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Lesson

Jade Snow Wong’s Writing: Shaping Her Story

Lesson: Jade Snow Wong’s memoirs — "Fifth Chinese Daughter" (1950) and "No Chinese Stranger" (1975) offer students many opportunities to examine issues related to Asian American identity, history, art, and storytelling. Depending on how much time you have, you can assign one or both books or specific passages; no matter the length of the reading, Wong’s stories and reflections lend themselves to provocative discussions.

Common Core Standards

ELA & Literacy

6.L.2: Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g. visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study.

6-12.SL.1: Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacher-led) with diverse partners on grade appropriate topics and texts, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

7.SL.3: Delineate a speaker’s argument and specific claims, and attitude toward the subject, evaluating the soundness of the reasoning and the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

9-10.RI.7: Analyze various accounts of a subject told in different mediums (e.g., a person’s life story in both print and multimedia), determining which details are emphasized in each account.

6-8.10: Write routinely over extended time frames (time for reflection and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of discipline-specific tasks, purposes, and audiences.

History-Social Science

1.4: Students compare and contrast everyday life in different times and places around the world and recognize that some aspects of people, places, and things change over time while others stay the same.

2.5: Students understand the importance of individual action and character and explain how the heroes from long ago and the recent past have made a difference in others’ lives.

11.11: Students analyze the major social problems and domestic policy issues in contemporary American society.

Introductory Activity

You can use the images from the PowerPoint used in Lesson 1 (Jade Snow Wong: Breaking the Mold) to give a general overview of Wong’s career as an artist (starting with the image of her working in the shop window and then skipping ahead to the slides of her ceramics and enamels). 

Then, show the video of Mark Ong (Jade Snow Wong’s son) speaking on his mother’s reconciliation of the Chinese and American parts of her identity (below).

As the students watch, they should jot down notes on any quotes or stories that intrigue them.

At the end of the video, divide the students into two groups to conduct a “concentric circles” discussion (for more info: https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-strategies/concentric-circles). 

Some questions the students could address in the different “rounds”:

  • What initial impressions do you have of Jade Snow Wong after hearing her son speak about her?
  • “Am I of my [parent’s] race, or am I an American?” Does this question resonate for you? Why or why not?
  • In what ways did Wong try to foster “East-West understanding”? Have you ever tried to explain a part of your culture to someone who wasn’t from that culture? Going further, how have you felt when learning about a culture or belief different from your own? In both situations, what were the challenges, and what was the outcome?
  • Do you agree with Wong’s assertion that “the greatest values” are the same across cultures? If so, do you think those values have stayed consistent, or have they changed since Wong’s time (if they have changed, what are they now)?
  • What do you think Mark Ong means when he says identity isn’t some “fixed point” that we’re supposed to reach? Does that make sense to you — why or why not?

After this exercise, the students will have a sense of the themes explored in Wong’s writing, and they’ll be ready to start reading the assigned text(s). There’s one last topic you might want to discuss before you dive into the books:

Asian American authors were first accepted into the mainstream for their autobiographical writing (Wong’s books were bestsellers). It wasn’t until later that Asian American fiction became popular. Why do you think Asian American writers had to tell their own stories first before their imagined stories could be embraced?

Jade Snow Wong: Shaping Her Own Story

Jade Snow Wong’s Memoirs

“Fifth Chinese Daughter”

Some possible topics/prompts for discussion:

  1. Why is the autobiography written in the third person? What are the pros and cons of writing from this perspective?
  2. In an especially poignant passage, Wong describes being comforted by her white schoolteacher:

    “It was a very strange feeling to be held to [Miss Mulholland’s] bosom.  She could not remember when Mama had held her to give her comfort.  Daddy occasionally picked her up as a matter of necessity, but he never embraced her impulsively when she required consolation.  In fact, when she was hurt either inside or outside, it was much better not to let Mama or Daddy know at all, because they might criticize her for getting into such a situation in the first place…. [S]he was now conscious that “foreign” American ways were not only generally and vaguely different from their Chinese ways, but that they were specifically different, and the specific differences would involve a choice of action.  Jade Snow had begun to compare American ways with those of her mother and father, and the comparison made her uncomfortable.” (20–21)

    After reading this passage together, have students (if they’re comfortable) share when they’ve felt a similar conflict between their home culture and their school culture.  What do they wish their teachers/classmates understood about their home culture?

  3. In Chapter 8, “The Taste of Independence,” Wong describes how she was “introduced for the first time to racial discrimination” (68): a white boy named Richard shouts degrading epithets and throws a blackboard eraser at her. On her way home, she mentally reaffirms the Chinese culture’s superiority and concludes,

    “[P]erhaps the foreigners were simply unwise in the ways of human nature, and unaware of the importance of giving the other person “face,” no matter what one’s personal opinion might be…. When she arrived home, she took off her coat and brushed off the chalk mark.  Remembering the earlier incident of the neighborhood boy who spit on her and its outcome, she said nothing about that afternoon to anyone.” (69)

    Why do you think she didn’t say anything about this incident to anyone?

