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Arne Wong Interview, Page 2

Introduction | Wong interview, page 1 | Wong Interview, page 2

Conducted as part of Tales from Kelly's Cove, by Western Neighborhoods Project, April 26, 2013.

[Read the beginning of the Arne Wong interview]

LaBounty: So when you think of when you first go to Kelly’s, were the the people that you saw there—women, men, kids—were they mostly from the area? Were they mostly from the Richmond [District] or the Sunset [District], or did they come from across town to go there?

Wong: Some of them were from out of town altogether. Some of them… there was a lot of homeless kids that just came out of nowhere. They weren’t happy with their lives or with their families, and they were living in tents and in cars. It was weird, but it was kind of cool because they had nothing but the ocean, and the beach was their life, their family. They became our family.

LaBounty: So they were permanent residents of Kelly's pretty much, right?

Wong: [Laughs] Yeah, like Carol. She lived there from dawn to dusk. She had a house with Tambi, but they never lived in it because they’d be there at dawn and they’d stay till way after dark. They’d build those fires every day, seven days a week.

LaBounty: Some people think Carol is like a mermaid and has lived for 300 years or something. [Laughs]

Wong: [Laughs] When I finally made it to Kelly's I was about 15, she was I think maybe 25. She was beautiful. She was like Raquel Welch in that movie, you know…

LaBounty: Barbarella or something like that…

Wong: Yeah, she was just this strapping woman that wore almost nothing. I remember the first time I saw her I was standing by the fire and this woman comes out of the water. It was near sunset, and she doesn’t have a top on, and her skivvies are just barely hanging off her, and she’s got sand all over her, and her hair’s all a mess. She comes over to the fire—and I’m just standing there, staring at a naked woman…

LaBounty: It’s like Venus coming out of the waves or some sea goddess…

Wong: I’m 15 and I had never seen a naked woman, you know, live. Here I’m standing next to one and she’s just carrying on like it was nothin’ and I’m just standing’ there going, “Man, I’m hangin’ around here more often.” [Laughs]

LaBounty: So it wasn’t just the surfing then [laughs].

Wong: [laughs] Well, there were these girls that would come down from high school and they’d hang around the wall.

LaBounty: They wouldn’t quite go on the beach, but they’d be on the wall?

Wong: Some of them did when they got invited, or somebody knew them. You had to be invited into the crowd, and then you gravitated your way into the elite circles that are in the corner and places around the wall. It was a trip, but it was all friendly. People liked to all gather in different circles. Anyway, the girls would sit up at the top and watch the guys at the bottom. And as they got to be a girlfriend, they’d be down there hanging out with everyone else. There were a lot more guys. I don’t think there were many girl surfers at the beginning, one or two that I knew. The boards were big and heavy, the surf was rough…

Boards and surfers around Kelly's Cove bonfire at Ocean Beach. Cliff House in background., circa 1965 -

LaBounty: Yeah, you’re talking about 12-foot boards and things…

Wong: Yeah, and no wet suit. At first, I wouldn’t even go out, but I was being pushed by my peer group. They’d say, “What are you, a sissy? You gonna go out or not?” I’m going “Okay, I’m going!” And I would’ve never gone if they didn’t say anything. I would’ve just sat on the beach and went, “That’s okay.” But being pushed all the time, you realize it’s not that bad, it’s not that scary. Over time, but in the beginning it was terrifying. And I didn’t swim very well so it made it even more terrifying.

It wasn’t until I got to college that I actually took swimming lessons, ‘cause I realized I’m not ever going to be a good surfer unless I learn to swim. You know, I could barely float, but luckily in the ocean you can float a lot better because of the salt water. So there’s an illusion that you can move around, but I didn’t really know how to swim swim.

LaBounty: So you have Carol there with her whole family, essentially… she’s a woman hanging out down there. But the girls from high school are mostly younger, your age, and they’re hanging out at the top of the wall unless they somehow have a reason to come down and get invited to these groups…they’re dating someone or something.

Wong: Mhm, yeah.

LaBounty: That was pretty much it?

Wong: Uh huh. There were a few surfer girls who actually went under the tutelage of Carol. By the time I was eighteen there was maybe about fifteen of ‘em. They were their own tribe of women that were taught by Carol: how to get out there and bodysurf, ‘cause she was a master bodysurfer. And these girls were just gorgeous. They were buff, they were strong, and they were ready to go out there and charge into the water. They became the girlfriends of many of the surfers…

LaBounty: They’re athletic and they were hangin’ out…

Wong: Oh yeah, they were bad-ass beach babes, and they didn’t take any shit. Anybody talks bad to them, they just tell ‘em to blow off. Really strong-willed women.

LaBounty: So they’re not just like beach bunnies. They’re actually out there athletic and talkin’ shit and stuff, right?

Wong: Oh, yeah. And they go out on big days where you go, "You sure you going to want to go out?" And they go, "Yeah, we’re going out – yeah."

LaBounty: You talked about being two Chinese kids at Peabody. When you got out to Kelly’s, what was it like then? Was it more integrated then by the time you were going or were you one of the only people who wasn’t some white guy from somewhere?

Wong: I was probably one of the first, or second, Chinese surfers, that I could see. I didn’t know about Hawaii. I didn’t know about [how] it started in Hawaii. All I knew was that surfers here were all mixed different races – there was a couple of African-American guys, Filipino/African-American guys, which I became friends with – they were in my generation. There were more Filipino guys surfing then – I don’t think there were any other Chinese kids. Chinatown is like a little capsule in itself and none of it had to do with anything like surfing. It was more like motorcycles, gangs. They were into fighting and kung fu and all that stuff, but the Philippines –they come from an island lifestyle, so they were naturally into surfing. They were into water. I met more Filipino surfers in the water than any other Asian race.

