong: made in usa.”

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