Yung-Chow Wong, My early life 1913-1948

Yung-Chow Wong wrote the autobiographical article My early life 1913-1948 which appeared in the book produced to celebrate his 80th birthday, namely Kai-Yuen Chan and Ming-Chit Liu (eds.), Five Decades as a Mathematician and Educator: On the 80th Birthday of Professor Yung-Chow Wong (World Scientific, 1995). The article is on pages 1 to 17. We give a version of this autobiography below:


My early life 1913-1948

I was born on June 2nd, 1913 in Canton, China. My (late) father Wong Shi Yu alias Chiu Jung was at that time Professor of Chinese literature and history at Kwangtung Advanced Normal College. When I was seven years old, I entered the primary school attached to the College, which was located in the campus of the College. My father died at 57 when I was in the third year of school. It was only from the books and papers he left behind that I knew later what a great scholar and versatile man he was.

I continued my studies and progressed smoothly to the sixth grade, and graduated from primary school in 1925. During those years, there was one thing that I will always remember.

It was that two days after a test in arithmetic, the teacher called me to his office and asked me how I thought of the way in solving one of the problems because it was not the usual one. Naturally, I was greatly flattered by this and considered myself fortunate to have such a good teacher.

After completing primary school, I continued my studies in middle school. Nothing interesting happened until I reached the third year. It was widely known in the school at that time that the geometry teacher, Mr Au Wei Tieu, alias Au Li Cheung was very good and strict and the students in his class behaved unusually well and dared not make the slightest noise. Sure enough, when I reached the third year and attended his class in plane geometry, I found this to be true. Moreover, he could draw on the blackboard, freehand, beautiful geometric figures, such as parallelograms, inscribed and circumscribed circles of a triangle, etc. I was very impressed by this. Then, in the first test, I got the highest marks in the class. Thus encouraged, I became very interested in plane geometry. At the end of the term, I asked Mr Au to recommend some advanced books on geometry for me to study.

After finishing Junior High, I skipped one year by passing the entrance examination to the 2-year preliminary course for the university degree course. By then, I had made up my mind to specialize in mathematics when I entered the university. So, I studied on my own, the mathematics that was being taught in the 2-year preliminary course. As a result, when I was in the first year of the preliminary course, I did not have to study at all. But since I must attend all the classes, I often sneaked out of the classroom when the teacher was not looking, and went to play table tennis in a recreation room nearby. Although the teacher must have noticed it, he never scolded me for it because I always handed in my homework on time and got very high marks in all the tests.

In 1931, I entered Sun Vat-Sen University to study mathematics in the Department of Mathematics and Astronomy. In my class there were only four students, and only I and one other student took mathematics as our major subject. On the other hand, there were four mathematics professors: He Van Xuan, Liu Jun Xian, Yuan Wu Lie, and Hu Jin Chang. They were all very good teachers. Of these, the first three got their higher degrees in France, and the last got his Ph.D. degree from the University of California, U.S.A. He specialized in projective differential geometry. Besides taking all the compulsory courses, I also took the optional courses line geometry and non-Euclidean geometry taught by Professor Hu.

In the summer of 1934, the Department of Mathematics at Sun Yat-sen University organized a refresher course for high school mathematics teachers in Canton. In one class taught by Professor Liu, a student asked a question in plane geometry, but Professor Liu did not know the answer. Since he knew that I was very good in this subject, he asked me about it and I solved the problem for him. Later, he said to me: "When my class meets next time, you come along with me and explain your solution to the students yourself." So I did as he asked. When I went to the classroom that day, the students were very surprised because I was so young. Later Professor Liu gave me 18 silver dollars I saying that was what he would get for teaching one hour. Some of the mathematics books written in English had Chinese translations. When I was in first year of the university, I learned by myself how to read mathematics books written in English by choosing a couple of books which had been translated into Chinese and studied them side by side with their Chinese translations. Also, because some of the reference books were in French and German, I took some courses in French and German in my 2nd, 3rd and 4th years. As a result, I was able to read mathematics books in French and German also.

