Martha Wong: She made his­tory in Texas

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By MAY ZHOU in Hous­ton mayzhou@chi­nadai­

Martha Wong has won two prom­i­nent “firsts” among her many achieve­ments in the Texas po­lit­i­cal scene.

In 1993 Wong be­came the first Asian Amer­i­can elected to the Hous­ton City Coun­cil. She served three full terms from 1994 to 2000.

In 2002 Wong beat a 22-year in­cum­bent and be­came the first Asian-Amer­i­can woman elected to the Texas State Leg­is­la­ture, serv­ing from 2003 to 2007.

Martha Wong’s story, from en­coun­ter­ing seg­re­ga­tion in her child­hood to her po­lit­i­cal vic­to­ries, is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of not only her de­ter­mi­na­tion to suc­ceed, but also how Chi­nese and Asian Amer­i­cans have fought for their rights and how much they have achieved.

“My fa­ther came to the US back in the 1920s with his fa­ther as a lit­tle boy for the Gold Rush and helped to build the rail­road in Cal­i­for­nia,’’ Wong said. “When my fa­ther was a teenager he was sent back to China to learn Chi­nese be­cause he did not speak Chi­nese. Four, five years later, he got mar­ried there and brought my mother over.”

Even­tu­ally Wong’s par­ents set­tled in Mis­sis­sippi be­cause the state needed work­ers in cot­ton fields. “It was such hard work that my par­ents de­cided to run a gro­cery store to serve the black people be­cause the blacks could not go to the white gro­cery stores,” she said.

A few years later, when Wong’s older sis­ter reached school age, her par­ents found out that she was barred from the white school in seg­re­gated Mis­sis­sippi and the black school was in very bad shape. In 1938 Wong’s par­ents moved to Hous­ton so their first child could go to a de­cent white school. Martha Wong was born the next year.

At that time Hous­ton did not bar Asians from a white school, but did so in hous­ing and Wong’s fa­ther could not rent an apart­ment in a white neigh­bor­hood. The fam­ily first had to live with some friends, and later on with friends’ help, Wong’s fa­ther man­aged to rent a gro­cery store in Hous­ton’s Heights area. In the 1940s, Heights was a white neigh­bor­hood of blue col­lar fam­i­lies, and they could not rent or buy a place there.

“So we had to live in the back of the store,” Wong said. “It was just an empty space with two beds and one ta­ble. At din­ner time, my fa­ther sat in the only chair and the rest of us sat on ap­ple crates. We lived there for six years af­ter I was born.”

Fi­nally, a cus­tomer of Wong’s fa­ther sold his house to him when Wong was in first grade and the fam­ily had a home of their own in Hous­ton, right across from their gro­cery store.

Wong grew up help­ing her par­ents in the store by do­ing var­i­ous chores, and she met her fu­ture hus­band at the first Chi­nese Bap­tist Church when she was in high school. They went to the Univer­sity of Texas to­gether, grad­u­ated and got mar­ried. Af­ter grad­u­a­tion Wong had her first baby while work­ing as a teacher, and af­ter a third baby, she stayed home for 10 years to raise them.

In 1972 when the youngest child started kinder­garten, Wong re­turned to teach­ing, and grad­u­ally worked her way up to be a prin­ci­pal. When her old­est child was about to en­ter col­lege, Wong’s hus­band died of a stroke, and she has not re­mar­ried.

While rais­ing three chil­dren with her par­ents’ help, Wong quit her job and went to col­lege for a PhD. “My youngest kid was in high school when the other three of us were go­ing to col­lege and we hardly saw each other for a while be­cause we were in dif­fer­ent schools. It was hard, but we man­aged.”

Wong got her PhD in 1983 and then held var­i­ous po­si­tions such as as­so­ciate su­per­in­ten­dent in the Hous­ton In­de­pen­dent School District, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Bay­lor Col­lege and di­rec­tor at the Hous­ton Com­mu­nity Col­lege.

It was dur­ing this time that Wong got in­volved in pol­i­tics, first by help­ing her district coun­cil can­di­date win an elec­tion. Her strong cam­paign ef­fort earned her a rep­u­ta­tion and oth­ers who sought elected of­fice sought her help and en­dorse­ment.

“Even­tu­ally a group of us de­cided to run our own Asian can­di­date for the city coun­cil in­stead of just sup­port­ing oth­ers; so we formed the Asian Amer­i­can Coali­tion (AAC). At first AAC de­cided to run an Asian male, but two times in a row an Asian woman came out to run and the AAC can­di­date dropped out so they would not run against each other.”

In 1993, when the city coun­cil seat in Wong’s district be­came va­cant, the AAC de­cided to have her run. She won with 62 per­cent of the vote to rep­re­sent a district that in­cludes the af­flu­ent River Oaks neigh­bor­hood, which un­til 1972 ex­cluded home own­er­ship by non-whites like Wong.

Dur­ing her six years on the city coun­cil, Wong helped lo­cal Asian Amer­i­cans ad­vance in var­i­ous civic and gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions.

With her back­ing, many im­por­tant Hous­ton city boards ap­pointed Asian Amer­i­cans for the first time, in­clud­ing the metro board, the plan­ning board and the sports author­ity.

Wong also suc­cess­fully pushed for the ap­point­ments of Asians as Hous­ton’s first as­sis­tant po­lice chief and first deputy di­rec­tor of pub­lic works. She also helped an­other Asian Amer­i­can, Gor­don Guan, get elected to the city coun­cil in his first cam­paign.

In ad­di­tion to help­ing Asian Amer­i­cans, Wong also has helped the com­mu­nity at large. As a city coun­cil mem­ber, she as­sisted seven com­pa­nies in ac­quir­ing tax abate­ments (one of the city’s eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment tools); worked to de­velop three tax rein­vest­ment zones; es­tab­lished two neigh­bor­hood im­prove­ment as­so­ci­a­tions; worked with commercial re­tail de­vel­op­ment com­pa­nies to re­fur­bish four shop­ping cen­ters; and helped two na­tional re­tail businesses to lo­cate their businesses in the Hous­ton area,

Wong com­pleted her fi­nal term on the city coun­cil in 2000. Two years later she de­feated a long­time in­cum­bent and be­came the first Asian-Amer­i­can woman elected to the state leg­is­la­ture from 2003 to 2007.

As a fresh­man leg­is­la­tor she suc­cess­fully pushed more than 10 bills, in­clud­ing a tort re­form bill that she is es­pe­cially proud of.

In 2007 Wong lost her seat to an op­po­nent with strong fi­nan­cial back­ing. She then ded­i­cated her­self to be­ing an ac­tive com­mu­nity vol­un­teer and po­lit­i­cal ad­viser.

Last year, Wong and other Asian com­mu­nity lead­ers cre­ated the Texas Repub­li­can As­sem­bly (TARA), an aux­il­iary of the state’s Repub­li­can Party with Wong serv­ing as its first pres­i­dent.

Through TARA, Wong said she wants to uti­lize her po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence to achieve sev­eral goals, in­clud­ing ed­u­cat­ing Asians about pol­i­tics, and, more im­por­tantly, she wants TARA to serve as the plat­form for gov­ern­men­tal of­fi­cials to talk to the Asian com­mu­nity.

An­other ma­jor mis­sion of TARA is to iden­tify po­ten­tial Texas Asian Amer­i­cans who


Martha Wong talks about her life at home.

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