Red Bluff's William Wong Foey
02/24/2015 12:39AM ● Published by Melissa Mendonca
Living LegendMarch 2015
By Melissa Mendonca
Photos: Eric Leslie
William Wong Foey does a bit of math to explain his heritage. He is 64, born to a man who was in his 40s as he became his father. That man, in turn, had been born to a father in his early 60s. This is how Foey came to have a grandfather who was born in 1849. Th at sexagenarian was one of Red Bluff ’s first Chinese immigrants, arriving in the town after uprooting from South
China, a region commonly referred to as Canton.
Rio Street in Red Bluff , an expanse of land about 10 blocks long that snakes along the Sacramento River downtown, was once a bustling China Town, filled with immigrants seeking the American Dream.
“The Chinese term for California or America in general is The Gold Mountain,” says Foey.
“We had this misconception that the streets were paved with gold.” While the streets weren’t
quite what they expected, Foey’s grandfather became an entrepreneur and did well, despite the
hardships of the time magnified by overt racism. There was an evening when townspeople came to his home with torches shouting to leave the area, but he resolutely stayed put.
Today, Rio Street is relatively quiet, featuring homes and businesses that neither detract nor attract to the area. “The work kind of dried up, so most of the Chinese moved to the Bay Area or Sacramento to find work,” says Foey. “My family and the Yuen family are the only two to remain.” In each, two brothers live quietly in Red Bluff .
Despite the lack of Chinese culture and community in his hometown, Foey lives steeped in it through his writing and art. “I have been an artist since I was 3 years old,” he says. “For most of my life I’ve painted every day. When I took up writing, I started writing every day.”
Writing was an art that found him at age 42, but the 20-something years since have been fruitful, with an ever-growing list of stories produced and books published.
His first, “Winter Melon,” published in December 2012, is a fictionalized account of the 1937 Japanese invasion of China, an event that took the life of an uncle in Foey’s family. “It was inspired by the tragedy of my uncle disappearing,” he says. “I integrated the true historical facts with a fictional character. To me, it’s a statement about how a tragedy changes people in so many negative ways. And you have to deal with it. Not only deal with it, but move on with your life.”
Indeed, much of Foey’s writing is fictionalized telling of family events and lore, inspired by the stories that shaped him growing up and his quest to hold onto a cultural identity as his community has moved on from Red Bluff . “Th e Last Chinaman,” a story from “Lotus Land,” published in 2014, is the re-imagined story of his father’s first wife, who died while pregnant with her second son at age 19 because the town doctor refused to assist the Chinese family.
“There are some things that I thought needed to be said,” Foey says. “I wrote my first story without any training.”
While he received early encouragement by winning a short story contest with his first entry, he laughs that he felt the same struggles getting published that is common for new authors. Noting that Earnest Hemingway suffered 60 rejections before being published, he says, “My goal was to beat Hemingway and be rejected not more than 59 times.” After fielding six or seven years’ worth of rejection letters, Dark Planet Publishing in San Diego picked him up. He’d been rejected 61 times, besting Hemingway opposite of his intention.
“My mind is just a whirlwind of stories,” he says. “Many, many stories.” His third book will be “The Loves of Billy Wong,” an imagined Civil War story of Siamese twins who were Southern sympathizers, and a Chinese war hero. “The people were real, but the story is not real,” Foey says.
Foey immerses himself in books about the Chinese experience and he loves interviewing elderly Chinese people for their stories. “I try to find out what their thoughts are, what their experiences were.” he says. “You look in your family history, you look all around at the world at large. Th ere are just interesting stories everywhere.” He tells them in both words and paintings, taking great joy in designing the cover art for his books.
Foey takes his thoughts with him on his nightly walks through Red Bluff and says he enjoys the peacefulness of the small town. “I was born here, my roots are here,” he says. “Although there’s been a lot of negativity, it’s hard to think of any other place as my home.”