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 This kept most Chinese out of the country and prohibited them from obtaining citizenship until it was repealed in 1943.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.


A Culturally Appropriate Chinese Funeral in 1904 in Washington, D. C.

     A Chinese laundryman, Moy Sue Wing, died suddenly of heart failure in 1904 in Washington, D. C.  Six fellow Chinese, described as "almond-eyed Chinamen" arranged for his funeral, which was fully described in the Washington Times of April 19, 1904, featuring a photograph of his friend, Moy Jim, kneeling at the open grave to deposit chickens, fake paper money, bowls of rice, a jug of wine, chopsticks, and tea cups, and a pot of tea.   The article noted that in addition to his six countrymen, the procession to the cemetery included about 600 curious white women and children onlookers.

No mention, however, was made as to whether the undertaker was Chinese, but judging from the situation in New York City noted in the previous post on this blog that there was no Chinese licensed undertaker until 1930, it is most likely than a caucasian undertaker was employed here, as throughout the country. Fortunately, for Moy Sue Wing, his friends were there to ensure that his funeral service followed Chinese customs and beliefs, one that thousands of other Chinese who died in places where they were the only Chinese would not have received.


Who Was Bert V. Eutemey, And What Was His Importance for New York City Chinese?

It was not until the 1930s in New York City that Chinese who died could receive mortuary services from a Chinese. For decades, a caucasian undertaker, probably Irish or Italian, performed these services because discriminatory prejudices did not allow Chinese to enter this profession. Unfortunately, white undertakers were not familiar with or incorporated many Chinese cultural practices and beliefs about funerals.

Bert V. Eutemey, a name that does not appear to be Chinese, was born in Jamaica with a mixed English, African, and Chinese ancestry. He became the first licensed Chinese undertaker in New York City in 1930 with his Chinese Cheung Sang Funeral Corporation at 22 Mulberry Street, a name that ironically translates as "The Chinese Wish You Long and Happy Life Corporation." Historian Shirley Yee noted in her recent book "An Immigrant Neighborhood: Interethnic and Interracial Encounters in New York, that since he was born in Jamaica, Eutemey was able to gain entry into the mortuary business using the non-Chinese part of his identity as a white British citizen. His Chinese background and bi-lingual fluency then facilitated his acceptance in the Chinese community.  It is paradoxical that Eutemey's mixed racial heritage, usually a stigmatized condition, actually worked to his advantage in this situation.

 Despite this obvious advantage, Eutemey still occasionally faced some delicate situations such as whether to conduct a funeral using western or Chinese customs. In 1930, an article in the New York Sun, Jan. 8 reported that Eutemey was in a dilemma planning the funeral of Charlie Boston, a Chinese Christian, as different relatives disagreed about whether he should receive a western or Chinese-style send-off. It was reported that Eutemey was prepared for either decision by hiring both an American and a Chinese band.

I had never thought about this problem before I learned about the significant impact that Eutemey had for the Chinese community in New York City. It raises questions of what happened to Chinese who died in the rest of the country, and how did Chinese elsewhere break the racial barriers in this profession?


Faces and Places of Chinese Miners on Gum Saan

Many Chinese immigrants came to California to seek their fortunes on Gum Saan or “Gold Mountain” after the 1848 discovery of gold in the Sierra mountains. Although many accounts have been written about these men, there is little visual evidence about these men who struggled in their quest for gold.

An unusual and fascinating document at the California Historical Society is a notebook maintained by John T. Mason, a justice of the peace in Downieville, once a thriving gold mining town in the Sierras in the mid 19th century that gives rare and arresting head and shoulders photographs of close to 200 Chinese, the majority being miners, but included some cooks, and several merchants.  The collection of photographs, probably taken for use on the identity cards that Chinese were required to carry under the1890 Geary Act. Most of the photos, which resemble police mug shots, were taken in 1894 by D. D. Beatty at Downieville in Sierra County. By this date, Downieville was no longer a major source of gold but some elderly Chinese miners were still there. The grim and sullen expressions on their faces reflect the harshness of their difficult lives as they were met with racial prejudices and physical violence. Each photo is accompanied by brief physical descriptions of the height, age, occupation (miner or cook), physical defects or injuries, and facial marks for almost 176 Chinese, mostly middle and older aged men, with no children and few women.

                                       Partial list of the names of the 176 Chinese, mostly miners. 

 Photographs of eight of the close to 200 Chinese miners and cooks. 

