The Day – Community Celebrates Life, Legacy of Cultural Strength John YK Wong
Montville – Community members gathered on Saturday afternoon to celebrate the life of John YK Wong – a restaurant owner and local cultural force.
John Wong, 93, who died in late June, had lived in eastern Connecticut since 1947 and founded the Chinese and American Cultural Assistance Association as well as the Chinese American Business Association. The Montville businessman acted as a sort of mentor for many Chinese immigrants who moved to eastern Connecticut, helping them find jobs and homes as well as health care and other services – long before the two casinos brought thousands of Asians to the area.
On Saturday, more than 60 family and friends converged on the Montville VFW at 91 Raymond Hill Road in Uncasville to remember John Wong. Photos of him and those same family members and friends, among others, adorned billboards adjacent to a podium. All four of John Wong’s children spoke to The Day about their dad and heaped praise on him at the informal ceremony.
“He was in this county for 70 years,” his son Nage Wong said on Saturday. “He was almost like ‘The Godfather.’ All the Chinese call him godfather, he helped them find accommodation, whatever, they went to see him if they needed anything.
John Wong founded the Cultural Assistance Association in 2007 to provide language assistance to new Asian residents and to assist police and city governments with translation services.
“He was like the mayor of the Asian community,” said John Wong’s daughter, Namie Tedford. “Honestly, I felt my dad was invincible. I really didn’t think he would ever die.
“He had a quote,” interjected Tedford’s brother, Nage Wong. “‘If I do good, everyone else does good.’ He was on a mission to open a big Asian American community center, to help the Asian American community, but my mom was sick and he was there for her, he wouldn’t leave her.
John Wong’s wife, Kally, died before him in 2017 at the age of 82.
Walter Wong used a different label for his father: “Ambassador”.
“He was like the ambassador of cultural rapprochement. You have to give credit to the big casinos that moved here, they caused a wave of Asian cultures here and what happened was they didn’t understand how things worked in Connecticut,” said Walter Wong. “My dad ended up being that bridge between the two. Everyone called my father. They didn’t know who he was, but they were calling him, and they were like, ‘Can you help me? I got a citation for trespassing,” or something like that, because they didn’t understand how the laws worked. So my father was always in the municipal courts trying to explain everything.
His daughter Hallie Wong recalls that when casinos came to the area, John Wong lobbied for sidewalks along busy roads where workers walked to work.
“We had a lot of people working at Mohegan Sun, and people were getting hit on their way to work. They wore all-black (work) uniforms. So these people came to my father and said, ‘Can you help us?’ Someone who was killed, his family couldn’t afford a funeral or even a casket. So he made it happen,” she said. “He asked people to help them, gave them funerals, gave them a coffin. Then he said to himself, “I need to help more”, and what he did was he went to the politicians and the people of the city and had them build sidewalks so workers can walk on sidewalks instead of on the road.
In 2014, when Norwich Rotary named John Wong as the recipient of its Lottie B. Scott Diversity Award, he said, “I’ve done a lot for the community, maybe that’s why they remember me.
At that same event, surrounded by political dignitaries, he lobbied State Senator Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, for better access to home care for Asian Americans.
In 2012, The Day reported on John Wong’s ardent efforts to have a private bus company take over the shuttle service from Norwich to Foxwoods Resort Casino for casino employees. The casino had discontinued the service in 2012 after offering it for 20 years.
Asians made up 2.1% of Norwich’s population in 2001. Ten years later, in 2011, that number had risen to 7.7%. At the time, John Wong said he was not surprised by the census figures. He noted that New York’s Chinatown manufacturing economy collapsed after September 11, 2001, and here casinos flourished, especially Mohegan Sun.
While in Norwich, Montville and surrounding towns the Asian influx was the result of casino jobs, John Wong said, in Groton jobs at Electric Boat and Pfizer Inc. attracted new Asian residents. He estimated that 90% of Asians living in East Lyme came to work at Pfizer.
In September 2010, in the grip of the Great Recession, Mohegan Sun made a series of layoffs. When John Wong heard the news, he went straight to the Mohegan Tribe office. He asked to meet with tribal officials to try to stop the layoffs.
None of the managers were available, but John Wong argued that the casino would be better off keeping already trained employees through tough times rather than having to hire and train new workers when the economy improves.
“I tried to put my two cents in it,” he said at the time. “I tried to get them not to lay off but to cut benefits and hours to keep well-trained employees.”
John Wong has worked with both casinos over the years to help integrate the many Chinese employees in the area.
In September 2009, he presented a proposal to build a $200 million Chinese-American university on the former grounds of Norwich Hospital in Norwich and Preston, a project he said would attract 5,000 top students in the region and reportedly bring in $125 million in revenue annually. . It ultimately didn’t work.
John Wong’s proposal said the university would attract students from China, other Asian countries, and the United States to study medicine, law, liberal arts, Asian languages, and cross-cultural studies.
It was John Wong, the public figure, the local champion of the Chinese and Asians in the area. He was born on February 24, 1929 in Canton, China, and immigrated to the United States in 1944. He graduated from the Bulkeley School, which closed in 1951, in New London.
According to his obituary, after working for his family’s establishment, Wong’s Restaurant, John Wong opened his own restaurant in Uncasville in 1956, called China Lake. He brought in his father to run the restaurant, and it remained in business for over 25 years.
John Wong also bought and started other businesses, including Connecticut Air Freight, a logistics company. After China Lake closed in 1982, he opened a take-out Chinese restaurant in Niantic and named it after “his friend and loyal chef, Sing.” John Wong obituary bed. Sing’s Kitchen became a popular spot and then expanded. John Wong eventually retired and left the business to his son Nage Wong.
Walter Wong said it was difficult for his father to meet his responsibilities to the community, to be a family man and to be a successful businessman at the same time.
“It’s so difficult for a businessman like my father to balance everything. He’s in so much demand, and he created such a famous restaurant at the time, there were queues, dignitaries left and right, so we kind of grew inside the restaurant. … It was difficult for him to be there for us because of the demands of the restaurant,” Walter Wong said. “My dad was a very hardworking man who put groceries for his family first. His priority was providing for his family… with that, you didn’t see it much… My dad confessed there For many years one of his biggest regrets was not spending more time with us and watching us grow.”
Even in retirement, which his children called his perpetual semi-retirement, John Wong’s “reputation grew within the Asian community.”
“People have come to him for help or help in bridging the cultural gap in the communities that have grown up all over New London County. With overwhelming requests for help, he established the Chinese and American Cultural Assistance Association,” reads his obituary. “While serving this community well, he was making progress in bridging this cultural gap. … John’s biggest dream was to build an Asian community with all the conveniences of an Asian town. Even though that dream didn’t come true, John still gave his all to his family, friends and community.