About Me


Boston Chinese Welcome Reformer in 1903

History acknowledges the importance of Sun Yat Sen in leading the Chinese revolution in 1911 that overthrew the Emperor Dowager, Cixi. Little attention is given to her other opposition, the Empire Reform Association which also wanted to promote societal changes to develop a modern China, but it also wanted to restore the monarchy to the rightful Emperor Guangsu, rather than abolish it.

Many Chinese in Canada and the U. S. were supporters of this rival to Sun Yat Sen's movement. Several hundred chapters of the Empire Reform Association (Bao haunghui, Protect the Emperor Society) were established in North America.

One indication of the strong support from Overseas Chinese was an enthusiastic reception that one of its principal leaders, Leong Kai Chew (aka Liang Qichao) received on his 1903 visit to Boston.

This is another instance where historians recognize the winners and relegate the losers to the 'dustbin of history.'


Chinese Americans Do Not All Look, Think, or Act Alike

         What exactly defines a "Chinese American?"  The term is generally used, and accepted, as if people labelled as such are very homogenous. Compared to the distant past, say, the 1930s, the variety of people who could be categorized as, or call themselves, "Chinese Americans" has become increasingly more varied as the "face" of Chinese in America has changed greatly since the liberalized 1965 immigration law.

        Accordingly, one might think the content of Chinese American history would be more varied to reflect the many subgroups of Chinese coming from different parts of China and other parts of the world. Compared with the earlier immigrants from Guangdong, mostly poor, less educated, and speakers of dialects of Cantonese, many of the recent immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China are wealthy, educated, Mandarin speaking professionals.  There are also growing numbers of Fujianese immigrants at the other end of the socioeconomic ladder. These groups are arguably all Chinese. To what extent do these groups interact with each other socially, politically, culturally? How well do they get along with each other, how much are they aware of each other? Why or why not? My observations suggest they do not mingle much and may even not feel much respect toward each other.

           Most non-Chinese are unaware of these differences and generally see all of these groups as Chinese or Chinese Americans.  There are many social, political, and psychological aspects of these differences that should be researched, but don't yet seem to be adequately reflected in the historical analyses of Chinese America.  We may all "look the same" to outsiders, but looks can be deceiving.

        A different, but related issue of importance, is the relationship between Chinese in China and  Chinese in America, especially those born or long time residents in the U. S.  Although the Chinese in America and those in China are worlds apart in many respects, many non-Chinese tend to see us as members of one large group, Chinese.  And, while most American Born Chinese (ABCs) and even some Fresh Off the Plane (FOPs) and older Fresh Off the Boat (FOBs) experience some pride in many aspects of China's improved world status, we recognize that many policies and practices of Chinese in China are deplorable and dangerous.  And, what is worse, is that as U. S.- China relationships go, so will the way that we Chinese in America will be treated, or mistreated. If you doubt, just recall what happened to Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor. History is known to repeat itself.

       The important impact of history can also be seen in our daily personal lives.  Many of us of a certain age have or had parents who were immigrants from China who came during the Great Depression and lived during World War II, and the Cold War, etc.   A"generation gap" existed between them and us that involved differences of values, facility with English and Chinese language, etc.  Now we have grown up, and most have become parents, (and for many, grandparents), we can see that there is still a "generation gap" between us and our adult, or adolescent, offspring but it is qualitatively different from the one that existed between us and our parents. Why? Because the historical era during which each generation grows up is typically quite different.  My parents grew up in difficult times in China while I grew up during the prosperous post WW II boom times.  My children, in turn, grew up in the 70s and 80s, which were markedly different from the 50s.

         This is a long-winded way of raising this question:  How was the relationship that you had with your parents different from the one you have (had) with your children? Implicit in this comparison is the impact of history.  That is, what was going on in the world when you were growing up is quite different from the world in which your children grew up.  History tries to explain the past, but not always accurately, since it is continually rewritten, but my real question is whether we can use history to predict the characteristics of Chinese in America in the future.


Foo Lee, A Chinese laundryman "Lance Armstrong"?

Most Chinese laundrymen probably did not have the time, skills, or inclination to compete in bicycle races but in 1897 Foo Lee of Niles, Michigan, not only competed against "Americans" in a race but he beat them handily.  The New York Times article concluded: "Sporting men are trying to induce Foo Lee to give up the laundry business and devote himself to racing."

News of Foo Lee's feat was spread across the country in newspapers in large as well as small towns across the United States.  Many of the headers referred to him as "Chinaman" and some had a condescending tone such as "No More Washee."
There was no further news about Foo Lee and subsequent cycling triumphs so it might be assumed that he resumed his occupation as a laundryman in Niles, Michigan after his brief moment of "Linsanity."


Chinese Exclusion Continued Within U. S. Borders

Chinese Exclusion is usually viewed as the prevention of Chinese laborers from entering the United States based on the laws passed by Congress in 1882 for a decade, renewed for another decade in 1892, and made permanent in 1902 until its repeal in 1943.

However, Chinese who succeeded in gaining entry still faced other forms of exclusion for many years.  A sample of Oakland, California newspaper ads at the end of the 19th century did not hide policies of Chinese exclusion. Some white hotels and rooming houses excluded Chinese employees and lodgers, some white laundries would not hire Chinese, and a shirt manufacturer would not employ Chinese sewers or launderers.


1860s Doubts About Chinese Coming to Deep South Despite Positive Views

A contradictory situation existed in Southern thinking in the mid 19th century with respect to the merits of bringing Chinese immigrants to the region.  On one hand, many aspects of the Chinese work ethic, earned respect if not admiration, as expressed below in a Nashville newspaper article written on the eve of attempts to recruit Chinese labor to come to Memphis en route to other parts of the Deep South.

