By Louis Chan
AsAmNews National Correspondent
Helen Wong Lum, a multi-sport athlete who excelled in tennis, basketball and volleyball and broke both racial and gender barriers in the 1940’s has died at the age of 84.
Wong Lum received numerous honors including induction into the Northern California United States Tennis Association Hall of Fame in 1996 and the San Francisco Prep Hall of Fame in 1988. She was the number one ranked U.S. tennis player in her age bracket several times.
The San Francisco native was born September 13, 1931 to Gong and Shee Lee Wong in a family of seven children. Her athletic achievements spanned six decades.
Wong honed her basketball skills playing for the St. Mary’s Chinese Saints in Catholic Youth leagues. Her teams won titles in 1947 and 1949. The San Francisco Examiner reported that at its 1949 basketball camp, she dazzled coaches as they watched her sink 49 out of 51 shots in a shooting competition against the boys, handily defeating them.
“When there were restricted options for working class Chinese American women, Helen Wong Lum broke many barriers as a talented, multi-sport athlete in the late 1940s,” said Kathleen Yep who featured Wong Lum in the book “Outside the Paint When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground” (Temple University Press , 2009). “Thirty years before Title IX and sixty years before the Williams sisters changed the face of tennis, Helen used sport and education to forge new territory for young women of color in Northern California.”
Wong Lum credited many people for her success, but her mentor was Father Donal Forrester, the director of St. Mary’s Chinese Catholic Mission in Chinatown who coached the St. Mary’s Saints basketball team.
“Father Forrester got me professional tennis lessons through Mr. Charles Harney, who was the gentleman who built Candlestick Park,” Wong Lum recalled in Yep’s book, Outside the Paint. Mr Harney paid for my lessons [for about a year]. Father Forrester used to drive me to tournaments.”
Wong is described in an article in the San Francisco Examiner ( February 15, 1994) as dabbling in tennis in her 20s and 30s, then taking a break in her 40s when she was diagnosed with lupus.
She overcame the disease when she was 50 and came back to the sport she loved most.
“She was determined to renew her competition in tennis, said Louise Won of Foster City who served as team captain on one of the squad’s Helen played with in the 1980’s. “Helen was like a rabbit around the court, a tiger in determination and concentration and a fox in thinking and planning her strategy against an opponent, whether in practice or in actual competition. Even when we played for fun, she was intent on playing at the highest level. ‘Take home no prisoners.’”
Wong Lum ranked first nationally in the women’s 50s and 55s and again in 1991 in women’s 60’s. She won seven national senior tennis titles and represented the United States in international team competitions including the prestigious Marble Cup play, the women’s over-60 equivalent of the Davis Cup.
Fellow Northern California US Tennis Association Hall of Fame inductee Betty Cookson never competed against Wong Lum, but recalls her as a fierce competitor who made her teammates better. The two played on the same U.S. Team at the 1993 International Tennis Federation World Tennis Championships in Barcelona, Spain.
“After that week of practice against Elaine Mason (Helen’s double’s partner) and Helen, my tennis improved immensely. In fact it improved so much that Betty Pratt and I were able to win the Women’s 65 doubles. It was without a doubt, the best week of tennis I have ever had. And I have to thank Helen and Elaine for their part.”
Three of Helen’s brothers were also accomplished athletes. The most famous, Willie “Woo Woo” Wong played on Pete Newell’s University of San Francisco team that won the NIT championship in 1949. “Woo Woo,” as his fans called him, was posthumously inducted into the USF Sports Hall of Fame in 2007. Two other brothers, Hank and George “Wee” also excelled on the San Francisco Saints and joined Willie in coaching their sister.
Wong Lum received her master degree in counseling from the University of San Francisco and went on to a career in education at Galileo High School in San Francisco followed by a 24-year stint at City College of San Francisco where she worked as a counselor and international student adviser. She maintained a close relationship with many of her students until her death.
Wong Lum is survived by her husband of more than 50 years, Charlie Lum, and her eldest sister, Violet Yip and sister-in-law Lil Wong. Wong Lum is preceded in death by her father and mother, Gong Wong and Wong Lee Shee, and her siblings Rose, George, Harry, William and Hank as well as her brother and sister-in-laws, Eugene Lum, Moy Tiu Long Lum, Usa Mary Wong, Fun S Wong, Florence Wong, Jeannie Wong, Leonard Yip, and Mable Wong. She is also survived by numerous nephews and nieces.
Wong Lum died on December 22 at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco.
A visitation will be held at Evergreen Mortuary of McAvoy Ohara at 4545 Geary Blvd in San Francisco on January 4 at 7 p.m. followed by a funeral mass on January 5 at 1:30 p.m at Star of the Sea Catholic Church in San Francisco on 4420 Geary Blvd.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to Star of the Sea, 4420 Geary Blvd in San Francisco; St. Mary’s School and Chinese Catholic Center, 838 Kearny Street in San Francisco; and the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, 1359 Broadway, Suite 1509 in New York, NY 10018.