My Mixed Heritage: Memorializing Events

A series of memories juxtaposing family traditions of Chinese (Wong) and Southern (Fowler) roots. The purpose is to stimulate ideas and conversations about family memories and how they are constructed, modified, and passed on from one generation to another, within or across cultures.

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Contributed by Rebecca Lynn Fowler Wong

My daddy’s funeral was a study in kindness to me.  It offered every good thing about the burial of a southern man who had served his country and strove for happiness and fairness in life. His old friends were there, some I’d only heard of and never met, Lonnie Corn, Fuzzy Blackwell to name a few. One old friend, Charles Karens had only happened to see the obituary that morning so he dropped everything and immediately drove 90 miles to be there. We were so moved. His long time hunting buddies, Glenn and Joe were like two brothers to him and they sat in somber silence. Daddy’s death had been sudden and nobody knew of his tragic brush with encephalitis.

The visitation the night before had taught me so much about how much the amazing support of the community really means. You read about that, see it in movies and Hallmark cards, hear people speak of how they were lifted up by the community but I never really understood it until it happened to me.

As my sisters and I stood in the receiving line with dad’s wife, Lynn, I saw the very long line of people standing in line to say a few kind words to us. The visitation was 6 – 8pm but people were there from 5:45 to 8:20. I was particularly moved by a couple of my cousins who came who were sort of outside of the family. One had married way down and we’d never met her husband but she came along with her sister who had been the wild child in our huge family for as long as I’d known her. A few others had challenging health problems and the long stand in line was very hard on them but they stood. My little sister, Bonnie and her husband Fred seemed to have at least 30 guests there just to support them. These people had never met my father but they were members of her church and they came out in droves to support and lift up a beloved member of their flock. I was impressed with their kindness. Bonnie’s young son was sad but also curious and he asked her the day after daddy’s passing, “Hey, is Grandpa being judged yet?”

At the funeral, daddy’s preacher, Jeff started out his talk with how he considered daddy a buddy. Daddy would’ve liked that. Songs well known throughout the south were performed, first was ‘Amazing Grace’, sung by his great-grandaughter, Tristan, then ‘How Great Thou Art’ was played on the piano.

Preacher Jeff spoke of daddy’s legacy as being ‘Us’. I felt that he was speaking of us 4 daughters. He spoke of seeing daddy’s face out in his congregation and how he had loved the look on daddy’s face and he took great comfort in knowing that daddy had been a Christian. He assured us that our daddy had loved us and that he also knew we had loved him. This was very comforting because our relationship with daddy had been rocky many times (especially with me who had moved to the other side of the world).  The service was touching and there were several muffled ‘Amens’ and ‘Hallelujahs’  called out during it.

Preacher Jeff ended the service with a surprising invitation for anyone who was considering dedicating their life to Christ that right now would be a good time as it would honor daddy. I’ve never ever heard of an alter call taking place at a funeral and I don’t know anyone who would want to remember that the day they decided to follow Jesus was announced at a funeral. After his unexpected alter call I was very relieved that he didn’t bring up fire and brimstone.

The Army song was played to honor my daddy’s service “ Over hill, Over dale we will hit the dusty trail” . . . . Daddy had been very proud of his military service. This was very fitting.

We got into the limousines and headed out to the burial site where several older army veterans were waiting. Our family sat under the tent as my cousins and a couple of nephews carried in daddy’s coffin. The cousins are like my brothers and when our eyes met, we had so many memories between us. All the funny, and crazy things my daddy had done over the years. It was hard not to smile at my cousins and I can’t say whether I did or not.

The flag was folded in a beautifully precise way and handed to Lynn, my father’s wife. The guns fired into the air, there were a few short words spoken by Preacher Jeff and followed by a prayer and it was over.

It was after this that we were able to meet the people who couldn’t make it to the service but came to the burial site. So many loved ones who came together even if we weren’t in good standing, came to mourn together. The most moving was the son of my father’s best friend, Sonny Phillips. One son had come to the visitation the night before and one came to the funeral. Sonny himself had emphysema and was too sick to travel. My ex brother in law also came and spoke of all he had learned from daddy and how my father had been like a father to him.

We ended the day just as we had started the several days of funeral activities – with food. In the south people will take turns bringing food to you for about 2 to 4 weeks depending on the circumstances. Community means a lot there. I hope that when I am buried my children will find the comfort from the community as I did from my beloved, caring South.

