Memphis, A Launching Place for Chinese in the Mid-South in 1869

The abolition of slavery in 1865 presented a crisis for cotton plantation owners who relied on slaves to pick cotton. At a convention of planters in Memphis in 1869, there was a proposal to recruit Chinese as replacement workers in the fields. As the building of the transcontinental railroad was completed in May, 1869, many Chinese laborers on its construction were out of work.

There were opponents who objected to bringing "Orientals" to the South because "coolies" would, in effect, be slaves.  However, the proposal to bring as many as 1,000 Chinese involved contractual labor rather than indentured service.

The Chinese who came did not work out well as field labor and soon they opened small family-run grocery stores in the region and throughout the Mississippi Delta.

Other Chinese came in 1869 to work on a railroad between Memphis and Covington, Kentucky. It is possible that some of these Chinese settled in towns throughout the South where they opened grocery stores and hand laundries.

In1873 Henry Ying opened what was probably the first Chinese hand laundry in Memphis, and possibly in the South, as noted by 1873 newspaper ads, only four years after Chinese were brought to Memphis to work on plantations.



A Tale of Two Wongs of Historical Importance for Different Reasons

What factors determine who becomes a significant historical figure? Most historically important people are associated with some very positive, or negative, actions or events.  In addition, persons connected with some important incident or event despite having little or no active participation with a historically important outcome or event nonetheless are historical figures.  

Wong Kim Ark (1873-?) is an example of the last type. He became an important person in Chinese American history more by circumstance rather than by any active role or action he initiated.  Born in the United States to Chinese immigrant parents Wong was a cook who made a trip to China to visit his parents who had left the U.S. in 1890. He successfully reentered the U.S.  However, he made a second trip in 1894 to China and when he tried to reenter in 1895, he was denied entry by the Collector of Customs because he was a laborer. 

The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association used Wong as a test case that went to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1898, (U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark 169 U.S. 849 1898)arguing that because Wong was born in the United States, he was a citizen under the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution and could not be barred from entry to the country. This concept became known as "birthright citizenship." 

This basis for citizenship has been repeatedly challenged but upheld since Wong Kim Ark. The issue is particularly relevant today because President Trump currently wants to eliminate this right provided by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. 

Wong Kim Ark won the case that was decided bthe U.S. Supreme Court but not because of any actions he initiated. Wong just happened to be the person denied reentry that advocates of Chinese birthright citizenship used to establish his status as a U.S. citizen because he was born in the U.S. even though his parents were not. 

He tried to bring his four sons from China, but the oldest was denied entry in 1910 on grounds that he did not convince immigration officials that he was his real son. However, in the 1920s his three younger sons were admitted because Wong Kim Ark was recognized as a U.S. citizen. Interestingly, there is little else known about Wong Kim Ark after the court decision. Even his youngest son, Wong Yook Jim, the only one who made the U.S. his permanent home did not know about his father's legal victory and historical significance until it was cited in a Chinese language newspaper on the 100th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision.2

Wong, the "father" of birthright citizenship, ironically, eventually returned to China in 1931 when he was 62 and never came back to the U.S. even though Form 430 below indicated an intention to return,

Only Wong’s youngest son, Wong Yook Jim, however, made a permanent home in the United States. Shortly after WWII, he received word from village elders in China that Wong Kim Ark had died.1

In contrast, Wong Chin Foo (1847–1898) was an articulate Chinese who spoke and wrote English well.  During the latter part of the 19th century, Wong was an outspoken activist in defense of Chinese immigrants who faced discrimination and racial prejudice. He campaigned tirelessly across the country on behalf of the rights and better treatment or Chinese, fighting racist leaders of anti-Chinese actions such as Dennis Kearney, flamboyantly challenging him to a duel. offering him the choice of weapon: chopsticks, Irish potatoes, or Krupp guns. He boldly rejected negative stereotypes of Chinese as when in a lecture in 1877, he pointed out, “I never knew rats and dogs were good to eat until I learned it from Americans.”

Wong Chin Foo actively made significant contributions in fighting for Chinese political and civil rights. establishing the Chinese Equal Right League which united the Chinese Americans to fight against the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Wong established the first Chinese-language newspaper east of the Rockies, the Chinese American.

Whereas Wong Kim Ark was more of a pawn than an agent in comparison to the years of significant activism for civil rights by Wong Chin Foo, today the more important figure is Wong Kim Ark because of the continuing debate over "birthright citizenship." 

