翁瑞昶-James Ong

1.鶴立雞群Cranes Among Chickens

Cranes Among Chickens is a compelling memoir about a Taiwanese family, with tales of
immigrants and pioneers, of ambition and rebellion, of three generations
spanning one hundred years, two continents, five countries, and three wars.
This family saga mirrors a tumultuous period in history as Taiwan…


2.Ming Ong Computer Center(2014-04-13)

Highway 17

On a Friday morning of April 2014, I drove from the East Bay to Santa Cruz via Highway 17. This busy thoroughfare looked eerily familiar. Twenty-eight years ago, I made a similar trip on this treacherous road.

The scenery of Highway 17 was mesmerizingly beautiful, its lush evergreen forest tantalizing and its winding curves

even more inviting. On a few occasions, I was tempted to test my 416 HP motor around some of these bends, but I refrained. Twenty-eight years ago, on April 27, one of them tragically ended the life of my brother.

Spring time weather in Northern California can be quite unpredictable. On this morning, it started out with an annoying and steady rain, followed by rare periods of peace alternating with outbursts of angry downpour. My brother Ming was a crybaby. Fifty years ago, he cried his way into this world, becoming my parents’ 3rd son. His birth was difficult, complicated by a major hemorrhage that nearly claimed my mother’s life.

Morning traffic on westbound Highway 17 was heavy but not too congested, just like the traffic by Ming’s first home. It was a one bedroom, inexpensive apartment situated on the side of a busy highway. The relentless traffic noises, day and night, led to incessant and inconsolable crying for my baby brother. The year was 1964. Our family had just moved to the town of Tao-Yuan, Taiwan, where Dad ventured into a novel but risky poultry business. Ming’s arrival marked a new beginning for the Ong family.

As I returned from deep thoughts back to the road, I found myself driving on Highway 17 in total solitude. Untiljust a few minutes ago, I had been in the company of a long caravan of westbound cars. For a five-minute stretch,inexplicably, I was completely alone – no cars in front of me and none in my rear view mirror, as if someone hadcleared the path for me.

Time halted and all became quiet. I had a surreal feeling of being airborne. This otherworldly experience sent my mind back twenty-eight years. I saw a lone car lying on the side of this dreadful highway, having ended its midnight cruise crashing into a ditch, upside down and in mortal silence.

Suddenly, my cell phone rang. It was from John Hopkins, the Sr. Director of Development of UCSC, whom I was to meet at 10:30 at the Provost’s House. I placed the call on hold as I was busy negotiating some of the tightest turns on this highway. Twenty-eight years ago, a phone ring from Santa Cruz put the lives of every one of my family on a permanent hold.

As I continued driving, the sky remained gloomy and rain continued to drizzle. I noticed a traffic jam in the opposite direction. A quick check on Waze confirmed that there was an accident. Twenty-eight years ago, there was a similar commotion on this highway. A 21 year-old boy lay lifelessly on the side of the road, one of his friends frantically trying to revive him with CPR.  Later that afternoon, a family of six – minus one – cried their hearts out at the scene of the accident. The wails of the boy’s mother can still be heard echoing through the mountain ranges today.

And the darn rain just refused to stop, mercilessly pounding on my windshield. Rainwater helps cleanse the soul and nourish the tired body, without which we wouldn’t have the magnificent landscape so typical of this neck of the wood. My brother Ming was an outdoorsman, who introduced – to a bookworm like me – the splendors of our National Parks and the pleasure of hiking, camping, and downhill skiing. I owe my love for nature to my brother, who coordinated many memorable backcountry trips to Catalina Island, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon.

As my car approached Santa Cruz, the sky remained murky but a slither of blue began to appear on the distant horizon. Seeing beyond the horizon is a talent shared by Dad and my brother Ming – both born in the year of the dragon, both extremely gifted with their foresight and avant-garde visions. As early as 1981, Dad began formulating a plan to open a computer store while Ming was already learning computer programming. This was back in the days whenmost of us thought all PCs could do was WordStar and Lotus123.

