August 31, 2004 > The Fong Family
The Fong Family
Rev. Fong So Yick and his wife Low He Wan ran away from their home in the province of Canton, China to escape religious persecution. They came to Oakland about 1917 where Rev. Fong taught in a Chinese school and became a lay preacher in the Oakland Chinese Cumberland Presbyterian Church. The church moved to San Francisco so the family including children, Paul, Ada and Joseph moved to the John Stevenson ranch at Centerville.
Sons John and Joshua were born on the Stevenson ranch. The modest house where the family lived burned down so Rev. Fong rented a ten-acre farm across Alameda Creek from Mr. Pratali and prepared to move his wife and five children there. He packed their meager belongings on a small sled, placed baby Joshua on top, hitched the horse to the sled and drove about a mile to Alameda Creek, which was dry that summer, to a large barn on the farm. The rest of the family walked to their new home.
The new home was in a barn Rev. Fong had converted into living quarters. The north end of the barn was partitioned off for the house. The center part was for equipment, storage and a workshop. The south end was divided into sleeping lofts and a combined living room and kitchen. Baths were taken in a 30 gallon tub. Daughters Inez and Rose were born in this house. Rev. Fong brought his youngest half-brother, Fong So Way or "Uncle Bill," from China to live with his family.
Rev. Fong purchased the adjacent Bertolucci ranch in 1928 with its small three-bedroom house, barn, workshop and garage. They later poured a cement floor in the full basement and created a large kitchen and dining room with an eight-foot table and a bedroom for guests who came to spend the summer. Relatives who worked at the nearby California Nursery or the Shinn ranch were frequent visitors.
All of the children attended Niles Grammar School. In a span of 20 years there was always at least one member of the Fong family in attendance. In walking the mile home from school, the children often stopped by the California Nursery where the Chinese cook would sometimes give them a piece of pie left from lunch. In the fall there were chestnuts on the ground to pick up and cook at home. An alternative route led them through a cherry orchard when the cherries were ripe. One time Principal Edwin Bristow caught them taking the cherries and punished them back at the school.
The Fong children were needed on the farm after school but they managed to do well at Washington High School and excelled in athletics. Joe was a star baseball pitcher; John played football and Joshua basketball.
The children walked to the Niles Congregational Church. If they missed Sunday School, their teacher would drive her Model A Ford to the farm to see if they were well. They were usually given two pennies for the offering but sometimes used one penny for candy.
Tomatoes, corn, squash, beans, garlic, cabbage, cauliflower and broccoli were raised on the Fong farm. The children worked hard helping with the planting, cultivating, irrigating and harvesting. They hired migrant workers to help harvest the tomatoes when they could not do all the work themselves. They farmed with a horse until they bought a used tractor. The boys rescued and repaired an abandoned Model T. Ford pickup from Alameda Creek in 1936. Mr. Fong bought a used 1934 Ford pickup and then a new 1940 Chevrolet for the boys to haul crops to market.
The Fong family invited friends to the farm for an annual pig-roasting party. They played Victrola music while they separated garlic cloves or cut rosebuds. They got their first radio in 1932 and enjoyed such programs as Jack Benny, The Hit Parade and Amos 'n Andy. The children also played softball, kick the can, basketball on their homemade court, swam in "the old swimming' hole" and the boys hunted to supplement a meager meat diet.
There were some sad family events for the eight Fong children. Jacob died from pneumonia at the age of one month. Paul died on a visit to China at age 12. The surviving six children married and raised children that contributed to society. Ada married Jack Fong. Their children are Gary, Priscilla and Glen. Joseph married Helen Eng, children Stevie and Kathy. John and Lilly Jiu raised Shirley, Larry and Karen. Inez married Dr. Herbert Yee. Their children are Randy, Douglas, Alan, and Wesley, all doctors. The children of Drs. Rose and Fish Yuen are Eddie and Richard. Joshua returned to the Bay Area to attend Cal following service in the Navy during World War II. After receiving a doctorate from the USC Southern California College of Optometry, he settled in the East Bay and married Lena Chew. They raised 5 children, Dr. Neal Fong, Jill Au, Heidi Young, Charlotte Fong and Polly Fong.
Dr. Fong's Christian faith led him to serve his community in many ways. He helped found the New Life Christian Baptist Church and numerous educational scholarships. He practiced optometry in the East Bay for 44 years and held positions of Commissioner of Personnel for the City of San Leandro, Trustee at the Doctors/Humana Hospital and president of Kiwanis and Wa Sung Service Clubs. Dr. Fong was an active member and officer in the Chambers of Commerce in 4 cities and the founder of the Oakland Chinese Golf Club. As a founder of the Bay Bank of Commerce in 1979, and Chairman of the Board, he helped guide the bank to its listing in Standard and Poors.
Their humble beginnings on the farm helped the Fongs develop a value system of hard work and community service. Within 2 generations there are 12 medical professionals, 6 teachers and 3 bankers. What a remarkable family!
The assistance of Jill Au and Lena Fong is gratefully acknowledged in preparing this article.