On November 23, 2014 Sui Fong Wong passed away at home, a day before her ninetieth birthday. A great star of the Cantonese opera, she came to New York from California in the late 1940s and lived in Chinatown for the rest of her life. By the Western calendar she was born November 24, 1924 in the province of Canton (now Guangzhou). Her father was a doctor and her mother a traditional lady with bound feet. While still a child, she was mentored by a prominent acting teacher and began acting professionally in 1936. Leaving home at thirteen to tour with a theater company, she would eventually lie about her age (adding two years) in order to come to the United States. She made her American operatic debut at the San Francisco World’s Fair in 1939.
|Sui Fong Wong and her daughter Susie Ng in Chinatown (2006)|
In San Francisco Madame Wong befriended legendary film director Esther Eng, who lived her life as an elegant man, always wearing a fine suit and red lipstick. She was a central figure in Madame’s colorful storytelling. In 1941, Madame’s friend and fellow performer, Lee Hoi Chuen, allowed his infant son to play the part of a baby girl in Esther Eng’s film Golden Gate Girl. The baby was Bruce Lee, in his first cinematic appearance. Many years later Esther would open several fashionable restaurants in New York including Man Bo, which won Three Stars from Craig Claiborne of the New York Times. Following semi-retirement from the opera, Madame sometimes worked with Esther in her posh restaurant on Fifty-seventh Street, although she continued to make special appearances as a singer for years. She eventually opened restaurants of her own in upstate New York and New Jersey. Between 1943 and 1965, the peak years of her singing career, Madame had seven children; four with her first husband and fellow opera singer Ng Yuen Hai, and three with her second husband, Raymond Wong, an artist and restaurateur. Because she was so often on the road, Madame’s older sister, who lived on Mott Street in Chinatown, played an important and beloved role in helping to raise her children. They called her Yeemah, which means Second Mother.
Madame loved to talk about the opera. She was one of very few highly skilled singers who could play both female roles and male, using a baritone falsetto. She would recount a melodramatic plot with tears rolling from her eyes, reliving a performance from fifty years past with all its tragedy intact. She could magically transform a busy Chinese restaurant into a fluorescent-lit tabloid of delicious vintage operatic scandals, pointing out unremarkable people at other tables and making them suddenly fascinating. “See that old man? He was a famous actor! Crowds would follow him in the street! But then his wife had an affair with another actor and he was never the same!” Or, “You see that lady? She was a singer! You’d never know it now, but she was beautiful! She had an affair with Esther Eng!” When Madame’s daughter Susie described her encountering another old actress in the street and saying, “You were gorgeous! What happened?” I couldn’t help but laugh. Even as an old lady Madame Wong could never be described as sweet, because she wasn’t. But she was utterly charming, delightful, and thoroughly entertaining.
|The Opera troupe in the 1940s Madame is third from left in the first row, Ng Yuen Hai is farthest to the right in row two|
Not long ago I went to Madame’s apartment. She lay in bed, surrounded by a little audience of ladies; her old friend Auntie Bic, her protégé and Goddaughter Yim Cheung, her daughter Susie, and a home-health aid. Madame had suffered a little stroke followed by a little heart attack, and they had taken a lot out of her. She looked very ancient and fragile, but miraculously still elegant, and she seemed to be sleeping. I thought of Greta Garbo in Camille. I wondered if she’d seen it. I know she loved the old American movies. She loved Vivian Leigh, Judy Garland, and she had her own special name for Ingrid Bergman: English Bourbon. I watched Susie gently lift her mother and try to coax her to take a drink of water and Madame growled. Yim reported the tongue-lashings Madame had given to a couple of the aids, saying, “She scared one of ‘em so much the lady ran to the kitchen and hid all the knives!” Yim had unearthed a pile of old publicity photos of Madame in her operatic splendor, and while we looked at them she said that when she’d turned on the radio to an opera earlier, Madame quietly began to sing.
|Susie and Madame 2000|
While I was there the telephone rang. It was Uncle On, an old six-foot tall Chinese opera lover who once lived with his longtime partner, Uncle Larry, in Yeemah’s Mott Street apartment. “It’s Uncle On, Mom,” Susie said, and she held the phone to Madame’s ear. Madame couldn’t speak, but we could hear Uncle On’s voice coming from the receiver. After she hung up the telephone, Susie said that Uncle On called Madame every day. He’d done so forever. Sometimes, she said, he used to get small female roles in the local opera.
“You know what?” Auntie Bic said to Susie. “I used to take you to the Sun Sing Theater as a baby to see the performances.”
“Really?” said Susie. “What did we see?”
“Her,” Auntie Bic said, gesturing towards Madame, who lay with her eyes closed. And it occurred to me then that Madame Wong was probably the most glamorous person I had ever met. I watched as Susie massaged her mother’s hands, and I noticed how pretty they were still, even with unpainted nails.
Madame herself said that in her next life—and in her lives after that—she would be an actress. So somehow, her passing a day before she would have turned ninety felt chosen, on purpose. As if a spiritual stage manager had peeked behind the curtain where she was dressed and ready for her grand exit and said, “Five minutes, Madame,” whereupon Sui Fong Wong decided to just skip over ninety and rush into the drama.
Wong Sui Fong
24 November 1924 – 23 November 2014
The above photograph of Madame Wong was taken in 1949. Her name is embroidered on the banner behind her, indicating her distinguished position in the opera troupe. She is survived by six of her seven children; Kenny Ng, Calvin Ng, Doris Ng, Susie Ng, Anita Wong and Alan Wong, as well as seven grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
All images posted here are copyright Susie Ng and used with permission. Please send an email if you are interested in Sui Fong Wong. I will gladly forward all messages. 30 November 2014 Text copyright Romy Ashby