Sunday, August 11, 2013

First Chinese American Leaders

Thanks to historian and veteran China hand, Scott D. Seligman, we now know something of Chinese American leaders that lived in America as early as the middle of 19th century and the turn of the 19th to the 20th century.

The first notable leader who fought for the civil rights of Chinese in America was Wong Chin Foo. Wong came to the U.S. in 1867 at the age of 20 under the sponsorship of a well meaning American missionary who thought that after being properly educated, Wong would return to China to preach to the vast masses waiting to be converted.

Wong lasted one year at the university at Lewisburg, Pa, predecessor to today's Bucknell University. He didn't finish his studies but went back to China to marry and sired a son. He came back to the U.S. in 1873 alone leaving his family behind and became a U.S. citizen in 1874. For the next quarter of a century he lived in the U.S. and he was to exercise his rights of American citizenship to the max.

In a role reversal, he self appointed himself as China's first missionary to America to extoll values in Buddhism and Confucianism and to counter anti-Chinese prejudices and racial bias at every opportunity. He wrote and spoke tirelessly and was credited with the first to coin the term, Chinese American. He challenged anti-Chinese demagogue, Denis Kearney, to a public debate and he was judged the winner when they finally did meet in a public confrontation.

He said on behalf of the Chinese living in America, "As residents of the United States, we claim a common manhood with all other nationalities, and believe we should have that manhood recognized according to the principles of common humanity and American freedom." Not bad for someone whose English was a second language without the advantage of proper schooling.

The next set of Chinese American leaders as told by Seligman was a group of four that organized a fundraiser for the benefit of victims of pogrom in Kishinev, then a part of Russian empire. The benefit was a play held in the Chinese Theater in Chinatown in May of 1903. There were three performances in order to satisfy the demand. New York Times reported that this must be the first event of this kind ever in the world.

The leaders, all ethnic Chinese, were Joseph Singleton, Guy Maine, Dek Foon and Jue Chue. All four were prominent in the Chinese community, spoke fluent English and well known to the New York society at large. Two of them saw the advantage of adopting Anglicized names and three had Caucasian wives. They were pillars of society and saw their future staked to the American soil.

They have been battling against the Chinese Exclusion Acts and the bias against the Chinese ability to immigrate the America. They have been reaching out to the American society at large and in holding the fundraiser, they were aligning with the Jewish community and indirectly protesting the injustices being suffered by the Chinese in America.

These stories go to show that contrary to the image of docile, well behaved Chinese in America, we always had activists willing to challenge injustices and intolerable status quo.  These individuals deserved to be honored and remembered.
I had known Scott as a highly regarded China business consultant, the July 2013 issue of Chinese American Forum reintroduced him to me as a historian wherein he wrote about Chinese fundraiser for the Jews of Kishinev.

1 comment:

Art Chen said...


Thanks for an interesting story on Chinese-American pioneers. I have always said that we should support African-Americans as they were the pioneer of the modern civil rights movement that gave C-A a better chance in America.

The big debate today is on affirmative action. What should be C-A's position given the debt we owed to African Americans.