 An accomplished contemporary photographer, Jason Francisco, took Mason’s journal and interspersed his own photographs of the rugged Sierra terrain and their ramshackle dwellings among the 70 or 80 pages of photographs of the Chinese to create a compelling visual document that almost brings the men back to life by embedding the isolated faces in the mug shots in photographs of the physical surroundings where they once lived and worked.

Francisco aptly describes his creation as “part document, part poetic archaeology.” Picturing the men in the physical landscape where they toiled in search of gold, Francisco gives us a deeper appreciation of the difficulty of their lives.

                                    Two of Jason Francisco’s Photographs Placed Among the Pictures of the Men. 

 In Francisco’s words: “A Land of Shadows (2005-ongoing) is an inquiry into immigrant Chinese life in rural 19th century California—a communal life that was itinerant, vulnerable, preyed upon, resilient, and centrally important in the state’s and the nation’s history. Taking its title from a traditional Chinese metaphor for the domain of the ancestors, the project integrates my own photographs of the remnants of Chinese settlement in the Sierra Nevada foothills and the Sacramento Delta areas into a forgotten compendium of government mug shots of Chinese immigrants, made by D.D. Beatty in Downieville, circa 1890.” A Land of Shadows,  Francisco's creative remake of Mason’s album, draws attention to the need to include the historical experience of the Chinese miners to help us understand the emptiness that the photographs of the men project.


The Impact of The Changing Face of Chinese in America

Perhaps the most generally accepted 'label' for categorizing descendants of the immigrants from China to the United States starting around the mid 19th century is "Chinese American" (or "Chinese Canadian" above our northern border). Even though we are usually lumped into the politically pragmatic catch-all category, "Asian American," and we sometimes passively accept it, this designation fails to reflect the fact that Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and so forth, are as different from each other as are Americans with European ancestors such as French, German, Italian, Swedish, Danish, and English, etc.

Chinese in America were a relatively homogenous group before the 1950s, generally poor rural immigrants from Guangdong province who came to seek gold, but wound up building railroads, and working in laundries and restaurants. Their descendants, born here or in China, were the majority of the Chinese in America then. But today, Chinese have come here from many places other than Guangdong including Hong Kong, Taiwan, People's Republic of China, Southeast Asia, and other countries in the region.

Not only do these Chinese have some proficiency in English, they read and write Chinese, which most descendants of earlier Chinese immigrants can not. Moreover they speak Mandarin rather than Cantonese or Toishan-wa, the language of the earlier cohorts of Guangdong immigrants. Many newer Chinese do not seek to assimilate to the extent that earlier generations did. Indeed, many of these Chinese are transnational in outlook, with one foot here and the other foot in their country of origin. Moreover, many of them are highly educated and are often affluent. Yet, there are also newer Chinese from Fujian province next to Guangdong, who must work long hours for low wages trying to pay off the debts incurred for illegal entry.

To call all of these diverse groups "Chinese Americans"obscures such vast differences. For one matter, many of these groups do not relate well to each other, reflecting historical conflicts among them. The language differences as well as social class variations also serve to keep them separate. For example, in the 1950s, American Born Chinese (ABCs) who were making strides in being accepted in mainstream America dissociated themselves from new less educated immigrants that they disparaged as "fresh off the boat" (FOBs). Today, the tables are turned as some newer affluent Chinese look down on the ABCs as not being fully Chinese because they can't speak Chinese well or at all. The Changing Face of Chinese in America, is a significant development stemming from the different histories and backgrounds of the different subgroups that has transformed the social structure of Chinese communities.

Chinese in America have their problems among their subgroups but they also face concerns about their place in American society. For, unfortunately, to many non-Asian Americans, these subgroups of Chinese 'look the same'and accordingly they will be prone to treat all Chinese the same way, despite their differences. Until recently, America's inability to distinguish among Chinese subgroups favored them because attitudes toward Chinese improved substantially from after W. W. II until the rise of Red China. Today, however, there is a growing trend toward China-bashing due to the threat of China's economic growth as well as to China's faults that include corruption, human rights violations, censorship, contaminated food and product exports.

Chinese in America, irrespective of where they came from, how long they have been here, how educated they are, or assimilated they are, will suffer if non-Asians think all Chinese here "look the same." We will be viewed as more "Chinese" than as "American." (Ironically, if we visited China, we would be clearly seen as American, not as Chinese.) The old negative images and prejudices that have been dormant for decades will resurface as we become once again, the yellow peril. The challenge for Chinese in America is how to transcend our differences and unite to counter these dangerous trends.


