Moments in History: Wong Foon Yen/Fern Mock, 1908-2008

Wong Foon Yen was born in 1908 in China’s Guangdong Province. Her father had moved to California in 1882, briefly returning to China to marry Wong Foon Yen’s mother. After fourteen months of married life, he left his pregnant wife in Guangdong and returned to San Francisco, arriving the day Wong Foon Yen was born.

In 1926, eighteen-year-old Wong Foon Yen traveled to San Francisco on the Pacific Mail Steamship President Pierce to find her father, who had not written home since 1909. She spent the 28-day voyage studying and rehearsing details of the life of her “paper mom” and accompanying family friend, Chiu Wong Shee, committing details of Shee’s life in Butte, Montana, to memory. 

As the “minor daughter of a domiciled Chinese Merchant,” Wong Foon Yen was exempt from America’s Chinese exclusion laws. She planned to legally enter the United States through California, travel to Montana, marry into Chiu Wong Shee’s family, and return to China with her husband after three years of saving money in America.

In 1909, however, her father had died of a heart attack in Gilroy, California. Though he was honored by a large funeral procession, news of his death never reached Guangdong. 

As Wong Foon Yen entered her teen years, plans were made between the two families. Without her father to guarantee her entry into American, Wong Foon Yen agreed to assume the identity of Chiu Wong Shee’s daughter Chiu Look Lon and join Shee on the steamship to America as her “paper daughter.” This was her opportunity to find her lost father and begin a new life in America.

While still aboard the steamship in San Francisco harbor, Wong Foon Yen received news of her father’s death. She arrived at Angel Island determined to make it to America. She and Chiu Wong Shee were questioned extensively about their relationship and family in Montana. After answering 143 questions, they convinced officials that they were truly mother and daughter. After five weeks on Angel Island, they landed in San Francisco and moved into rooms on Clay Street. After spending so much time together, they truly felt like mother and daughter, and it was decided that this new “daughter” should not marry their son in Montana.

Two months after arriving, Wong Foon Yen married the Dai Ho Mock, nephew of her Clay Street landlady. She created the name “Fern” from the phonetics of “Foon Yen” and abandoned her plans to return to China. Fern and her husband moved to Palo Alto, purchased a home at 904 Cowper Street, and raised three children, along with a dozen grandchildren and great-grandchildren. In 2008, Fern Mock passed away after celebrating her 100th birthday.

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