Jade Snow Wong
Full name: Jade Snow Wong
Real name: Jade Snow Wong
Years: 1922-01-21 / 2006-03-16
Jade Snow Wong spent her 84 years in San Francisco, but that didn't keep generations of people throughout the world from feeling they shared her life as a girl and woman growing up in a traditional Chinatown family.
Ms. Wong, a renowned author and ceramicist, died Thursday in the city she was born in. That's one of the few facts of her life that doesn't appear in her two volumes of autobiography, "Fifth Chinese Daughter" and "No Chinese Stranger."
"Fifth Chinese Daughter," written in 1945, has been described as an early classic of Asian American literature and has never been out of print. Her story about growing up as one of nine children in her family's small clothing factory in Chinatown and her struggle to succeed both as an American woman and as the daughter of an immigrant family continues as a fixture on college reading lists.
Born on the day of a rare San Francisco snowfall in 1922, Ms. Wong, who was also known as Constance Ong, wrote about a Chinatown and a home life foreign to even many Chinese readers today.
"Until she was 5 years old, Jade Snow's world was almost wholly Chinese, for her world was her family, the Wongs,'' she writes in her book. "Life was secure but formal, sober but quietly happy and the few problems she had were entirely concerned with what was proper or improper in the behavior of a little Chinese girl."
But it wasn't just Chinese Americans who felt the impact of her book. Over the years, women from as far away as Afghanistan would come to her Russian Hill studio and travel agency to say "I felt you were writing about my father,'' said her son, San Francisco book designer Mark Stuart Ong.
"People would come to her shop and tell her how much the book meant to them,'' he said. "That meant a lot to her.''
Ms. Wong attended San Francisco City College and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Mills College in 1942. She worked as a secretary during World War II, but an art class introduced her to pottery and the craft that would fill the rest of her life.
With no money to rent a studio, she persuaded a Grant Avenue merchant to let her work on her pottery wheel in the front window of her store, much to the dismay of her family and the derision of many passers-by.
"That was born of desperation, since she couldn't find affordable space to lease, but it also took an amazing amount of courage,'' her son said. "She never did follow the crowd."
The popularity of her pottery and enamelware grew so much that in 1952 she was asked to do a one-woman show at the Art Institute of Chicago that later moved to art museums in Detroit, Omaha, Neb., and Portland, Ore. Her work also was exhibited at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the National Collection of Fine Arts at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and the Cincinnati Art Museum.
Her work is in the permanent collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the International Ceramic Museum in Faenza, Italy.
Ms. Wong worked for years with her husband and fellow artist, Woodrow Ong, with Ong spinning the copper forms for her enamels and managing their travel agency.
"Her studio moved from Chinatown to Jackson Square and finally to Polk Street on Russian Hill,'' her son said. "She gave up her pottery when she moved to her new studio about 20 years ago, but she was still doing her enamel and copper work up to the end.''
But it's Ms. Wong's memoir of her early years that most people will remember. It was a Book of the Month Club selection in 1950 and was reprinted in a number of languages. It was made into a half-hour PBS special in 1976.
"She told me she had absolutely no inkling the book would be as popular as it was,'' her son said. "She wrote it, bundled it off to her publisher and didn't think that much of it.''
Ms. Wong worked with a number of Bay Area groups over the years, including the San Francisco Public Library, the Asian Art Museum, the Chinese Cultural Center, the Chinese Historical Society of America and Mills College, which awarded her an honorary doctorate of humane arts in 1976.
She is survived by her sons, Mark and Lance, and her daughters, Tyi and Ellora, along with four grandchildren, all of San Francisco.