To me, doing mathematics was an enjoyment, not hard work, because of the excitement and pleasure I felt when I succeeded in solving a difficult problem. Because of this, I worked quite hard without feeling it, and got very high marks in all the tests. The result was that I did not have to pay tuition fees. Moreover, when I graduated in 1935, I was awarded a prize for academic excellence and another prize for my thesis. My thesis entitled "Vector Line Co-ordinates and Conjugate Line Congruences" was later published in Sun Yet-Sea University's Journal of Natural Science. Immediately after graduation in June 1935, I became a teaching assistant In the Mathematics Department. My duties were to correct the exercises of the students for a course on differential equations taught by Professor Yuan Wu Lie and to teach a course on analytic geometry in the 3rd year of senior high. In addition, on the recommendation of Professor Yuan, I also taught in the Kwangtung Province Land Surveying School for the two years from September 1935 to June 1937. The students in this school were recruited from various cities in Kwangtung Province and their qualities were usually quite high. The courses I taught there were Spherical Trigonometry and Method of Least Squares. I myself had not studied these two subjects before, and Professor Yuan was well aware of that. This showed the faith and trust he had in me. But I did not disappoint him. For, after two months, the students began to call me "little doctor", because they felt that I was so young and knew so much.

In June 1938 I went to Hong Kong to take part in a 3-day examination to select the winners of the Sino-British Boxer Indemnity Scholarship for post-graduate study in Great Britain. In that year, the competition for these scholarships was held simultaneously in five cities in China. The venue in Canton where I lived was later changed to the University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong because Canton was bombed almost everyday by Japanese war planes. The 54 candidates who came to Hong Kong were accommodated in the three student hostels: Lugard, Eliot and May in the university. The examination was held in the old (and now demolished) Eu Tong Sen Gymnasium, where the Main Library building now stands. The candidates had to sit for six 3-hour papers on three consecutive days. The papers for mathematics were Algebra, Geometry, Analysis and Theoretical Mechanics, besides English and Chinese. Supervising the examination was the (late) well-known Chinese scholar and diplomat, Mr Vip Kung Cheuk who was also a member of the Board of Trustees of the Boxer Indemnity Fund.

This was the first time I had set foot on the campus of Hong Kong University, and I did not then suspect that I would come back ten years later to become its first post-war Professor of Mathematics.

I went back to Canton immediately after the examination was over. Then on September 5, 1938, the results of the examination were published in several major newspapers in China, and I was overjoyed to know that I had won the only scholarship for mathematics. At the same time, I received a telegram from Chungking (the provisional capital of war-time China) with the instruction that I should come to Hong Kong as soon as possible to prepare for the journey to Great Britain.

Thus the twenty-one scholarship winners in various subjects all assembled in Hong Kong. During our stay we were busy making suits of western clothes (one for summer and one for winter) and a heavy overcoat, none of which I had ever worn before. Also, we were asked to attend some meetings in which the speakers told us what we should do and what we should not do in Great Britain. Then, we were invited to tea with the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Duncan J Sloss, of the University of Hong Kong, and to dinner by the Student Union. I still remember the dense white smoke emitting from the flash when photographs were taken after dinner.

In the meantime, travel and other documents were sent to us from Chungking. Finally, on September 17, 1938 we boarded a P & O liner CHITRAL and began our journey to Great Britain. On the way, the ship stopped at several places, including Rangoon, Singapore, Ceylon, Bombay, and went through the Mediterranean Sea to Marseilles, France. From there we took a train to Paris, then the boat-train to Dover, England, and finally a train from Dover to London.

When we arrived in London, it was about the middle of October. For the first time in my life, I saw snow falling from the sky. A week or so later, I learned from the radio that Canton had fallen into Japanese hands. After that I lost touch with my family for almost two years.

In London, the Boxer Indemnity scholars were looked after by the Universities China Committee in London, located at the China Institute in Gower St., London, W.C.I. As it was suggested by the Board of Trustees that I study mathematics at Cambridge University, I went to Cambridge to see Professor (Sir) William V D Hodge and discussed the possibility of my doing a Ph.D. degree under him. After learning that I very much wanted to specialise in Tensor Analysis and Differential Geometry, he advised me to go back to London and talk with Dr E T Davies at King's College, University of London. (Dr Davies was at that time a lecturer at King's College, who had studied Ricci calculus with Levi-Civita in Italy).

When I saw Dr Davies, I showed him my Sun Vat-Sen University transcript and told him what I wanted. Almost immediately, he took me on as a research student and asked me to study some papers by H A Hayden on generalized helices, the book "Riemannian Geometry" by L P Eisenhart and the 2-volume "Einfiihrung in die neuren Methoden der differential Geometrie" by J A Schouten and D J Struik, of which the first volume was published in 1935 and the second volume in 1938, shortly before I arrived in London. Besides studying these papers and books, I also attended some advanced courses in algebra, analysis and relativity at King's College.

At that time, the second World War was imminent and, on September 3, 1939, France and Great Britain declared war on (Nazi) Germany. Soon afterwards, the German war planes began to fly across the English Channel and bombed London and Coventry. As it was expected that the war would not end in a short time, the authorities of London University decided to move King's College (of London University) to the campus of the University of Bristol (in Bristol) in the western part of England. I went to Bristol with King's College, but Dr Davies returned to his native town in Wales, not too far from Bristol. However, he came to the University of Bristol about once a month to see how I was get ting along. By that time, working by myself, I soon obtained some interesting results on generalized helices.

