Conducted as part of Tales from Kelly's Cove, by Western Neighborhoods Project, April 26, 2013.
LaBounty: So it’s April 26, 2013. Woody LaBounty talking to Arne Wong.
Wong: I wore my Kelly’s Cove sweatshirt [laughs].
LaBounty: So, let’s start with real basic stuff. Do you mind telling me when you were born? When your birthday was?
Wong: I was born on September 19, 1950 in Chinatown. We lived in Chinatown until we moved to the Richmond District in 1961. When I was 11 years old I moved to California Street between Arguello and Second Avenue. I went to George Peabody Elementary School, and I went to Roosevelt Junior High. I went to Presidio [Middle School], Washington [High School], City [College of San Francisco], and then [San Francisco] State.
Wong: I went through the whole thing. Ha ha.
LaBounty: Wow. All San Francisco schools.
Wong: Oh yeah. In fact, when I was in Chinatown I went to two grammar schools there, and then my father moved to Hunters Point, there was the new projects back in the early '50s. So, I went to Kindergarten, First Grade, in Hunters Point. I went to Burnett and Bayview Elementary School. And within the two years it went from a promising multiracial neighborhood to a ghetto. And everyone moved out of our block and my father held on because he didn’t want to move back to Chinatown.
We moved back to Chinatown for another couple years, and then he moved out here. And what’s interesting is that he couldn’t physically move out here because the neighborhoods actually prevented…there was a lot of racism and they wouldn’t let non-white people move out here. When he first put a bid out on a property, the neighborhood rallied and petitioned the owner not to sell it to him. So he backed off and then he got really frustrated and he ended up buying this place on California Street under another name.
He had a friend who was not Chinese. Used his name to buy the property. That was just when the Civil Rights Law kicked in in ‘61, which allowed you to legally buy property. Before that it was like this unwritten law: they can do whatever they want, if they don’t want to sell it to you it’s okay.
LaBounty: Yeah. Wow, that’s old style. They used to do that, I know, where they would use other people’s names.
Wong: Right. So they couldn’t move out. The Chinese were locked up in Chinatown. They’d been saving their pennies but they had nowhere to go. The Richmond all of a sudden opened up. My father got a real estate license [and] started selling property here. He was one of the first Chinese to sell to Chinatown to get out here.
LaBounty: So he was like a pioneer, so he could sell real estate…
Wong: Yeah Yeah. Him and a few other Chinese realtors brought the Chinese community out here. Literally. Because many didn’t speak English. My father spoke Chinese and English so he was able to walk them through the whole process. People had their entire cash savings under their bed… in China they didn’t trust the government so they didn’t trust the government here. They didn’t trust the banks here. When they came out here to buy property they bought it in cash.
Wong: …without even a negotiation, they didn’t even like…
LaBounty: No mortgage…
Wong: …they said “how much it was?” and [laughs] "here’s the cash." It blew everybody away. When I first went to school here there were no Chinese stores. There were only Irish and Russian bakeries and cafes. And then in the short time from 11 to when I was 13, Chinatown was starting to form here. [P]eople were moving out into the avenues, and when I got to Roosevelt, I [then] went to Presidio because I moved up to 19th [Avenue] and Anza [Street]. And that’s where I stayed through high school and then when I got to junior college I moved over to my own little apartment on 10th Avenue. I stayed in the neighborhood the whole time.
LaBounty: Right. Now, your Dad, he sold real estate… What was his profession? Did he do different things before that?
Wong: He was a cook.
LaBounty: He was a cook, okay.
Wong: My great-grandfather was a cook on the railroad. And then my grandfather came over under him and opened up a restaurant in Minnesota. And then my father came over when he was 10 to work the restaurant in Minnesota.
LaBounty: So these guys, these patriarchs, they would come over here to work, but they’d send money home essentially, right?
Wong: Yeah. And you couldn’t live here anyway… They were temporary residents.
LaBounty: And then so, the next son would come and then his son would come.
Wong: Yeah…so three generations and then me. I was born here. Because at first they couldn’t bring their wives. [T]hey couldn’t have families [here]. They came for a period of time, made money and then went back. And then came back again to make money. Because back then China went through a horrible time after Mao Tse Tung and the country was in ruins economically. The farmers were starving. Mao had ‘em melt down all the tools for weaponry, but they couldn’t make bullets out of iron. Then they didn’t have any tools to farm and they starved. And the old term of 'You better eat your meal because there’s some starving family in China' was real. In fact we even got that story: “You better eat that because there’s family back there…”
LaBounty: [Laughs] But you, but you knew people back there…
Wong: [Laughs] "There’s families back there starving." And we’re going "Uuuugghhhh," you know.
