August 27, 2022

Michael Gong: We’ve Lost One of Our Best.

by Hal Gershowitz

Comments Below

It really isn’t an exaggeration. We lost one of our best this week.

Few readers of this column will have known Michael Gong, but his story and that of his parents, siblings, and children should stir all Americans’ hearts. Michael Gong, his wife Cindy at his side, passed away quietly at their home in Riverside, Illinois, following a long battle with cancer. Michael, Cindy, and their two children, Jennifer and Cameron, came into our lives when Jennifer and my son, Michael, married twenty-five years ago.

Michael Gong was what I call a gyroscope-grounded person. He possessed an inner bearing, his true north, and it was invariably focused, whatever the issue, on what was morally and ethically right. He was a dear friend, a great educator, and a wonderful human being. A retired and beloved art history professor at Triton College in River Grove, Illinois, Michael was, eighty-five years ago, at the heart of one of the most remarkable immigration sagas in American history.

Michael’s parents, Fred and May Gong (their names Americanized when they settled in Portland, Oregon, about 100 years ago), struggled mightily to reach America from China by way of Mexico. Many years later, they, and the greater Portland community, fought valiantly to allow them to stay in their adopted country. Michael Gong is the last of Fred and May Gong’s five children to pass away. His passing closes a chapter on a great American story.

Michael Gong, the youngest of Fred and May’s children, was born in May 1937, a time both ominous and hopeful. The swastika-emblazoned German airship Hindenburg had just crashed on the American east coast, and the new, spectacular Golden Gate bridge had just opened on the west coast. America was at peace while the rest of the world descended into darkness and turmoil. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was, in 1937, trying to deport Fred and May to their original home in China, which was then subject to the brutal occupation of Japan. Had the Gong’s with their infant child Michael been deported to that war-ravaged nation, they, and most certainly their child Michael, would not have survived. Let me explain.

Fred and May had settled in Portland, Oregon, when the cruel Chinese Exclusion Act was still in force. They had made their way from China to Mexico, crossed into the United States in 1922, and made their way to San Francisco, where they remained for one year and then moved on to Portland. They settled into Portland’s well-established Chinatown, where they soon became activists for worthy causes in their new community. They warned against the dangers of gambling which was rampant in Chinatown, and, in the late thirties, they worked hard, very hard, raising money to resist the rape of China by Japan. 

Whether their strident activism against gambling or Japanese aggression was to blame isn’t clear. Still, someone called their presence in Portland’s Chinatown to the attention of the INS, which quickly instituted deportation proceedings against Fred and May Gong, insisting they return to China. Their deportation back to China would, of course, have been a death sentence. The INS confronted the Gongs with a choice; they could leave with the infant child (Michael Gong), or they could, before deportation, leave the child in Portland with a willing American family along with his American-born siblings. Their oldest son, Henry, a high school senior and an honor student at Portland’s Lincoln High School, was also subject to deportation, and the entire school faculty protested on his behalf. The INS was willing to compromise. They offered to let Henry finish high school before deporting him. Fred and May, however, would have to go back to China, a certain death sentence at the hands of the Japanese.

Because May was pregnant at the time with her fifth child, Michael, the government agreed that the Gongs could stay until she gave birth. Then they and their infant child would have to leave. Their circumstances were dire. They were faced with the prospect of leaving most of their children in America and, most certainly, never seeing them again or taking them to a dreadful fate in China, which was then being ravaged by Japan.  

The story of the Gong family would have ended as a great tragedy, but for a young civil rights lawyer, Irv Goodman, who took their case pro bono and quickly rallied the entire Portland community behind the Gong family. Under intense public pressure, the INS finally relented and allowed the Gongs to remain as Mexican immigrants (remember, they couldn’t be allowed in as Chinese immigrants because of the Chinese Exclusion Act).

America sings with the story of the Gong family. Michael Gong, who passed away this week, and his parents and siblings were all ultimately allowed to remain in the United States because a community alert to their dilemma and a passionate young civil rights lawyer won the day nearly a century ago.

