The Forgotten Story of the “First Chinese American”
A Bucknell alumnus led the fight for Chinese enfranchisement in the 19th century.
By Scott D. Seligman
America's civil rights movements have all had their Martin Luther Kings, their César Chávezes and Gloria Steinems. But to whom can Chinese Americans point? Chinese have been in the United States in sizeable numbers since the California Gold Rush. They were shamefully mistreated, denied rights for most of a century and are generally thought to have borne everything the American establishment dished out passively and without much protest. This canard does an injustice to a little-known Bucknell alumnus, however. Nineteenth-century Chinese in America had a leader and a fighter in Wong Chin Foo (1847–98), a compelling and controversial figure whose story is a forgotten chapter in the history of the struggle for equal rights for all.
Wong, who studied in 1869–70 at what was then the University at Lewisburg, never accepted as inevitable the lowly position Chinese were compelled to occupy in American society. He struggled to secure a more central place at the American table. He was the first to employ the term "Chinese American." He published New York's first Chinese-language newspaper. He established America's first association of Chinese voters and was probably the first Chinese ever to testify before Congress. In his three decades in the United States, the outspoken Wong fought tirelessly for the rights he felt his compatriots deserved. Although little remembered today, he was arguably the most famous Chinese in the nation during his lifetime.
He was born Wong Sa Kee to a once-wealthy but impoverished family and spent his teenage years in the care of Sallie Little Holmes, an American Baptist missionary who arrived in his native Shandong Province in 1860. He mastered colloquial American English and was baptized by age 20. Foreseeing a promising future for him as a preacher, his benefactress brought him to America in 1867 to complete his education. And after a stint in Washington, D.C., and some travel, he transferred to Lewisburg, where he studied for nearly a year.
Wong then returned to China for three years, long enough to marry, be thrown out of his church for leading a "dissolute life" and get into trouble for anti-government activities. Fleeing for his life for his role in an unsuccessful putsch against the waning Qing (Manchu) Dynasty, he left his wife and newborn son behind and sailed for America once again in 1873. It would be a quarter of a century before he would see either of them again.
Back on American soil, Wong adopted his adult name and embarked on a career as a lecturer. He traversed the country explaining and defending the Chinese. He had his work cut out for him. When the transcontinental railroad was completed, in 1869, many Chinese in America were put out of work, just as the nation experienced economic depression. Their willingness to work for low wages put them at odds with unemployed Americans. Malicious scapegoating and racial stereotyping by nativist whites resulted in the passage in 1882 of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which halted most Chinese immigration for 10 years and rendered America's more than 100,000 Chinese ineligible for citizenship. Wong himself got in under the wire, becoming an American citizen in 1874.
An engaging and provocative speaker [see "The World According to Wong Chi Foo" at right], Wong tried to refute the notion of Chinese as "godless heathens," doomed to eternal damnation. Persuaded that American missionaries were harming the image of Chinese through their reports of the "depravity" they witnessed in China, Wong turned the tables on them in an imaginative speech. He famously proclaimed himself China's first missionary to America, extolling the values undergirding Buddhism and Confucianism in ways Christian Americans might find familiar. The tongue-in-cheek remarks earned him brickbats from church members and, eventually, he responded by excoriating Christianity itself in his most famous essay, "Why Am I A Heathen?" An unvarnished polemic, it caused a firestorm of protest.
Wong settled in New York and became a journalist, and in 1883 launched the first Chinese-language newspaper east of the Rockies. Its English name — The Chinese American — marked the first recorded use of the term. The paper was short-lived, as Wong had no talent for business and soon ran out of money. But it raised his profile, permitting him other opportunities to counter anti-Chinese prejudice. He famously offered a $500 reward to anyone who could prove the accusation that Chinese ate rats and quipped, "I never knew that rats and dogs were good to eat until I learned it from Americans." He wrote scores of articles demystifying Chinese life that appeared in newspapers across the country. And in an essay on Chinese food, he was the first to introduce "chop suey" to American readers.
Wong took on the most famous of America's China critics, California's Denis Kearney [pictured at right]. A demagogue and a skillful public speaker, the Irish-born Kearney personified the "Chinese Must Go" movement. Cocky and self-assured, Wong dared Kearney to debate him and ridiculed him when he refused, challenging him instead to a duel. Asked his preferred weapon, Wong offered Kearney "his choice of chopsticks, Irish potatoes or Krupp guns." In a public confrontation in 1887, he was judged victorious. "The mandarin got the better of the San Francisco orator in the intellectual contest, and drove Kearney from position to position," one newspaper declared.
After the passage of the Exclusion Act, Wong became active in politics. In 1884, he convened all naturalized Chinese in the New York area to form a political association. It was short-lived, but it was the first assembly of citizens of Chinese origin in American history, and the first indication that Wong had begun to see them in a different light from their compatriots who hoped merely to amass some capital and retire to China. He began to focus on securing citizenship for Chinese willing to "Americanize" — that is, learn English, adopt Western dress, shave off their queues and give up gambling and opium smoking. But his was a two-front battle. He not only had to convince Americans that Chinese were law-abiding people whom they need not fear, but also persuade his countrymen that there was value in acculturation, even as the messages coming from white America were so hate-filled and discouraging. Neither task was easy.
When Congress renewed the Exclusion Act for a second decade in 1892, it added a requirement that Chinese register with the government and be photographed. Infuriated, America's Chinese resolved to see the new law retracted or declared unconstitutional. Wong established a new organization, the Chinese Equal Rights League, to get the law repealed. Under its aegis, he testified before a committee of Congress, but despite his soaring rhetoric, the effort failed.
In the mid-1890s, Wong relocated to Chicago, where he undertook several short-lived initiatives, including publishing two more newspapers and establishing a Confucian temple. When neither of the major political parties agreed to support Chinese enfranchisement, he launched an aborted effort to create a party of his own. At the same time, he befriended Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who years later would launch the revolution that toppled the Qing Dynasty. Despite his American citizenship, Wong remained deeply interested in events in his native land, even hatching a far-fetched notion to create a "revolutionary junta" in Chicago to rule China after the fall of the Manchus.
In late 1896, after 25 years abroad, Wong received his first letter from his son. Deeply moved, he decided to risk Manchu justice and return to China. The transpacific journey exhausted him, however, and he took ill, losing 20 pounds in a few weeks. After an emotional family reunion, he died of heart failure in 1898 at the age of 51. A long, unpredictable journey had come to an end, full circle from where it had begun.
Wong Chin Foo believed deeply in justice, equality and enfranchisement, and challenged Americans to live up to these values that they so freely espoused, but so utterly failed to apply to the Chinese in their midst. More than 70 years before Dr. King dreamed of an America that judged people according to the "content of their character," Wong declared that only "character and fitness should be the requirement of all who are desirous of becoming citizens of the American Republic."
Although it took until 1943, nearly a half-century after his death, for America to repeal the prohibition against naturalization of Chinese, no one deserves more credit than Wong for waging the good fight against it. He set a pattern for what he thought being "Chinese American" should mean that is more or less what it has come to mean for millions. He deserves to be remembered not merely for envisioning and articulating the goal, but also for the creative means he employed, and the boundless energy he expended, in trying to achieve it.
Scott D. Seligman is a writer, a historian, a retired corporate executive and a career "China hand." His latest book, The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo, is being published this May by Hong Kong University Press. His previous books include Three Tough Chinamen, Chinese Business Etiquette: A Guide to Protocol, Manners, and Culture in the People's Republic of China and Dealing with Chinese. He is co-author of The Cultural Revolution Cookbook and Now You're Talking Mandarin Chinese.