AMWF History: Sarah Burke and Wong Suey Wong, Arrested in 1883 USA (For Love)

A Chinese American man.
A Chinese American man circa late 1800s/early 1900s.

Chances are, if you’ve ever been in an interracial or intercultural relationship, you’ve experienced your share of negative comments or racist remarks.

But at least you’ve never been arrested, like Sarah Burke and Wong Suey Wong were in San Francisco, California in 1883. That’s just one year after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed.

Here’s the initial story from the San Francisco Chronicle, 7 April 1883 (per

Officer Travers brought to the city prison at 12:30 o’clock this morning a Chinaman on whose arm whose was hanging a pretty young girl of some twenty summers. The couple proved to be no others than Wong Suey Wong and Sarah Burke. The arrest was made at 728 Jackson Street, a house of ill-fame, being the abode of several Celestial courtesans. Here Sarah Burke was found, in one of the upper rooms, in a bed completely hidden by sheets used as curtains. At the police station she said that she had gone to the house on Tuesday last, knowing that it was a house of ill-fame, but not caring, since in a day or two she would be legally married to the choice of her heart, with whom she has been living for the past five months. On being parted from her Chinese lover she squeezed his hand, which he returned with equal fervor. In the Chinaman’s pocket was found, besides a receipted bill for a bed and a spring mattress, a photograph of his fair amorata, from which he parted with evident reluctance. He was charged with felony in having lodged a girl under age in a house of ill-fame, while she was booked for residing in a house of prostitution.

In other words, the authorities dredged up some pretextual reasons to throw them in jail, since they didn’t like the idea of a Chinese man and a white woman being in love.

And if you had any doubt as to how people felt about a relationship like this in those days, well, read the first line of the April 8, 1883 story in the San Francisco Chronicle follows on 8 April 1883 (per

Sarah Burke, who has unalterably set her mind upon a disgusting marriage with a Chinese laundryman, acknowledged that she had passed a dismally and frigidly cold night in prison on Friday. Wong Suey Wong, her Mongolian fiancée, coincided in this experience. About 11 o’clock yesterday morning some of the pair’s Chinese friends obtained the release of the couple on bonds in $100 each.

This April 8, 1883 story highlights the challenges the couple faced in trying to marry, noting, “…it was fortunately discovered that for decency’s sake a marriage between a white and an Indian, mulatto or Mongolian, was prohibited and therefore the County Clerk could issue no marriage license.” Sarah and Wong’s only options were a marriage under a civil contract or a marriage without a marriage license.

(As shocking as this sounds, it reminds me of the restrictions the US had placed on same-sex couples. Hard to believe the US Supreme Court only legalized marriage equality just last year!)

But it gets worse when Sarah’s father attempted to have her committed to an institution for insanity, “who deemed the fact of her infatuation for a repulsive Chinese sufficient grounds for believing that she had lost her reason.” Ugh!

Here’s the story in the San Francisco Bulletin 12 April 1883 (per

The father testified that his daughter had always been possessed of ordinary common sense until about the first of last January, when she conceived her unhallowed desire to wed Wong Suey, since which she had acted as though possessed of the Infernal One. He had never had any reason to doubt that she was a chaste and moral girl until now. Sarah Isabella was also examined. She again reiterated her love for Wong Sue, and desires to marry him….

The Commissioners, however, concluded that they could not commit the girl as insane. She was evidently suffering from a moral eclipse, but her mental trouble did not, in their opinion, come within the meaning of the law….

The story even chronicles how “a stalwart policeman grabbed Wong by the nape of the neck and small of the back, and hurled him into the hallway adjoining the Commission” after Wong entered the room and embraced Sarah. Horrible!

Fortunately, all charges were dismissed against Sarah Burke, and the couple were married by Reverend Mr. Vrooman.

But did they live happily ever after? Hard to say in the late 1800s in America, a world filled with hostility for interracial couples.

What do you think?

P.S.: Thanks to Tony of for tipping me off to this story and offering a wonderful repository of information at his website.

I’m always on the lookout for more AMWF history. If you know of a couple or story you’d like me to spotlight, contact me today.

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37 Replies to “AMWF History: Sarah Burke and Wong Suey Wong, Arrested in 1883 USA (For Love)”

  1. Nice to see that California has changed a lot in the intervening centuries. To date, only one racist comment in the Los Angeles area has ever been made to my Chinese-American guy.

    Of course, his hearing isn’t the greatest, so maybe he only heard one out of twenty.

    But at least no one believes I’m certifiable for loving him.

