History of Chinese in Grand Rapids, Michigan

Why is the history of Chinese in Grand Rapids, Michigan, so noteworthy?  It may have been similar to the history of Chinese in many other cities of its size in some other parts of the country. However, the Grand Rapids Historical Commission has created an outstanding record of the Chinese (as well as all other ethnic groups, I should add) in their community using documents and photographs using text and audio presentations.

The excerpt below from their website gives a bit of historical context, followed by a description of the first three Chinese, all in the laundry business, as described in a podcast.

"The Chinese entered the laundry business because they were kept out of any job where they were seen as taking "American" jobs, plus it was a business that could be started with almost no capital. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was renewed for ten years in 1892 by the Geary Act, and again in 1902 with no terminal date. This kept most Chinese out of the country and prohibited them from obtaining citizenship until it was repealed in 1943. Unless they were a relative of someone here prior to 1882 or a "paper son" they were excluded from entry. Some of the newspaper articles in our on-line archive describe the indignities suffered by these immigrants."

"The first Chinese residents of Grand Rapids were three men working in the laundry business ca. 1875. Wau Lee and Ah Tun were at 19 Canal St. Lung Sam operated his O.K.Laundry under the Rathbun House, an hotel located at 31 Monroe, until 1880 when Fee(Fu) King is listed as the operator. After 1880 Young Joe became the owner of the Rathbun House laundry. In 1889 Lam Fook, the proprietor of the O. K. Laundry who had lived here for two years, was found dead in his “dark, damp basement room by his partners, Wong Young and Lee Tsee.” His belongings included a certificate of deposit for $100, many letters, a brass tobacco pipe, a bag of tobacco, and a few trinkets and charms."

The website proudly notes that in 1874, one of the most important Chinese in America, Wong Chin Foo, came to lecture in Grand Rapids, where he also filed his citizenship application, making him the first Chinese to become an American citizen. Wong Chin Foo started a bi-lingual newspaper, the Chinese American, and civil rights activist with the Chinese Equal Rights League of America, of which he was founder and secretary in 1892.

         The Grand Rapids Historical Commission website, as shown below, is exemplary as it posted a total of 30 documents related to the historical record of early Chinese in the community. We can only speculate that the story of the Chinese is Grand Rapids is similar for small groups of Chinese who settled in other communities, where they ran laundries initially, and then, as described in this podcast, some opened restaurants, all living as foreigners in an often hostile environment.

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