Trends in Racist Terms in Text Referring to Chinese

Google's ngram tool, provides frequency counts of the occurrences of words and phrases in books and other printed text across decades. Although it is not flawless, results obtained for ethnic epithets or racial slurs might mirror prevailing social attitudes. This illustration shows a count of the occurrence of two negative terms describing Chinese, Chinaman (in blue) and Chink (in red),from 1800-2000. The occurrence of 'chink' is relatively constant and lower than the occurrence of 'Chinaman,' which showed a sharp rise from 1840 to 1900 and large drop in occurrence from 1900 to about 1960. Whether these trends matched spoken use of these terms is a separate question, but one might think they would parallel each other.


Gong Lum v. Rice (1927) Chinese School Segregation Before Ole Miss Blocked James Meredith (1962)

Long before Mississippi governor Ross Barnett stood in the doorway to block the admission of James Meredith half a century ago in 1962 as the first African American student to enroll at Ole Miss, Chinese in the Delta faced similar barriers. Back in the fall of 1924 the Rosedale, MS. school administration denied admission of Chinese children to the local elementary school. Gong Lum, a local Chinese merchant, filed a lawsuit on behalf of his two daughters, Berda and Martha, against this ruling. He was initially successful, but the Supreme Court of Mississippi in 1925, and the U. S. Supreme Court in 1927 upheld the decision to deny Chinese admission to whites-only public schools. The family portrait below in 1920 before the girls were old enough to attend school shows Berda in the lower left and Martha near the center.
Photograph Courtesy of Carolyn Hong Chan.

Although the Lum sisters were dismissed from the school on the first day of the fall term in 1924, they had actually, despite the Mississippi law, been attending the school during the previous year, and possibly earlier since they were in the 3rd grade. A recently discovered photograph of a 3rd-4th grade class at Rosedale school, dated April 16, 1924, was posted on Facebook by Linda Gatewood Bassie. The two Chinese girls in the bottom left were identified as Berda and Martha by Carolyn Hong Chan, a relative who grew up in the area. Moreover, the photograph shows another Chinese girl on the right side and two older Chinese boys in the upper left top row. (It might seem odd to have such wide age differences in the same class, but some Chinese children were recent immigrants and not fluent in English) Even though the attendance of these 5 Chinese was in violation of Mississippi law that restricted white schools to caucasians, in practice, different local authorities varied in their adherence to the law and it was not uncommon for some towns to accept Chinese children while a nearby town might not. Gong Lum may have lost the legal battle, but he did realize his goal of his children attending white schools by moving his family across the river to Elaine, Arkansas, where they were admitted.


Chinese Mission School Historic Marker, Cleveland, MS.

           Most discussions, even today, of school segregration in Mississippi, and elsewhere, focus on black and white children with little or no mention of other children such as Chinese.

In an earlier post on Sept. 23, I noted that:

        "Since the late 1800s Mississippi maintained that white schools were for caucasians only, and that since Chinese were not caucasian, it was ruled that they could not attend white schools. Chinese fought this situation in court, a generation before the landmark 1954 decision (Brown vs. Board of Education) that overturned school desegregation nationwide.  The Chinese lost their case, and the ruling was upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court, Gong Lum v. Rice, 1927.  Chinese had to establish their own schools to provide better education for their children with the assistance of local churches until  white schools finally began to admit them during the late 1940s in a few small Delta towns."

Overdue recognition from the State of Mississippi of how Delta Chinese coped with this problem came on Oct. 21, 2012 with the dedication of an historic marker on the site of the Chinese Mission School established in 1937 by the Delta Chinese with the support of the First Baptist Church and Cleveland community leaders to provide a better education for Chinese children than was available to them. Over 200 attended the ceremony, including some alumni from as far away as New York and California to celebrate the recognition given to this vital collaboration to educate Chinese children and to visit the newly created Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum housed at Delta State University.
  It was a joyous homecoming for the Delta Chinese to pay tribute to their rich historic past.


RTHK Documentary on Chinese in North America

RTHK, the Hong Kong television network, produced an excellent documentary on Overseas Chinese in North America consisting of 5 hour long episodes aired over the late summer of 2012.

This ambitious project, although it could only scratch the surface of the history of Chinese in North America, nonetheless was a significant contribution by providing audiences in Hong Kong with an overview of the many difficulties that Chinese who left for Gold Mountain had to suffer, but were able to eventually overcome. This documentary serves as an invaluable historical resource for Hong Kong Chinese.

Below are links to the 5 programs on YouTube. Some of the commentary is in Chinese, and the subtitles are also in Chinese, but many of the interviews are conducted in English. I was a consultant and interviewee in the fourth episode which focused on Chinese laundries and restaurants.

