Wing initially followed his uncle and cousins into the family business, as did most of the second-generation Chinese in Phoenix. But his career ambitions outstripped those of most of his generation--and scandalized some of his relatives, according to his children.
Even as he prepared to enter a traditional marriage arranged by his uncle Henry, Wing notified his intended that he wanted to become a lawyer some day. His marriage to sixteen-year-old Rose Wong, whom he never saw before her arrival from China just in time for the wedding, carried obligations in both directions, Ong-Sakata explains. "She promised to support him in his goal to become a lawyer, but in return he had to promise to help her brother and sister emigrate," Ong-Sakata says. "That's the way it worked with arranged marriages. It was a pact and each side got something from it."
Profits from their grocery store were counted in pennies, and their first child was born in the back room. Nevertheless, recalls Ong-Sakata, "my father made good on his promise to bring my uncle and auntie over, and they helped Mom run the store while my dad went to law school in Tucson."
At the time Wing Ong entered law school, Phoenix's small population of Chinese was occupied almost exclusively in the grocery, laundry, and restaurant businesses, or were raising the produce that supplied the groceries and restaurants. The notion of seeking an advanced degree, let alone running for political office, was beyond imagining to most of Wing's generation.
Wing Ong graduated at the top of his law class in 1943 and became one of only eight Chinese-American lawyers in the U.S. He set up a storefront office next to the Wing F. Ong grocery store at 13th and Jefferson Streets across from Booker T. Washington Elementary School (now the New Times building.) Wing ran for the state House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1946 and was elected, the first Chinese American in the country to achieve such status. Over the course of his career, he was elected twice to the state House and once to the state Senate.
As a lawyer, Wing Ong represented the poor of Phoenix and battled immigration laws on behalf of newly arrived Chinese in San Francisco. In political life, he backed welfare, education and job-security measures.
Meanwhile, Henry Sr. helped establish the First Chinese Baptist Church in Phoenix. Henry Jr. remains active in the church and has been a trustee for Grand Canyon College (now University) and has served as state president for the Gideons and the Baptist Children's Home. Fred Ong taught night courses in citizenship to recent immigrants under a program sponsored by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the American Legion in Phoenix.
The resemblance between the Ongs' story and a series of Currier & Ives tableaux, unmarked by black sheep or other blemishes, is no accident. "We were able to establish ourselves because we were honest; we were involved in legitimate, honest businesses," Fred Ong says. "It is not that we're smarter than other people; it's that we work harder."
In America, this is the recipe for success. Or it should be. But the younger Ongs--and other Asian Americans of their generation--say the recent tide of ethnically motivated violence across the U.S. offers discouraging evidence that, once again, someone is tilting the game.
"I'D LIKE MY CHILDREN to be able to walk down the streets of Detroit and not get beat to death because they're Asian."
Madeline Ong-Sakata, who's in her fifties, sounds almost flippant as she responds to a question about her hopes for her children. But her underlying sentiment of frustration, fear and anger is echoed often by members of her generation as they confront a new set of barriers based on stereotypes, discrimination and downright resentment.
"Throughout the country there's been a well-documented rise in anti-Asian sentiment in recent years," notes Richard Nagasawa. "It's a particular concern to parents like Madeline whose children are just reaching adulthood."
Within the past year, vandals in the Phoenix metro area have attacked a Chinese cultural center in Chandler, and the offices of the Japanese-American Citizens League have been hit twice, most recently last month. "Everything seemed fine here until the vandalizing of the Chinese cultural center in November," Ong-Sakata says.
The emergence of hate crimes like the 1982 murder of Detroit resident Vincent Chin, beaten to death on the eve of his wedding by two unemployed white autoworkers he'd never met, sends a chilling message to Asian-American parents. "I think it's economic--people have to blame someone for the hard times," Ong-Sakata says. "The beginning of hate crimes in Phoenix coincided with the appearance of skinheads, according to the police. I think it's a small group of people who are actually doing the violence, but it reflects a wider attitude.