Davies was very helpful. He taught me how to write up a paper and how to submit it to different journals for consideration of publication. As I also had to write a thesis for my Ph.D. degree, and it would be expensive and difficult to find someone to type it for me, I bought a small portable typewriter and learned to type by myself. During the year 1940, four of my papers were accepted for publication by the Journal of the London Mathematics Society, the Quarterly Journal of Mathematics (Oxford series) and the Proceedings of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society.

My thesis for the Ph.D. degree was entitled: Generalized helices in Riemannian space which I submitted together with the other papers I had written. The University authorities exempted me from the oral examination because at that time, it was not easy for the two external examiners [Professor] A G Walker in Liverpool and Professor H S Ruse in Leeds) to travel to Bristol, and, besides, they were already familiar with my work. Not long afterwards, I was informed that I had completed all the requirements for the Ph.D. degree, so t hat I could leave Great Britain at any time. According to the regulations, a candidate for the Ph.D. degree must be able to read mathematics books and papers written in German and French. Fortunately, I was already able to do this before going to England. This was in June 1940. Thus, it took me only one year and nine months to get my Ph.D. degree from London University.

As my Boxer Indemnity Scholarship was a 3-year one, and I had completed my work for the Ph.D. degree in less than two years, I obtained special permission to spend the third year in the United Slates. I left England from Liverpool in September 1940 on a commercial liner for the U.S. It turned out that this was the last commercial liner to cross the Atlantic Ocean until the war ended. At that time, the German submarines, i.e. the U-boats as they were usually called, were infesting the Atlantic Ocean and the liner I was on had to be escorted by a convoy of destroyers. During the entire journey, the passengers had to wear life jackets 24 hours a day. There were a couple of false alarms that U-boats were around, and the ship had to zig-zag in order to avoid them. Finally, in about four weeks, we arrived safely in New York.

A few days later, I went to Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey, to see Professor L P Eisenhart whose book Riemannian Geometry I had studied. I stayed at Princeton as a Visiting Fellow for half a year, during which time I did my research and attended their weekly seminars regularly.

At that time, I knew that Professor D J Struik was In MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), so I wrote to him saying I would like to come to MIT to do research. He wrote back to say that he would be pleased to have me there as a guest of the Institute. Later, when I saw him, he told me that he had just reviewed some of my papers for the Mathematical Reviews.

Then he said, "I must now take you to see Professor Norbert Wiener, otherwise he would never forgive me." So he took me to Professor Wiener's office. As soon as Wiener saw me, he said in Mandarin: "Welcome. My Chinese is not very good because I did not know you were coming and I haven't practiced my Chinese lately." It turned out that not too long ago, he had spent half a year in Beijing at the invitation of his former students at Yenching University, and while there, he learned to speak some Chinese and he was very proud of it.

I spent 21/2 years at MIT (1941-43) working very profitably with Professor Struik who gave me a great deal of help and advice. By September 1941, my 3-year Boxer Indemnity Fund Scholarship came to an end, and I was supposed to return to China. However, I could not do so because war had broken out in the Pacific, and China was being over-run by the Japanese army. To make matters worse, I soon found out that I could not get any paid job as I only had a student visa and no work permit. (On Sunday, December 7, 1941, when I was at MIT, Japanese war planes flew all the way across the Pacific Ocean and bombed the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The next day, U.S. President Franklin D Roosevelt described December 7 as "a date which will live in infamy," and the U.S. Congress declared war on Japan. On December 11, Germany and Italy, Japan's allies, declared war on the U.S. and the U.S. Congress reciprocated.)

On the advice of Professor Struik, I looked around for some kind of postdoctoral fellowship. I found that only two universities offered such a fellowship: one was Ohio State University and the other was the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, Pa. I applied for both and was not successful with the one offered by Ohio State University. They informed me politely that I was one of the two candidates they shortlisted and had a hard time in making the final choice. Fortunately, I received a favourable reply from the University of Pennsylvania which offered me a Harrison Fellowship for research. Although the University of Pennsylvania had a rather small faculty in mathematics, they included several very good men, including John R Kline, Hans Rademacher, and A Zygmund.