July 28

August 4

August 11

Sept. 8

Sept. 15


Before There Was "Lin-sanity"

        The meteoric and sudden rise of Jeremy Lin to professional basketball stardom last year is of historic importance for Americans of Chinese, and other Asian, ancestry.  The attention he deservedly received should give interest to the story of the Hong Wah Kues, a Chinese professional basketball team that barnstormed the country in 1939-1940 playing the likes of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Sociologist Kathleen Yep published a book, Outside the Paint: When Basketball Ruled at the Chinese Playground  that documents in rich detail the story of the brief shining moment of this band of spirited and talented Chinese athletes with an unconventional style that relied on speed and aggressive play to offset their size disadvantage against taller opponents.


Immigrants Stayed Connected With China Through Music

       Chinese immigrants stayed culturally connected to their homeland in many ways, bonds that were especially vital in the face of the hostility and discrimination they suffered historically in America. Those living in Chinese communities that came to be referred to as "Chinatowns" had access to theaters when they flocked to see live Chinese opera on stage, as suggested in a documentary, A Moment in Time by Ruby Yang, showing how meaningful this experience was for them in a time before television.

        Unfortunately, many Chinese lived in areas across the United States where their numbers were too few to have access to such cultural experiences. I grew up in Macon, Georgia, for example, where our family was the only Chinese in town.  My parents received Chinese newspapers in the mail, probably once a week, that was their window on news from China and about Chinese issues in the United States. Still, we did have ONE Chinese phonograph record, the Chinese National Anthem, that provided a smidgen of contact with China. When I was around 4 or 5 years old, my brother and I, would crank up the old manual phonograph to play this marching music known also as the "March of the Volunteers" and we would march around the room enthusiastically even though we didn't understand the Chinese lyrics.
       A friend in Chicago, Bill Tong, recently told me about his more extensive contact with Chinese music in listening to his parents' records and tapes of Chinese music as he was growing up.  His father listened to Cantonese opera as well as Chinese pop music that his mother favored. In the Hoisan dialect it was called "see oy cook," or Shidaiqu (in Mandarin).  This Mando-pop  style of music based in Shanghai and sung in Mandarin fused Chinese folk songs with American jazz and enjoyed enormous popularity from the 30's through the 50's.  Among its biggest stars were Zhou Xuan, one of his father's favorite singers and Wu Ying Yin (one of his mother's favorites).
       Wu Ying Yin's most famous song "Acacia Moon, Trinidad Sent" recorded in 1948. Wu Ying Yin (1922-2009) enjoyed a long career, singing into her 80's. In 2003, she performed this song in Shanghai that she popularized during the 1940's. 
        Despite separation by thousands of miles across an ocean from their homeland, Chinese immigrants sought ways to experience familiar and treasured aspects of their Chinese culture. Anti-Chinese sentiment was often based on their apparent unwillingness to assimilate to American culture. However, having nostalgia for one's homeland should not be seen as incompatible with acceptance of the host culture.  Furthermore, which is the chicken, and which is the egg?  Had Chinese been afforded equal opportunity, perhaps they would have more easily come to embrace American culture.


Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocery Stores

Mississippi Public Broadcasting aired several interviews in 2011 about the Delta Chinese grocery stores. 

Chinese in the Delta
     AIR DATE 09/19/11
   An isolated group of Chinese Americans managed to maintain a vital, albeit small community in the  Mississippi Delta for roughly a hundred years. Now largely forgotten, Chinese groceries once dotted small Delta towns, serving mostly the black community. They  also provided the essential ticket to survival for the Chinese immigrants in a society strictly segregated between black and white. MPB's Sandra Knispel spoke with California State University professor emeritus John Jung.  Jung is the author of four books about the life,

Magnolias and Chopsticks: The Mississippi Delta Chinese Experience Part 1
The Chinese of the Mississippi Delta are an often-overlooked part of the history of the Deep South. In part one of our two-part series, MPB’s Sandra Knispel tells the story of what made them come all the way to the small towns of the Delta.

China is a long way from the United States. Yet many made the voyage, hoping for a better life. In the late 1860s, the first Chinese reached the Mississippi Delta. According to data collected by the University of Mississippi's Center for Population Studies, in 1870 only 16 Chinese lived in the Magnolia state.

The Chinese of the Mississippi Delta are an often-overlooked mosaic in the history of the Deep South. In the second installment of our two-part series, MPB’s Sandra Knispel looks at their rapid economic and social ascent -- from grocery store owner to professional. She interviews three Chinese in the  MississippiDelta, Harold Lum, Luck Wing, and Frieda Quon whose families owned grocery stores .

