Three Tough Chinamen

  • Scott D. Seligman
  • Earnshaw Books
  • 288 pp.

This biography of three immigrants from Canton illustrates legalized discrimination against the Chinese in 19th-century America.

Although guided by a wise and humane national constitution, the U.S. government has an unfortunate history of spending an extraordinary amount of energy and resources excluding entire racial groups from fair and equal treatment. Nearly every schoolchild learns about the brutal subjugation of Native Americans, the blight of slavery, the long period of institutionalized discrimination that followed the Emancipation Proclamation and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Not so well known is the extreme prejudice that Chinese immigrants endured.

The Chinese began to arrive in America in the latter part of the 19th century, providing cheap labor for the building of the transcontinental railroad and the booming cities of the West Coast. As the number increased, the government took steps to keep them from entering the country and becoming citizens. In 1875, the Page Act was passed ostensibly to keep out Asian sex workers, but in fact severely restricted the entry of all Asian women. This was followed by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which closed America’s doors to all Chinese save immediate family members of those already in America. It also decreed that Chinese were not eligible for citizenship.

The pernicious effects of this discrimination are well illustrated in Scott D. Seligman’s meticulously detailed Three Tough Chinamen, a biography of three brothers: Moy Jin Kee, Moy Jin Mun and Jin Fuey Moy. (Jin Fuey opted to put Moy, the family name, at the end, American style.) Like most of the Chinese who came to America at that time, they were from the southern coast of China, where the “imperative of the harvest virtually guaranteed that most of those who stayed could expect to farm the nearby lands for the rest of their working lives.” To escape that hardscrabble existence, the industrious flocked to America. But unlike most Chinese who returned to their homeland once they had made their fortunes in America, the Moys decided to stay. They became leaders in their communities and waged battles against persistent persecution by authorities. They fought for their civil rights.

Accordingly, they left a paper trail through the courts, newspapers and archives from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., which the author methodically and painstakingly uncovered.  There is the handwriting sample that Jin Mun had to submit to the Immigration Bureau on Angel Island for an investigation into charges of extortion. There is the document from the Circuit Court of Marion County, Ind., that revoked the U.S. citizenship of Jin Kee, the only one of the three men to obtain it. There is Jin Fuey’s State of New Jersey certificate of marriage to Hatita Alice Dolbow. The union of a white woman and a Chinese man was so bizarre that it made the headlines of both The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Baltimore Sun.

In fact, the author found countless examples of rampant racism and shoddy journalism in newspapers from all over the country, including brazen fabrications that catered to the public’s stereotypes of Chinese. Here is an example that Seligman cites from The Washington Post about the destruction of Chinatown in the great earthquake of 1906: “Chinatown is forever wiped out, and every resident of San Francisco will regard this as a godsend.” The New York Herald asked Jin Kee whether the Bible in Chinese must be read “while the reader stood on his head, and whether the fact that Chinamen stood upside down at home (being on the underside of the globe) had anything to do with the puzzle.” He was quoted as saying, “Hope evelly brother sistel come teach my countrymen lead, teach them love save you I do. I need be same way.” The Macon Weekly Telegraph headlined its story on Jin Fuey’s arrest for writing prescriptions for opiates: “Chink Doctor Gets Rich But His $100 a Day Drug Profit Causes His Arrest.”

Like most immigrants, the Moys were neither saints nor sinners, but they were industrious, ambitious and scrappy. All three rose to positions of influence and fought for their fellow Chinese. They attained financial success, even though it sometimes meant engaging in questionable activities, and they had to be shrewd to overcome the legal barriers they faced. When the government repeatedly tried to put the Moys in their place, they fought back; each was a vocal opponent of the Chinese Exclusion Act and other “laws that were patently unfair and that ordained that they accept third-class status if they desired even a small share in the American dream.” Jin Fuey’s case of selling opiate prescriptions went to the Supreme Court twice. The first time, the court ruled in his favor, but two years later his conviction was upheld.

The Moys did not live to see the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which came in 1943. In June of this year, 130 years later, the U.S. House voted unanimously to issue a formal expression of regret for the act. The Senate passed its own resolution in October 2011. Though long overdue, the apology is an important first step. It should also be heeded as a warning in these times of rising Islamophobia and punitive laws against “illegals.” Targeting races or categories among our immigrants, who are after all the lifeblood of America, has always resulted in disgraceful and indefensible blots upon America’s reputation.

Alice Stephens attained U.S. citizenship a few years after adoption of the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished preference for immigrants from northwestern Europe.

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