In 1955, a teenage Sui-Kay Chan stepped off a ship in San Pedro, California, armed with index cards containing common English-language phrases. How do I change trains? Where can I get something to eat? Where is the bathroom? They were her lifeline as she attempted to travel across a country where she didn’t speak the language.
She’d need the cards so that helpful strangers could help her find her way, by train, to Charlotte, where members of Wingate Junior College’s Baptist Student Union would greet her and take her to begin her American collegiate odyssey.
She was a stranger in a strange land. “It was lonely,” she says. “I was 19 years old. I got homesick.”
There was little Chan could do about the longing for home, short of writing letters to family. She was in the United States to stay. The only girl among six siblings, she did not return to her native China for a dozen years. She could only press ahead, learning English and devoting herself to her studies in the hope that she could carve out a career in medicine.
Chan took her first collegiate steps on that path at Wingate, where, as one of only a handful of foreign students, she thrived. Within six years, Chan, by that point Shirin Chan Ku ’57, had graduated from Wingate Junior College and from Wake Forest University, attended graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh and married a budding doctor, having abandoned her pursuit of a master’s degree so her husband could finish his schooling. (“I didn’t get the M.S.,” she jokes. “I got the ‘M.R.S.’ instead.”)
The Kus moved around while he finished his degree and established medical practices, and Chan has now lived in the United States for over 60 years. In retirement, she and her husband have moved to Dallas, Texas, to be closer to their children and grandchildren.
That move was a snap compared with one she undertook in 1955. It took a lot of courage for an admittedly anxious Chan to board that boat for the 28-day journey to America. But by this time she had been through enough momentous departures that she knew she could handle one more.
On the run
When Chan was a child, she and her family often felt cornered in their own country. For most of the first decade of Chan’s life, Chinese forces battled to keep a more advanced Japanese army from taking over the country. The Second Sino-Japanese War officially began in 1937, but it had been simmering since the turn of the century.
When Chan was not quite 2 years old, in July of 1937, Japan invaded Shanghai, where Chan’s father worked. Shanghai was divided into sections by nationality – “Japanese, British, French: Everybody had a piece of Shanghai,” Chan says. The Chan family’s house was in the Japanese concession area. They fled, taking “the last French steamboat” out of the city. The family set out for Hong Kong.
From that point on, it was almost as if the Japanese were hunting down Chan’s family. In 1941, Japan invaded Hong Kong. The seven-member family, which included Chan’s 82-year-old grandmother, divided into three groups and, via smugglers, returned to Mainland China. But they never settled anywhere, always staying one step ahead of the invading forces, which were slowly moving southwest behind them.
The journey could be treacherous in mountainous, rural China. Chan’s grandmother died of dysentery during those peripatetic years, because there was no real medical help available.
“Every minute you don’t know when you have to move again,” Chan says. “This is why I graduated a little bit later than average age. Every city we go to, I go to school. My parents register me. I go a few months, maybe 30 days. Then we will have to move again and start all over.”
By 1945, the war was over. Chan’s family sent her back to Hong Kong, where she enrolled in a private Christian school founded in the late 1800s by the Southern Baptist missionary Lottie Moon. There, she became a Christian and excelled at her studies.
In 1947, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party rose to power in China. Rather than live under the communist regime, Chan’s family followed her to Hong Kong. They arrived with almost nothing. Her father, who had worked for an airline on the mainland, found work where he could. One of her older brothers, who had become an accountant, helped support the family.
The brother also began plotting a way for his sister to continue her studies after her graduation from the Lottie Moon school. They considered a university in Formosa (now Taiwan), but it appeared inevitable that the small island nation would eventually fall under communist rule.
In stepped Wingate.
Finding a new home
Wingate has been a Baptist college for more years than it hasn’t, and a pretty large percentage of students over the years found their way to Wingate to study – in part, at least – because they were Baptists.
That included many students from overseas. For many years, the “foreign students” club was composed almost entirely of Cubans, who were encouraged to attend Wingate by Baptist missionaries.
By the 1950s, Wingate had started casting its net wider. One of those it enticed was Chan, who dreamed of studying in the United States. “At that time, coming to the U.S. was just like going to heaven,” she says.
In Chan’s freshman year, the non-American students consisted of Chan, a handful of Cubans and others from Brazil, Korea and Indonesia. Still, she stood out. The small Chinese woman was something of an oddity to the Wingate natives. “When I walked down the street, just like an American in China many years ago, all the little children came to look at me,” she says, laughing.
Chan grew up as Chan Sui-Kay. Her name became Americanized at Wingate, with the family name “Chan” coming last. And, at her brother’s insistence, Chan started going by “Shirin,” because they figured it was easier to remember.
Chan had an unforgettable two years at Wingate. After getting her feet wet during her freshman year, she became an academic and social force on campus. She was involved in the Baptist Student Union, the Young Women’s Auxiliary, the Volunteer Band, the Chemistry Club and the Math Club (secretary), and she was in Phi Theta Kappa, a fraternity for scholars.
“The school was wonderful,” she says. “They made me feel so much at home.”
According to the 1957 yearbook, Chan was “immediately loved by all who met her,” was “never cross” and was “a strong leader.” It also referred to her as “the little girl from Hong Kong who won the hearts of all Wingate” and said that “few challenge her at that ping pong.”
Chan celebrated her 60-year reunion at Wingate in 2017 by attending the Bulldogs’ football win over Limestone. As a scholar involved in several extracurricular activities, Chan had little time for such frivolities during her student days. “When I studied at Wingate I never got to go to any of the games,” she says. “I was always studying in the library or the laboratory.”
Two years after arriving on campus knowing almost no English, Chan graduated as a decorated Bulldog. She has set up a scholarship to help future Bulldog scholars get as much out of the school as she did. She hopes to bring a student from the Lottie Moon school in Hong Kong to the U.S. to study at Wingate.
“I want to use the scholarship as a mission to be able to influence those who don’t know about Christ,” Chan says. “Through the school, I accepted Christ as my salvation.
“I just wanted to pay something back – to high school and also to Wingate.”