  2. Racism against AMWF couples is alive and well here in the US. A couple of weeks ago we had an older man at the grocery store smash his shopping cart not once, but twice (in the space of about t minutes), in ours and looked at my husband and I with so much hatred in his eyes that it frightened me. We are completely used to starring, pointing, comments in Chinese and English, etc. but actual physical aggression is fortunately very rare.

  3. Thanks for sharing this story Jocelyn. While things have obviously improved immensely since the 1880’s I think some people still harbour these kinds of feelings. I so clearly remember the first time I encountered this when I was at university and told a white male friend I liked one of our mutual friends and his reaction was “you like Asian guys?” The friend’s race had honestly not crossed my mind, I’d been attracted to all different races of people before. “Asian” is also such an incredibly broad term and I often wonder what people are seeing in their head when they make sweeping statements about Asians. Are they thinking of a Chinese person? Someone from Japan? Korea? Are they thinking of South East Asia? How can they possibly take whatever view it is they have and apply it to all these millions of people.

  4. Very little has changed. All that has changed is the occupation of the mind instead where although there are no laws against interracial marriages all that has happened is a colonization of the mind.

    Where Asian men are emasculated, belittled and Asian women are encouraged to marry white instead. Think why WM (white male) AF (Asian female) is dominant in the USA.

    We can see the effects today:

    37% of Asian women married someone who was not Asian, while 16% of Asian men married outside of their race.

    Or why Asian men need to make $267,000 more a year just to be on par with white men.

    Or even the Olympics Ning Zetao. This guy has an incredible body. Yet out of the woodwork come the massive negative racist comments against him.

    If you read back far enough Jocelyn herself never even considered Asian men. Her social circle at the time was incredibly hostile to the concept of ever being with an Asian man.

    Even in the gay community no RICE is something my friend Simon complains about all the time.

    Hell even look at AMWF porn go on I won’t judge. Every single video is massively downvoted while WMAF is always upvoted.

    Or the way that EVERY group except for white men are made to feel inferior by US television.

    So while laws may have changed… attitudes certainly haven’t.

    For you:

    UK Chinese who were deported after WWII. Their wives considered to be whores and the men deported. Adding to the ‘Chinese men never live up to their responsibilities’

    1. There is no need to mention above things,many modern european’s ancestors(especially paternal lineage) come from asia.

      1. do you mean the european were get @$$ kicked, dumbf—ed and head slapped by the Asian steppe hordes such as khazars, huns, avar and mongols ???

    2. Actually works both ways these days and this kind of thing still happens with the UK My British doctor in Singapore says that his wife cannot stay in the UK for more than six months at a time because she did not speak English adequately. Then we have a Japanese PhD who married a white British woman, but she could not “bring him” into the country because she did not make enough. This despite the fact that he got a job at a British University which the government did not allow him to take up. He is not teaching in the US and his wife accompanied him…just to mention two. The architect of this nonsense is none other than the British PM Theresa May.

  5. Thank you for sharing this fascinating and terribly sad story. I imagine that I will think often of this brave young couple. I like to think that their descendents are alive and well, and conscious of the family history. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to see a photograph of them with their baby? So much hatred in the world, but somehow love persists.

  6. It’s sad that this once happened, and even sadder to think that there’s still people who think like this. I wonder if I could have been as brave as this couple were?

    I’d be interested in any more stories like this, it’s nice to see the positive changes that have been made.

  7. As late as 1977 my cousin and his wife were arrested were arrested in South Africa and thrown in jail for five years for being married to each other. My cousin Breytenbach, a South African poet was jailed for marrying a non-white Vietnamese woman of French nationality.

  8. More AMWF history coming up in September, although it will be published in Dutch:

    It’s a book about Selma Vos, the only Dutch person to live in China during the Great Leap Forward. She moved to Beijing with her husband and their two kids, but the Cultural Revolution led to the destruction of their family.

    I have no idea whether this book will be translated, but it seems to be a very interesting story. If you think it’s relevant to your blog, I can introduce you to the author.

  9. Breyten Breytenbach….as Gerrit says.. met his half Vietnamese daughter Daphne who is a French journalist. Told me that her dad was imprisoned for promoting, marrying a non-white woman and when Mandela was released she went down to South Africa where both she and her mother were harassed. Her mother for marrying an Afrikaner and according to them Daphne should not exist in this world. If you type Breyten Breytenbach in the google you will get all the details.

