The First Chinese-American

Wong Chin Foo is referred to as “the First Chinese-American”, not only because he is believed to have coined the term in English and Chinese, but also because he was one of the first Chinese people to get U.S. citizenship, doing so in 1874.  He was originally from Shandong, China, and was raised by Baptist Missionaries.  He studied in the States for a time, then had to flee back there in 1873 when he was facing arrest for anti-Qing activities.

A note here, Wong Chin Foo is how his name was spelled in the Wade-Giles system of romanization.  It’s a pretty terrible system, so I’ll stick with the pinyin Wang Qingfu for his actual name 王清福.

When he got back to America, he saw the deplorable conditions his countrymen were living in (I don’t think I need to go into terrible treatment of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century) and resolved to do something about it.  In his mind, a big problem was that Americans had never met a Chinese person for real and were just going off of negative stereotypes, worsened by missionaries’ depiction of China as a godless wasteland full of corruption, and the public perception of Chinatowns as wretched hives of scum and villainy due to the opium, prostitution, and gambling that they housed (industries the Chinese only entered because racism kept them out of legitimate employment).  So Wang would go on these talks around the country, talking about Chinese culture in an approachable way and explaining Confucianism, Buddhism, and other mysterious aspects of Chinese culture in terms of Christianity to help Americans understand.  In this way, he really put his missionary training to good use, even though he had long since renounced Christianity (he found it distastefully hypocritical).  If you’re curious, his essay “Why Am I a Heathen”  is a great read and can be found here. 

Writing proved to be his calling though, and he settled in New York, writing essays of similar content to bridge the cultural gap.  In 1883 he started the East coast’s first Chinese language magazine called, “The Chinese-American” which seems to be the first use of the term.  He also testified before congress against the Chinese Exclusion Act (one of if not the first Chinese-American to do so), established a Confucian temple in Chicago, and even tried to establish a political party there when neither Democrats nor Republicans would support Chinese enfranchisement.  On the more hare-brained side of things, he also worked from Chicago to support his friend Sun Yat-Sen and even planned to establish a military junta there to rule China after the fall of the Qing.  That didn’t end up happening, but I imagine China would have better pizza today if it had.

I should mention though that while Wang fervently cared about Chinese Americans, hee only cared about them as he defined them,.  For him, a Chinese-American, or a German-American, a Salvadoran-American, an X-American, was someone who had “Strong ties to old country, but was able to function seamlessly as American”.  As a result, he wanted to convince his fellow Chinese to “acculture”.  I.e. give up opium, give up gambling, cut of their queues(ponytails) (making it impossible to return to China as to do so was punished with death under the Qing), and learn English.  He didn’t think they needed to give up on China, far from it.  Rather they needed to love the China that they knew, not the corrupt Qing state, and they needed to bring the “good” parts of China to America while integrating.   In Wong’s opinion, only by doing this would they have grounds to demand equal rights.  He also actually supported the immigration ban portion of the Chinese Exclusion Act, only opposing the ban on naturalization it imposed on Chinese already in America.  In his view the Chinese already in America had their work cut out already.  The ones already there needed to Americanize first, as only then would they have grounds to demand equal rights.  Once that matter was solved, then they could bring in more Chinese.

For these reasons, he really clashed with the greater Chinese immigrant community (also because he was a northerner while the vast majority of them were from Guangdong).  It’s due to this that I think the “Chinese MLK” label that is put on him is a bit undeserving.  That said though, while the CEA wasn’t repealed until 1943 (wtf guys?) long after his death in 1898, he can definitely be credited laying the groundwork for a path to citizenship for Chinese Americans and Chinese Americans in general. If you’re interested to read more, a book recently came out about him by Scott D. Seligamn.  Here’s a pic, the only one known to have been taken, and a sketch.

I was asked after the talk why I felt the need to learn so much about this guy.  Well, I initially heard Segilman speak about his book in D.C. in 2015, and I felt odd.  Here I am, a Bay Area native who studies Chinese, and here’s an original Chinese-American civil rights leader that I know nothing about, what the hell!?  So I took this talk as a perfect opportunity to learn more.  I also find that odd, unexpected contradiction in his character where he only cared about “Chinese-Americans” ever so intriguing and attractive.  I hope you’ve found him as interesting as I did.  Bye!


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