Ancient Chinese Wisdom: an interview with Victor Wong

Artist, actor, journalist, Protestant minister in training Victor Wong, 1976. Love the budweiser plus t-shirt (3rd International San Francisco Book Fair).I wish I knew more about Victor. I've only read profiles and a smattering of interviews here and there, and I've been lucky enough to briefly meet and interview Olive Thurman, his first wife. I'm curious about his artwork and early life growing up in Chinatown, etc.

Victor Wong was the eldest son of an eldest son in a Chinatown family with rich connections to Sun-Yat-Sen and Chiang-Kai-Shek. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti introduced him to Jack Kerouac, Wong lived in two worlds only an alley apart, Chinatown and North Beach. In the early 60s, after several rounds of binging and isolation, Jack imposed on Victor to allow him to talk to his father.

"For a few days of happiness, Kerouac's strategy had worked. He had company with him when the wind swept off the ocean and rattled the trees, but one by one, as the city pulled them back, the crowd dwindled, and Jack had followed rather than stay on alone. Within a few days of returning to San Francisco, Jack was into his old pattern of recruiting acquiantances to join him for a drink. One drink led to many more, and Jack might announce to a barful of strangers that he was a famous novelist. "I'm Jack Kerouac!" he would shout.

They found him in a flophouse and Lawrence took him up to his place. After that he came to me and said, "You know, I'm really in a bad place, and I need to get some wise person. Can I talk to your father?" And I'm saying to myself, "Shit here's this guy, he's drunk all the time and he's got these terrible clothes on, and he's unshaven. What will my father say?" I lived in a world that was so far away from him, that was so distinct, even though it's around the corner from the whole scene. So I talked to Lawrence and we figured it out. I remembered that I had a maroon cashmere sweater which had little holes in it, but you couldn't see them too well. Lawrence shaved Jack, or he somehow shaved himself. Then we put this shirt on him and sweater. My father was in this store on Jackson Street, a grocery store. But it was kind of dirty. Nobody ever went in there to buy stuff because it wasn't really a grocery store, it was my father's political office, like one of those ward offices in Chicago. In the back there's a fifteen-watt lamp up there with a shade so that only the person who sat in front of it had the light. But there was this couch there because people would come in to talk.

So we got Jack shaved, sprayed, and gargled, and he walks in there, but his face is still red. Obviously he's been drinking. So he sits there on this couch where all the politicians sit. My father says to me, in Chinese, "What is this?" I say, "This is a very noted poet. He's a very literary man. He's just as literate as you are in Chinese." He says, "Why do you bring him here?" This is all in Chinese. Meanwhile, Kerouac is sitting there, and he doesn't know what the hell to do about it. So I say, "Come on, talk to him. He's in trouble and he needs something from the Chinese that's wise."

My father turned around, turned his back to Jack and went back to writing his calligraphy. Went on for about ten minutes. Ten minutes in silence is a long time. I said, "Well, Id' better play it cool. If I say something it will prolong the damned thing." It would get too embarrassing and we would have to leave.

So I'm looking at Kerouac and he doesn't look at me. He's just looking at my father's back. Finally, my father turns around and says to Jack in his broken English, "What do you want?"

Kerouac says, "I'm not doing so well. I'm having troubles."

My father says, "What do you do?"

He says, "I write poetry."

So they banter back and forth, but finally my father said to him, "Obviously you like to drink."

He said, "Yes, of course."

And my father said, "You know, you should be like the Japanese monks, the Zen monks. You should go up in the mountains, drink all you want and write poetry." -an interview with Victor Wong, from Jack's Book: An Oral History of Jack Kerouac. St.Martin's Press, 1978. For an excellent article on Wong's eclectic life, go here.