Every time Katherine Toy sees the Golden Gate Bridge, she feels a strong sense of family pride—not only because this is one of America’s most recognizable landmarks—but also because her grandfather helped build it.
Toy, the former director at the Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation, has been vocal in preserving Chinese American history for decades. But this time, a piece of history is her family’s own.
An upcoming episode of the PBS series Iconic America, set to premiere on Aug. 1, examines the Art Deco suspension bridge’s cultural significance, highlighting a few unsung heroes, including Toy’s grandfather, Wallace Fong.
“Whose stories do we tell?” Toy said in a phone interview with The Standard. “Whose stories do we hide and erase?”
Designing the Bridge’s Lighting
Fong, born in San Francisco 1903, spent his early childhood in a segregated camp in the Presidio after the 1906 earthquake destroyed most of San Francisco, including Chinatown. Despite living during a time of harsh discrimination—the Chinese Exclusion Act was the law of the land— Fong became one of the few Asian American engineering students to graduate from UC Berkeley in 1923.
Toy said Fong had to demonstrate extra qualifications to gain employment, finally securing a job at the Pacific Gas & Electric Company.
“[The Chinese Exclusion Act] cast a very long shadow till now,” Toy told The Standard. “We have to work to prove our right to be here, that we're better and we deserve being here.”
According to Toy, in the mid-1930s, Fong’s expertise in electricity and power made him the engineer who drew the circuitry and designed the original lighting for the Golden Gate Bridge, which opened on May 27, 1937.
Fong went on to work on the Oroville Dam, another major infrastructure project in California and still the tallest dam in America (albeit one that’s since faced structural hurdles during rainy winters). Coincidentally, Toy now works for the California Natural Resources Agency, the parent agency of the Department of Water Resources, which manages that dam today.
Even though employment records for the Golden Gate Bridge have been lost, Fong’s story has become family lore over the generations. As the labor of many Asian Americans and other minority groups has often been overlooked, Toy said it’s important to continue to keep the legacy unforgotten.
“To be a part of creating such iconic and lasting infrastructure for America—I hope he was proud of that,” Toy said of Fong in the documentary. “I am proud he did that.”