Wong: And it was a time when they needed to go somewhere, because it wasn’t happening there, so they heard about America and when they first went… When merchants first went to China to get laborers, China was closed. It was a closed system. The only place was Canton, which was the only open international port. When they went there to look for laborers, all the people there were doing well, they said, “I don’t want to go anywhere. Go inland. Go find some people that are poor and starving.” And they went in and they found this little village called Taishan. And in that village they said, “Look. You can come to America. You can get gold. You can get rich.” So a few guys went, and they actually did well. And then they came back and told everybody. And then the whole wave came out.
LaBounty: Whole migration, yeah.
Wong: At the time when I grew up in the '50s in Chinatown, ninety percent of all the Chinese were from that village. That little village. I went back to that village around 1980 for my first time and it was a small little town and Chinatown in San Francisco was way bigger. There was more people here than there were there. It was pretty amazing.
LaBounty: It’s neat. I have a similar story like that. My family was Croatian.
Wong: Uh huh.
LaBounty: And I went back to the old village. And it ‘s funny by doing research and talking to relatives, I look in the Ellis Island records, and I’m like, “Everybody came from this village. How did everybody in Croatia…” You know, it’s like they all came from this one village, which I went to go see and it has like, twelve houses.
Wong: Mmhhm. [Laughs]
LaBounty: [Laughs] You know? I’m like, “What happened?”
Wong: Yeah. Yeah.
LaBounty: But I guess they depopulated and all came to America.
Wong: Well, once the once the word came out that somebody got some, you know, did well…
LaBounty: Yeah, yeah.
Wong: …they all, it was better than what they were doing…
LaBounty: Yeah, exactly.
Wong: And they would send money home.
Wong: In China it’s all about face. You don’t want to lose face no matter what. A lot of them that didn’t do well would send all their cash home and live here like…
LaBounty: Dirt poor…
Wong: …poor. Dirt poor. Living in camps. They called them China camps up here. They didn’t let ‘em live in housing. They lived basically in these campsites… which was set up back in the day of the railroad and the Central Valley farming so every city had a China camp…Sacramento, here, up and down the coast. And there were 200 guys living in tents.
LaBounty: Yeah. So when you move out here in ’61, to the Richmond, there’s really no other Chinese families. You don’t really know anybody else out here, right?
Wong: No. Right.
LaBounty: Okay. So, when you went to Peabody were there any other Chinese kids there?
LaBounty: There was one other? Yeah, okay.
Wong: We became best friends. [Laughs]
LaBounty: I mean I suppose by the time you got to Washington there were probably…
Wong: Oh yeah. By the time I went to Presidio there were a few more Asian people and I’d recognize [them], ‘cause I went to about four or five grammar schools. In Presidio, I hooked up with these two Chinese—one Chinese guy named Jeff Lee, and the other one was a half Chinese guy named Minor Low. And these two guys were riding skateboards and I was fascinated by the skateboard thing.
LaBounty: This is when, in high school? Or…
Wong: No, in junior high.
LaBounty: In junior high school.
Wong: We were like 13. 63.
LaBounty: ’63, ok.
Wong: ’63, ’64. I hooked up with these guys and we were going around after school riding our skateboards in the schoolyards when they’re closed, ‘cause it was nice pavement and we didn’t fall off, ‘cause on the sidewalk you’d hit a rock and you’d fall off. Back then the skate wheels weren’t the kind you ride now. We started our own a skateboard club. It was called "North Wind and Sea Skateboard Club."
LaBounty: North Wind and Sea?
Wong: Yeah, and it was Minor Low, Peter Conidi, Eric Olson, Jeff Lee, Jim Shaw, a few other guys I forget now. We were all in the same age group, so we’d all go ride at night on our skateboards. One day we went to Lands End near China Beach. We saw guys surfing. The first time I’d ever seen anybody surf.
LaBounty: At China Beach, huh?
Wong: Yeah. Next to China Beach…
Wong: …it’s called "Eagles." And I remember…
LaBounty: Oh, what was that called? I’m sorry.
Wong: It’s called Eagles Point.
LaBounty: Eagles Point.
