by: Ernie Wong - December 2006
This is a story about my dad, Wong J. Earnest, his journey to
America, and his grocery store in Holly Grove. The story was
told to me by my first cousin, Peter Joe, who is now in his
eighties and lives in Novato, CA. At the age of twelve, Peter
accompanied my dad to Holly Grove to go to school and help him
get his grocery business started.
The story starts in a small village near Canton, China; where
his father was a physician. Life was easy for young Earnest
because there were servants to do the menial chores around the
house. However, there were also gangs roaming the villages trying
to kidnap the children of families who could afford to pay a ransom
for their return. His father did what most of the well to do
parents were doing; he had some relatives teach Earnest how to
gamble and drink when he was fourteen. His father knew it wasn’t
right, but it kept his son inside the house most of the time and he
felt it was better than letting him run around away from the house
and risk being kidnapped.
Then the Chinese economy turned bad and even the high earning
physicians?incomes were affected. It was 1930 and Earnest was almost
nineteen when his father called him into his office to have a serious
talk about the plans for his future. He told him that in the last few
years the family had suffered severe financial difficulties. He also
told Earnest about his older sister, who along with her husband ran a
grocery store in Mississippi in a country called America. He said
that they had obtained papers which would allow Earnest to move to
Mississippi and learn the grocery business from his sister. He told
him stories he had heard from friends about America. Unlike China, it
was a rich country where the streets were paved with gold and where
money grew on trees. Finally, with a tear in his eye, he told Earnest
that if fortune was good to him, perhaps he could periodically send
some money back to China to help the family.
Earnest had a rude awakening when he arrived in Mississippi. The
weather was hot, the working hours were long and there was much to
learn about running a store. The fact that he knew only a little
English made it even more difficult. Still, his biggest disappointment
was that after traveling half way around the world, he had yet to see a
street paved with gold or any trees with money growing on them.
From the very beginning, Earnest decided that he would always have a
great attitude and he would do whatever it took to learn English and all
of the skills necessary to own and operate a grocery store. He must
have been very good, very lucky, or a little of both. Whatever is was,
after only two years of apprenticeship, his sister and brother in law
thought he was ready and loaned him the money to purchase a small grocery
in Holly Grove, AR.
Earnest was proud of how much he had accomplished in two years, but it
wouldn’t matter, if he didn’t get some customers soon. He opened his
store four days ago and had yet to see his first customer walk through the
door. He thought, “I need to make something happen!?
Holly Grove has a railroad track running through the middle of town.
Businesses are located in one block strips on each side of the railroad
tracks. Across the tracks was a busy place where lots of people, mostly
men, congregated and stayed late into the evening.
Earnest thought, “If you need customers, you’ve got to go where they
are!? After he closed the store, he crossed the railroad tracks to this
place that had the men in it. He entered the smoke filled building and
looked around; he hoped the people would be friendly. In the front area
were three tables with different colored balls and the men had sticks in
their hands which they were using to hit the balls. He would learn later
that these were pool tables. In the back of the room were three smaller
tables and four men sat at each table and played with small white tiles
with black dots on them. The men told him that these were dominoes;
Earnest was no stranger to games of chance and had won more than his share
playing mahjong and Pei-Gow in China. The games were similar, so in no
time at all, he understood the game of dominoes.
Finally, one of the players left to go home. Earnest asked if he could
take his place, and they said that he could, but he would have to ante up
5 cents per game - winner take all. The other players knew he was a
beginner and were anxious to start taking his money. Dominoes is a much
simpler game than the ones he played in China so 5 cents a game didn’t
cause him any stress. Much to the other players?dismay, Earnest won most
of their money.
He then asked them if they would teach him how to shoot pool. They told
him, “Sure, each player puts up 10 cents a game and like dominoes, winner
take all.? They taught Dad how to play ? ball? and they managed to win
back all the money they lost playing dominoes. Winning back their money
put Earnest’s new acquaintances in a good mood and they wanted to know more
about this stranger. In spite of his broken English, Earnest managed to let
everyone at the pool hall know that he was the new owner of the grocery
store across the tracks and he would appreciate it if they would come check
out his merchandise and do some business with him.
The next day his new friends came to his store, bought a few things, and
many became regular customers. It was the beginning of a great relationship
for them, Earnest, and the town of Holly Grove. The business provided a
great service to the customers and became profitable enough to support
Earnest’s family and allow him to send money to help his family in China.
Earnest became a great family man and one of the town’s leading citizens,
but he never pretended to be anything that he wasn’t. He was active in the
Rotary Club and as a leader in Boy Scout Troop #50, but he never gave up his
two fingers of bourbon with supper or going to Hot Springs during racing
season with his buddies to bet on the horses. He was extremely popular
with the fund raisers in town because no school official, church worker, or
needy family ever came to Earnest asking for help and left empty handed.
Each time I think about this story, I grow more proud of my dad and his
achievements. I know if our roles were reversed and I were sent to China at
nineteen, I doubt I would have survived.