Chinese artist helped shake off stereotype

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 24, 2002

A former Albert Lea resident will come back from New York after 48 years of absence.

Those who knew Jeanette remember her as a spirited and bright girl who was fond of the arts.

Those who did not know her personally may recall her if they are reminded that she was one of the Wong girls.

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Jeanette Wong Ming, 65, breathed her last on March 22. In her hospital bed, she asked her son Eric to bury her remains in Albert Lea.

The Wongs were the only Chinese family in the community, running The Canton Caf at 321 S. Broadway Ave. While going to school, Jeanette helped the family business.

Jeanette spent a great deal of her life confronting stereotypes associated with Chinese descendants in this country.

“If you scratch a Chinese person, you see a business,” her sister Eleanor, who wrote “It’s Crazy to Stay Chinese in Minnesota,” recalls Jeanette told her, referring to the perception that the Chinese were mostly suited to be shopkeepers.

Jeanette broke such prejudice imposed on her family, and realized herself as an established artist and illustrator. She left Albert Lea in 1954.

While continuing her paintings, Jeanette worked for the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art where she received the Employee of the Year award in 1998.

Many of her art pieces express her memories in Albert Lea, particularly coarse second-handed furniture in her house on Washington Street, an area her sister described as “the wrong side of the tracks,” occupied by minorities and the underprivileged.

Her father, Sam Wong, arrived from Guangdong province in Southern China as a railroad worker. He was one of those who entered the country with a citizenship paper called “chee,” sold on the black market among Chinese.

The chee is a certificate that proves a baby was born of U.S. citizens.

A number of Chinese immigrants obtained their American birth certificates and passports in the early 1900s after the San Francisco earthquake, claiming the originals were lost in the disaster. And then, they got citizenship papers for their children, which became the chee.

All of this, that Northern European neighbors had never needed to go through, was because of an 1882 law that forbid Chinese immigrants.

In Albert Lea, her parents’ minds were always in China.

Dad, who always asked his daughters to bring a cup of oolong tea, did not miss any opportunity to talk to people in the caf about the fight between Mao’s forces and Chiang Kai-shek. Mom, Lee Shee, lived in grieving, hoping to move to Hong Kong one day.

Yet, the influence from her parents and the experience in the white-dominated community have beautifully mixed in Jeanette’s art, personality and way of life, instead of going against each other.

She loved the community and people. It was neither China nor New York City that captured her mind all the time. It was Albert Lea.

Jeanette will rest on a hill looking over her favorite area, Fountain Lake and downtown, in the Lakewood Cemetery. A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. June 9.

To commemorate Jeanette’s achievements, Carolyn Harstad, a classmate at Albert Lea High School, has launched the Jeanette Wong Ming Art Scholarship for outstanding art students who are graduating ALHS. Contributions are to be mailed Rod Johnson, ALHS at 2000 Tiger Ln. in Albert Lea. Telephone: (507) 379-5354.