Wong: And then next to that it’s called "Dead Man’s."
LaBounty: Alright, okay.
Wong: Which is a famous surf spot. I remember we went to the bluff above, and we looked and there was a guy surfing on a wave. He was standing on the board, and I thought to myself, “My God, what is that?” And they go, "That’s surfing!” and I went “I want to do that!”
LaBounty: Never heard of it, huh?
Wong: You know…I’d never saw it…I didn’t know any…
LaBounty: This is before all the movies and all that stuff.
Wong: Maybe there was Gidget?
LaBounty: Maybe, yeah.
Wong: But…you know, I wasn’t connecting to any of that. I was seeing a real person on a board on a wave…
Wong: We were skateboarding, so we weren’t really at the beach. But once we ventured over to this little area, Eagles, and I saw this guy Steve Pfeiffer, surfing. He was really good. He was two years younger than us …he was a kid! And we thought, “Oh my god this is, this is it.” We went down there and we bodysurfed…after school…butt naked. It was really hard to climb down, so no girls went down there. Like a bunch of guys, we just like took all our clothes off, went in the water, bodysurfed and then we’d build a fire and warm up. The girls would sit way at the top staring down at us and, of course, being the guys, we made a scene of it.
And after a while, people started to find their way down, and it became a little scene at Eagle’s Beach. During junior high is when I was there. Then we graduated to Ocean Beach by high school because we decided we wanted to do the real thing.
LaBounty: So, when you’re there over at Eagle’s, and you’re kind of doing your own thing, you’ve got some younger kids, kids your age, all kind of like close to the same age? Hanging out there…
Wong: Yeah, we’re all in junior high, yeah.
LaBounty: And you’ve got your bonfire, you’ve got your own mini Kelly’s Cove thing going on there, right? [laughs]
Wong: Yeah, yeah [laughs].
LaBounty: But you knew, you knew kind of about the surfing at Ocean Beach by that point, or you started finding out about it?
Wong: I started to discover it. I didn’t go until all of us went together. Because I was kind of…
Wong: Well, I wasn’t a very good swimmer. I wore really thick glasses. I was almost blind. When I took my glasses off I couldn’t even read the paper. Out in the ocean it was like shadows, so I would always stick with everybody. I wouldn’t do anything by myself. I was kind of the weaker, smaller guy compared to all the other guys. They were like Vikings. But I was fascinated by the whole surfing thing and the only thing that kept me in the group was that I was a good artist. I drew and I could paint. I’d draw pictures on their t-shirts. That was my way in being part of these really rough and tough kids, and when we got to Ocean Beach that’s when it all opened up. I saw older surfers riding surfboards who were probably in their 20s or 30s. Bill Hickey and his generation were there. It was even a bigger scene. And we were the first, the gremmies, or the first wave of Baby Boomers getting there going, “Oh wow, surfboards.”
LaBounty: So you were body surfing at Eagles…
LaBounty: …but when you first saw the guy down there…was it Steve Pfeiffer?
LaBounty: Was he actually using a board? Or was he…
Wong: Mhm. Yeah.
Wong: And he left the board there on the beach because back in those days hardly anybody had surfboards…
LaBounty: What was going to happen to it, right? [laughs]
Wong: Oh, it weighed a ton and it would take two guys to carry it up the hill. Nobody’s going to take it. You just left it there and whoever came down would use it. I didn’t use it because I was just learning to body surf. The whole ocean thing was all new to me.
LaBounty: So the group kind of made an en masse excursion to Kelly’s…
LaBounty: …and decided to try to kind of hang out there all as a group.
LaBounty: What was the attitude of the guys there when you guys showed up? I mean, were they tolerant or [were] they kind of like…
Wong: Everything. We had guys going, “You better watch yourself, pay respect, here’s the etiquette, and here’s the rules, and this is what you’re going to do…” It was like a pecking order that you had to fit into, otherwise you weren’t really privy to the fire. There was this fire down at the beach and it was like a ritual. In the morning, people would bring wood down. Carol and her family were there at dawn every day gathering wood. They’d start the fire.
LaBounty: This is Carol Schuldt here.
Wong: Yeah, Carol Schuldt and her family. Tambi [Tavasieff] was the husband, and there was a couple [of] really old guys. I remember a guy named Pete. And Al, and they were in their fifties or sixties and they’d make sure there was wood. And people who had babies, like Carol, there was always someone watching the babies.
