College Essay: Alice Cheng

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.


“Growing Up At the Firm”


In the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown, an eight-story building sandwiched between a dilapidated for sale property and the always bustling Hop Shing dim sum shop stands in humble presentation: stout, black and stubborn. Silver characters spell out the building’s peculiar name, first in large silver simplified Chinese and then in smaller block-lettered English: Wing Fat Mansion.


Back when I was in grade school, when the old for sale property used to be an active horse betting ring, and I was first introduced to my all-time favorite cheung fong (rice rolls) at the restaurant, my father, who owns a law firm on the Wing Fat Mansion’s sixth floor, disliked leaving me at home. And so, on Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Day, Veteran’s Day, and other school holidays, I spent most of my time at his firm drawing on the back of long settled court cases with my Crayola crayons.


As I got older, my coloring transitioned to the typewriter. Enjoying the tip-tap rhythm of the characters striking the paper, I decided I’d become a novelist. I became the author of many original stories, including one about a girl who wished she could fly, had her wish granted, and then couldn’t come back down to earth.  Equally compelling was the story of the first plastic pumpkin to move into a neighborhood, who was initially bullied by his organic counterparts only to triumphantly outlive them in the end. These tales were all neatly and safely stored in a manila folder with my name carefully written in ballpoint pen in my father’s flowery cursive.


After my father taught me how to use Microsoft docs, my manila folders were eventually replaced by my USB drive. My stories underwent changes as well. No longer were they about supernatural powers or personified objects, but about issues more grounded in reality. While sitting down at the conference table across from my father during dinner, I heard numerous tales about his client’s court cases. One monk came to my father to settle a conflict with his Shaolin temple, which had been damaged by an arsonist. Another client committed suicide midway through a restaurant sale because the client’s girlfriend left him.


These cases sparked my interest in everyday people and their connections to society. I started writing realistic fiction. I began keeping a journal. By the time I joined my high school newspaper’s Features department, I’d completely shed any desire to write fiction, in exchange for an insatiable hunger to tell true stories.


And then suddenly, I was exposed to a bigger world, as if I’d discovered an extra dimension. My school was brimming with backstories, subcultures, and deeper issues begging to be explored: the teacher I passed in the hallway between third and fourth period used to model for Hollister. Disney’s Epcot was the summer employer of the cafeteria lady who served me my lunch each day. A lack of diversity in our school’s Asian dominant demographic perpetuated long neglected racial divides. Everywhere I looked there was a story to be told.


Throughout my years as a reporter, my father’s firm continued to support me. The Wing Fat Mansion, a mere twenty-minute walk away from my high school, became control central, where I conducted interviews on my father’s telephone line, transcribed hour-long recordings on the computer, and typed fervently on the keyboard to meet deadlines. When I became editor, my father’s firm was also where I revised reporters’ drafts through Microsoft Office’s red-fonted track changes and exchanged emails with my co-editors on the upcoming issue.


My father’s firm is many things: a second home, an encouraging work environment, a study sanctuary. Most prominently of all however, my father’s firm is the place where my passion for writing was born.