Archived Story

Otter Tail County has early Chinese connections

Published 6:00am Saturday, March 29, 2008

During the Big Read festivities, I have enjoyed rereading “The Joy Luck Club,” and discovered for the first time the work of Laurence Yep. The historian in me soaked up nonfiction, too — the touching book, “Chinese Cinderella, Chinese in Minnesota,” by Sherri Gebert-Fuller and “Flying Tigers,” by Daniel Ford. Both authors are coming to the Otter Tail County Museum.

Gebert-Fuller works for the Minnesota Historical Society. She’ll speak at 10 a.m. Friday, April 4 as part of our Koffee Klatch series.

Mr. Ford will speak at noon April 21. His lecture about these American heroes will include information about the namesake of the Fergus Falls airport, Einar Mickelson. The Smithsonian published “Flying Tigers” and Ford added material to his 2007 edition.

Our community has Chinese connections aside from the literary ones. Genealogy research continues to attract family historians and museum visitors. In 2004, we received an e-mail that proved valuable during planning of the “We Chose Otter Tail County” exhibit. Paul Wong from California was searching for school records for his uncle. Although the records were illusive, we had other information about former Fergus Falls resident, Ben Wong. Archival material as well as family history provided by his nephew give a rich picture of this Chinese pioneer.

According to e-mails from Paul Wong: “Ben and his brothers were born in the village Deng Hong, Toishan County, Kwangtung (Guangdong), China. Their house had walls of adobe and was badly deteriorated when we went back a few years ago. After coming to the United States, each of the brothers went back to build a house in Ai Liang (also called “new village” then) when it was starting up next to Deng Hong. The sad part of Uncle Ben was that he was separated from his family most of his life, and died in Portland, Ore., without having seen his family for more than 40 years. He came to this country by going to Canada, probably before the Chinese exclusion act was passed (1923) in Canada, and then crossed illegally to the U.S. Since he had no legal papers it was impossible for him to exit through U.S. ports, or Canadian ports after 1923, to visit his family. He passed away in his sixties.”

Ben arrived in Fergus Falls sometime before 1919, and opened a Chinese restaurant. A reporter for The Daily Journal wrote the following review for the March 24, 1919, edition: “A new, modern restaurant of the most up-to-date type is to be formally opened in the Bayley block tomorrow to be known as the Boston Cafe, with Ben Wong as Manager and Wong Suey as Chef. The restaurant has been completely made over and is one of the neatest, cleanest and most tasteful places to be found in the northwest. The flooring, marble topped tables, and a long lunch counter — everything suitable for either a quick lunch or a full meal — is found there and everything is scrupulously clean. The Chinese are everywhere famed as cooks and the most wholesome and appetizing foods will be served in a genial atmosphere.”

Ben gave managerial duties to another nephew, Tom, in 1922, and moved to Fargo. I’m sure he would give his best wishes to the owners of Hunan Springs as they begin their new restaurant venture.

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