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To Grandfather, With Love

Text by: Traci G. Lee

I was three years old when my grandfather passed away. The memories I have of him are hazy, faded screenshots that pass through my dreams like a silent movie. All that I know for certain comes from stories my mother told me about the man that he was and the person he inspired her to be. "He was only in his sixties, but he was so wise," my mother always noted about her father's early death. "He lived a really full life." When a heart attack stole his life, all I was told was that he was gone— as if he had gotten lost, but would be back any day now. For someone who began life as an unknown adoptee off of the war-stricken streets of China, he left the world having made his mark across the globe.

Mao Tse-tung's takeover was a turning point in China's history, as well as the history of both sides of my family. Communism affected all four of my grandparents' lives and influenced their immigration with their children to Hong Kong, as the Chinese Communist Party established their dominance. In China, my grandfather, Chak Wong, was a successful teacher and electrical engineer. But when the communists came, they sought brilliant minds to join their cause and Chak would have none of it. He saw his years of study and schooling disappear, as he abandoned everything he knew to start over. After he and my grandmother settled in Hong Kong, they continued to have children and raise their family the best they knew how without financial security and stable work.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

In late 1960, Chak left Hong Kong with a promise to his family to bring them to mei gok—the "beautiful country." During the '60s, everybody was trying to get to the United States. It was the land of opportunity and gold streets. But getting to mei gok was not easy, even without the Chinese Exclusion Act in place anymore. Chak traveled to South America on a work visa and moved north from country to country, saving what he could from the odd jobs he obtained and sending money back to his family every chance he could. Once in the United States, he gained permanent residency while working as a chef in Southern California and finally made it to Las Vegas in 1962, where he worked as a chef until his retirement and death in 1992.

By the time Chak's wife and four children joined him in America in 1967, Chak had established himself as a talented and in-demand chef, receiving rave reviews and extravagant praise. Though his family resided in Los Angeles, Chak visited them as much as possible and would often bring home hotel souvenirs (such as old decks of cards the casinos didn't want anymore) and excess napkins from the restaurants so that his wife wouldn't have to buy any. Every weekend when he would travel to L.A., he'd quiz my mother and her siblings on their Chinese vocabulary to ensure they were keeping up with the language. "You are still Chinese," he would tell them. "You are American, too, but don't forget your roots. Where you came from is always important."

© Jessica Ceason Photography

When the 1984 union strike shut down the Las Vegas strip, the management at Caesar's Palace offered Chak a large room, full service and enough money to retire and provide for his family for the rest of their lives—all if he would put on an apron and keep cooking.

"I can't," Chak said. "I still want to work when this strike ends, and I won't make it out of here alive if I take your deal." He refused to cross the picket lines and turn his back on his fellow workers. The money was enticing, but it would be at the expense of his morals. Money, he noted, was not the most important thing in life; integrity, self-respect—those were things that mattered and things he would not teach his children and grandchildren to give up in order to fill their pockets with cash. Chak believed in teaching by example. He never needed to lecture or yell; he simply lived.

© Jessica Ceason Photography

For the last three years of his life that I had the privilege to know him for, he showered my sister and me with the love he carried in his heart from China to the U.S. He gave me my introduction to English and taught me how to count to 10. There's a photograph of him leading me through a cemetery to visit the graves of departed relatives— one hand of mine in his old, frail grip and the other hand clutching my stuffed animal rabbit. Less than a year later, it would be his grave we would visit. I wish I could speak fondly of him the way my mother always does or the way my cousins do when they tell stories of their interactions with him. But through these stories, my mother raised me with the values, the lessons and the love he passed down to her. I know that he has influenced my life as much as the lives of those who knew him well when he was alive.