9. “The Ministering Angel of Chinatown: ”Missionary Uplift, Modern Medicine, and Asian American Women’s Strategies of Liminality
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9 “The Ministering Angel of Chinatown” Missionary Uplift, Modern Medicine, and Asian American Women’s Strategies of Liminality Judy Tzu-Chun Wu Any woman surgeon . . . bucks heavy odds of lay prejudice and professional resentment at usurpation of what many consider to be a man’s undisputed field and when that woman is an American of Chinese descent she is granted even fewer mistakes and less leisure. —Margaret Chung, Los Angeles Times, 25 June 1939 In 1916, Margaret Jessie Chung (1889–1959) graduated from the University of Southern California’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, becoming the first known American -born Chinese woman physician. She overcame gender, racial, and economic barriers to attain medical training. As a member of a large, impoverished family, she worked to pay for her own education, barely making enough to pay for tuition and sustenance. In her unpublished autobiography, she recalled,“All the time that I was in Medical College I do not remember having three square meals a day.”1 Margaret Chung’s strategies to establish a career in the predominantly white and male medical profession provide insight into Asian American women’s negotiations of gender, sexual, racial, and class boundaries in both mainstream American society and their own ethnic communities during the early twentieth century. Prior to World War II, the overwhelming majority of Asian Americans, immigrants as well as Americanborn , men as well as women, worked in low-status and labor-intensive occupations. A small but increasing number of Asian Americans succeeded in gaining access to higher education and professional training.2 However, racial discrimination limited their ability to pursue careers in mainstream society. In addition, female professionals faced obstacles due to gender discrimination. In response, Asian American professionals pursued racial and gender“separatism”as vocational strategies.3 Like other people of color, they established themselves in segregated communities to offer services to co-ethnics. Women also took advantage of social norms that discouraged gender mixing to provide medical care for other women. 155 At first glance, Chung’s career appears to follow this pattern of professional separatism . She initially wanted to practice medicine in China and eventually founded a clinic in San Francisco’s Chinatown. However, Chung’s professional efforts there met with mixed results. Seeking to serve other women of Chinese ancestry, she mainly attracted white, male patients. A closer examination of her medical training and early practice provides a more nuanced understanding of changing racial, gender, and sexual dynamics in the mainstream society as well as in the Chinese American community. Her pioneering efforts to enter the medical profession reveal how Asian American women used their liminality, their “in between” gender and racial identities, to negotiate the shifting social boundaries of the early twentieth century. The “Medical Lady Missionary” Margaret Chung came of age, both personally and professionally, during a transitional historical period. She was born in late Victorian America, a society founded upon gender inequality and racial hierarchy. Women, viewed as innately incapable of entering the public world of work and politics,were consigned to the private sphere of home and family. Nonwhites, designated as inferior races by prevailing Darwinian theories, experienced an escalation of racial violence and segregation.While Chung was raised in this world, she completed medical training and embarked on a career as the broader society self-consciously entered a modern age that celebrated values of equality and cosmopolitanism . The transformation in social norms at this time occurred unevenly and incompletely. By 1920, women gained the right to vote and increasingly rejected traditional gender constraints.While these changes presaged the merging of gender spheres, both women and men continued to embrace notions of essentialized gender difference. Similarly, the 1920s signaled contradictory notions about race. The 1924 Immigration Act almost completely barred Asians from entry into the United States. At the same time though, middle-class whites “slummed” in working-class and segregated neighborhoods to experience exotic forms of entertainment. Social scientists also entered these communities to further their studies of cultural and racial differences.4 Chung’s motivations for becoming a physician and her strategies for obtaining a professional education reflect the changes as well as the continuities in racial and gender norms during this conflicted era. Chung’s desire to become a physician was inspired by Victorian Christian missionary teachings. Her parents, Ah Yane (1869–1914) and Chung Wong ([1860–1862]– 1917), immigrated separately to the United States in the mid-1870s and received religious instruction and support from Presbyterian missionaries in California.5 The...


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Subject Headings

  • Pacific Islander American women -- History.
  • Asian American women -- History.
  • United States -- Ethnic relations.
  • Pacific Islander American women -- Social conditions.
  • Asian American women -- Social conditions.
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