May 02, 2013

Wong Chin Foo, courtesy of Special Collections/University Archives, Bertrand Library, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa.

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By Heather Johns

LEWISBURG, Pa. — A black braid hangs thick over his shoulder, trailing down his traditional Chinese garb and past his slippered feet to the floor. The brim of his hat reaches toward the ceiling. His gaze trails just to the right of the camera.

No photographs of Wong Chin Foo — the man who, records indicate, was Bucknell University's first Chinese and second international student — were thought to exist until this one was located last year in the University Archives by Curator of Special Collections/University Archives Isabella O'Neill.

"I just about jumped out of my skin when I saw it," said author Scott D. Seligman.

Seligman had written a book about Wong, a leader of and a fighter for Chinese-American equal rights who had attended Bucknell University — then known as the University at Lewisburg — in 1869-70. || Read more about Wong in Bucknell Magazine

Wong was a compelling and controversial figure. He became an American citizen in 1874, just before the 1882 passage 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.

He was the first to employ the term "Chinese American," which appeared in the newspaper he launched in 1883 —the first Chinese-language newspaper east of the Rockies.

Wong also established America's first association of Chinese voters and was probably the first Chinese ever to testify before Congress. In fact, Wong was arguably the most famous Chinese person in the nation during his lifetime.

And yet the only image of the Bucknell alumnus that Seligman had found for his book, The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo, was a sketch that appeared in Harper's Magazine in 1877.

"I had always had faith that a photo would turn up," said Seligman. In a last-ditch effort before publication, he contacted O'Neill, who had assisted him earlier in his research by unearthing Wong's academic transcript in Bucknell's University Archives. At his request, O'Neill delved back into the University Archives and came up with a surprise.

"The undated photograph of Wong Chin Foo was located in a biographical file labeled 'Wong Sa Kee,' the boyhood name Wong used while a student that appeared in the University Academy ledger," said O'Neill. It was taken by William M. Ginter, a Lewisburg photographer. Written on the back of the photograph is, "Wong Sa Kee. Papa played chess with him."

The portrait O'Neill located was the first photograph modern scholars were able to see of Wong. It, in turn, has served to authenticate at least four other portraits of him in private collections.

Seligman's book — and the photograph in Bucknell's archives — have brought to light Wong's role in Chinese-American history. Lit by a long-ago photographer's flash, he does not smile. But we do.