Fieldnotes – The Picture Bride

Flora Wong grew up at a time when a woman – and certainly a young woman in rural China – did not have much say in the major decisions of her life. That her marriage was arranged is not remarkable. That she embraced the decisions that were made for her, and managed to make her life her own, is remarkable. Of course, it helped that her husband, Charlie Wong, was by all reports a kind and generous man, well-respected and well-loved in his adopted home of Helena, Montana.

When Flora came to Montana she spoke almost no English, despite having spent the first eight years of her life in Boston. Her education consisted of two years of primary school in her village in Guangdong. Still, she has an unbelievable energy and determination to take on new challenges.

A car salesman approached Charlie Wong in the 1950’s and tried to sell him a car. Charlie told the salesman: “If you teach my wife to drive, I’ll buy it.”

Two weeks later, Flora was driving. “Wow,” she said. “If I can drive a car, I can do anything.”

In late middle age, Flora learned to swim, even though, she says, she didn’t even know how to float. Now she is a fixture at the YMCA in Helena, swimming her laps methodically, slipping through the water gracefully, almost effortlessly. She keeps track of every lap, she says, counting in Chinese. She is approaching the 5000 mile mark, and intends to keep going “until I drop.”

She has also run several marathons, and countless shorter races. For her athletic accomplishments, she was recently inducted into the Helena Sports Hall of Fame. As for the secret of her health, she says: “Be active. Be happy. Enjoy life.”

When you are around Flora Wong, you have the impression of a woman who is irrepressibly positive; who exudes a blend of equanimity, serenity and energy. But she has gone through some very difficult times. She endured the Sino-Japanese war. She lost an infant son. She discovered that her mother, while in China, had been tortured to death – something she didn’t tell her children until recently. And she lost her husband when she was still young. She has this to say about Charlie Wong.

“My husband… mainly he’s a wonderful gentleman, husband and father. He’s good to all the customers, even the young customers, little customers who come to buy candy. He’s good to them, and he’s generous with all the customers. I can’t talk enough about him. He’s just a wonderful person. I wish he was still alive, but his memory’s always here.” (Tapping her heart.)

“After he died, it was a hard time, but I got through it. I says, I gotta keep going. I got children to raise. I can’t look back.”

And she hasn’t looked back. She considered leaving Montana once or twice, she says, but then thought:

“I can’t do that. Montana’s my home. My husband had his business here and his friends here, and he always liked the people here. I can’t leave Montana because of him. He’s buried in Helena, and so this is my home. Montana is my home.”