In marked contrast, the work of Wong Chin Foo is not very influential on contemporary issues. After his death, Wong Chin Foo's writings were mostly forgotten, and he was rarely mentioned in the American press again. Despite his considerable efforts to gain the right to naturalization for Chinese, the ban continued for nearly half a century after his death. 

1. Berger, Bethany. (2016) Birthright Citizenship on Trial: Elk v. Wilkins and United States v. Wong Kim Ark,  Cardozo Law Review, 37, 1185-2052.

2. Wong, William. Yellow Journalist.  Philadelphia, PA.: Temple University Press, 2001.


Two Chinese Who Liked the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

One might assume that all Chinese in the U.S. would object to the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.  However, a Los Angeles newspaper reporter decided to go to Chinatown and interview some residents.  It isn't stated how many Chinese he spoke with, or how many objected to the law, but he did find at least two merchants who approved of the law.

Quong Hing saw one effect of the law would be that "Chinamen here would scatter out over the country," which he argued would benefit their wages. He also defended the restriction of Chinese if their presence made times hard for others (white labor).

A second merchant, Ah Toy, held a similar view. He almost questioned whether money Chinese sent back to China instead of spending it in the U.S., one of the objections raised about Chinese, was a significant amount overall.  He felt that the Chinese who came from China were poor but that after being here two years would make enough money to go back to China.

The article only cited the views of two Chinese and it would have been interesting to see how widespread similar views were held among Chinese.


1911 Chinese Revolution Changed Hairstyles of Men As Well As its Govermnment

The 1911 Chinese overthrow of the Qing dynasty led by Sun-Yat Sen not only established the Republic of China, but had a big impact of barbers, both in S.F. and China, as Chinese men began cutting off their queues or "pigtails" that the Manchus had imposed on the Han Chinese.

The queue was a  hairstyle worn by the Manchu men from central Manchuria who invaded China during the Qing dynasty. The Manchu required Han Chinese men wear a queue which consisted of the hair on the front of the head being shaved off above the temples every ten days and the rest of the hair braided into a long ponytail. The hairstyle was compulsory for all males and the penalty for not complying was execution for treason. In the early 1910s, after the fall of the Qing dynasty, the Chinese no longer had to wear it.

A San Francisco newspaper described the impact of the regime change on the consequences for Chinese barbers as shown in excerpts from the San Francisco Call in 1911.

In contrast to Chinese men voluntarily cutting their queues in 1911 as an expression of freedom from the mandate of the Manchu rule, the cutting of queues imposed by whites during the late 19th century was humiliating if not emasculating.
In April 1878, Ho Ah Kow was arrested in San Francisco for violating the “cubic feet” ordinance, which limited the number of Chinese living within a room. While in jail, the Sherif ordered his queue becut off. After his release from jail, Ho Ah Kow enlisted the support of the Chinese Six Companies to sue Sheriff Nunan.
California Supreme Court Justice Stephen Field decided the case in an opinion that had a far-reaching and historic impact on the rights of Chinese immigrants, ruling that the Queue Ordinance was a form of additional punishment within the “cubic feet” law, which the Board of Supervisors did not have the authority to enact. The judge also ruled that the law was clearly aimed at the Chinese and was therefore a violation of the right to equal protection under the law for “all persons,” not merely “all citizens.” Finally, because of the specific disgrace imposed upon the Chinese, the law was deemed a form of “cruel and unusual" punishment. The San Francisco Wasp lampooned the issue with a drawing of Justice Fields dressed in Chinese clothing and sporting his own queue. It showed him in “Justice Field’s Barber Shop,” braiding the hair of a Chinese man, under a picture of Sheriff Nunan having just finished using a scissors to clip a queue.


The Heathen Chinee Strike Back!

Bret Harte wrote a poem, Plain Language from Truthful James, in 1870, which later became more widely known as The Heathen Chinee. In brief, the poem describes how two white miners cheat a Chinese, Ah Sin, in a card game but the crafty Ah Sin outcheats them. But they discover his cheating and exclaim "we are ruined by cheap Chinese labor," and then proceed to pummel the hapless Ah Sin.

As noted in a previous post on this blog, 

Bret Harte's personal attitude toward the plight of Chinese immigrants was sympathetic even though his poem might suggest otherwise.  The intent of the poem has been viewed as a satirical commentary on the hypocrisy of whites who cheated the Chinese but then attacked them for the same behavior. Nonetheless, the poem reinforced this negative image of all Chinese that was in keeping with the national animosity against cheap Chinese labor that led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, not too long after the poem was published.  The image of the heathen Chinee created by Harte's poem quickly became a popular term of derision of Chinese and reprinted in newspapers across the country even as late as the 1920s, half a century later.