  4. Wong seems to emphasize her gender, not her race, as the main obstacle in her early professional career:

    “[Her boss] gave it to her straight. “Don’t you know by now that as long as you are a woman, you can’t compete for an equal salary in a man’s world? If I were running a business, of course I would favor a man over a woman for most jobs. You’re always taking a chance that a woman might marry or have a baby. That’s just a biological fact of life…. I’m just tipping you off.  If you want to make a decent salary or to be recognized for your own work, and not as somebody’s secretary, get a job where you will not be discriminated against because you are a woman, a field in which your sex will not be considered before your ability.” (234)

    Why do you think she focuses more on gender than on race in her work experiences? (Think about her upbringing and where resources were allocated.)

  5. What does Wong seem to blame more for her struggles as a Chinese American woman artist — her Chinese background or the American values she tries to embody? By the end of the book, has she reconciled these two competing outlooks on life.

“No Chinese Stranger”

Wong’s second memoir, “No Chinese Stranger,” covers Wong’s marriage, parenthood, and work as an artist, cultural ambassador, and civic leader. Her views on race, gender, and family are thus more complicated than the ones professed in her first book. Some possible discussion prompts:

  1. How does Wong’s view of and relationship with her father change over time? Why does Wong start the second part of this book using first-person narration rather than her usual third-person perspective?
  2. In “Fifth Chinese Daughter,” Wong seemed to see her gender as a bigger obstacle than her race; in “No Chinese Stranger,” how do she and her husband Woody Ong navigate and subvert the different gender expectations they learned growing up?

    As a starting point, you could look at the following piece of advice Mother Ong gives before Jade Snow and Woody’s wedding: “To have an enduring marriage, you must let your husband have his way, no matter what he says or does. If he should be wrong, he will know this later, but you do not argue with him at the moment” (33). How closely does Wong follow this advice? What factors cause her and Woody to deviate from this “ideal”?

    How are Wong’s views on gender complicated by her travels throughout Asia? Two relevant quotes:

    “A few women her age who had been educated in the United States, living here [in Hong Kong] where their husbands worked, lamented the lack of adult education classes.  Because help was cheap, wives were forced to be idle. Jade Snow had come to this corner of China to affirm that her father was right; she could never have obtained her education, or learned her art, or started a career, had she been born on that side of the Pacific.” (64)

    “Though naturally they conversed with each other in Cantonese, the hostess [in Kuala Lumpur] was not shy about talking to other guests in English. Jade Snow thought about her mother, who after more than thirty years in the United States still depended on her children to interpret English. San Francisco’s Chinese women had been more isolated than the Malayan Chinese.” (80)

  3. How do Wong’s views on racism in America differ from those in her first book?  In “No Chinese Stranger,” Wong openly writes about the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Alien Land Act, and the abuses of Angel Island — how did all of these factors shape Father and Mother Wongs’ immigrant experience (and thus Jade Snow’s upbringing)?  In conjunction with her changing views of American race relations, how has Wong’s depiction of the Chinatown community changed?  What are her new concerns for the Chinese American community?
  4. From Wong’s account of her efforts to establish and maintain her own studio, what do you learn about the life of a working artist? Why did she and Woody decide not to sign the design contract with Marshall Fields?
  5. Over their long careers as artists, cultural ambassadors, and travel agents, Jade Snow and Woody were ultimately entrepreneurs who took risks and made the most of their opportunities to reinvent themselves. How do their careers illustrate the idea of the “American Dream”?
    *It might be interesting to look at Chapter 16, in which Wong reflects on the difficulties of pursuing this dream: “Between the plodding hopelessness of many Asians’ everyday existence and this casual panorama of Americans at play, who lived the happy medium?” (141).

Evaluation Options:

  1. Write a compare/contrast essay on how race and gender are addressed in “Fifth Chinese Daughter” and “No Chinese Stranger.” Go beyond simply pointing out the basic differences in the two depicted time periods; instead, analyze how Wong writes about each issue. In what ways have her views changed between the writing of the two books; in what ways have they stayed the same?
  2. Research the literary criticism that has been published on “Fifth Chinese Daughter.” (Note: a search of JSTOR results in a wide range of substantive articles.) How has the critical response to Wong’s first memoir changed over time? End with your own assessment of how Wong’s first book would be received today.
  3. Compare/contrast the book designs for “Fifth Chinese Daughter” and “No Chinese Stranger”: what images are used for the covers and what styles of illustration were used to complement the text?  What do the different design choices emphasize/highlight?  How do they reinforce the messages in each book?

For more lessons based on Jade Snow Wong, visit the artist’s teacher packet.