Thinking of my brother, my eyes became misty and my vision blurry. It was perhaps caused by the unforgivingraindrops on the windshield. But as soon as I made that final turn out of the  mountains, mysteriously, the dense cloud suddenly evaporated and the blue sky could be seen stretching all the way to the turquoise ocean. Someone had parted the Red Sea for us just as we drove out of the torturous mountain roads into a quaint beachside town of Santa Cruz.

The last time I saw that majestic sight was 27 years ago, when I came for the Ming Ong Computer Center dedication.Dad – the chicken farmer turned restaurateur turned high-tech pioneer – had finally reaped the fruits of his labor, but not without having gone through several financially tumultuous years. In 1986, his growing computer business was about to go IPO when tragedy hit my family like a meteor. Turning unimaginable grief into something positive, Mom and Dad donated a building in Ming’s name to Merrill College of UCSC, along with an endowment for student scholarship. Perched on a small hill at the beautiful campus, the computer center was to serve the school where my brother had spent the last 3 years of his short life.

While navigating the streets of Santa Cruz, I realized that I have seen every one of these buildings before, perhaps just once or twice, but enough to have them seared into the deepest crevices of my memory like PTSD on a combat veteran.  I was suddenly struck with a powerful déjà vu and a tsunami of emotions. Those memories buried nearly 3 decades ago flashed back in a rush – my family’s visit to the mortuary, Ming’s desktop calendar with the 2nd Sunday of May circled in red, Mom’s nonstop bawling all night in that dim hotel room, the Pink Floyd CD we gave Ming for his cremation, and the first time we sat for a meal as a family of 5 with 6 sets of dinnerware…

Ascending High Street on the west side of UCSC campus revealed the school’s plush landscape beyond which was the indomitable Pacific Ocean. The last time I saw that view was when I left Santa Cruz 27 years ago after the ComputerCenter dedication. It never occurred to me that I would return again, nor could I have predicted the circumstances under which my current trip took form.

A few weeks before this visit, Ming came to me in a dream. It was the first time in over a decade that I had dreamed about my brother. With his typical smile, he appeared as calm, content, and composed as I have always remembered him. He gave me a strong hug and that was it – no conversation, nor any explanation why he had to leave my parents so abruptly, which was a question I had always reminded myself to ask him should I ever see him again in my dream.

The very next morning, I made a routine visit to my parents’ home in Newport Beach. At the end of the day, justbefore I was to leave, Dad came to me and said, “By the way, I have a letter from UC Santa Cruz. I am getting old and I want your generation to take over the matter.” He was referring to the endowment that he had made back in the 1980s, which by now had grown to a substantial sum. This was the first time we had talked about this almost forgotten subject in a decade.

With the image of Ming still vivid in my mind and his hug still warm in my heart, I read with tears a letter from the current Merrill College Provost, Elizabeth Abrams, regarding her wish to rekindle the lost connection with our family. My subsequent conversation with her and John Hopkins, the Sr. Director of Development, led me to revisit a painful and long forgotten past. This dialogue eventually resulted in my first visit to the UCSC campus in nearly 3 decades. I invited my parents – who’d been suffering from poor health and tended to avoid long trips – to come along. To my great surprise, they jumped at the opportunity.  My daughter, Tiffany, also accompanied me.

The GPS on my Tesla’s 17-inch touch screen helped me meander through the redwood forests of this picturesque campus and placed me precisely at the entrance of the Core West parking structure. Ming would have been awesomely impressed by this car, I am sure. He was a car buff, not for the glamour of the expensive cars, but for the art of engineering them. A handyman from an early age, Ming used to do plumbing and electrical repairs for Mom. Like Dad, he had greathands and an insatiable mind, able to take apart any machinery – in order to understand its mechanism – and to put it back together. In the 1980s when Mike, Jay, and I all bought new sports cars, Ming chose to procure, as his first car, a 1977 VW Rabbit from the junk yard, which he painstakingly restored from the ground up, capping off the effortwith a personalized license plate: MINGsVW.

