Interview with John Eng-Wong '62

On January 6, 2012, John Eng-Wong '62 spoke to Shana Weinberg AM '11 and Amy Atticks AM '11 about his experience as a student and staff member at Brown, and some of the research he's done about the Chinese community at Brown.

Q:        We want to talk with you today about your own personal background, your experience as a student and staff member at Brown, and some of the research you’ve done about the Chinese community at Brown. To start off, could you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and about your family?

JW:      Sure, my family delivered me to Brown in the fall of 1958. They came to this country in 1939; I was born a year later. When my parents moved to Old Greenwich Connecticut where they ran a laundry service, they were the only Chinese family in the village. The only other Chinese families in the town also ran Chinese laundries, but were five or six miles away from us. And when I came to Brown, the demography of the place was similar—I think there were three Chinese students in my class. There were very few Asian faces that were in the landscape at that point. It wasn’t until 1965 when the immigration laws changed and there was a larger scale of migration beginning from Asia—mainly for family reunions—that there was any significant increase.  

       I came to Brown with the idea that I might study something international, and as Brown was constituted in 1958, “international” for the most part meant Europe, so I studied French and a few global world history courses. It wasn’t until after I graduated that there was the beginning of instruction about China in a more systematic or comprehensive way. That was the first year that they added Chinese language to the curriculum. There had been activities related to China before that, but I don’t think there was any critical mass of interest.

Q:        What year did the Brown community start to develop a stronger interest in China?

JW:      I would say around 1962. But prior to that, in the 1920s, there was activity in the social work department, where some Sociology professors went to China and did a study with students from Brown and Shanghai College. As you know, in the course of my trying to uncover the set of connections that Brown has to China, we found out that Benjamin Bowen Carter, graduate of the class of 1786, ended up studying Chinese. He was probably the first Brown graduate to study Chinese seriously. Benjamin Bowen Carter was lucky enough to have descendents who saved his papers, and they sit over at the Rhode Island historical society now. I’m doing some research in that archive, though it takes time to read letters in script and it’s hard to know what’s exactly there.

            There’s a remnant of a letter that I think was probably written by another famous Providence merchant—Kerrington, who owned the house on Williams Street behind what is now John Nicolas Brown center. Kerrington was the fourth or fifth counsel in Canton, and he was quite successful. He was a very prominent economic force in Rhode Island and in the country after that.

            There actually is a history of Brown’s relationship to China and to Asia that has a different dimension than anyone has recognized up to now. All of the activity that occurred, in trade and on the mission front, diplomatically, there were many people who had Brown connections, who were engaged in these activities in one way or another. Many of those people have histories, but in the same way that Bian Baimei’s history was obscured and hidden, those stories are hidden. So, the extent that we can uncover these stories would be very helpful.

Q:         And at what point did you start to see more of a critical mass of Chinese students or student groups emerge on campus?

JW:      Well, it depends on how you count and how you describe. Beginning in the 1980s, Chinese scholars, advanced graduate students, and government researchers had a chance to leave China and come to the US—usually for one month, two months, three months at a time. They would come and they would go home. By 1989, when the Tiananmen incident occurred, there were probably 70 or 80 students from China here at that point. If you count their brothers and sisters from Hong Kong and Taiwan, it’s over 100. But now it’s multiplied by probably two or three times since then.

Q:        Do you remember that event and what the reaction was on campus?

JW:      I actually wasn’t here. I was at a convention in Minneapolis. But I can remember watching on television as all of this stuff was unfolding. In that day in age it was the very rudimentary days of the Internet. But Chinese students around the world had organized themselves in a fantastic way to get news from their brothers and sisters in China. And at that time the Internet was still not widely available in China, so people were communicating by fax machines. There was no doubt a tremendous influence from the student and scholar population in the United States encouraging the anti-government activity at that time. There were big meetings held everywhere. Any Chinese student who was here will be able to tell you how many meetings he went to, who was there, and who spoke.

            In a way, that was a game changing event not only because of the political fallout for the trajectory of Chinese politics, but because in the aftermath of that incident there was amnesty granted to every Chinese student who was in the US at that point. There was a whole generation of Chinese, probably 80% of which were scientists, who suddenly had an opportunity to stay here and have a career, that wasn’t available to them the day before. This quite obviously had an impact on who taught and conducted research in universities across the country.

Q:        You mentioned that in the ‘60s and ’70s, Brown was very welcoming to have a more diverse student group. Was Providence also welcoming to international students?

JW:        Yes, but I think it’s hard to categorize. There are plenty of people who are not welcoming, but I think by and large, you know society has changed over time as well. What your generation regards as normal or commonplace, thirty years ago wasn’t. As far as broader social acceptance, I see around me, that we’re in a better place than we were, thirty years ago or forty years ago. We’ve lived through an age where that’s changed in a way that’s fundamental. I think it’s remarkable for people coming from outside now, the students that I speak to, they notice. I think it is different from other places.

Q:        And as you’re coming upon your fiftieth class reunion, what was your reaction when you learned that this academic year would be the Year of China?

JW:      Well I was delighted by that circumstance. It’s wonderful to have a year of China, but the truth is that the world has changed in a way that China is just a part of it, and much more relevant to our daily lives than it ever has been. So it really shouldn’t be a “year” of China—China should just be a regular part of the landscape. That said, I was very happy that I had a chance to work on it. I’m expecting that the momentum of this year’s initiative is something that can be carried forward in the future. You’ve done very important work in trying to stimulate activity that makes us more aware of where things are on our campus and how they can connect. Of course, it has much more meaning if it has a future. Let’s hope for that for all of us.