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Portrait of an Artisit: Wonona Wong Chang

by Alan Racier

People

Spring Volume: 2003 Issue: 10(1) page(s): 17 and 18


Nearly thirty years ago, I first had the pleasure of meeting a gifted and most giving woman, Wonona Wong Chang. Refined, educated, graceful, accomplished, and cultured, she also created, as if by heavenly alchemy, some of the most extraordinary and beautiful Chinese cuisine I have ever experienced. As a then youthful aspiring artist/musician, I was taken with the artistry of her approach to creating, preparing, and presenting the full spectrum of colors in her virtuoso culinary palette. And as a twenty-something young man with a serious interest in Chinese culture, wisdom and philosophy, every occasion to be in the kitchen with her was like taking Master Classes in what was for me, the other artform, Chinese cooking. Because she was always ready and willing to share her knowledge, including all the most proper ingredients, tools and techniques, I had an education like no other in the appreciation as well as the preparation of fine Chinese cuisine.

When this lovely person became my mother-in-law through my marriage to her equally lovely daughter, Mei-Ming, I was twice blessed. Wonona’s life deserves and requires many more and more eloquent words than these. This is but a brief tribute, a small glimpse into a life lived well and creatively; it is the life of a unique individual, a fine human being, and a true artist.

As a young girl growing up on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, Wonona Wong enjoyed an upbringing rich in spiritual and cultural heritage — a prelude to her remarkable life. For Flavor and Fortune readers, it may be particularly noteworthy that it was here, in Medan, Sumatra, that she was first exposed to the culinary arts. Wonona fondly recalls (with a kind of girlish glee) how, in addition to the superb food prepared regularly at home, her early gastronomic education consisted largely of dining in restaurants with her father and taking part in holiday celebrations in the family home, in which some of the best chefs in the area would come and prepare wonderful dishes and specialties.

The celebrations were truly special events at this time, and the food was exceptional. “We were not able to participate with or help the chefs when they were preparing their special dishes, but we were able to observe. I learned so much from just watching them,” Wonona recalls. She already had plenty to help with in the kitchen and consequently learned a great deal more by doing. It was a solid foundation for what would follow in her celebrated culinary career many years later.

The youngest of four children, Wonona demonstrated her intelligence and uniquely charming personal loveliness from an early age. She was raised as a Buddhist, observing customary rituals and practices as her spiritual awareness first awakened. She also displayed an uncommonly beautiful singing voice. “I loved music from the time I was a little girl and my teachers thought I had a beautiful voice, yet because of the strict discipline of my family, I was not allowed to take music lessons.” Nonetheless, although her father wanted to provide an excellent education for her, he knew she could not have such an education in Sumatra. So he began to look into the various schools that she might attend in the region.

He learned there was an outstanding girls’ school in Hong Kong called 'The True Light School' or Chan Kwong. It enjoyed an exceptional reputation for educating young women and helping them on their way to becoming accomplished individuals in life and in their own chosen fields of endeavor. This was exactly what Wonona’s father wanted for his special and obviously talented daughter.

After gathering all the information he could, it was decided that Wonona would attend True Light and relocate to Hong Kong. At the age of fourteen, she left her family home in Medan and began her new life at True Light. It was not long before she discovered one defining aspect of the school that neither she nor her father had been even remotely aware of prior to her arrival there: True Light was a Christian girls’ school.

“On the evening of the first day there, we were all summoned to the assembly hall,” she recalls. “I was a little scared and intimidated, surrounded by all these other girls whom I had never met and knowing no one with whom I could find the comfort of familiarity. I was a stranger in a strange land.”

“We were all then led in the singing of hymns. At first, I did not quite grasp what all this meant. Suddenly I realized — this was a Christian school and here I was a devout Buddhist!” Despite the initial shock of that discovery, Wonona would soon come to feel very much alive and liberated through her new immersion in Christianity. For at True Light, her musical and vocal abilities finally would have a chance to be nurtured and developed. And she found, to her great comfort, that her spiritual needs were also well met.

It was not long before her unmistakable artistic abilities emerged for all to see, or more accurately, to hear. Over the course of her four years at True Light, she was often selected to perform solo in front of the school and for other groups. Then came the intervention of World War II, during which time Wonona and many others had to flee the invading Japanese into Free China. It would be several years before she would again have the opportunity to focus on her artform and still developing talent.

While her musical accomplishments at school had already earned her much respect and admiration, she really wanted to become a doctor. She attended medical college for two years, but poor health, stemming from her hardships as a refugee, forced her to withdraw from the college in her third year. She went on to attend the National Music Conservatory in Chung King, China, often performing concerts in Chung King, Kiangsi, and Shanghai, where she was now living with her new husband Irving Chang. After emmigrating to the United States in 1950, Wonona later attended Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. In 1962, Wonona recorded an album entitled “Chinese Art Songs” for the Spoken Arts label, accompanied by her life-long friend, the noted concert pianist and teacher Anna Mi Lee.

While at True Light, Wonona had the opportunity to receive more formal culinary training, though it wasn’t specifically called that. “It was more like Home Economics may be thought of in the United States. But the cooking portion was very thorough and complete, and I learned even more there.” Quite a bit, evidently. Enough so, that she later came to be regarded as one of the most respected and well-liked Chinese cookbook contributors in the United States over these past several decades.

Collaborating with her husband, Irving, and with special friends and co-authors Helene and Austin Kutscher, she published her first cookbook, An Encyclopedia of Chinese Food and Cooking (Crown Publishers, 1970). It was a grand effort that brought the tastes, techniques, and beautiful presentation of fine Chinese cuisine into American homes; and it was a great success. The Encyclopedia was followed in 1973 by Northern Chinese Cookbook (Crown Publishers), and in 1986 by Chinese Dessert, Dim Sum & Snack Cookbook (Sterling Publishing Company).

In addition to these books, there have been countless talks, presentations, articles, and other contributions that Wonona has made in the realms of Chinese culinary, culture, and the arts. As associate editors of this publication, she and Irving have been frequent contributors to Flavor and Fortune and they have shown a dedication to sharing and teaching the joys and infinite variety of fine Chinese cuisine.

Wonona has always viewed the selection, preparation and presentation of food as a true artform, involving all of the senses. They appeal to the higher levels of appreciation of the cuisine as an art form. In her writing, speaking, and most of all her creating on the subject of fine Chinese cuisine and culture, to this writer and many others, she has no equal. Indeed, in this and other ways, Wonona Wong Chang is a living treasure, a truly great teacher, and an exceptional artist.

Everyone at the 'Institute for the Science and Art of Chinese Cuisine' and all associated with Flavor and Fortune join me in saluting this terrific culinary artist.

                                                                                                                                                       
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