Back at Core West garage, John Hopkins was already waiting for my family. He guided us to the Provost’s House where we met the new Provost Elizabeth Abrams. I had an instant PTSD flashback as I walked into the mid century classic home, which was nestled in a grove of giant redwood trees like a tree house. My family and I visited this home in 1987 at the invitation of the then Provost John Isbister.  Twenty-seven years later, on that same living room, wecould see through the windows the clear blue sky, the serene ocean, and the warm sun rays.

We then sat down with Provost Abrams and enjoyed a heartwarming conversation about the life of my brother and hisexperience here at Merrill. I brought along several old photographs, a T-Shirt designed by Ming for the UCSC Chinese Student Association which he cofounded, and my book Cranes among Chickens which contains a chapter on my brotherentitled Ming Ong was Here.

No sooner than I presented my book to the Provost did the weather take a sudden and dramatic turn. A dark cloud appeared out of nowhere, followed by a thunderous downpour of the rain. My heart sank, as I was eagerly looking forward to visiting the Ming Ong Computer Center without getting drenched. Miraculously, within five minutes, the rain stopped, just as suddenly as it had started, and the sun returned.

Before leaving the Provost’s House to tour the campus, Tiffany played on the Provost’s piano the lovely melody of Nocturne by Samuel Barber. Ming was musically talented with the violin. His school orchestra teacher once told Mom that while other kids were “playing the notes,” Ming was the only one “playing the music.” Ming was similarly endowed with the paint brush. He left his marks on the Merrill moat mural, a rendering of MINGsVW, which unfortunately had been replaced by subsequent works of art over the years.

Our short stroll from the Provost’s House to the computer center was dotted with many surprises. We saw several signs proudly displaying “Ming Ong Computer Center,” with an arrow in the direction of the building. Some arrows even pointed up towards the sky. Where have I seen this before? A few years after Ming’s passing, I came to a startling discovery when I went up on the roof of my parents’ home to retrieve a basketball. On that flat roof –unbeknownst to all of us – Ming had inscribed in bold block letters, “MING ONG WAS HERE.” The writing was largeenough to be seen all the way from heaven.

Today, the physical signage on campus as well as virtual ones on Google Map demonstrated abundantly Ming’s presence here on Merrill – as they have done on my parents’ home – transcending time and space. Inside the computer lab,we came upon the most startling message. A map of UCSC was hung on the wall with printed adhesive labels denoting major campus landmarks. On the site of Merrill College was one inscribed with the phrase “MING ONG” (short for“Ming Ong Computer Center”), below which another label reads “YOU ARE HERE” in red bold color, to show the students reading the map his or her current location. To me and my family, of course, this simply reads “MING ONG,YOU ARE HERE.”

Albert Einstein once said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” While one may choose to believe that everything in this world occurs by chance, one may also elect to acknowledge that there are forces greater than what our current knowledge base can understand, but which nevertheless help shape our destinies beyond our control or comprehension. This is illustrated in the numerous not-so-subtle pieces of bread crumbs that have been left on the trails of my family’s most unusual journey.

Ming loved Merrill beyond words can describe. This school and the city of Santa Cruz are sacred and magical places that my brother called home for the last 3 years of his life, in which he made many friends. Some of them we stillmaintain contact with today. Being gregarious and generous is Ming’s true nature, which began early in his life.Mom noticed years ago that, at school, Ming frequently “lost” his money or a piece of garment that she had given him. She would later find out that my brother had shared his precious belongings with some of his less fortunate classmates.

In keeping with what my brother Ming Ong stands for, it is the wish of my parents that the Ming Ong Computer Centeran d its affiliated endowment continue to serve the students of Merrill and UCSC, helping those with financial needs,those with strong academic aspirations, those with appetites for innovation and risk taking, and those with dedications to help make this world a better place.

At the end of our visit, Provost Abrams requested my inscription on Cranes among Chickens. On the title page I wrote the following, “Dear Elizabeth, My brother Ming Ong was Here at Merrill. Let’s keep his memories alive on the campus he so loved.”As we set out to leave Santa Cruz that afternoon, the rain had completely ceased and there were no traces of the dark cloud that had once hovered over us and concealed the blue sky. While the sun smiled down at my parents from heaven above, I shifted the gear into Drive and began to head home.(2014-04-13)



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