Luck Wing
Kit Lum

Handbook of Chinese in America (1946)

          Published in 1946, the Handbook of Chinese in America, is an invaluable resource for examining the primary businesses and organizations of Chinese across the United States.  I could find no information about how the listings were gathered but I assume the businesses in the Handbook paid a fee to be included.  (My parents had a copy of this hardbound 646 page book, which as I recall had a red cover.)
         I was 'disappointed' to discover that our laundry was not listed. Since then I have discovered several other laundries that were not in the list. My assumption, perhaps speculative, is that many laundry owners did not see any advantage in being listed and did not bother being listed.  In contrast, restaurants and grocery stores, listed in large numbers across the country, would stand to benefit from having their businesses listed.)

         I had not thought about this book until I was at the Association of Asian American Studies in Chicago a few years ago.  Steve Dao, a dedicated collector and vendor of Chinese American history ephemera, had a table at the conference. As I was talking with him, a book on the table that looked strangely familiar caught my eye.  As it had been about 50 years since I last saw our copy, I was not certain at first. Upon closer examination, I was excited to realize that it was a copy of the very same Handbook I last saw half a century ago.  I immediately called it to the attention of a historian friend who eagerly shelled out $50 for it, which turns out to be a bargain as I found a copy online in Vermont recently that was going for $100!
          I must confess that I borrowed a copy from a library and shamelessly xeroxed it (at 646 pages, maybe I should have just bought the book).   At the time I wasn't sure I would ever find much use for it.  Although I had a sentimental feeling about the book, I wondered if was it worth $50 to me.  Today, in retrospect, it has proved to be a great resource for identifying the types of businesses Chinese were operating, where they were located, and in what number, across the entire country. Since the addresses are listed, one could use the information to map out where "Chinatowns" were located in many towns with Chinese communities.  Examination of the names chosen for businesses back then is also interesting since many of them reflect the times, e.g., New China Cafe, New Republic Cafe, Good Earth Cafe.
          To give you some sample listings, I uploaded the listings of the Chinese grocery stores in the Mississippi River Delta in Mississippi and Arkansas which have proved to be very helpful to my research on Chinese in these communities.

Update, March 18, 2019.
I just searched the National Central Library, a site in Taiwan with many online documents but mostly in Chinese, for information on another topic following a link provided by Chao Chen, a reference librarian at Tufts University. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a beautifully scanned copy of the 600+ pages of the Handbook available for free access online!


Americans As Seen By A Chinese Visitor

        Accounts of Chinese immigrants written by Americans often smugly dwell on the strangeness of their customs, behaviors, and beliefs. Rarely do we find accounts of how Americans might appear to the Chinese, but one exception is a book by Zongren Liu, Two Years in the Melting Pot (1984).

        Liu came as a visiting scholar to study English in Chicago and in this book he describes his mostly depressing stay there and in other parts of the country.  Among his observations,  he described some American behaviors that we might not think of as out of the ordinary but which he found to be perplexing, if not downright irrational.
        Here is one charming example that shows that the Chinese do not have the corner on irrational behaviors.


An "Undercount" of Mississippi Delta Chinese

        Historian Charles Bolton published The Hardest Deal of All in 2005, an analysis of school desegregation from1870-1980 in Mississippi. While it is quite understandable that the struggle between blacks and whites would receive the preponderance of the book's coverage, it unjustifiably fails to make any mention of the contest that the Delta Chinese fought in an attempt to gain admittance to the state's white schools.  
        Since the late 1800s Mississippi maintained that white schools were for caucasians only, and that since Chinese were not caucasian, it was ruled that they could not attend white schools. Chinese fought this situation in court, a generation before the landmark 1954 decision (Brown vs. Board of Education) that overturned school desegregation nationwide.  The Chinese lost their case, and the ruling was upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court, Gong Lum v. Rice, 1927.  Chinese had to establish their own schools to provide better education for their children with the assistance of local churches until  white schools finally began to admit them during the late 1940s in a few small Delta towns.
       A computer search of the book for "Chinese" and "Gong Lum" found "0 results" for both terms.  Like the denial of their access to schooling for almost half of the past century,  this historical account of Mississippi schools also short-changed the Chinese in Mississippi by ignoring their struggles.


"Over Count" of Chinese in the 1940 Census?

The U. S. Census is an invaluable resource for historical and genealogical research. I was excited when the 1940 U. S. Census was released earlier this year, but frustrated because it was released without a name index, which made it virtually impossible to use and maintain sanity. Fortunately, it is now much more functional with the addition of a name index generated with the help of hundreds of volunteers who transcribed information from the original handwritten record sheets collected in the field to create a searchable online digitized database.