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My paternal grandfather, Yeh Yeh, passed away in 2002 at the young age of 85. Though I had experienced the passing of a good friend and a teacher in my childhood, this was my first experience with a beloved family member.

A Chinese funeral ceremony was held for my Yeh Yeh. Our family, possibly influenced by Western tradition with interracial or intercultural marriages among most of my father’s siblings, did not perform all of the traditions according to custom. Usually, when there is a passing in the family, it is common for all statues of deities in the household to be covered with red paper, for mirrors to be removed, and to have a white piece of cloth hung over the main entrance of the house. In many circumstances, a gong is placed to the left of the doorway if the deceased is male and to the right if the deceased is female.

About a week before the ceremony, the Wong family set up a website where Yeh Yeh’s obituary was posted. On the website was an area for us to leave comments: an informal way of taking a moment to reflect and pay respects to him. Interestingly, these comments were first posted by the more westernized members of our family: my mother, our cousins who had grown up in the States, my sister and myself. We posted about the fond memories we had with Yeh Yeh and wished him well in his final resting place. Soon after, my father and his siblings posted comments that began with a few negative events from their upbringing. The comments made me feel a little uncomfortable at first because I guess we had different ideas of how to say goodbye. At the end of each post, however, they concluded with loving words and fond memories. It was interesting to me that they would be so open on a public website about how they felt about their dad, particularly because I thought Chinese people - or at least this Chinese family - did not like to talk about past negative experiences. At the same time, because my father and his siblings wrestled with some of the challenges in their upbringing, I wonder if they gained more closure in these digital goodbyes than those of us who only talked about the good.

The details of the funeral are blurry to me. My sister and I had never experienced a Chinese funeral, we hadn’t even watched them on TV. The funeral was held in a large room near where my father worked. The streets leading to the funeral parlor were always lined with beautiful flower decorations, intricately woven together in perfect shape, arrangement and color combinations (see picture above). I had always admired them from car and bus windows, but this time it was different as they paved the way to our final goodbye.

Stepping into the large auditorium, there were pews on either side of the entrance – just like in a Western wedding ceremony. The pews stopped halfway down the room. At the other end was a large metal machine that resembled a furnace. If I recall correctly, Yeh Yeh’s picture was there – a really nice picture of him in a brown suit before he’d begun losing weight in this past decade. My aunts and uncles (dad’s siblings) had all flown back to Hong Kong from the States and were lined at the door. My sister and I were not expected to join the line, so we didn’t really know what to do. There didn’t seem to be a formal ceremony or eulogy like we’d seen in Western funerals. Instead, family and friends came in to pay their respects. All the aunts and uncles welcomed guests at the door; hospitality is key in Chinese culture. Guests would then walk down the aisle and pay their respects to Yeh Yeh, bowing three times and then finding a seat.

They sat in silence.

Chinese people, in general, value quality time with one another. I wonder if these few minutes of silence in the wooden pews before Yeh Yeh was a way to express love and affection to him. After a few moments, guests would stand up - some with tears streaming down their faces - return to the center, bow three times and then leave, shaking the hands of my uncles and aunties as they left.

Though my sister and I didn’t understand the traditions and rituals very well, we loved Yeh Yeh and wanted to pay our respects. We also couldn’t sit there in silence. To our relief, we were tasked with a very important responsibility, which was to feed (fake) money into the furnace as an offering of wealth and prosperity to Yeh Yeh in his place of rest. In a way, it was nice for us to have a job like this because it was fun and it also allowed us to feel like we were contributing.

At the end of the day, Yeh Yeh was cremated and his ashes returned home with us until we found a space for his final resting place. Cemeteries are multi-storey structures in Hong Kong that are overcrowded with long waiting lists. We placed him in a place of the house that faced the beautiful ocean – a view he loved to see and a place special to him as he was involved in the cargo trade. Today, he rests in a beautiful building that faces the harbor. On the other side of the harbor is our home. We take great comfort in knowing that Yeh Yeh is always looking out for us.

My Mixed Heritage: What's in a Name?

A series of memories juxtaposing family traditions of Chinese (Wong) and Southern (Fowler) roots. The purpose is to stimulate ideas and conversations about family memories and how they are constructed, modified, and passed on from one generation to another, within or across cultures.

