Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Learning from the life of Harry Wong

First Published: Unity, Vol. 4, No. 2, January 30-February 12, 1981.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

Harry Wong, a respected figure in the Chinese national movement and a communist fighter, died January 11 of a pulmonary embolism at the age of 47.

Harry Wong’s life characterized the lives of many Chinese in the U.S. The hardships he suffered leading to his death are a chronicle of the oppression faced by Chinese working people. The path of revolution that he chose serves as an example to all progressive and revolutionary people in the U.S.

Comrade Harry came to the U.S. from Hong Kong in the late 1950’s, leaving a young son and wife whom he hoped to later bring to the U.S. The only jobs available to him in the U.S. were those in which a vast majority of Chinese men work – in restaurants and in the service industry as janitors. Wong worked for over ten years as a busboy and janitor in Chicago and New York Chinatowns. The work was hard, the pay low, the hours long. In the early 1960’s, he moved to San Francisco in search of a better job, but all he could find was a busboy job at Fisherman’s Wharf.

Harry’s life also reflected the all-sided persecution that Chinese people face in the U.S. He lived in a small residential hotel in San Francisco Chinatown. For a rent of $45 a month (now about $90), he had a small room and shared a bath and kitchen. Many single and elderly Chinese men live and die in hotels like this, suffering poverty and isolation.

Comrade Harry was also a victim of racism and harassment by the U.S. immigration authorities, who have long been used as an arm of the state to oppress Chinese people. In 1962, he became a victim of the federal government’s “confession program.” Immigrants who had entered the U.S. on false papers prior to the lifting of the Chinese Exclusion Laws were promised citizenship if they would confess to having entered the U.S. illegally. Harry and about 600 others confessed, but instead of getting citizenship, the government stripped him of his legal papers and put him in an “undetermined status” which lasted the rest of his life. In 1973, the immigration authorities refused to grant Harry an exit visa to return to Hong Kong. From then on, he told everyone that his wife and child were dead since he would never be able to see them again.

Comrade Harry, or Daih Wong (“Big” Wong) as he was called, came to the conclusion that for himself and the many like him, revolution was the only solution. So in the late 1960’s when groups like the Red Guard Party and I Wor Kuen raised the revolutionary banner in the Chinese community, Harry responded. He actively supported the Red Guard Party, and later he became one of the first community residents to participate in I Wor Kuen’s serve the people programs. Harry also helped to found the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA), a mass organization that fights for the rights of Chinese people.

For almost ten years, he supported Getting Together (the newspaper of I Wor Kuen) and later, UNITY and UNITY MONTHLY (Chinese-language edition) and became a member of the U.S. League of Revolutionary Struggle. Once he singlehandedly raised $120 in small donations for UNITY to assist the newspaper’s fund raising drive. He seriously studied the articles in UNITY and studied Marxist-Leninist theory to better understand the situation in the Chinese community, the U.S. and the world, though this was painstaking for him because he had only an elementary school level education. He also tried to overcome his weaknesses and engaged in criticism and self-criticism with those with whom he worked.

Harry Wong’s enthusiasm for revolution and socialism were also expressed in his support for China. In 1971, he opened the first newsvendor’s stand in Chinatown that openly sold literature from China. This took courage at a time when the U.S. ruling class was practicing a policy of open hostility toward China.

He was singled out for attack by the ’’ruling class and reactionary elements in the community who supported the Chiang Kai-shek regime in Taiwan. They sent a squadron of police who beat up Harry and arrested him for ”peddling without a license,” though no such license was available.

With community support, he fought this harassment and won the case, which became known throughout the Chinese community and the revolutionary movement. Many Asian Americans became active because of his case and what it stood for.

Harry Wong also supported other progressive and revolutionary causes. He walked the picket line with tenants fighting evictions in San Francisco’s Japantown. He always spoke with great respect for the struggle of Black people for their liberation. He was active in the anti-war movement and expressed strong support for the struggles of people all over the world fighting against superpower aggression.

These causes became his life. He sat at his newsstand day after day selling progressive literature and educating passersbys about China, at a great sacrifice to his own health, and earning only a bare subsistence. He spent most of the rest of his time doing other progressive work.

But the problems in his life were becoming more severe. In 1979 he moved his newsstand indoors and opened People’s China Bookstore. After nine years on the street, he was looking forward to selling his books free from police harassment and to improving his health. But as with other small businesses in Chinatown, his store had all the problems inherent under monopoly capitalism. The rent was very high and there was intense competition with other stores selling Chinese books and goods, and Harry lacked the capital backing that some other stores had. The only solution he could see was to keep longer hours – up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week. He scrimped on food and moved into his store to save rent money.

Yet Harry Wong managed to continue his political work, serving on the CPA Steering Committee, working in coalitions to support China, and putting in much time and energy to selling and supporting UNITY.

But his health was going downhill. He would get sick often but refused to see a doctor. For many Chinese, the racist treatment by hospitals and doctors have turned them away from seeking needed help. His comrades and friends encouraged him to take better care of himself, and offered advice and perspectives on his business. But he was proud and stubborn, and wanted to do things his own way.

It was the accumulation of many years of hardship that led to Harry Wong’s sudden death. But up until his last days, he was attending meetings, distributing progressive newspapers in Chinatown, and showing unselfish concern for his many friends.