I gave it a test run by first trying to locate the record of our family in Macon, Georgia.

That test was not a difficult search since we were the only Chinese in the entire city at the time. This initial success led me to make several additional searches which, much to my surprise, suggested that the U. S. Census may have over counted the number of Chinese in many states. Before I explain why I reached this conclusion, I first need to retrace the process to show how I discovered the errors. So, be patient!

How to Use Ancestry.com to Search the Census Database

On the initial search screen shown below, you enter as many of the listed fields as possible: first and last name, birth year, exact or within a range, location (where they were born and location and approximate year of “any event” (marriage, divorce, for example).

Choose “match all terms exactly” to prevent finding too many cases, but if that fails, you can then widen the yield by removing that constraint.

Depending on how unique your target is, you might locate that person by entering only part of the requested information.


On lines 42-47 of the census record shown below, our family is listed for 1940 at 519 Mulberry Street. I highlighted in bright green how our race was coded, "C 4."

Failure Locating My Uncle

I also wanted to find my uncle who came to Atlanta in 1937, but I had no success finding him. Possibly, he was not in his laundry on the days when the census taker came. Or, I used the wrong spelling of his name or the census taker, or transcriber, entered it differently from the way I spelled it.

If you examine a sample of original record sheets, you can easily understand why these errors occur because some of the handwriting is poor or the record sheet did not scan clearly.

An alternative approach is to use Advanced Search, which allows you to specify several filters such as GENDER, and more importantly for my purpose, Race/Ethnicity. By adding CHINESE to the Race/Ethnicity field (see bright green field) I was able to retrieve only the Chinese cases for a specific Location (you can specific a City, State, or Both). I specified Georgia (See bright green field).

 Since there were very few Chinese in Atlanta in 1940, my thought was that my uncle’s name would come up even if they misspelled his name. Then since I knew the street address where he lived, I should have been able to locate him even if his name were misspelled. Of course, this method would not work easily for cities where there were hundreds of Chinese.
(My brother George was listed as "Georgia" and my sister Eugenia as "Eugennia," and Joe Yip in Mississippi was listed as "Qck Zip")

However, even this approach failed to locate my uncle in Atlanta in the 1940 census. He must have been out of his laundry when the census taker came.

Searching For Trends or Totals

Instead of trying to find a specific person by name, one might be interested in seeing patterns or trends in the number of Chinese over decades. Thus, I looked at changes in the total number of Chinese in Georgia for each decennial census.

Results for Chinese Living in Georgia

When I searched for CHINESE in Georgia for all decennial Censuses, I found a gradual increase from 203 in 1900 to 445 in 1940.

I then restricted my search to Chinese in Georgia who were born in China. The percentage declined with successive decades. Only about half, or 222, of the Chinese living in Georgia in 1940 were born in China. In contrast, a decade earlier in 1930, around 80% or 206 of the 253 Chinese in Georgia were born in China and in 1900, 100% of the 203 Chinese in Georgia were born in China.

Some Strange Findings

When I examined some of the cases classified as Chinese on the index lists, many of their surnames, e.g., ADAMS, did not seem to be Chinese. Nor were their occupations typical of Chinese immigrants such as laundryman, restaurant cook. or waiter.

I therefore examined images of the original census record sheets for these suspicious cases.

Below is a 1940 census record for one Adams family in Missouri that was indexed as Chinese.

The original handwritten census record appeared with the searched name highlighted in yellow, and family members in green. Beneath this info shows how it was entered in the searchable database.

On the original sheet for the Adams family, RACE had a code of “C 2“ but they were recorded in the Index as “Chinese.”[See the Column I highlighted in bright lime green] In other words, in the 1940 Census many “C 2” cases that should have been recorded as Colored or Black were counted as Chinese.

The same error occurred in other states I sampled including Missouri, Mississippi, Delaware, North Carolina, Nebraska, and Alabama. This error did not show up in Minnesota, at least for the the cases I sampled!

Other support for this conclusion is that the RACE code on the original sheet (See the first image on this post) for my own family was not "C 2," but "C 4." [Actually, it seems to have been “Chi” but that was lightly crossed out and replaced with ”C 4.”

As a type of 'reverse' check, for RACE/ETHNICITY I searched for COLORED (the term in 1940 for Blacks). When I examined the original record sheet for cases retrieved in this search, the code was usually “C 2.” [In one state it was “Col” and in another, “Neg.”]

Birth Rates for Chinese in Georgia

The misclassification error also occurred for birth data.
I did a a search for Chinese births in 1939 in Georgia on the 1940 census.