Mostly the older surfers were all Caucasian because they were the ones that discovered the beach and it wasn’t until I went to Kauai that I realized it was the other way around. It’s the Asians that started surfing and because I was Asian, when I went there all of a sudden I was on the other side of the fence and there were these Hawaiian guys beating up all the white surfers – they called them haoles. They beat ‘em up, and I’d go, "why do you beat these guys up?" He goes, "ahhh, they’re taking over the waves," blah, blah, blah, blah, and then it hit me. [Imitating Hawaiian guy] ‘Hey, let’s go have a beer’ and I didn’t realize that I was considered a Hawaiian local.

Surfers around the Kelly’s Cove bonfire at Ocean Beach. Arne Wong, Paul Bianchini., circa 1965 -

LaBounty: You’re passing as a Hawaiian dude.

Wong: Yeah, I would learn my pidgin English, I’d get my dark tan. They wouldn’t know the difference. I’d say I’m from Honolulu and they’d go, "oh yeah, bruddah!"

LaBounty: Now, were there Polynesian guys here? I remember hearing about Polynesian guys lifeguarding at Fleishhacker [Pool].

Wong: Yeah, and they body surfed. They were two generations older than I was.

LaBounty: Two generations – okay.

Wong: Those guys – Fleishhacker's – the Pool– they were the first guys to go out in the ocean because of the Hawaiian guys.

LaBounty: Like in the ‘30’s or ‘40’s or…

Wong: ‘40’s or ‘50’s. I met Al Peace, who started in the late ‘30’s and he’s about eighty-nine now. He said he went down the beach and learned to surf with [Rod] Lundquist. He had to drag Rod down the beach because Rod didn’t want to learn to surf at first There’d be times when he couldn’t get anybody to come down to the beach and he was out there by himself.

Finally, Rod got into it, and then Fred Van Dyke – those guys, that generation were the very first guys to venture out there on surfboards which were big giant redwood planks, with no fins, and they watched the whole evolution go from that into fin boards and fiberglass into the early ‘50’s, then the next generation was Bill Hickey. He had a whole crew of surfers his age, which included Steve Krolik and a few other surfers that got into the fiberglass boards. The maneuverability was better, and that was another generation of progression in surfing. They weren’t just barely catching waves, but actually riding them and doing radical stuff and still without wetsuits.

LaBounty: Right.

Wong: And then after Bill Hickey, the next generation under him was Glenn Schot, Tony Ramsey, Joey Valara and that circle – they were a generation above me and they were really innovative. They were the ones who decided, “listen, let’s go short” – from long board to short board. Like late ‘60’s, Hawaii was starting to cut down their boards. In Australia, Nat Young [Robert Harold “Nat” Young] won the world surf contest on a short – eight foot board. I remember watching that contest and was blown away, going ‘what is he doing?’ ‘How does he do that?’ ‘What is he riding?’ He was riding a short board. We immediately tore the fiberglass off our long boards and we shaped down a short board and we tried it out. If it didn’t work, we’d get another long board and tear it out and we were doing that all through the late ’60’s. My garage was filled with resin and nobody really knew what they were doing. Somebody would say, ‘just pour resin and put a little hardener in,’ and you’d go, ‘okay.’ You’d try to do it and you’d screw it up or you’d ruin something…

LaBounty: Now, was that part of the appeal too? It’s like a do-it-yourself thing? Now you go out and buy anything you want, but back then it was like you had to make your own, you had to…

Wong: …fix your own. Everything. I couldn’t afford a board. We’d get boards that were broken or hand-me-downs. I had hand-me-down wetsuits for two or three years before I actually bought one. By the time I’d get a wetsuit from third guy down, it was all shredded and had holes and sewn up a million times and leaked all over the place, but it was better than no wetsuit.

LaBounty: I know you talk about Carol going there and being there all day until the night – was that a common thing that people would just kind of hang out just at Kelly’s or would they do other things in the area?

Wong: I found that Kelly’s – your question about that was interesting because nobody ever went past Fulton [Street]. I mean, we called that “VFW,” which was that building that they now call the…

LaBounty: Beach Chalet.

Wong: It was originally the VFW [Veterans of Foreign Wars] place and we used to have parties there and that was the furthest south we’d go. Sloat [Boulevard] was like another planet. Some people went down there, but only a few – we’d always gravitate back to the cove, partly because of the beach tribe and wave quality.

LaBounty: That’s where people were.

Wong: Yeah, that’s where they were and then if you looked back all the way to 1905 that’s where everybody hung out too. The Cliff House and the cable cars and everything all led to that corner, that little space there and Playland was a central hub of activity and everybody kind of like gravitated around that area, like you were saying, and then by the time the surfers were there, it had established kind of a location and the guys that started in Fleishhacker’s, they went down and built wooden chairs on the wall. There were benches that were strapped to the wall and nailed and screwed in and at that time there was no Park Service security, so they could sit on these benches, and stare out to the surf. When I got there the benches had started to fall apart – and then they were just completely gone. Gone now. You don’t even have any trace of them. But that was – it was a scene.

LaBounty: That’s where things were happening.

Wong: It was all happening there. Not only were the surfers there, but there was a lot of these guys that like to hang at the beach – and they were pretty rough and tough guys. There were a lot of motorcycles there. I noticed most of the cars down there were beat up. There were no Mercedes, BMWs. It was kind of a sketchy area and the surfers were very territorial, so they’d say, ‘hey, what the fuck – who are you?’ ‘What do you want?’ That kind of thing. Guys would drink beer and get into fights. I’d always see fights going on all the time. But there were also guys coming in that were robbing people, just coming up to you with a knife and go, ‘hey, I want your money,’ stuff like that. So, we had to have our own police and Tambi was like the chief of police. If anything went down, we’d go, ‘Call Tambi,’ you know. You met Tambi?

