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.