Given that the majority of Chinese in Georgia, as elsewhere, were single men, or men with wives in China, one would not expect them to have had many babies born in Georgia.

[Therefore to get a fair-sized sample, I used a range of years from 1929-1939] In this decade, there were 56 Chinese females born (and roughly the same number of males).

[Note: the point of this analysis is not to determine the number of Chinese babies but to examine the accuracy of the coding.]

A look at the Table below shows many of the surnames of the babies did not "look like" Chinese surnames.

You get definitive evidence of errors if you examine a sample of the original record sheets for births with a non-Chinese looking surname. The RACE column for these cases shows a code of “C-2” or Colored (the prevalent term for Blacks in that era) as in the record shown below for Bessie Butler and her relatives. In other words, these babies got misclassified in the index as Chinese, for whom the correct code is “C-4.”

While one hopes for, but does not expect 100 percent accuracy for such a complicated undertaking as taking a national census, egregious errors such as the ones described above simply should not have happened and could have been caught with minimal review.


A Bite of China, CCTV Chinese Food Documentary Series

China Central Television, CCTV, China's state-run television, produced "A Bite of China," a series of 7 hour-long documentaries about the culture and history of Chinese food.  Here is episode 6, "Flavors of the Harmonic." It has a Chinese sound track, but some YouTube uploads like this one, has English subtitles. The episodes are exquisite feasts of visual presentation.

Use this LINK to find a listing of the other 6 episodes with English subtitles on YouTube. Be aware that there has been an allegation in the video below that the documentaries are fraudulent government managed propaganda! (CCTV, a government-controlled resource, has had previous problems of credibility, especially in the realm of political and social issues, censorship,etc.)
A problem with this critique, however, is that it is produced by the Shen Yun Performing Arts, which itself has been criticized as a thinly veiled propaganda tool to fight China's persecution of the religious organization, Falun Gong. While some parts of the CCTV narrative seems a bit overstated and self-congratulatory, I didn't feel that the whole series could be dismissed as propaganda for the state.


What Was Chinatown Like Before It Became "Chinatown"?

San Francisco's Ross Alley, "Street of the Gamblers"by Arnold Genthe
     Chinatown, originally, was an area in many cities where its Chinese population lived. In undesirable sections of towns, Chinatown provided shops and housing for their daily needs as well as some safety in numbers against societal hostility toward them. Before the early 1900s, non-Chinese visitors and tourists were infrequent and the Chinese did not try to market curios and other Orientalia to them. Once Chinatown was reinvented to exploit commercial opportunities, it took on a different appearance aimed at attracting non-Chinese to visit, shop, and dine in an exotic space. Its streets soon teemed with non-Chinese visitors while Chinese residents receded into the background.
     But what did Chinatown look like before there were busloads of gawking tourists, many who had never seen a Chinese before? The most influential photographer of San Francisco's Chinatown was a German immigrant, Arnold Genthe, who took numerous street photographs of the public activities of Chinese in San Francisco's Old Chinatown at the turn of the twentieth century prior to the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed much of the original Chinatown. His photographs are a valuable visual portrait of this 'exotic' community. When I first saw them many years ago, I was fascinated by his images and thought how fortunate it was that he made these photographs so that later generations could see what street life of the early Chinese was like.
      A few years later, however, I had second thoughts after reading historian John Kuo Wei Tchen's critical analysis in his introduction to a 1984 book of a selection of Genthe's photographs. Tchen pointed out some of the selective editing, manipulating, and cropping that Genthe performed on many of his photographs. Genthe's Eurocentric vision of the Oriental soul guided his photographic evidence.  In his photographs, he 'saw' what he imagined. His work, more artistic than ethnographic in its goals, emphasized the notion that the Chinese were exotic, and different, from Anglos. Genthe's photographs portrayed Chinese in isolation from the larger community, and strengthened the view that Chinese were unassimilable or forever foreign. Art historian Anthony Lee in his book, Picturing Chinatown, also examined the social and political context of Genthe's photographs and their lasting impact that to this day blocks acceptance of revised views of Chinatown and its residents.
        The noted novelist, Maxine Hong Kingston, also raised questions earlier in 1978 about the subjective biases of Genthe's portrait of Chinatown.   She noted, "What is missing from Genthe’s Chinatown photographs are white people, whose presence would have broken the spell of a self-contained, mythical Cathay." She pointed out that this absence of white people was not because they did not frequent Chinatown in those days because, "Chinatown depends on a vigorous, aggressive relationship with white America to survive. Surely, white businessmen, tourists, gamblers, customers could be seen dealing with the Chinese inhabitants." 
          Genthe believed that Chinese did not like having their pictures taken because of primitive superstitions so he always hid his camera, which on the positive side, enabled him to capture more unposed photographs.  However, Kingston suggested that his conclusion about the reticence of Chinese to being photographed was naive.  A more plausible reason was, "They refused to let Genthe take their pictures, not because of exotic beliefs but because they were afraid of incurring trouble from the white authorities with their Exclusion Acts and deportation laws." 
       Kingston also noted and questioned the reality suggested by the many pictures that contained children, which "gives the impression that Chinatown was a healthy community of flourishing families when exactly the opposite was the actual, lonely situation… It was not until the second half of this century that the American immigration laws allowed Chinese women to enter the U.S. on the same basis as men—whose own immigration was restricted by the Chinese Exclusion Acts.”