    Meanwhile, those attitudes still exist in the US, although this article focuses mostly on black-white couples, I think…

    “But to test how their feelings toward mixed-race couples would manifest in behavioral ways, one final experiment was conducted. Nearly 200 subjects were asked to associate photos of interracial and same-race couples with silhouettes of either humans or animals. This activity would, theoretically, reveal whether people were likely to dehumanize interracial partners. According to the study’s findings, people were quicker to pair photos of interracial couples with animals than with other humans. Wow, okay. ”

  10. Sadly enough, it’s not the first time I ran across a story where the white woman was threatened to be thrown into mental hospital. There’s a book I used to see on Amazon about a young woman from Canada who fell in love with an Asian man and was institutionalized.

    Ever since I gave birth, my eyes were really opened by how some people continue to hold unfortunate stereotypes of Asian men. I hope my son will grow up healthy in all areas of life.

  11. Do not let your dignity depending on others opinions or approval.

    Complaining about others negative treatment of you is sign of begging for others mercy. The respect is earned, not begged. You earn it through winning, domination, success, just plain superiority. It is like Olympic game which success is not based on others mercy. Even you are winners, you will still receive sour grape negative comment against you from competitive people. Let us face it. White people are very competitive people who will never accept their loss. They will always bash the winners. Negative comments against you actually reflect losers insecure mindset too. If you read European history, nationalism is in their blood. Losers never admit losing even among themselves. French never admit lose against German. German (in their mind) never accept their loss to Russian by claiming killing more Russian. Greek never accepted their loss to Persian.

    Thus if you are gullible to their rhetoric, you lose. Hoping one day that western media to portrait you in positive light? That is just pathetic. Even Asian winners like Genghis Khan was portrayed as feared bad guys. Either they give you contempt or you give them fear (that is only kind of respect they can give you).

    Don’t be a slave who waits for master’s approval. Be master yourself!

  12. I am northern Chinese Han with 1/4 Manchurian heritage growing up in pure north including Manchuria. As northerners (Mongolian, Manchurian, Northern Han, also Korean), we are proud of ourselves no matter how miserable life is.

    A lot of western travelers impression of northern Chinese is that we are very nationalistic people. Yes, they are damn right about that. In fact, most northerners are more nationalistic in general, which include most northern Europeans like German, Russian, Norwegian, ect. Not sure how this happens. I bet it is more to do with survive in harsh cold climate without any one else mercy. Also historically, it was always for northerners conquering southerners in both Asia and European histories.

    As kid growing up in north, there were quite a few of native westerners (ethnic Russian) among us. But these white people never received white privilege enjoyed in southern China (Shanghai included). Actually white people were viewed inferior in Manchuria during my time there. If you wonder how crazy Korean people are pride of themselves over other people, well, that is how northerners in general are, not just Korean. Do you wonder why North Korea is so confrontational toward USA? Well, they have no fear of westerners since they view white people as inferior sincerely.

    Bottom-line, northern people (both Asian and European) are just genetically proud of themselves which do not depend on others approval. We are highly competitive people. We are fighters who never accept loss. Lost one battle is not reason to surrender your soul. You always seek the chance to win next time.

    Southern slave like mentality is just so bizarre to us. Begging for approval is down right pathetic.


    Most patriotic guy had nerve to perform this patriotic/anti-American piece of music right there in front of US president in White House in USA. He is full of national pride.

    Lang Lang 郎朗 was born in Shenyang, Liaoning, China. His father Lang Guoren is a descendant of the Manchu Niohuru family, which brought forth a long line of Qing Empresses

    Yes he is a fellow northerner, a Manchurian, proud of his nation. Not coincidence. You see more this type of people in north.

  14. An interesting bit of history. Thank you, Jocelyn. My immediate attitude was–My, how things have changed!

    There are always going to be people with different attitudes than mine. People who don’t like my clothes, my blog posts, my choices of friends, hobbies, sports, vacation spots or husband. I prefer not to focus on their opinions and prejudices. (Although if someone is a rabid Donald Trump fan, I would avoid them if possible.)

    In thirty years of marriage to my Chinese husband, we experienced no problems worthy of note. In fact, I don’t remember any problem at all. Were there some? Probably. But they didn’t influence my life and happiness.

    Like IC above, my husband was confident–proud of himself and his heritage. If one can pull it off, it’s a good way to be.

  15. There is also the love story of Gwen and Hidenari Terasaki, an American woman and Japanese man during WWII. She has a book called “Bridge to the Sun a memoir of Love and War” and there is also a movie made in 1961 with Carroll Baker and James Shigeta. It’s a good story if anyone is interested in it.

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