Despite the high praise bestowed by the writer on the Chinese, he cautioned that "it remained to be seen how John Chinaman will be received in the South." His doubts and xenophobia led him to
wonder, "how the Oriental will stand the stern Anglo Saxon test of labor, capacity and availability." 

Now, 150 years or so later, his fears have proved unwarranted as the Chinese have made major contributions to the South.


Colman’s Mustard and Chinese white cut chicken   白斬雞

The Colman brand of mustard is an iconic product with a long and celebrated  history in England. 

It is also a popular condiment among Chinese and as common as soy sauce in Chinese restaurants, which made me wonder how Chinese immigrants in America discovered or came to use mustard as a condiment, and whether they preferred the Colman brand.
Did they only discover it after coming to America or was it possible that they knew about it in China when the British came to control Hong Kong following the opium wars in the middle of the 19th century. Perhaps the British introduced mustard, or at least the Colman brand, to the Chinese.  Or did the Chinese already use mustard in their cuisine before the British came but adopted the Colman brand introduced to them by the British?

Some food for thought.

On A Personal Note

Sundays were a special day for our Chinese immigrant family for it was our one day of rest from operating our laundry during the rest of the week. It was the only time we could enjoy having a meal with the whole family, my parents and three siblings. 

Mom would often buy a live chicken a day or two before Sunday and keep it in a small crate with wood slats.  I would “play with it” before Sunday morning when mom would grab it by the feet with one hand while holding a cleaver in the other.  Held upside down, the fowl would flap its wings desperately before mom deftly used the cleaver to ‘slit its throat’ and quickly drop it into a galvanized tin pail.  I can still ‘hear’ the sound of its toenails scratching against the pail as its life ended. After draining all the blood, mom would pluck its feathers before cooking it in a pot of boiling water for a few minutes.  I was only about 4 years old, but mom didn’t hide this process from me, or make any fuss over it so I was not particularly bothered watching how our Sunday dinner came to be.

It just seemed natural.  Mom was just doing what she did or saw done back in her Hoiping village in China. But thinking back about it, I am surprised that I was not at all bothered by it.

The fresh chicken was then poached, usually in a broth with cellophane-like chewy but delicious seaweed.  We kids would often fight over getting the “innards” (eggs, liver, heart, gizzards), which today you don’t get in the chickens from the supermarket. Mom gave us the best parts, slices of the white meat, while she and father would chew on the parts with bones.

We loved to dip our pieces of chicken in a dish of soy sauce first and then in a dish of mustard made by mixing Colman’s mustard powder with water.  This mustard was so spicy that if you used too much you would feel the top of your brain tingle or even feel numb for a moment or two. It was a scary, but also exciting, sensation.


One day I happened to read the label on the tin Colman container, or somewhere, how Colman mustard powder could be used as a foot bath for people with colds.  I was horrified to learn that something we loved to put on our chicken was the same stuff that other people applied to their feet!  I never heard of Chinese using it that way so I inferred that only non-Chinese were so barbaric.



Donaldina Cameron, Rescuer of Chinese Sex Slaves

Most accounts of victimization of Chinese involve white perpetrators.  However, it must be recognized that sometimes it was other Chinese who ruthlessly exploited the plight of early Chinese immigrants to their own advantage. For example, the shortage of Chinese women immigrants which was exacerbated by the Chinese Exclusion Acts that started in 1882 provided an opportunity for profit from Chinese women forced into prostitution.

In San Francisco, Donaldina Cameron of the Presbyterian Chinese Mission became a legendary crusader who devoted her life to locating and rescuing, at great risk to her own safety, countless Chinese women who had been trapped into becoming sex slaves.

A description of her role was published in 1922 in a Portland, Oregon, newspaper when she made a visit there. The sensational headline highlights how Chinese used 'dark and tricky' ways to enslave young Chinese girls.

The journalist begins his account with a quote from Bret Harte that reinforces this depiction of the "heathen Chinee"

The article summarizes two cases of young Chinese women that Donaldina Cameron snatched from the clutches of their slave masters.

The mission house in the heart of San Francisco Chinatown where Donaldina Cameron hid and protected rescued girls and women is named in her honor. Its function has changed since her time and serves as an active community resource center serving Chinese of all ages and backgrounds, especially youth, elderly, and victims of domestic abuse.

Although her work was in the San Francisco Chinatown, Miss Cameron is buried in southern California. http://chineseamericanhistorian.blogspot.com/2012/04/ching-ming-remembrance-in-los-angeles.html


Chop Suey Before Li Huang Chuang's 1898 Endorsement

One popular "legend" about chop suey is that the dish was unknown in America before a Chinese chef created it for Viceroy Li Huang Chuang during his visit to New York in 1898. However, evidence exists that chop suey was already known in America before his diplomatic visit. For example, a 1892 article in the San Francisco Chronicle described the dish, chow chop suey, as a popular dish at Chinese restaurant banquets.

Before Li Huang Chuang was introduced to chop suey, judging from grocery store ads the dish was already known in America. A 1895 grocery store ad in Centralia, Wisconsin offered a 16. oz package of vegetable chop suey for 35 cents.

An advertisement in 1898 for the A & P grocery chain store in Laredo, Texas, offered pork cubes for chop suey for $1.89 lb. Clearly, these ads show that chop suey was already familiar to Americans prior to Li Huang Chang having his 1898 chop suey dinner.

Of course, because the celebrity status of Li Huang Chuang attracted large crowds to his public appearances in New York and Philadelphia, newspapers across the country publicized his visit and his approval of chop suey, which doubtless increased American curiosity and acceptance of this 'toothsome dish.  
For more information about American views of chop suey: