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The First Chinese American

The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo


Publication Year: 2013

Chinese in America endured abuse and discrimination in the late nineteenth century, but they had a leader and a fighter in Wong Chin Foo (1847–1898), whose story is a forgotten chapter in the struggle for equal rights in America. The first to use the term "Chinese American," Wong defended his compatriots against malicious scapegoating and urged them to become Americanized to win their rights. A trailblazer and a born showman who proclaimed himself China's first Confucian missionary to the United States, he founded America's first association of Chinese voters and testified before Congress to get laws that denied them citizenship repealed. Wong challenged Americans to live up to the principles they freely espoused but failed to apply to the Chinese in their midst. This evocative biography is the first book-length account of the life and times of one of America's most famous Chinese—and one of its earliest campaigners for racial equality.

Published by: Hong Kong University Press, HKU


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5


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pp. 6-9

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pp. ix-xiii

In the many months I have lived with Wong Chin Foo, reading what he wrote and what he read, studying what admirers and critics said about him during his lifetime and since, tracking his movements and corresponding with his descendants, I have often smiled to myself in admiration and appreciation. Had he not died more than half a ...

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pp. xv-xvii

First and foremost, I would like to express my deepest thanks to several scholars who have contributed immeasurably to this project by reviewing the manuscript, making helpful and challenging suggestions for its improvement, and encouraging me throughout its the Harvard-Yenching Library, who in many important ways played ...

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A Note on Romanization and Chinese Names

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pp. xix-xx

No standard romanization system for Chinese names was used a century ago in the original documents consulted in the preparation of this book. The venerable Wade-Giles system for rendering the...

Wong Chin Foo Chronology

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pp. xxi-xxvi

Dramatis Personae

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pp. xxvii-xxxii

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1. The Arid Land of Heathenism (1847–67)

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pp. 1-14

The single most important choice in the life of Wong Chin Foo—the one most responsible for who he eventually became—was not his own. It was, in fact, made on his behalf when he was a teenager by a pious American ...

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2. An Abbreviated American Education (1868–70)

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pp. 15-25

Tens of thousands of “Chinamen,” as they were called then, had already landed on America’s shores by the time Wong Sa Kee arrived in late 1867. Chinese had begun appearing in significant numbers just after news reached China of the 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California. By 1860, the immigrant Chinese in the United ...

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3. The Timber from Which Conspirators Are Made (1871–72)

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pp. 27-37

Wong does not appear to have had any intention of taking up missionary work when he landed in his native country in early 1871. His first order of business was to return to Shandong and take a wife. He was already 24: it was past time. He chose—or, more likely, had chosen for him—a woman named Liu Yu San, who had been a student and, ...

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4. Soiled Doves (1873–74)

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pp. 39-48

Shortly after the SS MacGregor dropped anchor off San Francisco’s Black Point Battery on the evening of September 9, 1873, a large envelope was smuggled ashore and quietly delivered to the office of the chief of police. No one saw who brought it. The envelope contained a letter written in English on two pieces of rice paper in the ...

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5. A Hare-Brained, Half-Crazy Man (1873–74)

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pp. 49-54

The San Francisco Chronicle profile, “A Remarkable Chinaman,” was measure of nationwide renown.1 It provided a fairly comprehensive, if somewhat embellished, summary of his life to date, including the MacGregor affair and his revolutionary activities in, and flight from, China. Connecticut’s Hartford Courant published it on October 7, ...

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6. America’s First Confucian Missionary (1874)

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pp. 55-61

After the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, large numbers of Chinese in America were put out of work. This occurred, regrettably, just as the country was on the brink of a nationwide depression. As Chinese immigrants began to look for other employ-West. Their willingness to work for low wages put them at odds with ...

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7. A Most Delightful Dish of Chow Chow (1875–79)

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pp. 63-76

The peripatetic Wong delivered variations on the Boston speech for the next several years in the East and the Midwest, as well as presentations on the domestic life, manners, and customs of the Chinese. He remained in New England for the balance of ...

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8. A Terror to the Chinese Community (1879–82)

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pp. 77-87

The “Chinese question” continued to preoccupy the nation as the 1870s progressed. At the urging of California politicians, and with that state’s six electoral votes squarely in their sights in what promised to be a close election, both major political parties ...

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9. The Chinese American (1883)

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pp. 89-99

On May 8, 1882, President Chester A. Arthur, who had succeeded James A. Garfield after the latter’s assassination the previous year, signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law. The act contained bad news for both future hopeful immigrant laborers from China and...

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10. Wiping Out the Stain (1883–85)

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pp. 101-109

With the publication of the Chinese American, Wong’s notoriety grew. He was often sought out to speak for the Chinese community, a role the quotable editor willingly embraced. When Dr. Charles Kaemmerer, former sanitary inspector for the city, accused Chinatown residents ...

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11. I Shall Drive Him Back to His Sand Lots (1883)

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pp. 111-117

If any one individual personified the anti-Chinese movement in the United States, it was surely San Francisco’s Denis Kearney. A bigot, a demagogue, and a gifted public speaker, Kearney rose to national prominence in the late 1870s when he became ...

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12. Pigtails in Politics (1884–86)

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pp. 119-124

After the passage of the Exclusion Act in 1882, it was abundantly clear that America’s Chinese had few friends in the political firmament. Planks supporting exclusion in the platforms of both major parties in the 1880 presidential election had signaled a broad ...

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13. Chop Suey (1884–86)

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pp. 125-134

The Chinese American never offered Wong a significant source of income, if indeed it provided him any salary at all. Its demise, however, once again raised the question of how he was to earn a living. Money, Wong claimed, was never a strong motivator ...

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14. Why Am I a Heathen? (1887)

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pp. 135-147

Wong’s thinking about religion underwent a remarkable metamorphosis in the 1880s. In the decade since he had begun his attack on the missionaries in China and declared himself a missionary in reverse, he had ...

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15. Fifty Cents a Pound (1887)

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pp. 149-158

The month after Yan Phou Lee’s article appeared, Wong got an opportunity for a rematch with his nemesis, Denis Kearney. Four years after their initial confrontation, Kearney, a political has-been by this time, was back on the East Coast. He was trying to gin up support ...

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16. The Chinese in New York (1887–89)

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pp. 159-167

During the late 1880s, Wong was a pillar of New York Chinatown society and served informally as one of its ambassadors to the wider world. He feted Excise Commissioner William S. Andrews at a dinner in Chinatown in November 1886. Half a year ...

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17. I Have Always Been a Republican (1888–89)

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pp. 169-175

Writing for the American audience was important to Wong, because public attitudes toward the Chinese would have to soften before meaningful change could be effected in exclusion policies. But as he began to turn his attention to politics, he realized that addressing ...

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18. I’ll Cut Your Head Off If You Write Such Things (1888–91)

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pp. 177-185

Stamping out vice among America’s Chinese was a cause to which Wong had been committed for many years. As he saw it, giving up destructive, Old World customs like opium smoking was part and parcel of becoming ...

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19. The Only New Yorker Without a Country (1891)

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pp. 187-194

The Chinese Exclusion Act not only halted most Chinese immigration, it also plunged into limbo the status of those few Chinese who had naturalized before its passage. After 1882, Wong had to endure repeated insinuations that his ...

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20. The Chinese Equal Rights League (1892)

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pp. 195-208

Neither the Chinese Exclusion Act nor any of the other measures adopted to keep the Chinese out had proven entirely successful in foiling the laws of supply and demand. Powerful economic forces continued to conspire to unite Chinese workers ...

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21. Is It Then a Crime to Be a Chinaman? (1893)

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pp. 209-219

For Congress to repeal the Geary Act, a new bill would be required, and the man to introduce it was Congressman John Forrester Andrew, a Massachusetts Democrat. Elected in 1888, Andrew was a Harvardeducated attorney who ...

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22. An Ardent Worker for Justice (1893)

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pp. 221-233

By the end of 1891, it looked as though Wong’s decade-long dream of establishing a Chinese theater in New York was finally about to be realized. He had secured enough financial backing to lease space in the basement and first floor...

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23. False Starts (1894–95)

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pp. 235-239

Shortly after the Columbian Exposition closed, Wong returned to New York. With his departure, the second incarnation of his Chinese American newspaper died. In December 1893, several papers around the country carried a tiny item in which it was revealed ...

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24. The American Liberty Party (1896)

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pp. 241-250

The Midwest was where the major parties planned to choose their candidates for the presidential election of 1896. The principal campaign issues were expected to be economic ones, including free coinage of silver and ...

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25. A Letter from My Friends in America (1894–97)

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pp. 251-260

Becoming Chinese American implied making a commitment to the United States and adopting American ways, but Wong had never asserted that it required turning one’s back on China. He himself certainly never did so. And while his knowledge ...

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26. Citizenship for Americanized Chinese (1897)

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pp. 261-273

Wong was frenzied and unfocused at the end of 1896, and probably exhausted. He was, after all, publishing a newspaper, establishing a house of worship, running a civil rights organization, and planning the overthrow of the Manchus, all at the same ...

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27. When the World Came to Omaha (1897–98)

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pp. 275-281

Wong had had nothing but praise for Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition and the men who had stepped in to plan, finance, and build a Chinese village, after the Manchu government declined to participate. He had written about ...

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28. I Do Not Like Chinese Ways, Nor Chinamen Any More (1898)

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pp. 283-287

On June 20, 1898, after nearly three weeks at sea, Wong disembarked in Hong Kong. It had been 25 years since he had last set foot in Asia. He had several reasons for making the trip when he did. First, he believed he was owed money by his erstwhile ...

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pp. 289-296

...decades upon America’s stage and then was heard no more. Few of the institutions that he Wong Chin Foo was a player who strutted and fretted his three decades upon America’s stage and then was heard no more. Few of the institutions that he built survived him; those that lived on did not do so for long. After his death ...

Appendix - Wong Chin Foo’s Published Works

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pp. 297-303


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pp. 305-340

Glossary and Gazetteer

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pp. 341-345


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pp. 347-355


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pp. 357-364

E-ISBN-13: 9789882208438
Print-ISBN-13: 9789888139897

Page Count: 336
Illustrations: 40 b/w
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: 1