LaBounty: I haven’t.

Wong: He was Carol’s husband. That guy was like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Thor. He was the Viking with the big hair and the beard. Six-foot-something. Built like a football player and he was imposing just to look at. Whenever there was a problem on the beach or a fight somebody’d call Tambi and he’d walk over and whatever was going on, they’d all stop. Nobody wanted to mess with this guy.

LaBounty: (Laughing). He didn’t really have to do anything, right?

Wong: No. Really, he was like The Incredible Hulk, and just looking at the guy, you don’t want to be on his bad side. There were people coming in trying to cause trouble. They’d just start runnin’. I remember there was this one knife fight where this guy cut one of our surfers, Ken Worthington, cut him right on the artery and we had to tie his arm and somebody’s yelling for Tambi, then Tambi shows. He goes, ‘where is he?’ He was running down the beach and Tambi chased him down and beat him up and he never came back. Then a reputation started happening around here – don’t fuck with these guys on the beach. The older generation guys that were cross surfer/biker/ruffian guys – they would make it even more scary, because they would go to parties and the first thing they’d do was get into a fight. I would go to parties with these guys and I knew they were going to get into a fight sooner or later. The next thing you know the whole party became a fight, so I’d always hang near the door and just wait to see what was going to happen. So, it got a reputation for being a pretty gnarly, badass group of guys, even though there were some nice guys in there too. They were also some really rough guys. They came from rough families – it was like a tribe of wave warriors.

LaBounty: Outsiders. They felt a little bit like outsiders? I mean…

Wong: Yeah, oh yeah. We felt we were living on the fringe of society. We were doing something that society didn’t support. The name “beach bum” came around that time. And it didn’t start until the late ‘60’s, the whole idea of this beach bum. Meaning that you were a bum and you lived on the beach and there was no value to what you were doing and surfing didn't have a value because it didn’t make money or go into competition until the ‘70’s, so nobody would make any money on it. There was no advertising, no commercials. There was only one magazine. Surfer had surfing pictures and no advertisements. The market wasn’t there yet. And few saw it as being a market for making money. Even some of the old surf guys never thought that it would become an industry at that time. It was just this weird little thing that we did and everyone that didn’t surf would kind of look at you, kind of going ‘surfing?’ They were, like, ‘isn’t that kind of dangerous?’ and then ‘what do you get out of it?’ ‘Why do you do that? It’s freezing cold, you'll drown. You can get hit with a board and you got those weird characters down there. That’s exactly why I went down there. It was trouble. My family wanted me to be an engineer or a doctor. And my relatives were learning to be pharmacists and dentists and everyone in my family was trying to find some safety. I was fascinated by trouble. But, not the wrong kind of trouble.

LaBounty: Exciting.

Wong: It was something about this trouble that was not only exciting, it was something that was missing in my life. I wanted to become an artist. That was another thing. They’d say, ‘well, art. There’s no money in art. You should be an engineer or an architect, but artists? That and a surfer? You’re double-whammied. There’s no chance for you to survive in life.’ And my father was very upset and all my family and relatives would say ‘surfing?’ and ‘art?’ 'Get real.' So, I was actually drawn more and more into surfing because of that.

LaBounty: Right. Because you weren’t getting any approval for what you did like to do…

Wong: No.

LaBounty: …so these guys would—they approved of it.

Wong: Yeah, and in school as an artist, I was a pretty good artist, but all my subject matter was about surfing, so my teachers would say, ‘can’t you draw something else besides surfing?' and they’d give me a bad grade because I would only do surfing art. All through school, when I got to college, the college guys would say when we were doing assignments, ‘why do you have to put surfing as the subject for everything you’re doing?’ I was just immersed in surfing.

LaBounty: So, you were an artist and these other guys, I mean other than the guys who obviously didn’t have any job and were just living out of their car or whatever, were there any people down there who had other jobs? Who had jobs? Who were out there working and then would come by and surf? Or, were they all pretty much itinerant sort of off the grid people?

Wong: They passed jobs around like, passing a clan profession. Firemen. Fireman was one of the biggest ones, because there were a few firemen and police, and they got into it. They were just handed down through their connections. Garbage men – because Sunset Scavenger at that time was a coveted job in San Francisco. If you got into the garbage business you were considered lucky. There they are, getting garbage, dumping it in a dump, but you’d see those guys and they were smiling and happy because they had the best pay, they had the best benefits and all they did was just work a couple of hours a day. (Laughs).

LaBounty: Right, and then they’d go surf for a while.

Wong: Yeah, yeah. And then there were cabdrivers. Then there was this whole new thing, the concerts were starting to happen, Fillmore and all that, so there was a new industry of what they called stage hands that would set up the stage…

LaBounty: Roadies or stage…

Wong: Yeah, there would always be bands coming into town and you always need extra hands and the park would have concerts, so you had this new business where they would go and set up stages and break ‘em down and today there’s these guys still doing that down at the music hall and the other places. They’re retiring now.

LaBounty: Okay. That was a good question I had because I was thinking – I was thinking, like, you know, late ’60’s and early ‘70’s, there’s such a scene coming on here, people coming to San Francisco and the Haight, Golden Gate Park and all that… How did that connect with Kelly’s? Was there a connection? Was it separate? Was it more like you went back and forth?

