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Wongs Unite

Confused shouts in Mandarin, Cantonese and English rose from the crowds of sweating octogenarians on Saturday afternoon as teenaged guides led the seniors back onto school buses.

Minutes earlier the enthused elders had posed for the camera alongside their children and grandchildren as part of the 2011 Wongs’ National Convention. Over 500 people smiled under the arches of the Ontario legislature as they tried to break the record for the world’s largest family photo.

It was—with the exception of some confusion at the end—one of the highlights of the 2011 convention. The weekend-long event, held every three years in rotating cities, brings together thousands of Wongs from Canada and across the globe to celebrate the heritage of the world’s second most common surname.

“We have Russian Wongs, Jamaican Wongs—you might not be tied by blood, but you’re tied by heritage, ” said Henry Wong, one of the event planners, as performers in red Chinese lion costumes did a good-luck dance nearby.

The Wongs were among the pioneers of Chinese immigration to Canada, first arriving during the gold rush of the mid 1800s, then coming in droves to break their backs laying down the CN railway.

The Wong Association, which started in Vancouver in the early 1900s and quickly spread across the country, helped turn the family’s difficult start around. It became a kind of unofficial credit union, giving immigrants the cash they needed after spending their savings on the Chinese head tax.

Now the organization, which is mostly run by retirees elected as elders, works to preserve that history by concentrating on youth. Events like the family photo, cross-country trips and an annual dragon-boat race bring the oldest and youngest generations together.

But the family members assembled on Saturday didn’t even come close to breaking the world record for the largest family photo, set in 2009 by the Lilly clan of West Virginia. To do that, they would have needed a full 2,000 more Wongs.

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