So, what became of the Gong family? Well, their son, Peter, became a leading forensic chemist for the Los Angeles Police Department. Another son, Henry, became a prominent surgeon in San Bernardino, California. A daughter, Elizabeth, became a concert pianist, and Fred Jr. joined the Army Air Corps as soon as he graduated from high school. Young Fred Gong became one of the most distinguished aviators during World War Two. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and other high honors for flying and surviving 200 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe, a feat that was almost impossible to accomplish, let alone live to tell about it. Fred Gong’s most treasured honor, he told anyone who would listen, was flying for America during the NAZI horror. His most treasured possessions? — the medals a grateful nation awarded to him for his service. Nothing could have kept Fred from enlisting during the war. Fred died a few years ago at age 94 in a VA hospital in Los Angeles.

 Then there was the youngest Gong child the INS sought to banish. That would be my dear friend Michael Gong. Michael married his sweetheart, Cindy, who he met at UCLA. She, too, is a lover of art and a gifted artist in her own right. They eventually settled in Oak Park, Illinois, one of the few communities in the Chicagoland area at the time that would welcome a bi-racial couple. Michael Gong, who passed away this week, also served in our armed forces and, later, went on to become a much-loved educator. Following an outbreak of senseless anti-Asian violence in our country, he confided to me that he was heartsick that people were being physically attacked, even killed in America, simply because they looked like him.

Michael and Cindy’s two children are, themselves, among our best. Cameron, a gifted teacher in his own right, is in high demand as a tutor to American high-school students. Cameron’s sister Jennifer, our daughter-in-law, is the popularly elected Representative to the Illinois General Assembly from the State’s 17th legislative district. She chairs the House Judiciary-Civil Committee and the Immigration and Human Rights Committee. She is an attorney and a world-class human rights lawyer. As a successful attorney, before being elected to the Illinois General Assembly, she represented, pro bono, important political asylum cases, protecting children who had been trafficked into the United States. Last year, Jennifer passed legislation making Illinois the first State in the nation to require that Asian American history be included in k-12 public school curriculum. The bill, called TEAACH (Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act), was a watershed moment for Asian Americans at a time of rising anti-Asian hate. Now law, TEAACH will ensure that the next generation of students has a comprehensive understanding of American history and the important role Asian Americans have played in our collective history.

Fred and May and their five children are gone. Their grandchildren live on. America is greater because Fred and May Gong came to America and greater still because they were allowed to remain.

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29 responses to “Michael Gong: We’ve Lost One of Our Best.”

  1. Steve Prover says:

    Astonishing. Thank You for this epic recounting of the amazing iconic Gong Family American history.

  2. Aviva Snow says:

    So sorry for your family’s loss, Hal. The Gongs do sound like a great family,
    May his memory always be a blessing.

  3. Peggy Jacobs says:

    A true American story and the value of immigrants. Lost to many on far right.

  4. Toni ackermann says:

    Rest In peace Michael Gong. Though we only met him briefly, it was clear to see what a kind and gentle person he was. His memory lives on through his beautiful kids, grandkids, and in tributes like yours, Hal. Losing Michael is a loss for all of us. All our love to Jennifer and the family. Xo

  5. Gail Sehler says:

    My condolences to you and your family. He was an elegant man.

  6. Michael Swirnoff says:

    Hal, I usually begin my Sundays reading your column and learning your insights into what happened in the world the previous week. This morning was no different. Except this morning, instead of political insights, I read your sad story of Michael’s passing. While I have not seen Michael in quite a few years, I always treasured the wonderful conversations I had with him at family gatherings. Michael was insightful about what he saw in the world he lived in and I always learned from him. But most of all I was always taken by his honesty on all matters and his love for his family. I am deeply saddened to learn of his passing.

  7. Steve says:

    Michael was indeed a great man who made significant contributions to all Americans. We are lucky to have had him, and now his progeny, to continue building our society. They have been, and are, true guardrails of the American Experiment of democracy. He will be greatly missed, even by those who never knew him personally. Our condolences to his very devoted family. Rest In Peace, Michael.

  8. Elliot solomon says:

    Well said Hal

  9. Eugene Wingerter says:

    Thank you for sharing the inspiring history of Michael Gong and your long friendship with him. Our country needs more citizens like him to keep us focussed on the roots of our rich and diversified heritage.
    Gene

  10. Julie says:

    Thank you Hal for such a beautiful tribute. So personal and also thoughtfully placing Michael’s life into the broader context of shared history – and the future his descendants are carrying forward. He was a gentle and kind soul who will be missed. Hugs to the family as we grieve his passing.