Wong: There was a movement of a whole generation – my generation actually – the Summer of Love –in '67 – the mayor said, publicly on radio, television, and in the newspapers – that San Francisco will not allow these hippies to come for this crazy idea of a Summer of Love and he says, ‘we’re going to stop ‘em at the gates, we’re not going to let ‘em into the city’ and that was the worst thing he could have said, because every kid in America started heading for San Francisco that summer and, of course, the surfers, we really were hearing it third-hand. We were just focused on surfing – we were at the beach – and then the summer came and the next thing you know people are sleeping on the beach, sleeping in the parks, sleeping on the streets. At least a hundred thousand kids arrived that summer and were sleeping in all the parks, on the beach and gathering into little groups and becoming this “hippie” thing, which is totally unconscious and everybody just wanted to be together and party. Drugs, rock ‘n roll, and the concerts, all of that was happening and we, on the beach, we were experiencing the runoff with the drugs, LSD and lots of marijuana. So we were doing that at the beach. We weren’t part of the hippie thing, but we were seeing the hippie thing and being kind of associated by location, because we’d see ‘em spilling out into the beach – some of us OD’d on LSD and there were fatalities in our group over the years. People that didn’t make it from taking too many drugs.

LaBounty: So, there was a little bit of a separation. You guys participated in a lot of that stuff happening, or some of them kind of mingled with you, but there was still a separation, you feel?

Wong: Yeah, we adopted some of the values of the hippies, bare feet, long hair, beads. We were already bare feet and long hair, just from being on the beach, so the beads maybe were something new.

LaBounty: (Laughs).

Wong: But, other than that, we were all kind of similar that we were nature-loving and because of Bill Hickey we were also conscious of our health. He singlehandedly helped all of the kids in the beach at Kelly’s and steered us towards eating right because he was totally into yoga and being healthy. He would do yoga on the beach. I would go, ‘what are you doing?’ He’d go, ‘practicing my yoga and sitting meditation.’ I knew a little about that from my growing up in Chinatown, but to see this white guy doing it and then talk about health food… He opened up the first health food store on Balboa [Street] and talked about eating healthy – oranges, bananas, and we would watch him eat peanut butter and stuff that we didn’t think of as a diet, because we were – back at that time, if you remember, the TV dinners were a big thrill and we thought it was the coolest thing on earth to just get these TV dinners, put ‘em in the oven, sit and watch television and eat your dinner. We had no idea it was all processed.

And, you know, Bill already knew that shit was bad and he was saying, ‘you got to eat raw, real food, you know, real food.’ And, so, we’d start – and because he was our mentor, we all started eating good food and, to this day, most of the guys that grew up on the beach are healthy and still in pretty good shape because of that.

LaBounty: Maybe because I’m a little younger, I guess I think of surfers and I think there’s a lot of natural spiritualism, with the water and the waves and nature and all that. I imagine probably in the early days there was less of that, but then it probably kind of evolved that way? I am curious, when did you start feeling like – I don’t know – that surfing is a religion or something like or akin to it?

Wong: I’m sure the drugs helped.

LaBounty: Aha.

Standing in the surf of Ocean Beach., circa 1970 - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke

Wong: When we first started taking drugs – well just smoking marijuana – we would find meaning in what we were doing more than we did before. It super-sensualizes your physical feelings and then also your ideas of things and what you’re looking at. With surfing, you can look at surfing on a deeper level and that whole idea of spirituality, the connection to the ocean and this oneness between us was an unconscious thing that was going on and it was driving us to the beach, but we didn’t really understand it. We didn’t have psychology and the understanding of our inner child and all that other stuff, so we didn’t know the reasons why we were being drawn into the water, why we were at the beach, why we were standing around the fire and what was causing us to dedicate our time to be in the ocean and surfing, but it was like a religion. It was a church that we were seeking, because the churches weren’t working and spirituality and organized religion was failing society. We were on the cutting edge of waking up out of that, but we had nothing to wake up to, except the waves and the waves became our church and going to church was going in the ocean, being in communion was riding a wave and living it out in the ocean was much more real, so we were devout disciples of a new religion, which was surfing. It didn’t ask you to put any money in. It didn’t ask you to go knock on doors and sell this religion. It only asked you to be brave. It asked you to commit yourself to something that you had no idea you were getting into, it also required you to have a lot of respect for the ocean and it humbled you, it made you feel small and yet there was a gift every once in a while – you’d get a ride – very similar to what the church would talk about, but an enactment. For me, that’s what it was. It was a whole religion that was opening up to me and I became a devout follower and I still am today. I believe that surfing is what keeps me young, keeps me alive, keeps me going. It is my foundation of my perspective of life and hopefully to the last day of my life I will be in the ocean, because there’s something about that relationship with the ocean, the whole thing of the sand, the sea, and the surf.

The other day, I was taking some beginners out and I said, ‘are you guys ready?’ and they go, ‘yeah, well, sort of. I don’t know’ and I was going, ‘look, right now we’re a terrestrial, and in a few minutes we’re going to be non-terrestrial. The land will be gone. We will become oceanic. We will be living in the realm of water and it’s moving constantly. There’s no more stability. Everything is in flux and everything is a mystery. A shark can have you for lunch or you could hurt yourself and drown. These are things that could happen, you’re no longer grounded in earth. You’re no longer a terrestrial so you have to switch your whole mindset to think that you’re in a new realm. You got to pay attention and show a lot of respect so that you don’t mess up, you don’t get hurt, and make it back, ok, then you’ll find that the sensation of being offline to earth and then coming back out of the water, you’ll feel a difference. You’ll feel enlivened. You’ll feel that life is really something special and the earth is something special because you were totally in another environment, almost like leaving earth in a way.’ And, that’s exactly what happened. When they came back, they couldn’t stop talking about this experience of being in the water. It was only one foot in Bolinas, but they got it.