A few years later, Harte wrote a less influential poem with a provocative title, "The Latest Chinese Outrage," designed to arouse curiosity about what terrible misdeed the Chinamen committed.
The poem described a confrontation in which "Chinee," 400 of them actually, give some ruffian white miners a taste of their own medicine after they repeatedly failed to pay their laundry bills. Led by Ah Sin, they take the livestock and possessions of the miners as payment.  

When out of the din
To the front comes a-rockin' that heathen, Ah Sin!
"You owe flowty dollee--me washee you camp,
You catchee my washee--me catchee no stamp;
One dollar hap dozen, me no catchee yet,
Now that flowty dollee--no hab?--how can get?
Me catchee you piggee--me sellee for cash,
It catchee me licee--you catchee no 'hash;'
Me belly good Sheliff--me lebbee when can,
Me allee same halp pin as Melican man!

The Chinese capture one miner, Joe Johnson, and force him to ingest opium, shaved his eyebrows, tacked on a cue (queue), dressed him in Chinese clothing, painted his face with a coppery hue, and stuffed him in a bamboo cage on which they placed a label that read "A white man is here" and left him hanging like ripening fruit.

 And as we drew near,
  In anger and fear,
  Bound hand and foot, Johnson
  Looked down with a leer!

In his mouth was an opium pipe--which was why

He leered at us so with a drunken-like eye!
They had shaved off his eyebrows, and tacked on a cue,
They had painted his face of a coppery hue,
And rigged him all up in a heathenish suit,
Then softly departed, each man with his "loot."
  Yes, every galoot,
  And Ah Sin, to boot,
  Had left him there hanging
  Like ripening fruit.

One wonders whether Harte, in writing this poem, was trying to make amends for all the harm his heathen Chinee character, Ah Sin, created for the Chinese. It would be unlikely that many if any, Chinese would have read the poem, but if they did, they might feel some vicarious vengeance. On the other hand, anti-Chinese whites might experience anger if they read it.  Unlike Plain Language from Truthful James, it had little impact on white-Chinese relations.


A Gold Mountain Dream Turned into a Nightmare

Mark Twain spoke up on behalf of Chinese immigrants and against their mistreatment. His brilliant satirical short novel "Goldsmith's Friend Abroad Again" is an effort to make his readers reject the racism against Chinese.   [This link is to the printed text.]

The novel was serialized in Galaxy Magazine over 1870-1.  The format involved seven fictitious letters from Ah Song Hi to his friend, Ching Foo.
In the first letter, Ah Song Hi is beginning his journey from China to Gold Mountain, full of optimism. However, his following five letters describe increasingly negative experiences ranging from unfair immigration fees, prejudicial mistreatment by San Francisco police, attack by a dog belonging to young men, being jailed, and not being allowed to testify in court because he was not white. Ah Song Hi's dream of Gold Mountain was actually a nightmare.

Note: The odd title for Twain's indictment of the mistreatment of Chinese comes from the celebrated 18th-century Irish author, Oliver Goldsmith, who wrote "Citizen of the World" in 1760 about letters from Lien Chi,  a fictional Chinese traveller in England, to provide an outsider's ironic and at times moralistic views on British society and manners.

The "Abroad Again" part of the title speaks to the many travel books Twain wrote that included the word, "Abroad" such as Innocents Abroad.

It is understandable why Twain used a title to acknowledge his debt to Goldsmith but unfortunately, it doesn't convey the content, namely, a biting criticism on the racism toward Chinese.


How Hop-a-long Cassidy Led Me to Discover Willie Fung

Hop-a-long Cassidy was not one of my favorite grade B cowboy movie stars, but I saw a link to one of his movies the other day. In a moment of nostalgic longing for my boyhood days when I was a devoted cowboy movie fan, I could not resist watching, at least part of it. 
As the opening credits rolled by, I noticed that a "Willie Fung" was in the movie and wondered if he might be Chinese.  And my hunch was right.  He only had a few scenes and his lines were in spoken in stereotypical pidgin English. After all, he was only the ranch cook.
Still, I was curious to learn more about Willie Fung so I "googled" him, and much to my surprise, he had his own Wikiwand page. I learned Willie Fung, born in 1896 in Canton, played supporting roles in 125 American films between 1922 and 1944 even though he died in Los Angeles at the young age of 49 in 1945. The majority of his roles were in Westerns and dramas, and his filmography shows that he was most often was cast as a cook, servant, houseboy, and once a laundryman