In 1943, when I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania, I discovered that Paul Erdős, a famous Hungarian mathematician, was also a Harrison Research Fellow. He was in his second year as a Fellow, and I in my first year. We saw each other often and sometimes had lunch together in an Italian restaurant near the university. Quite often, in the middle of a meal, Erdős would get up without saying a word, and walk back and forth along the aisle, rubbing his hands and sometimes skipping a few steps. The waitress and other customers who saw him wondered what he was doing, but were too polite to ask why. In fact, he was thinking about his many interesting mathematical problems.

In the department of mathematics at Penn, there was a pro-seminar conducted by H Rademacher, which most graduate students and some staff members attended. In these pro-seminars, participants were assigned some original papers to study and then report to the class, which Rademacher and other participants would observe and make comments. I found these pro-seminars very useful in teaching the graduate students to read original papers and write their own papers. (A slightly lower-level pro-seminar was introduced by me in the department of mathematics in HKU when I went there.)

It was during my time at the University of Pennsylvania that I first met Professor S S Chern when he gave a lecture on "Generalized Gauss-Bonnet formula", although we had known each other by name earlier. Later on, we became very good friends, and he gave me a great deal of help, mathematically and otherwise. In fact, it was mainly through him that I was able to spend some of my long leaves from Hong Kong University in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (1958), University of Chicago (1959), and University of California at Los Angeles and Berkeley (1966-67).

I held the Harrison Fellowship for two years, 1943-45. Then Professor John R Kline, head of the Department of Mathematics, asked me to teach some elementary courses. But before I started, he said to me: "Professor Perry A Caris is a very good teacher, and I suggest that you go to his class and observe." Thanks to him, I learned that one of the best ways to learn how to teach is to observe the great masters at work.

On August 6, 1945, U.S. planes dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Three days later, a second atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, Japan. Over 150,000 people were killed or fatally injured. On August 14, the Japanese government agreed to unconditional surrender. Thus, after nearly four years of bitter fighting and wide-spread devastation, the war in the Pacific finally ended.

In September 1945, the University of Pennsylvania suddenly had many more students than usual, because World War II had just ended and many returned American soldiers, according to the "G.I. Bill of Rights," were entitled to free university education. Since the courses were taken by a large number of students, each course had to be divided into several sections of about forty students each, and I took up two of the sections. Apparently, the students liked my teaching because many of them wanted to be in my sections.

On November 30, 1945, I married Shong-Lin Bow, an American-born Chinese, who was a graduate of Berea College, and was at that time working as an occupational therapist at the Institute of the Pennsylvania Hospital in Philadelphia. It was my good fortune that she became my wife, for she has been a great help to me throughout the years.

In 1947, after teaching for two years, I wanted very much to return to China because I first left China in 1938 and had not seen my mother or other members of my family for nine years. When it became known that I was planning to return to China, I received offers of professorship from Nankai University in Tientsin, Tsinghua University in Peking and Yun Nan University in Kunming, as well as my alma mater, Sun Yat-Sen University in Canton. After careful consideration, I decided to accept the offer from Sun Yat-Sen University because some of my former teachers were still there and because I would be with members of my family.

As I knew that the library in Sun Yar-Sea University did not have many books or journals in mathematics, I ordered microfilm copies of over 100 articles in mathematics from Princeton University and a "microfilm reader" from the American Mathematical Society, to be sent to me in Canton.

After nearly two months preparation, we were ready in September 1947 to start our long journey back to China. The only ship we could take at that time was a converted troop ship called the S.S. Marine Lynx. We first boarded the ship in New York City and sailed from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean through the Panama Canal and touched Los Angeles on the U.S. west coast before crossing the Pacific Ocean to Shanghai, China. We stopped in Shanghai for one day, and while there Professor S S Chern invited us to lunch. It was the first time we had Sichuan food and it tasted much better than what we had on the ship. The whole journey took over a month. Many of us got quite sea-sick on the way. Shortly after arriving in Canton, I received the good news that I had been awarded the degree of D.Sc. (i.e. Doctor of Science) by London University. We stayed in Canton for almost a year. Finding the conditions there very difficult and not seeing much for the future, we were considering returning to the U.S. Then in June, 1948, we saw in the Hong Kong newspaper, the South China Morning Post, that the University of Hong Kong was advertising for a professor of mathematics - the first one after the war.

I applied. After a wait of about two months and an interview in Hong Kong by Dr Duncan J Sloss, Vice-Chancellor of Hong Kong University from 1937 to 1949, whom I had met briefly in 1938 before I left for England, I was appointed to the chair of mathematics.

I was glad to come to the University of Hong Kong because over 90% of its students were Chinese, and I would then be able to do something good not only for Hong Kong but also for China. On looking back, I think I am very fortunate that I have, by and large, succeeded in doing what I would like to do most.


JOC/EFR February 2018

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