They were just thrilled and that thrill is what still keeps me going out there, you know, it’s that thrill of, okay, I get to disengage from everything I know, the problems of my life, the bills, the pressure, the stress and now I’m in the ocean and in the ocean I only have one thought – ride some waves and there’s no room for anything else. And, if there is, I might get myself into some bad trouble. So, it’s like an emptying out in a meditation of tai chi. It’s like that for me. It’s a spiritual practice.

LaBounty: So you’re teaching people how to do that. How has it changed? All those guys that you grew up with, did a lot of them stay with the surfing? Did some of them leave? Did they come back? Is it like a religion in the sense that somebody goes away from the church and then comes back? Are there people like that?

Wong: There are those and some of them never saw the church. Some of them only saw it as a place to be a big guy, a place to be a showoff.

LaBounty: A place to be young.

Wong: Yeah, yeah.

LaBounty: You know, like this is a younger person thing.

Wong: Yeah, yeah – every reason is out there. Every walk of life is out in the water and some of them see it like me and they stick with it. Some of them saw it as a passage and that’s it. Now they’re onto something else. Some of them experienced it and, for I don’t know what reason they decided not to do it anymore so I hold these Kelly’s cove reunions every year. The ones that actually still surf are a small percentage and the ones who still love surfing, but don’t surf, are a bigger percentage. It ranges from having disabilities to injuries where they can’t surf anymore. But they still love to reconnect to it. They wish they could go out or they have a reason why they can’t, you know.

LaBounty: Since you’re still surfing out there, how is it different with the younger people out there? Is there a split in attitude of the way they see it?

Wong: It’s very similar to the way technology is moving. We had to do everything ourselves – in the beginning. We had to make the boards – we had to figure out how to do it. Everything was all about doing it yourself. Today, everything is given to you. You snap your fingers, talk to "Siri," Google gives you everything you need. They think that ‘well, all I have to do is just get out there and it’ll just happen.’ A lot of surfers start out that way, thinking that ‘I don’t have to do much. I just have to get out there’ and then they realize that when they get out there there’s a whole lot of stuff they gotta do and it humbles them and some of them get it and some of them don’t, but I see that – the difference I see in the generation today is we have paved a way for them to easily learn to surf. We have made surfboards to the point where they’re so light, and so thin – you can just hold two or three in one arm. We barely could hold one on top of our heads and then the wetsuits – we had these giant, thick wetsuits. When you go paddling, you get tired within five minutes. Now they’ve got these super stretch wetsuits where you can go into the Antarctic for four hours and they got a little battery packs that heat up the back…

LaBounty: (Laughing).

Wong: People go out in the water for hours, we used to go for fifteen minutes, and more women can now surf because they’re not carrying a 10-12 foot board, they’re not wearing a wetsuit they can’t move around in, they have fashion wetsuits now. They can go out and rip – because of the women’s liberation movement, now they can say, ‘I can go out there and surf like those guys’ or go out and surf the hundred foot waves, and ride ‘em just as big as anyone else, and they are. Women are now proving themselves that they can do anything. I think the difference is that it’s commercially packaged now – if you want to learn to surf, it won’t take much.

LaBounty: You don’t have to fight your way into a bonfire circle.

Wong: In my day, very few people would go surfing because there were so many obstacles, so many challenges to overcome, they’d just give up before you actually catch a wave.

LaBounty: Too intimidating.

Wong: Oh, yeah, and then you got the guys on the beach that are tough as nails. And, then you’ve got the ocean that’s just treacherous out there. It’s not for the meek.

LaBounty: You had to kind of fight and earn your way to be a surfer.

Wong: And get your ass kicked, not by people, the ocean kicks your ass and you get battle scars from it.

LaBounty: What does it seem like now? Is it, like, all those fake tough guys, the bikers and all that – I mean, they’re not out there anymore, yeah.

Wong: They’re gone. It’s all BMWs, Mercedes.

LaBounty: It’s tamer out there.

Wong: You just look at the parking lot and you see the boards that are coming out – brand new boards out of bags, guys in brand new wetsuits. In my day I was wearing the fourth generation, tattered, patched up wetsuit, beat up cars, beat up surfboards and if anyone got a new board, everyone would come around and look at it and touch it.

LaBounty: And want to borrow it. Any community out there anymore? There’s not a bonfire [anymore] really. There’s not a bunch of people that hang out and go and hang out there every day or anything like that?

Wong: Small groups of two or three surfers that hang out together and go surfing. If they could fit in a car they’re a group.

LaBounty: When did it end? When do you think?

Wong: Uh – there was a major shift happened in the ‘80’s when a guy that lived on Balboa – Louie – he got into this argument with somebody. He called the Golden Gate Park Service and said that the bonfires on the beach are causing a problem to the residents and they passed an ordinance – no more fires on the beach from Fulton to the Cliff House, which closed off all the beach fires that we had there and that ended the community, because it was the fire that brought everybody together.

LaBounty: So, the Park Service taking over, GGNRA [Golden Gate National Recreation Area], and then somebody complained and they could ban the bonfires and that was it.

Wong: Yeah. Because we were unconscious and we were lighting whatever we could find.

LaBounty: Right, tires…

Wong: We had – oh God – tires. Bad as they were and as toxic as they were, they were the smartest, efficient fire you could have, because you could light the tire and then go surfing and when you came in it was blazing, whereas if you light a fire of wood and you go surfing, you come in and it’s burnt to embers, you didn’t really get the effect. So, the tire would burn for hours and it would be so hot that you couldn’t even stand near the fire, it was so hot. And, it worked, but, of course, black smoke blowing into the buildings and people complaining. But, before it was the Playland at the Beach, and they never complained. It was okay to have all that stuff going there because it was all open air – but when they built those condos and started getting complaints, all the fires got stopped and the community slowed down and there was no more – young kids coming down to stand around the fires to learn from the older guys and they’d become part of the group slowly. That stopped. So, the generation of that stopped, and so there was no more of that kind of social gathering.

