On Oct. 27, the Worlds of Words Center hosted a reception for artist Wilson Ong, the illustrator of "Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America." Set in 1926, this dynamic children’s book tells the story of 12-year-old Fu Lee who immigrates to America under a false name as a “paper son.”
The book educates young readers about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, whereby most Chinese immigrants were barred from entering the United States. After many public birth records were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the loss of documentation created a legal loophole. Immigrants began purchasing false documentation, using the name of a Chinese American citizen and claiming to be the blood relations. The majority of these immigrants were children who became known as "paper sons."
During the reception at the WOW center, Ong discussed how the inspiration for his work came from his own life.
“Up until fourth grade, my name was Wilson Wong,” Ong said. “When my father said ‘write your name now as Ong' … I said ‘why?’”
Ong was told that the name Wong was simply an error his grandfather had made when signing his name on a legal document, but as he grew older, Ong began to piece together his father’s story. Ultimately he discovered that his father was a paper son and had purchased the name Wong in order to immigrate to the United States. Ong’s father kept this a secret until the 1960s when an amnesty made it possible for paper sons to drop the guise of their false last names.
Ong did meticulous research when working on the illustrations for "Paper Son," paying particular attention to details such as clothing and drawing inspiration from actual photographs. He wanted Fu Lee’s story to accurately portray the experience of a young boy who found himself alone in a new country. Ong used his expertise in portraiture to vividly paint the emotions of Fu Lee and the other characters within the story.
“I love trying to capture [a] person … It’s not just a likeness. It’s ‘I don’t know what you did, but that person is alive.’ We all strive for that as portrait artists,” Ong said. “Thinking about what it would be like to be a young boy sent on a boat, never having gone to [the U.S.] before … what is the look on your face?”
Ong hopes this book will help young readers understand the human side of the difficult and controversial immigration issues currently facing society.
“People simply want to make a living [and] raise their children in an environment that will bring them opportunities. If we understood that a little bit more … I think that would be a positive thing,” Ong said.
The 21 original illustrations for "Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America" were purchased by Mary J. Wong, the daughter of another paper son. Wong donated them to the WOW Center where they are currently on display. The exhibit will remain open and free to the public until Dec. 16.
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