Standing in Lower Manhattan's Kimlau Square, in the shadow of a memorial arch honoring U.S. veterans of Chinese ancestry, Fang Wong pulls a small box out of his suit pocket.
"This is how it all got started," he says, smiling. "This is what put me and the Legion together."
Inside the box is an American Legion School Award medal, presented to him nearly 50 years ago by Lt. B.R. Kimlau Post 1291 in Chinatown. Along with the medal, he received an envelope containing $15, enough to cover his next semester at Chinese Public School.
The gift "impressed the heck out of me," says Wong, who at 12 years old moved to New York City from Hong Kong with his family.
"I traveled from the other side of the world to go to school here, and you figure your job is to do your best, to study, to give 100 percent. And there are people who are willing to take the time to say ‘thank you' and recognize you and reward you.
"I thought, ‘I don't know who this is, but I like the way they do this kind of thing. If there's a way, I'd like to be associated with that organization.'"
He succeeded, to say the least. Last month, at the 93rd National Convention in Minneapolis, Legionnaires elected Wong national commander.
He puts on the red cap after two decades of serving The American Legion at every level - post, district, county, state and national. On 9/11, Wong was adjutant of the Kimlau post, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center. Following the attacks, he helped direct relief efforts as food, money and clothes poured in.
In 2002, Wong became department commander of New York, and was later tapped to serve as a national vice commander.
"I've known Fang for 20 years, and he's shown great dedication to the Legion," says Dick Pedro, New York's department adjutant. "He has a zeal for this job. A year from now, we'll be pleased to see what he's accomplished for veterans and their families."
Citizen and Soldier. Wong was born in Canton, China, in 1948, a year before the communist takeover. His father, Seedor, had just moved back to the United States, where he'd worked at a vegetable farm on Long Island during World War II.
The rest of the family - Wong, and his mother, grandmother and brother - got permission to leave China, and went to Hong Kong. Nine years passed before they received visas, and in 1960, they were finally reunited with Seedor.
"The whole world wanted to come to the United States," Wong says. "You heard nothing but the greatest. We called America ‘Gam Saan,' which means ‘gold mountain.'"
Wong met his father for the first time at New York International Airport, after three days and nights of traveling. "My mom said, ‘Say hello to your father,'" he remembers. "I don't recall too much of anything else. I was tired and hungry."
He and his brother stayed with a family friend until their father built a second level behind the laundry he operated. A student in Harlem, he found that he was "a minority in a minority." The only other Chinese boy at Junior High School 139 was named Eugene. He was a year older than Wong, and had been bullied. But he had become "the Bruce Lee of that era, practicing martial arts in the back of his father's grocery store," Wong says. "The next year, I arrive, and all of a sudden there's two of us. He had scared off everybody, and told them, ‘That's my cousin.' Nobody bothered me. I had it made."
In 1963, Wong became a naturalized citizen of the United States. Still, he talked his father into letting him keep up his Chinese studies. He got out of class every day at 3, jumped on the D train at 145th Street, shot straight down to Chinatown, and spent a couple of hours at Chinese school. He made it back to his father's store at 8 or even 9 at night, did his homework and went to bed.
As he got older, Wong never forgot that Legionnaire from Kimlau Post 1291 - the man who had come to his school, shook his hand, congratulated him on his academic achievements, and encouraged him to keep working hard.
"Over the years, I start learning more," he says. "It's something called The American Legion, and the Legion is soldiers. I figure one of the first things I need to do is be a soldier. So when the time comes, I join the Army."
At Home in the Army. Like so many other military careers, Wong's started with a draft notice. At the time, he was finishing his first semester of college, taking night classes. A retired master sergeant advised him to volunteer so he could choose his field. "I said, ‘What the heck?' I wanted to qualify for the Legion anyway," he says. Offered MP or personnel, he went with personnel.
Wong ended up in Europe, but only for a few months. Between homesickness and the worst winter Germany had had in years, he started looking for a way out - "stupid of me, of course," he admits. "The only way I could get out was by volunteering to go to Vietnam."
Nevertheless, he went, and Wong liked the job so much that he extended his Vietnam tour twice. He supported a military intelligence unit, and when a Chinese linguist was needed, Wong was one of two guys who fit the bill. "I wound up working with the field agents, helping them translate reports, interpret, stuff like that," he says. "It was interesting, and I thought it was worthy."
Wong returned to the United States in 1972, thinking he'd separate from the service. But he found that he enjoyed the discipline and the security of Army life. At Fort Monmouth, N.J., he felt protected from antiwar expression. "I was surrounded by gates, shielded from the outside world. On weekends, I'd hop on a bus, take it to Chinatown, and be back with my friends. I was spared from being harassed, yelled at, spit on."
On one of those weekend trips home, he met the woman he'd marry, Barbara Lam. Like Wong, she immigrated to the United States with her family when she was 12. They've been together 35 years and have one son, Eric, who's a talented piano player and composer.
A Good Investment. Wong retired from the Army in 1989 as a chief warrant officer. The next day, he took a job with a defense contractor that supports the Army's Software Engineering Center at Fort Monmouth. He also figured it was time to join the Legion, now that he was eligible.
To Wong's surprise, he'd been eligible for years. "Nobody bothered to explain, really, and I didn't ask," he says. "Sometimes the word ‘veteran' is misleading. I think that a lot of times we fail to mention that you can be a member of the Legion while you're still on active duty."
Looking ahead, Wong knows some media will play up the fact that he's the organization's first minority commander, but he'd rather talk about the job itself. "It is special, don't get me wrong, but I want people to see me as just another commander, who happens to be Chinese-American," he says. "I'm a commander for everybody."
His focus is membership: not just signing up more veterans, but keeping them. Wong says people join the Legion because they agree with its central mission: "Strong defense, taking care of veterans - who would say no to those things?" Relevant programs also sell potential members on the benefits of belonging, he says.
"Once you sign up, you get handed off to a post, and if that post isn't doing the things you were told by the recruiter, we haven't lived up to your expectations. Especially in metropolitan areas, you have a lot of competition for a veteran's time and money. We need to make sure Legion posts are doing the right programs, doing the right things, to meet the expectation of the member" - in other words, satisfy the customer, and he'll tell his friends about your organization.
Wong believes the Legion has something for everyone, but he's a big fan of its youth programs.
"You plant the seed, and you'll get a harvest at a certain point. The young people who benefit from the Legion, they appreciate it. When they're ready, they'll come back and join."
Not everyone will be a national commander, but when Legionnaires reach out to children in their communities, they inspire another generation of leaders, Wong says.
"For the post's $15, I gave them 40 years of service," he says. "That's a good investment."
Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.