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Reggie Wong, ‘everyone’s uncle’ in Chinatown, 68

Reggie Wong had a sharp memory for faces and life details. Reggie Wong had a sharp memory for faces and life details. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/File 2004)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / April 7, 2011

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Reggie Wong and his teenage friends in Chinatown wanted to shoot hoops in the late 1950s, but older guys in the neighborhood kept commandeering the court for a different sport.

“A lot of the ABCs — the American-born Chinese — we used to hang around the Y all the time and play basketball,’’ he told Adam Smith in 2006 for an interview posted on the www.imdiversity.com website. “They were men and we were teenage kids, and they used to tell us, ‘Hey, get off the court, we’re playing volleyball.’ ’’

The boys left, but warmed to the new sport, wearing coats and gloves to practice volleyball outside in the winter. Then in 1961, Mr. Wong helped found the Boston Knights Chinese Athletic Club, launching a tradition that would bring the youth of Chinatown to Chinese communities across the continent, and draw other teams here.

Last fall, when Boston hosted the annual volleyball tournament for urban Chinese teams, 93 male and female teams from across North America participated.

Mr. Wong, a consultant to Chinatown businesses and proprietor for many years of a Leather District pub, died Sunday in Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston of complications from a heart attack he suffered about two weeks ago. He was 68 and lived in Newton.

A board member and past president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England, Mr. Wong was renowned for a memory that recalled faces and life details of hundreds of people in Boston and Chinatowns across the country. He was a key organizer and promoter of the volleyball and basketball tournaments the community hosted every few years.

“This guy was a supreme multitasker,’’ said Dr. Robert Guen of Boston, a dentist and longtime friend. “He ran these tournaments with pencil, pen, paper, and memory; he never used a computer. After last year’s tournament, someone presented him with an iPad, and he said, ‘What am I going to with this?’ ’’

In conversations with those he met, Mr. Wong gleaned details that made each new friend take up permanent residence in his memory. In subsequent encounters, he could summon those anecdotes, even if he hadn’t seen the person for years. Walking through Chinatown with him, friends and relatives said, was like strolling the streets with the mayor.

“Everyone was a friend, and people gravitated to him,’’ said his nephew Russell Eng of Medfield. “Although he was my uncle, he was everyone’s uncle.’’

“When I think about him, he always had a smile on his face,’’ said his daughter, Alison of New York City. “He was just someone who enjoyed life.’’

Onyen Yong, a longtime friend from Boston, said Mr. Wong was “very good at listening to what you had to say, finding commonality in your experiences and his experiences, and figuring out who you knew that he knew. He had a fabulous memory for connecting those dots and saying, ‘You are my friend now, and the next time I meet you, I’ll remember you from that connection.’ ’’

The second of four children, Reginald Wong Jr. was born in a tenement apartment on Hudson Street to parents who had emigrated from what is now Guangdong Province in China. His mother was a seamstress in the garment industry. His father, who died when Mr. Wong was in his early teens, worked in restaurants and was an early pioneer, opening a Chinese restaurant in the suburbs when he started a business in North Reading.

Mr. Wong could speak Toisanese, the dialect his parents spoke, and he eventually picked up some Cantonese when that became the dialect of choice for many in Chinatown. He graduated from Boston Technical High School in 1959 and received a bachelor’s in engineering from Northeastern University in 1966.

He worked as an engineer initially, but “I don’t think he liked it that much,’’ said his older sister, Caroline Chang of Las Vegas. “He liked being an entrepreneur and working for himself.’’

Starting out at the Morris Gordon company, Mr. Wong worked for many years in the restaurant equipment and supply business, soon opening his own company.

In addition to running Weggie’s Pub for many years, he became an all-around consultant to those who wanted to start businesses in Chinatown, helping them find contractors, secure permits, and purchase equipment.

Along with his many other activities, he was on the board of Boston Asian: Youth Essential Service and held leadership positions locally and nationally with the Boston Chinese Freemasons.

In 1967, Mr. Wong married Deanna Lee Wing, and “when he was courting her, she lived in Chelsea, and we lived in Chinatown,’’ his sister said. “He would keep borrowing my car and returning it with no gas in it. I know he got to know the toll takers at the Mystic River bridge. Sometimes he would get there with no change and they would let him through because they knew him so well.’’

With charm and a sharp memory for details that seal a friendship, Mr. Wong “commanded respect and could just get people together,’’ Guen said. “If Chinatown was a country, I think his title would be minister without portfolio. He could get anything done. People would naturally open up their wallets for the tournaments, and open up their businesses so there would be things going on that were positive.’’

In addition to his wife, daughter, and sister, Mr. Wong leaves a son, Christopher of New York City; another sister, Christine Eng of New York City; and a brother, Ronald of Randolph.

A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. today in Wing Fook Funeral Home in Boston, followed by burial in Newton Cemetery.

“What we remember and admire most about Reggie was his immense compassion and love for young people,’’ Jane Leung, executive director of Boston Asian: Youth Essential Service, said in a statement. “No matter how busy he was, Reggie always had time to help, mentor, listen to, and praise a young one. Teens and young adults, including those who grew up and were officially now adults, were deeply touched by Reggie’s kindness, generosity, understanding, and genuine friendship.’’

His was a friendship that traveled well, too. Guen said that when volleyball and basketball players from Chinatown visited Chinese neighborhoods in other cities, nearly anyone they met soon inquired after Mr. Wong, who was just as warm to people he met elsewhere as he was to friends in Boston.

“He just wanted to know you because he wanted to know you,’’ Guen said.

“There was never an alternative motive.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.