LaBounty: And then you played a big role here because this community stopped having a place to meet, but then you started the reunion. When did that happen?

Wong: It was 2004.

LaBounty: What inspired you?

Ocean Beach wall painted for Kelly's Cove reunion., 2009 - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke

Wong: In ’74 or ’75, I wanted to be an animator. I made the first surf cartoon in 1970 with Glenn Schot, and then I decided to make surf cartoons and I made two or three more, living in San Francisco and self-taught myself animation. I sold them to the surf filmmakers and then Glenn, who was the guy who built the tree house for me, he was actually the one who taught me how to animate. He got out of it. It was too tedious. He didn’t like the medium. It took too long. He went into marine biology and eventually into sculpting but I wanted to become an animator. There was nothing in San Francisco, so the people that I met said, you gotta go to LA, because there’s no animation up here, you got to go down there and you gotta apprentice because there’s no colleges of animation, there’s no books on animation. You got to go find a Disney or Warner Brothers Looney Tune animator that’s retired and just work under him, just like Karate Kid – just learn.

And I did it. I went down there and at that time in ’74 or ’75 the Disney animators that worked on Fantasia and Snow White were all in their ‘60’s and ‘70’s and they were retiring, but they didn’t want to retire completely, so they just worked out of their garage or their home and they do a commercial here, a commercial there. I found one old animator that was willing to teach me and I spent the next thirty-five years down there until 2002, when I moved to Hawaii. I had finished my career in animation and I was going to retire in Hawaii and live in my tree house and be a surfer and my mom called. It was Christmas, I went back home and she got really sick during the holidays and my father said, ‘She’s not doing too well. Maybe you should stick around and not go back to Hawaii yet. Just stay here at the house.’ She got worse and worse – but it took a long time. I became her hospice caretaker and I took care of her until she passed away in my arms. She was eighty-eight and – meanwhile – I’m here, I’m back in the city. I haven’t been here since, like – for thirty years. I’d come back just to visit for a holiday or something, but here I was walking around on Clement Street, went down to the beach, nobody was there. I went down to Kelly’s, went down to Dead Man’s. It was empty. Nobody was around. I wondered what happened to everybody? I hadn’t known the history of the fires yet. I had been gone through all of that and I found somebody on the street, Adrian Rojo, and I said, ‘Adrian, what’s happening?’ and he goes, ‘ehhh,’ and I go, ‘where is everybody?’ He said, ‘I don’t know – I don’t know where anybody is.’ I go, ‘Jeez, it used to be a great hangout’ and he goes, ‘yeah, but it all…’ and he told me a little bit of the history and what happened and the fires and all that and I said, ‘it would be great to get a gathering together’ and he goes, ‘yeah, but you know, who’s going to do it? Are you going to do it?’

And I was thinking, well, I don’t know, maybe I will try to do it, so I pulled out an old photo album and there’s a picture of all of us standing at the beach in 1970, taken by the [San Francisco] Chronicle and they actually did a pretty bad article about these ‘misfits’ down the beach – it was a great picture of us all standing on the beach with our surfboards and we’re all young. I was twenty and all my crew were there, so I got the picture and I put it in Wise's surf shop and I wrote, ‘anybody remember this picture? Show up on this weekend during the Indian Summer in September at Kelly’s Cove’ and I just posted it there and had about a month. On that day ninety people showed up and I didn’t even recognize half of them because everybody had aged. We put on little nametags, and I was going, ‘hey! I know you,’ and that was the beginning of it and after that I did one every year.

LaBounty: 2004 you started.

Wong: Yeah, the first one after my mom passed. We’re on our tenth one. Yeah, it was amazing. We’d barely make it every year to even pull it off because I’m the primary one doing it, and my wife Dania who really does all the work prepping it each year. The beginning there was about a hundred names and addresses and now there’s four hundred. We brought in the old-timers. First it was just my crew and then the younger guys wanted to get in on it and then the older guys kind of watched. They had their own little thing on and they were the Bill Hickey and [Rod] Lundquist crowd. But Charlie Grimm, who was organizing them died. Their yearly thing kind of fell apart and I noticed that – because I went to one of them – and I noticed that they said they weren’t going to do them because Charlie had died and I said, ‘whoa, why don’t you guys come in with us?’ So one year we made an invite to the older guys and honored them, and now we have them with us like Al Peace and we still had some of the younger guys, but only up to the fire when it ended, because anybody that grew up after that didn’t know about Kelly’s, didn’t understand the whole thing.

LaBounty: The dynamic, yeah.

Wong: You know, and anybody remembered it would go, ‘oh yeah,’ and then they would come to the Kelly’s Cove and you’d get there and you’d just start talking about your time – and some people felt ‘why aren’t you live in the now, why are you living in the past? What’s all this about? Reminiscing is bullshit.” To some degree, it’s true, but on the other side, there was an epic moment in history, it happened down there and you couple the hippie movement, you couple the surfboard revolution of long board to short board, you add that to the innovations of wetsuits and also this whole idea of breaking out of the box idea, a new way of living, all happened in that little period of time and it happened right there in Kelly’s Cove, it has a reputation for innovation, pioneering and radical courage and everybody that lived through that will say the same thing. That was what I was drawn to: the radical, courageous individuals that were living a life that everybody wished they could, but had some reason why they couldn’t, and we were living it.

LaBounty: A lot of other places had surfing going on and there was a whole fad and it became popular culture in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s – how was Kelly’s different from all those places, Southern California and other places like that?