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Grandpa and Grandma Fowler had four girls: Julie Susan Elaine, Linda Ann, Rebecca Lynn and Bonnie Kay. The marriage went through bouts of turbulence, which resulted in divorce in 1971. The following is a brief account of how their children’s names came to be from the perspective of Grandma Fowler.

At first, Grandma Fowler wanted to name her firstborn child Susan Elaine. She had always liked the names, along with Penelope, and even gave her dolls those names when she was a child. The name discussion didn’t occur until just before her due date. Grandpa Fowler preferred to call their first child Julie. Meeting in the middle, they named their daughter Julie Susan Elaine. She was born in 1957.

Their second daughter arrived two years later. Grandma Fowler named her at the hospital. She was discussing what to name her daughter with the hospital worker in charge of medical records. The job of this hospital worker was to relay information to the Court House. Grandma felt a connection to her because she herself had worked in a hospital after the birth of their first daughter. She named her second daughter Linda Ann.

One year later, their third daughter – my mother – was born. Her name was Rebecca Lynn. Though there was no particular reason why she chose the name Rebecca, Grandma said, “I liked the name.” Reflecting on the name now, she says, “The name Rebecca just feels like a part of me, so when I think of that name, I guess what I feel is love. I have always thought Rebecca was a special name.”

Finally, in 1971, their fourth daughter was born. The relationship between Grandma and Grandpa had strengthened by then, so when they discussed the name, they decided to go with Bonnie KayBonnie was chosen by Grandpa. He’d always loved the famous outlaw “Billy the Kid,” whose real name was William Bonnie. Kay, which was taken from Grandpa’s mother’s name, Kathleen, was chosen by Grandma. She added that “Both names had roots from Irish, Mexican or Spanish decent.”

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Chinese names are commonly composed of three characters. The first character is your surname and the second and third characters are given to you by your parents, grandparents, or sometimes even fortune tellers. Many parents defer to others to provide a name as they have unique character combinations that can make promises of good character, fortune and family. While books and websites provide roots and origins of English names, the journey of piecing together a Chinese name, in many ways, is like an art.


My Chinese name is 黃浩文 (Wong Ho Man in Cantonese, Huang Hao Wen in Mandarin). The first character, Wong, is my surname meaning ‘yellow’. It’s the fourth most common surname in Hong Kong, after Chan, Cheung and Lee.


The second character of my name is identical to my older cousin’s name. His Chinese name is 黃浩堅 (Wong Ho Kin in Cantonese). When my (Chinese) father gave me my Chinese name, he decided to follow a tradition that honored the unique relationship between his son and his brother’s son. This relationship is unique because we are the only two members in our generation to pass down the Wong surname. In Chinese, our relationship is called 堂兄弟, or ‘blood-brother’ (direct translation). Our shared middle character, 浩 Ho, describes a large expanse, offering limitless opportunities, experiences, and joy.


The final character in my name – my defining character – was chosen for two reasons. On the one hand, my father wanted it to have a similar phonetic sound to the last syllable of my English name, Ke-vin. This would bridge the two cultures of my biracial upbringing and identity. On the other hand, he wanted this character to speak to my character. 文 Man represents one who is knowledgeable and rich in literature. An alternative meaning of the character 文 Man is a person of gentle kindness. Interestingly, and unbeknownst to my father at the time, this meaning is parallel to the Irish roots of my English name, Kevin, meaning kind and gentle one. This was chosen by my mother and agreed upon by my father. A serendipitous selection.

An interesting point of of departure between English and Chinese names is the middle name. With a distinct English and Chinese name, I often wondered if my name should be written together as Kevin Matthew Wong Ho Man, Wong Ho Man Kevin Matthew, or Kevin Matthew Ho Man Wong. As someone of mixed heritage, I actually like that my two names are separate; that I have one for each heritage, offering me “insider” status (at least on paper) to each world that I belong to.

My Mixed Heritage: Grandmothers' Views on Education

A series of memories juxtaposing family traditions of Chinese (Wong) and Southern (Fowler) roots. The purpose is to stimulate ideas and conversations about family memories and how they are constructed, modified, and passed on from one generation to another, within or across cultures.