        Genthe's photographs are of value, but have to be examined critically.  Cameras may never lie or distort, but photographers can.


Chinese Self-Employment and Taxes

        Countless numbers of Chinese immigrants lived frugally and saved as much as possible from their meagre earnings as laborers in factories, sweatshops, laundries, and restaurants with the hope that they might someday be able to own their own business.  Even though they risked losing their investments due to competition and/or lack of business acumen, being one's own boss offered a sense of being in control and freedom from often arbitrary orders from employers.
         A generation or two ago, self-employed business owners did much, if not all, of their business transactions on a strictly cash basis, immediate or deferred, and bookkeeping records of income and expenses were easily manipulated to their advantage taxwise.
Joy Young, 1936

    Tax auditors, however, did audit these businesses to try to detect fraud and tax evasion. One defense used by Chinese was 'ignorance' of the American system of doing business. For example, in one case involving the popular Joy Young restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama,  a tax audit based on the taxpayer's bank deposit records revealed that sales tax had been underreported by approximately 40% per month during the audit period of several years.  The taxpayer's attorney invoked a "cultural defense,"arguing that the "Chinese way" of keeping records differed from the "normal"American method and cannot be held to the normal standard of compliance.  An argument against this defense was that as the taxpayer had successfully operated a restaurant since 1919. he certainly knew or should have known he had to keep adequate records for sales tax purposes.

Interior, 1960s

  The case was eventually closed after the taxpayer died during the deliberations. As a rule, sales tax must be assessed within 3 years from the due date but the state revenue office failed to do so in this case.  Hence, the court barred the assessment by the three year statute of limitations unless the Department proved that the Taxpayer filed false or fraudulent returns with the intent to- evade tax.

"Chinese Laundry Kids," CBC Radio documentary

Monday, April 18, 2011  
Chinese hand laundries used to be a fixture in every town and city. They were so common place that the occupation of "laundryman" became synonymous with the Chinese. They were socially isolated, and endured a life of drudgery and racial hostility. CBC producer Yvonne Gall explores the legacy of these Chinese pioneers through the stories of the children who grew up in their parents' laundries.

chinese-laundry-1881.jpgWhy did so many Chinese immigrants turn to owning and operating laundries? 

They were first enticed to North America by the gold rush of the mid 1800's and were later hired to build the railways in both Canada and the United States. But when the gold rush ended and the railways built, the Chinese immigrants were no longer wanted. They were socially isolated and struggled to deal with a growing tide of racism. They gravitated to jobs shunned by the white community, jobs like washing clothes. But hostility and racism persisted and was often expressed in violence and sanctioned by law.

Despite these obstacles, the Chinese laundryman persevered and they endured so that their children would have a better life. 

Reading List

Chinese Laundries:Tickets to Survival On Gold Mountain by John Jung. Published by Yin and Yang Press, 2007. 

Southern Fried Rice: Life in a Chinese Laundry in the Deep South by John Jung. Published by Yin and Yang Press, 2005. 

The Year of Finding Memory 
by Judy Fong Bates. Published by Random House Canada, 2010. 

China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry by Judy Fong Bates. Published by Sister Vision, 1997. 

Enduring Hardship: the Chinese Laundry in Canada by Ban Seng Hoe. Published by Canadian Museum of Civilization, 2003. 

The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation by Paul C. P. Siu. Published by New York University Press, 1987. 

A White Man's Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants 1858-1914 by Patricia E. Roy. Published by University of British Columbia Press, 1989. 

The Oriental Question by Patricia E. Roy. University of British Columbia Press, 2003. 

Chinese Islanders: Making a Home in the New World, by Hung-Min Chiang. Published by Island Studies Press. Charlottetown, 2006.

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