(The following is a post by Jonathan Loar, South Asia Reference Specialist, Asian Division)
In conjunction with May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, the Library of Congress will present two display cases of archival materials related to Jade Snow Wong, the pioneering Chinese American ceramist and author. The display titled “Celebrating the Art and Literature of Jade Snow Wong (1922-2006)” is located on the second floor of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. It will be open to the public until June 5, 2023.
The items on display are drawn from the Library’s Jade Snow Wong Collection, which contains drafts of her books and speeches, drafts of published and unpublished articles, documents related to her art exhibitions, newspaper clippings, photographs, and correspondence, among other materials. The collection was donated to the Library of Congress by her family in 2008.
Jade Snow Wong was born in 1922, one of nine children of an immigrant family in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Growing up amidst family pressure to prepare for the “traditional roles” of wife and mother, Wong pursued higher education at Mills College in Oakland, California. It was during college that Wong discovered her talent for the ceramic arts while studying under Carlton Ball, one of the country’s preeminent ceramists. Following graduation in 1942, her work was soon included in exhibitions at famed institutes like the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. She opened an art studio in San Francisco and managed the business with her husband Woodrow Ong, whom she married in 1950. While customers purchased her wares enthusiastically, some in the local Chinese American community looked down on the artist whose work was aimed at the general public.
Wong’s life story garnered public interest in large part due to her bestselling autobiography, “Fifth Chinese Daughter” (1950). This book follows the Wong family in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the first half of the 20th century, offering insight into Jade Snow Wong’s experiences as a young Chinese American woman balancing her personal ambitions and what her family expected for her future. For its candor and subject matter, it has long been included on school reading lists as an early classic of Asian American literature. Notably, Wong writes in the third person, referring to herself as “Jade Snow,” an English translation of her Chinese name. This technique gives the author some distance for critical reflection and ties into her understanding of Chinese cultural tradition. In a prefatory note at the start of the book, Wong explains her style: “Even written in English, an ‘I’ book by a Chinese would seem outrageously immodest to anyone raised in the spirit of Chinese propriety” (Author’s Note, vii, 1950 edition). By way of comparison, one will observe that her college yearbooks, passports, cards, and letters—all of which can be found in the Library’s Jade Snow Wong Collection—show that she used her American name Constance, or Connie, at other times, too.
The popularity of “Fifth Chinese Daughter” was so great that even the U.S. government took notice. In 1953, the U.S. Department of State sponsored Wong on a four-month speaking tour of Asia. From January to May 1953, the itinerary had stops in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Bangkok, Yangon, Kolkata, Varanasi, New Delhi, Srinagar, Jammu, Lahore, and Karachi. Wong and her husband Woodrow met with book groups, students, and dignitaries, and she gave speeches with titles like “What Do You Want out of Life?” and “Growing Up Between the Old World and the New.” This was a time when the U.S. government was concerned about how the world viewed American society, especially the persistence of race-based discrimination and the poor treatment of minorities. It was hoped that people in Asian Pacific countries would see Jade Snow Wong’s story as a positive reflection of American values, such as the importance of education and hard work leading to success in one’s chosen career. Wong wrote about her tour of Asia and her work as a cultural ambassador in her second autobiography, “No Chinese Stranger” (1975). The second book also details her visit to China in 1972, which came shortly after U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic meeting with Chinese leaders to mend relations.
The Library’s display on Jade Snow Wong showcases an assortment of rare and unique items, such as a Chinese lesson book from her childhood education, photographs of her and her wares, first editions of her autobiographies, and a facsimile of a speech given at the University of Malaya in 1953 during her Asian tour. Also featured in the display is a collection of translations of “Fifth Chinese Daughter” in a number of Asian languages: Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Indonesian, Telugu, Japanese, Burmese, and Chinese, the latter published in Hong Kong. Appearing around the time of Wong’s speaking tour of Asia, these translations were designed to introduce the author’s life story to readers in East, Southeast, and South Asia during the Cold War.
Another item on display is a testament to the recognition Jade Snow Wong received during her career. In 2002, the California State Assembly commemorated Jade Snow Wong, who had recently turned 80, for her “illustrious record of achievements in the arts and humanities” and celebrated her selection by the Chinese Historical Society of America as a “Chinese American Woman of Honor.”
The Jade Snow Wong Collection is part of the Library’s Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Collection, which contains the archival materials of two dozen authors, artists, activists, and playwrights. More information on the AAPI Collection is available through this research guide. To access materials in the AAPI Collection, please contact reference staff through Ask a Librarian to schedule an appointment in advance.
Article titles link to their presentation on online repositories. Some are open-access, while others are subscription databases only available to readers on-site at the Library of Congress. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.
Bo, L. Maria. “Language Lessons: Translating Jade Snow Wong’s Fifth Chinese Daughter and the Making of an Ethnic American” in Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory, 76:4 (2020): 29-54.
Cleland, Jaime. “Breaking the ‘Chinese Habit’: Jade Snow Wong in First Person” in MELUS, 37:1 (2012): 61–82.
Kim, Heidi. “Illegal Immigrants/Model Minorities: The Cold War of Chinese American Narrative.” Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2021.
Ling, Amy. “Between Worlds: Women Writers of Chinese Ancestry.” New York: Pergamon Press, 1990.
Madsen, Deborah L. “The Oriental/Occidental Dynamic in Chinese American Life Writing: Pardee Lowe and Jade Snow Wong” in Amerikastudien / American Studies, 51:3 (2006): 343–353.
Tucker, Neely. “Jade Snow Wong: The Legacy of ‘Fifth Chinese Daughter.’” Library of Congress Blog, 28 July 2021.
Wu, Ellen D. “‘America’s Chinese’: Anti-Communism, Citizenship, and Cultural Diplomacy during the Cold War” in Pacific Historical Review, 77:3 (2008): 391–422.
Zhang, Ziqing. “A Witness to the History of Chinese Immigrants in the United States: An Interview with Jade Snow Wong in Nanjing, 2002/4/17” in Comparative Literature: East & West, 5:1 (2003): 190-210.
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