On a sunny Sunday afternoon, Sikkin Wu is smoking a cigar inside his foggy smoking room. The setting sun light irradiates on his face, and he seems to recall his early life experience in China and Hong Kong. After Wu finishes smoking, he starts telling his story.
“I’m 71 or 72-years-old; I even didn’t know it, and my birth certificate was lost because of the Chinese Civil War,” Wu said.
Since 1983, Wu has owned a Chinese restaurant called East Garden in Shorewood. He has seen Asian immigrants grow from a very small minority to an important part of the City of Milwaukee. The road to restaurant ownership was a long one. Wu stayed at Whitewater for a short period, then went to UWM to obtain a master’s degree in art. After that, Wu stayed at UWM as a lecturer of traditional Chinese painting for six years. Now Sikkin Wu’s son David Wu has taken over the restaurant and manage it. Sikkin Wu now focuses on his traditional Chinese health care center to provide acupuncture and moxibustion therapy for patients. In this spare time, he usually teaches his granddaughter traditional Chinese painting.
Communication with Wu is not that easy. Even though he already moved to U.S. for more than 45 years, his English still has a strong Cantonese accent. On the other hand, his Mandarin is still hard to understand and usually with some Cantonese words mingled. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 1980 only 0.7 percent of Milwaukee’s population was Asian, and the total number was 4,239. Thirty-six years later, the Asian population increased to 40,753, almost 10 times of 1980.
“I teach him Mandarin for a long time, and then we can communicate without misunderstanding,” Wu’s wife Wendy Lee said.
Wu was born in Enping, Canton in 1945 or 1946. At that time, China just finished the war with Empire of Japan and then the Civil War broke out. In 1950, the Chinese Communist Party controlled the mainland China and Nationalist Party retreated to Taiwan. At that time, Wu’s father was staying in Venezuela, and Wu and his mother was staying in Guangzhou, China. Because of the Cold War, Wu and his family had to stay in mainland. They had an unforgettable memory.
“The life at mainland was really terrible. I saw many rich people were killed by machine guns but they are not bad people,” Wu said.
Even though he was just a child in 1950s, Wu still has a deep memory about the Communist Party’s massacres of capitalists and landlords. All of the primary school students needed to wear red scarf at that time, and Wu always refused to wear it. When Wu talked about this experience, he burst into a laugh.
After a long application process and many investigations, Wu moved to Macau, a Portuguese colony with his mother in 1956. Wu finished his primary school there and can still speak a few Portuguese words.
In 1960, Wu moved to British Hong Kong and stayed at Hong Kong for 11 years.
“There are so many people in Hong Kong; more than three million when I was there and now it is more than seven million,” Wu said. Wu’s life in Hong Kong was much better. Because his father is a rich businessman in South America, he didn’t need to worry about living expenses and tuition.
In 1960s Hong Kong, white British were considered first-class people, other whites were second class, and Chinese were third class. Minority white people had better jobs and more opportunities than Chinese.
Wu couldn’t bear such unequal society in Hong Kong, so he went to Hawaii in 1971 to study English courses after he graduated from a University in Hong Kong.
In Hawaii, Wu studied at Brigham Young University—Hawaii. He met his future wife, Wendy Lee, an undergraduate from Taiwan. Early in their dating life, Lee couldn’t understand what he said because Wu’s Mandarin was terrible.
Wu and Lee have similar backgrounds. Lee’s family came from Shanghai in Republic of China era, and they evacuated to Taiwan with the Nationalist Party after the lost in Chinese Civil War. “My family had many land and properties in Shanghai, but the Communist Party forcibly occupied them,” Lee said.
One and half years later, Wu went to University of Wisconsin—Whitewater for his MBA degree. This was his first time in Wisconsin.
Wu doesn’t like Hong Kong that much. “There are so many people in Hong Kong; the air quality is also not that good,” Wu said. Because of the clean air and good work opportunities, Wu chose to settle in Milwaukee.
“Only about 2,000 Chinese live in Wisconsin in 1970s,” Wu said. When Wu came to Wisconsin, Asian immigrants were very rare, and there was no organized Asian community. People from mainland China were rarer, as most Chinese in Wisconsin were from Hong Kong and Taiwan. In this background, Wu and his family members were westernized: Even though they owned a Chinese restaurant, but they usually eat burgers and wraps as their daily meal.
“In 1970s, racism was a big issue in America, and I can feel the discrimination from white people, but now is much better,” Wu said.
Wu also talked about Hmong people in Wisconsin. “When I arrived Milwaukee in early 1970s, there were no Hmong people here. Right after the Vietnamese War, thousands of Hmong people came here, and most were refugees,” Wu said.
At that time, their restaurant would generally offer American Chinese food because most customers were local people. In recent years, with the growth of Asian immigrants, they started to cook authentic Chinese food. Most American style Chinese food cooks just use sauces to cook meat like Sweet and Sour Chicken or Broccoli Beef, and this cooking style makes all the food taste the same. Authentic Chinese food cook usually uses different herbs or spices to create special flavors.
Wu also helps out his son.
The harsh telephone ringer interrupts the chat. Wu answers the phone and smiles: “I’m going to send a delivery.” He takes the delivery bag and walks under the setting sun and his car finally disappeared in my sight.