Father’s Day lesson: 7 days a week, hard work as gift of hope

June 22, 2015

Article as it appeared on Syracuse.com

I first spoke with Tony Hwang six or seven months ago, after I wrote a piece about the Upward Bound Program at Le Moyne College. Tony, now 50, offered appreciation for all the program did for him when he was a teen, for all it did to help him prepare for college.

He was born in Taiwan. He learned English once he came here, as a little boy. Upward Bound, he said, essentially reinforced the values he saw at home in Syracuse, where his family ran a Chinese restaurant on South Avenue in Elmwood.

That restaurant was the life’s work of his father.

It closed at that location, long ago.

But Tony will be thinking of it on Father’s Day.

He is a first-term Republican state senator in Connecticut. He won election last November, after serving as a state representative in the General Assembly. In Syracuse, Tony played baseball, soccer and tennis at Corcoran High School. He went on to Cornell University, before accepting a job with United Technologies that brought him to Connecticut. He married his wife, Grace, started a family, built a career that would eventually lead him into real estate.

Ten years ago, he got rolling with politics.

Tony wishes his father could be here to see it. Their personalities, outwardly, were very different: Tony is effusive. He loves to tell a story. Li-Kong Hwang, Tony said, was much quieter, “a stern taskmaster” who rarely showed outward affection, a man who expected hard work from Tony and his sisters, Jennie and Patty.

The family ran the old Bamboo Garden, a Chinese restaurant on South Avenue. Li-Kong spent most of his waking hours there. He rarely had a chance to see Tony’s high school games. One day, he showed up to watch Tony play goalie for Corcoran’s soccer team. Tony knew his dad was in the stands. The son did not give up a goal.

Afterward, Li-Kong told Tony what he could do to get better.

Improve upon a shutout: That was the philosophy his father lived by.

“He worked constantly, 14 hours a day, seven days a week,” Tony said. “People don’t always have that kind of work ethic and passion and energy, that belief that anything can be done, anything is possible. … What he taught me is that we have every opportunity in front of us for success.”

To achieve it, Tony said, demands one full-blown commitment:

You work.

His father’s demeanor was shaped by what he’d seen: His life, from earliest memory, involved struggle. As a young man, Li-Kong fled Communist rule in China to settle in Taiwan, where he met Chi-Wha Hwang, Tony’s mother. Tony and his sisters were born there. Their dad, unable to find a job that paid a decent wage, left for the United States, believing that was his family’s best chance.

“He was gone seven years,” Tony said. “He started working in sweatshops, busing tables, washing floors. He worked his way up, always sending a check back home, and I didn’t see him until he came back and he said he was bringing the whole family” to New York City.

As a 9-year-old, Tony found himself living in a small apartment in Chinatown in Manhattan, where street gangs – with growing influence – were recruiting more and more young men. “My father took a look around,” Tony said, “and said: This is not the way I want to raise my kids.”

They moved again, to Watertown and winters beyond their imagination. One of Li-Kong’s friends ran a Chinese restaurant there, and told Li-Kong he could have a job. The Hwangs settled into a housing project. Tony remembers how his dad hosted a dinner for the faculty from his children’s elementary school, how Li-Kong worked many hours to be sure he could provide ample food for everyone.

Afterward, Tony said, his father stood up and explained — with the English he had — why he did it.

“I am glad you enjoyed this,” he told his children’s teachers. “All I ask of you is to give my kids an education. Give them a chance to succeed. If there is more homework to be done, give them double. If there is more for them to read, give them triple. You have my permission to make them learn.”

Tony said Li-Kong saw education as the way to step from one life, into another. “He had a deep appreciation for what it really meant to be a teacher,” Tony said. “I look back on that and think: If I lived in a project and could barely speak English, would I have the gumption to make a meal for all these people, and then to say what I had to say?”

From Watertown, the family moved again to Syracuse, where Li-Kong ran the Bamboo Garden. Six days a week, he’d be at the restaurant until late at night. Mondays, when the restaurant was closed, offered no chance to take a break.

“On Sunday he’d come home and take a cat nap and then drive to New York City and get there by 6 a.m.,” said Tony, who sometimes went along to help.

The son can remember waking up, after the long drive, to see the Brooklyn Bridge. He can remember how his father would fill a U-Haul with rice, tofu and vegetables from shops in the city, how they’d bring it home and sell supplies to other Asian restaurants.

Tony’s mother, Chi-Wha Hwang, lives in Onondaga. His father died of cancer five years ago. Li-Kong wasn’t there to see his son become the first Asian-Pacific American in history to win election to Connecticut’s senate.

“I miss him every day,” Tony said. “The way he worked, what that taught me, is (that) greatness is possible.”

Another lesson: His father never feared the unknown. The easiest thing, when he was young, would have been to accept his lot in China, under the Communists. After he fled, the easiest choice would have been to settle into life as it was, in Taiwan.

Once in America, with sheer toil as his means of elevation, he was never satisfied with simply doing just enough:

Time after time, he lifted his family into a better place.

He was rarely a sentimental man. But there was a day, long after Tony graduated from college, when Li-Kong took a look at what his son had accomplished and told him:

“You’ve given me the greatest gift a child can give a parent. You have made it so I know I will never have to worry about you.”

He’d offered a lifetime of sweat, toward that end. It was a statement of both love and expectation, which is why Tony can never really say goodbye to Father’s Day.

Sean Kirst is a columnist with The Post-Standard. Email him at [email protected] or send him a message on Twitter.