The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo

  • Scott D. Seligman
  • Hong Kong University
  • 364 pp.
  • Reviewed by Ann White
  • May 29, 2013

A biography of an enigmatic Chinese-born man who moved to the US in the late-1800s, then adopted American dress and customs, started a Chinese American newspaper, and fought for the rights of Chinese in America.

In the context of United States history, Wong Chin Foo looks like an apostle of fairness, a friend of the downtrodden. He rescued enslaved Chinese prostitutes in California. He exhorted the U.S. government to grant citizenship to Chinese living here. He struggled to gain respect for his fellow Chinese in the United States.

Scott Seligman, Wong’s biographer, calls Wong Chin Foo the first Chinese American for two reasons. First, he started a Chinese language newspaper in New York that he called the Chinese American, which Seligman says is the first recorded use of the term. Second, Wong was the first person in the United States to identify himself as a Chinese American, by which he meant adopting American dress and customs.

Wong Chin Foo reached the U.S. through the kindness of an American Baptist missionary, Sallie Holmes, who took him into her north China home in 1861 when he was an impoverished boy of 14. Seven years later she brought him to the United States to be educated, hoping that he would return to China as a Christian missionary. Wong never became a missionary, nor did he stick to any curriculum long enough to earn an academic degree. Still, he mastered two important skills: how to speak good English and how to move easily in American society.

Wong fought anti-Chinese prejudice in the United States by speaking to public audiences and writing newspaper articles. In the late 1870s, before passage of the Exclusion Act of 1882, he opposed political pressures to restrict Chinese immigration, arguing in 1878 that Chinese should be able to come here freely, calling the U.S. “the land of the oppressed and the home of the unfortunate.”  

Seligman writes that, by the 1890s, Wong had narrowed his focus to fighting for U.S. citizenship for Chinese who had, like Wong himself, given up Chinese dress, language, and customs. 

If in the context of U.S. history, Wong Chin Foo looks like a champion of civil rights, in the context of Chinese history he appears a typical example of Chinese self-assertion. The Chinese called their country the “central kingdom”; nearby peoples deferred to the superiority of Chinese culture by sending tribute missions to China; to the Chinese, the English and Americans who came to trade in the 19th century were “barbarians” who lacked sophistication. In some of his public appearances, Wong voiced the same kind of belief in China’s cultural superiority. “I belong to the most ancient empire on this globe,” he said in 1883, when he denounced the Irish for their anti-Chinese prejudice. When he undertook to bring a San Francisco Chinese theater troupe to New York, he told the New York Tribune that Chinese drama was “the oldest in the world, going back to the first stages of recorded history.” In 1894 he predicted that China’s “manly, virile” civilization would triumph over the “woman-ruled, debt-burdened and divided civilization of the West.” Wong Chin Foo might have called himself prophetic had he known that, in 2013, the CEO of Apple would apologize to the Chinese for “misunderstandings” even as Chinese state media (according to the Financial Times) continued to lambast Apple for its greed and arrogance.

So Wong Chin Foo poses a puzzle for the reader of this biography: Is he an American civil rights champion, an asserter of China’s cultural superiority, or a bit of both? 

Scott Seligman considers him an American civil rights icon, though he admits that Wong’s iconic status is lessened by his eventually ignoring Chinese in the U.S. who didn’t assimilate. Nonetheless, in the book’s afterword he puts Wong’s name alongside the names of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Cesar Chavez, and Gloria Steinem. He calls Wong a “titan” in U.S. history.

However puzzling Wong Chin Foo may be, about his biographer’s thoroughness there is no puzzle. Scott Seligman seems to have learned all that can be known about Wong Chin Foo’s activities in the United States. He organizes the book’s chapters year by year through Wong’s life and he footnotes his findings. An appendix has a list of Wong’s published works, 140 newspaper and periodical articles published between 1874 and 1897. Wong died in 1898.

And Seligman’s enthusiasm matches his thoroughness. In the preface he writes that he would have “enjoyed knowing this colorful and passionate man.” His enthusiasm for Wong animates his biography. The company of the first Chinese American may well charm the reader of the book, though perhaps puzzle and infuriate as well. 

Ann White is the retired chairwoman of the history department of Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C. She holds a Ph.D. in Far Eastern history from the University of Pennsylvania.

comments powered by Disqus