William Gee Wong almost didn’t exist. A few years before Wong was born, his father was shot four times over a dispute involving Oakland Chinatown’s underground lottery. Thanks to the quick work of doctors at Highland Hospital, Wong’s father survived, and after retiring from the gambling business, he opened the Great China restaurant on a busy commercial stretch of Webster Street. William Gee Wong was born just around the corner, at the family’s house on Harrison Street, the youngest of seven children. Even after his family moved to the “China Hill” area east of Lake Merritt, one of the few neighborhoods open to Asian-Americans during the 1940s, William spent most of his time either working for the family business or at Lincoln School. This is why he says “Chinatown was my whole universe” for about the first 20 years of his life.
As the decades passed, Bill learned journalism writing for The Daily Cal, before breaking racial barriers at the San Francisco Chronicle and Wall Street Journal. Eventually, he returned to his hometown to write for The Oakland Tribune about culture and politics from an Asian-American perspective, something practically unheard of at mainstream media outlets in the 1980s. Since retiring he’s published two books, “Yellow Journalist” and “Oakland’s Chinatown,” and he’s currently working on a memoir about his father, who immigrated from China in 1912.
In today’s episode, William Gee Wong discusses the history of Chinese immigration to California, the rise of Oakland’s Chinatown, his memories of working in a “hybrid” restaurant, the systemic racism of urban renewal projects that gutted his neighborhood, and much more. Listen to the full episode via Apple, SoundCloud, Spotify, or wherever you get podcasts.
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