As a teenager, Wong Sa Kee — as Wong Chin Foo was known in his youth — was educated by a Baptist missionary in China, and through her philanthropy came to America at about age 20 to complete his studies. After several months at Washington, D.C.'s Columbian College — now George Washington University — and several more as an itinerant lecturer on things Chinese, he arrived in Lewisburg late in 1869.
The fall term had begun in September, but Wong did not begin his studies until mid-November, when his name was appended to the school's register. Unready for matriculation in the college, he was placed in the classical preparatory department, newly split off from the Academy and located in the west wing of the college building — today's Roberts Hall. Wong lived in room 81, with Professor George Ripley Bliss as his guardian. A classicist and an abolitionist, Bliss had trained as a Baptist missionary, and had helped establish the Underground Railroad in Lewisburg during the Civil War.
Wong was the only foreigner among the 30 first-year students, who ranged in age from 15 to 28. Tuition was $30 per year, with fees for lodging, fuel and expenses amounting to nearly $30 more, exclusive of meals, which he took with his teachers. Like all students, he was compelled to attend public worship on Sunday mornings. Slender and agile at just five feet two inches tall, Wong had not yet consistently adopted Western dress, and he retained the signature hair queue worn by all Chinese males at the time, since cutting it off so would have violated Chinese law and rendered him unable to return home. His tutors at Columbian College recalled him as eccentric and peculiar, but exceptionally bright and quick, "full of enterprise and thrift, energetic and with the genius of a born Yankee." But this was coupled with what they called the "sullen, contrary, mulish disposition characteristic of his race."
The 1869–70 academic year is the only one Wong spent at Lewisburg. In what remained of the first term, he studied arithmetic and read Caesar's Commentaries in Latin. In January, he began algebra and added Cicero. He does not seem to have taken Greek, although it was required of his classmates. The scholarship ledger suggests that he did well in his studies, but he remained in Lewisburg only through the end of April, when he resumed his career as a traveling lecturer, taking for his subject matter Chinese manners, customs and religion. These were topics he knew well, and that Americans — many of whom had never seen an Asian before — found compelling.
Wong never graduated from the University at Lewisburg, still less do so with honors, as he would later assert. By the end of 1870, he had left for China, though he had no apparent plans to take up missionary work there, as his benefactress had hoped. His time there would be short, however. He would soon return to America, where he would spend most of the rest of his life, and where his most important contributions were still ahead of him.
› Read more about The Forgotten Story of the "First Chinese American".
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