The Wongs, five generations since immigration: treasuring family legacy and values in America

The Wong Family I

Aged hands roll over sticky anise cookie dough as the afternoon sunlight casts a stream across the kitchen countertop. Junior Hannah Dimock stands beside her grandmother, Mary Wong, watching intently over her shoulders. Across the room, Dimock’s mother slides a fresh-baked tray out of the oven just as her father sneaks a bite.

This image parallels one decades earlier during the Great Depression: In a smaller home situated within a largely-white community in Beloit, Wisconsin, Dimock’s great-grandmother Yee Shee stands in her kitchen as the neighboring Antonsen family from Sweden teaches her the recipe of a lifetime — one that would eventually be passed down to her children and become beloved by all her future generations. 

Across the room, Mary and her older siblings Helen, Harry and Frank entertain themselves watching their mother cook, but noticeably, there is no father in the room; Yee Shee’s husband, Charles Wong, had passed away unexpectedly trying to prevent a brawl in their family restaurant, the Nan King Lo, which, despite being beloved by the community, was later sold by Yee Shee to support her children financially. 

Yee Shee was a first-generation immigrant who moved from Guangdong, China to the U.S. in 1923. Despite the prevailing societal pressures and expectations as a single mother for Yee Shee to return to her homeland with her children, she chooses to stay put and single-handedly raise her kids, hoping that the welcoming community she had established her family in would later provide a better education for her posterity.

Now, almost a century later, Yee Shee’s story has been captured by Mary Wong and Beatrice McKenzie — an emeritus professor of history at Beloit College — in the 2022 book The Wongs of Beloit Wisconsin, which stretches back 13 generations of Dimock’s family history.

As a fourth-generation immigrant descended from Yee Shee and whose parents were born in the U.S., Dimock carries on the traditional values her ancestors brought to America, while also shaping them through her first-hand experience watching her first or second-generation immigrant peers go through the cultural translation process. She has shifted her family’s traditional values towards a focus on more individual interests and freedom to explore personal passions. 

“Understanding the immigration and assimilation process has made me more conscious of the differences between the experiences and familial situations between myself and my classmates. I have the unique experience of growing up in an environment where white people are in the racial minority,” she said. “I try my best to use this experience to be more mindful of my own privilege as a white American and inform the importance of carrying on the stories of my family’s assimilation into the United States.”

Photos courtesy of Hannah Dimock, Mary Wong Palmer, and Lisa Fortsch.