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Cheap white porcelain clanging at the table of the Chinese restaurant. Grandmother Wong leans back against her chair with a toothpick between her teeth – of course with one hand politely covering the front of her mouth.

“Grandmother Wong,” I begin to make conversation in Cantonese. “What did you like to do when you were young?”

“Oh, me?” she replied. “I would practice writing Chinese calligraphy. My teacher in elementary school was strict. She would hit us if we made one wrong stroke.”

“Oh yeah? You’re really good at calligraphy, Grandmother Wong. You really should teach me some time.”

“You’re crazy,” she’d retort, completely dismissing the compliment. “I just scribble. You know your Grandmother isn’t very smart. I only went to school until grade 6. I had to stay at home when the Japanese invaded China. I had to hide by the river when the soldiers came over. Remember to study hard. All my children and all my grandchildren studied hard. They’re all so smart.”

My Chinese grandmother is now 92 years old. She does morning exercises, walks faster than people 15 years her junior, and practices Chinese calligraphy in her spare time. Though she never progressed past an elementary school education, she raised her kids – like many Chinese parents – to study hard. Studying was a priority above all other activities. Though she couldn’t help my father with his school work, she often made one of his four older siblings help him. “Work hard,” she would say, “and you’ll be able to do whatever you want.” Her eldest daughter soon became one of the first women to earn a university degree in Hong Kong – and in mechanical engineering, at that. She then moved to the US to pursue a doctoral degree in chemistry. One by one, each of Grandmother Wong’s children moved to the US to earn degree after degree. For a woman of her generation and upbringing, she was relatively open-minded to send her children abroad.

Grandmother Wong was very talented in the kitchen. She cooked up feasts for the family, knowing which dishes each of her children loved best. She took great pride in her cooking and found a sense of purpose and contribution to the family through it. Though she always told her children (and eventual grandchildren) to study hard, she also understood that each of them had different talents and passions – like she did with her cooking. As such, she instilled a studious work ethic in her children in order to prepare them to pursue their passions. Her philosophy towards life and education have been intricately woven into the roots of our family tree, for which I am forever grateful.

“When you love what you do, you will do it well.” – Grandmother Wong
(如果你愛你的工作,你一定會做得最好、最棒!- 嬤嬤)

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Grandma Fowler was born and raised in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Born to parents from Virginia, she was raised in a home where sofas were called “davenports” and vacuum cleaners were called “valcome cleaners”. People said that that was just the Virginian way of speaking.

When Grandma was a child, her mom sent her to a Girls Home where she was brought up and educated. Grandma absolutely loved learning and demonstrated a lot of potential according to the Head of School. Because of this, she was given a lot of responsibilities which taught her to value independence. Grandma breezed through elementary school and graduated from high school with excellent grades in 1955. She hoped to go to college one day to earn a Bachelor’s degree, though it was less common at the time for women to do so.

Grandma was married in 1956 and gave birth to her first daughter one year later. Education would have to sit on the back burner. She juggled many jobs through the first decade of marriage because Grandpa couldn’t keep a job. This added significant pressure on her and caused emotional stress. As a result, though she was an excellent student herself, she didn’t spend much time helping her kids with their homework.

Grandma believed in a different kind of education. Though it wasn’t entirely academic, she provided rich educational experiences for her daughters. Just like in the Girls Home, Grandma organized many hands on activities for her kids and the neighbors. She held knitting classes, taught piano, taught herself the guitar before teaching it to the neighbors…

“I vividly remember Mom taking us to peach orchards when the peaches were in season. Sometimes we’d go corn picking too and bring them all home. At home, we’d form this assembly line and can the corn. It was delicious,” my mom remembers.

“One time, when Mom needed a bookshelf but didn’t have the money to buy one, she sewed clothing for a woman and traded them in for a bookshelf. She taught herself to upholster furniture and make beautiful curtains which she did for pay. She learned to make lingerie just like you buy in a store. She even knows how to change the oiling in a car!”

My Grandma is a very smart and determined individual. Education didn’t have to come from the institution of school, it came from the family, the community and the rich learning experiences that were instilled in her daughters. Now in her late 70’s, Grandma continues to learn. She enrolls herself in community college classes and seems to always have her hand at something new. For my college graduation, she gave me a beautiful ceramic bowl that she had painted and made in a pottery class. How very grandma.

“Never stop learning because life never stops teaching.” — Unknown