Wong: It was – it was, for me I noticed that in Southern California it became a very commercialized lifestyle and, because of that, Hollywood was influenced. This whole thing was about prestige and status, the Beach Boys. Then here you’ve got these misfits at the beach who didn’t want to play Beach Boys music. They wanted to play Jimi Hendrix. They wanted to play Santana. They didn’t want to be commercial. They didn’t want to have their picture taken in the magazine. They didn’t even want to – the idea of a contest was – sounded horrible, that you would have to measure someone’s ability as a surfer for money. It didn’t make any sense and, even Steve Pfeiffer, the first guy I saw surfing, he was probably the youngest, best surfer at the beach and we had these guys from Hawaii that were coming to recruit him for contests and surfboards and become a rider for famous surf shops and he turned them down and they couldn’t believe it. They were going, ‘we’re offering you fame and fortune,’ and he was going, ‘I’m not interested’ and his attitude was kind of the attitude everybody else had at the beach – ‘that’s all bullshit, man’ – so something about what happened in the ‘60’s was also about what was real and what wasn’t real and I’d say the difference about Kelly’s back then was that they actually saw through the bullshit. They didn’t want to be part of it and they were keeping the purity of the idea of what surfing really meant, not turn it into some commercial thing and not to become that kind of commercial thing, because nobody there was of that background. We were all misfits, rebels with a cause.

LaBounty: Outsiders-type people.

Wong: Outsiders. What we fed into was not being the norm and we were proud that we were out of the box, so to be part of that Southern California surf scene was, like, being part of some commercialized, advertising for a cereal or something. We didn’t identify with it. We didn’t dress like the surfers down there. We were dressing more like our own – well, it was colder up here.

LaBounty: Yeah.

Wong: Our uniform, I remember in the ‘60’s, was a hoodie, Army jacket, a beanie, jeans, and some Converse tennis shoes. That was it. That and T-shirts with little pockets on them.

LaBounty: T-shirt – oh, little pockets, okay.

Wong: That was for people who smoked cigarettes back then.

LaBounty: And then you get to the beach and you want to surf – what did you get down to? You didn’t go out in jeans, right?

Wong: No, no, but we learned to dress and undress using a towel. We learned to dress and undress in plain sight. I was taught how to dry myself without a towel coming out of the water, cleaning myself up with my socks. All these crazy little tricks we learned to – you go down there with nothing, go out surfing, come in and put all our clothes back on and go home, and it was all because the fire was there. The heat would dry you off.

LaBounty: You didn’t need an SUV with all your gear and all your stuff?

Wong: No, man! I had a Boy Scout backpack. I just had my wetsuit in it and a towel and that was about it. We didn’t have boots. Boots started to come in later – we would go to Hawaii and there’d be no wetsuits, there’d be warm water. We’d come back here and we’d have to put on our suits and go, ‘oh God, it’s freezing.’ We’d try not to wear boots because it was the last thing to feel the board with your bare feet. But, of course, then our feet got cold and we started wearing boots. Some people even wore gloves, but I don’t wear gloves. If I wear gloves I won’t feel the board and then I don’t feel like I’m surfing anymore, but a lot of the young guys learned in a full wetsuit with boots and gloves and a hat, so they’ve completely insulated, and they learned to surf that way and they’re great. They surf great. But, for us, we didn’t learn to surf that way, so it’s hard for us to get into that. I can’t surf if I can’t feel the board, you know.

LaBounty: What else? What did I forget to ask?

Wong: Well, I think you were talking about location base more than community base, but it’s all tied together. But if you look at it just from the point of view of location, all the way back to the beginning of the Cliff House and the Playland and the attraction of all the people in San Francisco going to the beach, it was in that spot, in that little corner there and all those postcards are that corner shot.

LaBounty: Yeah.

Seawall and Kelly’s Cover bonfire at Ocean Beach., circa 1972 - Photograph by Dennis O'Rorke

Wong: There is something about the presence of humans populating an area for a long period of time in a state of awe and beauty, being there for the sake of just being there to look out at the ocean and appreciate the water. That energy, I believe, is what you’re talking about in location, you know, and that spot has that. Whenever you go there, you feel it because it’s – it’s generational. It’s something that was left behind. It’s like sacred ground. It’s like a cemetery or a church – there’s a certain vibe that kept generating over time and who knows why, but it’s there and the guys that grew up standing around the fire spent enough hours down there to really feel something and for the others who didn’t stand around the fire and didn’t go down to the beach, just undress at the car and go in the water and come back and dress back in the car, they missed that experience on the sand, on the dirt, on the wall, and growing up, being in that with a crowd of people and in a kind of a mixed tribal thing where there is every kind of misfit you can name, from psychological to really well-balanced centered people, and that mixture allowed you to have a spectrum of life in a tribe of nuts, basically, and yet in those nuts you could see the good and the bad nuts and you’re experiencing it upfront in your face with them and something about that is missing from the generations that don’t get to do that.

I was there when the Golden Gate National Recreation Area had a public hearing about the bonfires because they were getting so much protest and I spoke up. I said, ‘look, it’s not just about that.’ I said, ‘kids went through a passage of rites on the beach – I did – and to cut that fire out cuts off the chance to have younger kids growing up understanding nature, the ocean, appreciation of the marine life, all of that. They lose it because you don’t let them have the fire on the beach, because you want to keep the beach clean. Why not just put more money and clean the beach and let the fires go on?’ I know there are fire pits on the beach now, but nothing near Kelly’s.

LaBounty: So, you had all the elements there, right? You have the earth, you have the water, you have wind and the sea and all that, but you also had the fire, right? You’re kind of losing one of the elements there.