  11. Carol Frankel says:

    Dear Hal:

    The story of Michael Gong and his family is a joy to read. Their wonderful history in America is impressive. On a personal note, however, I was especially astonished by the 9th paragraph where you mention “… a young civil rights lawyer, Irv Goodman, who saved the Gong family from the tragedy of being deported.”

    The Goodman family is also impressive. Irv Goodman’s son, Dick Goodman, is a brilliant trial attorney who is a member of the august Inner Circle of Trial Attorneys. He started his career working for his father Irv’s civil rights firm. Now at age 88, Dick is still working, and just 2 weeks ago gave a keynote speech about a rape case to a “circle” members convention in Los Angeles. And today, Irv Goodman’s grandson, Carlos Goodman, is a noted entertainment attorney in LA.

    As you have a personal connection to the Gong family, I, too, have a “new age” connection to the Goodman family. As single seniors, Dick Goodman and I met on Match.com and have been “keeping company” for more than a year.

    Lastly, there is a book written recently about Irv Goodman and his firm’s civil rights work. I’ll ask Dick to send you a copy.

  12. Ray Galante says:

    Thanks for the details re this wonderful family. Helluva story to share; real impressive.

  13. Stan holland says:

    Thank you. This Family is an important lesson to all of us. Appreciate what you have, set your goal higher and keep your family honor

  14. Sandy Goldman says:

    A beautiful tribute, Hal, and a fascinating piece of history. Hugs to you and the rest of the family. May Michael’s memory be a blessing.

  15. Pat H says:

    A beautiful tribute.

  16. Robert Diamond says:

    That is beautiful story about a wonderful family. Our condolences to your family and may his entire family’s memory be a blessing.

  17. Leslie Usow says:

    Thank you Hal, for this beautiful tribute to an outstanding man and family. He’s a tremendous loss to you and your family, but his impressive legacy is a living testament to the kind of person he was. What a role model for all of us.

  18. Wendy S. Gross says:

    What a beautiful tribute! Eloquent! Inspirational!

    Our condolences to the family.

  19. Irwin Slonin says:

    Thank you, Hal, for this beautiful tribute to your friend, Michael. It did indeed stir my heart as you promised. No doubt, Michael’s family story is similar to thousands of family stories over the course of our Country’s history.

  20. Barbara Fromm says:

    After wiping away my tears from the powerful story of the Gong family , my gratitude to you for sharing this with your readers.
    Truly a story of resilience , talent and good fortune. The Gong family is an inspiration to us all.
    Best regards,
    Barbara

  21. Janice Marcus says:

    I enjoyed reading the history of Michael Gong, and his family,your writing was beautiful. Your description of the family made me realize that he left this planet a better place.I wish I had known him better.

  22. Laurel Johnson says:

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute to a man and his family who are witness to an important story of our country’s history and its immigrants.

  23. Lester Morris says:

    We are sorry for you loss. Michael Gong lived a meaningful and good life. We are thrilled to learn about it.

  24. Debbie Kay says:

    Hal, I am so sorry I never had the pleasure of meeting Michael Gong, but know his daughter, son-in-law and grandsons. They are a tribute to an exceptional man and the values he instilled in his family. Thank you for sharing an incredible story about a truly exemplary man.

  25. Jill Friedman says:

    Hal, what a beautiful article. Michael was, and will always be, one of mine and Bill’s favorite people, an honor and pleasure to know. He had integrity, spirit, intelligence, a huge heart and a glow about him. Cindy as well, has always been an inspiration. And, Cameron and Jen, two beautiful and intelligent souls I am proud to call family, along with Jen and Michael’s kids, emanate all of his characteristics and the lessons he provided.
    Michael will be missed, no doubt about it. Luckily, his children and Grandchildren will help his spirit carry on.
    Love to you all.

  26. Shirley Nasoff says:

    Such an inspiring story of his life and the amazing accomplishments of his family.
    Bravo to Irv Goodman who made this story possible.
    My warm condolences to you and his family, and may he Rest In Peace
    Blessings to all,
    Shirley

  27. Ellen Glass says:

    An inspiring tribute to a true American with a most interesting family background. May he rest in peace as his family cherishes the fondest of memories

  28. Andrew E Porter says:

    Wow. That was phenomenal. I can’t believe I didn’t know that story. The Gongs and the Machteys waged a pitched battle for most inspiring immigration story.

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