Willie Fung was a pioneer Chinese American actor but not the first Asian American actor. George Kuwa (7 April 1885 – 13 October 1931) was a Japanese and American Issei (Japanese immigrant) film actor of the silent era. He appeared in 58 films between 1916 and 1931. He was the first actor to portray Charlie Chan on-screen, in the 1926 film serial The House Without a Key. Unlike Fung who had very small roles, Kuwa had the key role in the first Charlie Chan movie, a silent film. 

By 1931, Hollywood no longer used Japanese actors to play Charlie Chan, preferring a Swedish American actor, Warner Orland for all subsequent Charlie Chan movies.


Pioneer S.F. Chinatown Photographs by William Henry Jackson (1843-1942)

Arnold Genthe, a German immigrant, was the best-known street photographer of Chinese public life at the end of the 19th century on the streets of Chinatown.

      William Henry Jackson (1843-1942) took some rarely seen photographs of San Francisco Chinese, who judging by their attire, were better off financially than the typical Chinese immigrant.  

Jackson's portfolio had few photographs of the Chinese. Instead, he was a pioneering prolific landscape photographer and painter of the American West even though Ansel Adams has achieved greater recognition with his photographs in Yosemite. 

"From 1870 to 1878 Jackson was the official photographer for the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. His photographs of the natural wonders of northwestern Wyoming, taken during the Hayden survey expedition of 1871, were exhibited in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.  Members of the U.S. Congress were so impressed by Jackson’s photos that his work was one of the major factors in the congressional vote that established Yellowstone National Park in 1872." 


Mah Jongg Mania

   Mah Jongg, a game of skill and strategy that is likened to the card game, rummy,  but using small bakelite tiles instead of cards, originated in China during the Qing dynasty around 1870. It was a popular recreational pastime, sometimes involving small stakes gambling, but with the rise to power of Communist China in 1949, gambling was disapproved.  The game was even banned during the Cultural Revolution but has since regained its appeal in contemporary China.

In the 1920s, mah jongg became wildly popular in America, especially with Jewish women. Abercrombie & Fitch, a clothing store, marketed it to Americans in 1920 and is said to have sold over 40,000 sets in one decade. Thus, despite the prevailing prejudices against Chinese people, Americans had no problems adopting Chinese games such as mah jongg. Note: "Chinese Checkers," a children's game, was Chinese only in name and decoration and made in Germany.

Ironically, this is the same New York store that in 2002 created t-shirts with racist slogans and images mocking Chinese until protests ended their sale.

This wide acceptance of a Chinese game occurred even though in 1920 Americans still held racist attitudes and prejudicial treatment of Chinese immigrants.  A poem, Mah Jongg, by Edward A. Guest could not resist mocking the Chinese and their game.

The 1923 cartoon below illustrating the difficulty of a white couple in understanding the rules for mah jongg invoked the belief that Wun Bum Lung, a laundryman, be consulted as if laundrymen ever had time to play it.

Christian clergy in Vancouver attributed social problems in China to the excessive playing and gambling associated with mah jongg.  They worried that it would cause similar problems in North America.

This fear seemed unwarranted and mah jongg is still popular, but the 1920s mania has subsided.  Currently, there is a large online market for mah jongg sets, especially "Oriental sets," and accessories.


The Role of Newspapers in Spreading the "Cunning Oriental" Stereotype

 Elsie Sigel, a young white woman who helped teach English to Chinese men in New York's Chinatown, was murdered in 1909 and found stuffed in a steamer trunk in the apartment of a Chinese, Leon Ling, a nationwide search for him for several months was unsuccessful despite sightings of him, real or imagined,were reported around the country.

The failure to find him was not attributed in newspapers to shortcomings of the authorities but rather to the "Oriental cunning," of Leon Ling.

I was curious to see how pervasive this stereotype of Orientals, in general, was in newspaper articles. A cursory archival search showed 150,749 occurrences over many decades from the late 19th century until the mid-20th century in newspapers across the U.S.  A small sample of snippets of these articles is shown below.

The high number does not reflect separate stories since articles about major issues were reprinted in newspapers across the land. Nonetheless, the negative image of the "cunning Oriental"reinforces the prevalent xenophobia because the fear and suspicion generated are resistant to disconfirmation.

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