Wong: Yeah, and without the fire you had no community. So, that was a big deal. As far as location, I think that spot, of all the spots on Ocean Beach all the way down to Sloat, that one had the most activity in human interaction and also of that whole generation of the hippie movement – we were there doing the surfing hippies/movement right there at that corner and anybody who wanted to find out what was going on would go to that corner to find out and through the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s that spot was – I don’t know if you saw pictures of it – there were hundreds of people sitting on the wall. Because they were drawn there too and they weren’t surfers, they were, like, Hunters Point visiting the beach. They were people from the deepest part of the city or Oakland – would go all the way to the beach and sit on the wall and watch these surfers and these beach people and be part of this scene and the conga drums playing all day. It was all about freedom and about living on the edge of that spectrum of trying to fit in and being a little guy in a module working, all that. It was refreshing at the beach and people came out to experience that.

LaBounty: Where do you stand on that – the name? Where do you think the name came from?

Wong: When I first showed up at the Kelly’s people that I met said that it started with a guy named Kelly who used to go down and body surf or swim out to Seal Rock and back every day but one day he swam out and he didn’t come back. So, they honored him by calling the beach Kelly’s Cove and there was actually a cove because there was once a pier there and it created a sandy beach arc from the rocks to the pier and it created a kind of like a cove. And the surf – the best surf on the whole beach – happened between the pier and the rocks. There was a left off the pier, there was a middle peak, and then there was a right off the rocks and that was our cove. There were waves on the south side of the pier, but they weren’t as good as what was here and we got front row seats sitting along the wall and the sand. The water used to come all the way up the beach, about fifty yards from the wall, so you’d get front row seats to watch surfers. You would sit on the wall and you could see everybody out in the water, you’d recognize who they are, as they’re right in front of you. I still try to show that in my art.

LaBounty: And that changed too. The iron pier was taken out and you don't have the wall with all the indents.

Wong: Right, the wall used to go down six tiers and at the bottom it just dropped off and then there were these giant sewer pipes. Huge sewer rats used to hang out in them. When they got finally exposed in the wintertime, I remember we’d see these dark shapes that looked like cats but they were giant rats and they were checking out the ocean. Spooky!

LaBounty: Now the wall is covered all the way up with sand so you don’t see the bench tiers in the wall.

Wong: And there was a time when I remember the ocean would come up and hit the wall and bounce back the wash. That’s why the wall’s curved like that. Sometimes when the surf was good and the tide was like that we would wait on the staircase and when the wave hit the wall we’d jump into the backwash and it would take us all the way out until we hit the incoming wave and it would go "kaboom!” and you’d make it twenty yards out on the backwash.

LaBounty: So, you were talking about the Valera brothers.

Wong: Okay, the Valera brothers… I first met Freddie, I went to high school with him, and he turned me on to his family, which were the Valera brothers: Joey, Ricky, Johnny and himself. Joey was the oldest surfer and when I went down to the beach I got into the inside group through Freddie, into that group of his older brothers and that whole group in the mid to late ‘60’s who called themselves “The Power Squadron.” It was an elite group of guys that you could only be invited into it. When they gave you a nickname you became part of The Power Squadron.

LaBounty: (Laughing). What kind of names were they?

Wong: Well, Joey Valera was called “The Magician.” Ricky was called “The Cobra.” Freddie was called “Sea Fox.” I was called “Da Fly.” Everybody had a nickname. It was like those American Indians, when they give you a name, most of the time the name wasn’t the name you would have chosen, but it was the name that was given to you and was some name that got thrown on the wall and it stuck for some reason and you didn’t have any say whether or not you liked it. Like Da Fly. The reason I got the name was that I was practically blind. I was so nearsighted, I couldn’t see anything. My whole surfing experience was blind surfing. I had to touch the wave when I surfed to know what I was doing. Otherwise, if I let go of the wave I wouldn’t know where I was and wipeout.

And everybody used to get out of my way because I would run over everyone since I couldn’t see ‘em until they were under my board. The name came when on the beach I found a pair of sunglasses that had my prescription and I put them on and went, ‘whoa,’ because I could never afford one back then. But the only problem was it was oversized. It was these really big, black sunglasses and I looked like that cartoon, The Fly. There was a TV series called The Fly. It was a little creature with big eyes. So then somebody goes, ‘look, there’s The Fly,’ and I went, ‘uh oh,’ and that was it. For the rest of my life I was Da Fly.

LaBounty: And then what did the inner group do? You just got to hang out with each other?

Wong: We got to go hang out as a group together. Everybody envied this Power Squadron group. They were the best surfers. They were the guys designing the new boards. They were the guys who were the most courageous, the most radical, the most whatever…

LaBounty: Right.

Wong: And it was just called The Power Squadron.

LaBounty: (Laughing).

Wong: I don’t even know how it got to be…

LaBounty: Like you’re superheroes.

Wong: We would take surf safaris together and all of us would go down to San Diego and back on a summer trip – they were really badass, that no matter where they went, Huntington Beach, wherever, nobody messed with them. They were so mean-ass, badass surfers and surfing these treacherous waters was way more treacherous than surfing anything in Southern California. It was like bathwater compared to what we were doing.

LaBounty: Yeah, that’s what I always thought, was that it was a harder – you had to – if you learned here, it was, like…

Wong: Oh yeah, yeah. Even Hawaii, when we got to Hawaii it was like a cakewalk. Warm water. We were so used to freezing cold water, we ripped whenever we went surfing in Hawaii. We had a reputation up and down the California coast; the Kelly’s Cove guys, The Power Squadron, the toughest, roughest guys you can imagine that surfed and nobody messed with them. Nobody would want to mess with them. You got Tambi, you got all these characters like Joey and all these other roughneck guys from Kelly’s Cove. I’m grateful to have been part of those epic times.

Introduction | Wong interview, page 1 | Wong Interview, page 2

This project was made possible with support from Cal Humanities, an independent non-profit state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. For more information, visit www.calhum.org.

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