LaBounty: Minders, sort of. Just to kind of keep an eye on…
Wong: Yeah, yeah. And then we became the guys, because as we started to surf you’d see Carol running out in the water and you’d see little kids running on the beach and you’d have to watch 'em…it was like an unwritten thing for us to do. Like our initiation to be part of this tribe is to watch out for the little ones and pay a lot of respect to all the surfers. If you wanted to borrow a board you had to be really respectful and ask them. We didn’t have wetsuits so they knew we wouldn’t last more than ten minutes, or [laughs] fifteen minutes max.
LaBounty: Right, right.
Wong: So they could just sit there and watch us go out and come in and it’s over. [laughs]
Wong: And that’s how we learned, was borrowing boards until I was in high school [when] my father bought me my first surfboard. It was an O’Neil 9-foot and I was so happy to have my own board.
LaBounty: When, how, did your father find out you were skinny dipping at Eagle’s Point and hanging out with all these older surfers at the beach?
Wong: He was so upset. My mother thought I was going to drown. Nobody in our family even knows anything about the ocean; we were farmers, you know.
LaBounty: Did you tell them or did they kinda find out?
Wong: Well, I didn’t tell them until I started coming home late and not showing up for dinner. And I said I wanted to see the sunset. And they say, “What do you mean see the sunset?” I explained, “Yeah, we all sit and watch the sunset, and then we go home.” And he said, “That’s crazy;” you know, I think he couldn’t figure that out. And then I told them I wanted to surf and my mother was all freaked out about it, and my father was kind of tolerant. Something told him to get me a board even though he was against the whole thing. I think it’s because his father, and his father, they all did something radical and here I was doing something radical that he didn’t understand, but he was willing to give me a surfboard as long as I was getting decent grades.
But, actually, I was such a rascal that I had a fake report card, and I would make up [laughs] my grades to get him to sign it, and then I would forge his name on the official report cards.
LaBounty: You were working both sides of it with your nerd skills, huh? [Laughs]
LaBounty: But because he knew he did something that his father might have thought was a little crazy or his father did something that his father might have thought was a little crazy… he may not have understood the surfing but he said, “I understand that somebody’s doing something a little different.”
LaBounty: Well, that’s great.
Wong: He even helped me pay for a trip to Hawaii a few years later when I couldn’t afford to go to Hawaii. Everybody was going to Hawaii. It was a mass movement about ’68, maybe started a little earlier, but my generation started going to Hawaii around ’68, ’69, ’70 and staying there for a year or six months, living in Kauai and everybody passed their pad onto the next person.
LaBounty: It was like a pilgrimage?
Wong: It was like, “Okay you learned to surf at Kelly's. You understand how to be in the ocean. Now let’s see you ride Hawaii. If you can ride Hawaii then you’ve proven you’re a real surfer.”
Wong: Guys would come back from Hawaii with this look in their eyes, and we’d go, “Geez, I guess we better go.” [Laughs ] But not everybody could afford it; it was really expensive. The trip, with the airlines, and we had no place to stay. I knew an older guy, Glenn Schot, who gave me his tree house. He built the tree house on someone else’s property, illegally, and then he lived in it. When I said I wanted to go he said, “Well, you can take mine when I leave in the summer.” My father helped me pay the ticket, and I went there [and] I lived in his little tree house. I remember the owner finally came by with a note on the door one day and he said, “Please vacate! Don’t be here tomorrow. I’m tearing this thing down.” And I went, “Oh shit, I don’t have a place to live!” So then next day he shows up and he looks at me and he goes, “Where you from…Honolulu?” You know, ‘cause I look, you know…
Wong: And I played along and went, “Yeah. I’m from Honolulu.” “Oh, you Honolulu boys thinking you just go anywhere and just do anything… [pause] you want some fish?” [Laughs]
Wong: The next thing I know he’s like bringing me fish everyday.
LaBounty: Your best buddy…
Wong: Yeah… he felt sorry for me and I got to stay the whole summer there.
LaBounty: That’s great.
Wong: I surfed with all of my crew, you know, my posse.
LaBounty: Yeah, yeah.
Wong: We spent the whole summer there and some of us stayed, some of us came back. That was the experience of solidifying the whole surfing thing. Then when we got back, we became the veterans ‘cause we made it to Hawaii and all the younger guys were looking at us and they were wanting to do the same thing. So that kind of moved along.
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