Spike Wong.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
City Life

When he endured racism at a Santa Cruz donut shop last year, Spike Wong did what he does: He wrote about it

Santa Cruz playwright and actor Steve “Spike” Wong, a former schoolteacher, talked to Lookout Santa Cruz about the growing racist aggression against Asian-Americans, his fear for his own son’s safety and what his father’s true-blue American heroism means to him.

He is one of the most respected playwrights and literary figures in Santa Cruz, but that alone does not make him immune to random acts of racist aggression.

Steve “Spike” Wong, who grew up in Watsonville, has been reading about the rising number of incidents of verbal and physical violence aimed at Asians during the pandemic, just like everyone else. And he has his own story to tell.

Wong, 68, is well-known throughout the county as both an actor and playwright. His plays have been produced off-Broadway in New York and as far away as Sydney, Australia. His autobiographical play “Dragon Skin” played for a run at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco.

And Asian-American identity has been central in his work. So, when he was subject to the kind of verbal attacks that many of Asian descent have endured, in alarmingly high numbers recently, he did what he always does. He wrote about it.

Wong’s personal essay “Glazed” was featured in monologue form as part of the Marsh’s Monday Night MarshStream. The piece was an account of Wong’s visit to a favorite donut shop in Santa Cruz County, in which he encountered an improperly masked young man (in a time well before vaccines were available).

Wong, who knew three people who died of COVID-19, called out to the young man to mask up. He was greeted with a slur and a threat.

“Lightning takes over my body,” Wong recited as part of the monologue. “My muscles, my fist, my brain screams at me to go over and confront him right now. Three long steps that’s all. Three steps and I can settle it.”

He is stopped from what might have been a violent confrontation by the sight of the women behind the counter of the donut shop, “my friends, my Asian sisters.”

“Glazed” was written last fall, well before the recent headlines. He is troubled by the anecdotes and news stories, many of them involving elderly people attacked by much younger assailants. But he’s not surprised.

Actor and playwright Spike Wong talks about the Asian-American experince.

“It’s nothing new,” he told me last week. “It’s been a fairly continuous occurrence. The idea of Asians as a sort of model minority is predicated on the idea that it’s a relatively silent minority. And that’s rooted in some of the earlier events of anti-Asian sentiment, dating back from the 1850s at least. It’s nothing new, but it’s still really discouraging.”

As it happens, Wong’s latest work serves as a powerful rebuke to that kid in the donut shop, and anyone who thinks Asian-Americans are somehow less American than anyone else. “White Sky, Falling Dragon” is based on the life of Wong’s father, Capt. Ernie Wong, who was a U.S. Air Force bombardier and navigator.

Ernie Wong, who served as Captain in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.
Ernie Wong, who served as Captain in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II.
(Courtesy Spike Wong)

The story follows a man, newly returned from the war, struggling with his experiences in combat and trying to maintain Chinese tradition in a loyal American home.

“Even though he was an officer in the U.S. Army Air Force, he would choose not to leave the base (with his buddies) because he knew it would just cause issues for his fellow service members if they went to a bar or restaurant.”

Even though that was close to 80 years ago, Wong is disheartened by continued racist aggression aimed at people of Asian descent, spurred in large part, he said, by a former president who used terms like “kung flu” and “China virus” in reference to COVID-19.

“Many of my Chinese American friends in the San Francisco Bay Area are looking to do two things right now,” he said. “One is they’re buying pepper spray. And two, they are actively starting to escort and look out for elderly Chinese Americans.”

Wong was a high school teacher for 38 years before his retirement. He taught English at his alma mater Watsonville High for 23 years (where he was student body president in 1969-70) before stints at Aptos (2) and Los Gatos (13).

Spike Wong the English teacher.
(Via Spike Wong)

In that time, he saw young African American men grow up and become fathers, and heard from them, countless times about how they had to inform their sons about the dangers of being Black in America.

“They had to talk with their children about what happens with certain law enforcement officials and in certain social situations. And you can hear the pain in their voices when they described to me what they have to do to deal with racism.

“And, you know, last month, I emailed my son, who lives in Southern California, and I had to say to him, ‘I’m so disappointed that I have to say this to you. But you’re Chinese American. You need to watch what’s going on around you.

Spike Wong shows off his dad's bomber jacket.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

“You need to be cognizant of what happens when you’re walking somewhere at night.’ It was sort of the Asian version of what I heard my African American students talk about.”

As for “White Sky, Falling Dragon,” the play based on his father’s experience in World War II, Wong is looking to resume what COVID-19 interrupted. The fully staged production of the play was scheduled to open last summer before the pandemic hit.

Now, Wong is expected to mount the play — with commissioned original Chinese music and a replica of a fighter plane on stage — some time in 2022.

“White Sky, Falling Dragon”
“White Sky, Falling Dragon” staged play reading at Center Stage, Santa Cruz, CA, in May 2019. (L to R) Steve “Spike” Wong as Pop, Alie Mac as Ma, and Preston Yeung as Ernie.
(Courtesy Spike Wong)

“Some of the discoveries I’m making as I write this play,” he said, “some nights when I’m writing late and I’m alone in the bathroom, looking through the letters and what have you, I mean, it’s just so moving because the Asian community had to work so hard to make inroads into being successful Americans.”

Apparently, they still do.