Eugene Chen, who was born in Trinidad in 1878 and passed away in Shanghai, is best known as a foreign minister to four different Chinese governments, including Sun Yatsen’s. After all, it was Sun’s speech in London to a group of overseas Chinese that inspired Chen to move to China and support the new government, despite the fact that Chen couldn’t even speak Chinese.
One of Chen’s greatest achievements came in 1927 when he helped China reclaim the colonial port cities Hankou and Jiujiang from the British government. But he’s also known for founding some English-language papers in China, and some consider him one of the earliest overseas Chinese to practice law.
But did you know that he also married the French Creole Agatha Alphosin Ganteaume, also called Aisy, in 1899? I found this account of their marriage, published in Return to the Middle Kingdom: One Family, Three Revolutionaries, and the Birth of Modern China, rather fascinating:
…in the atmosphere of strong racial prejudices, it was still a mystery how a Chinese and a French Creole were finally affianced and married, even allowing for the fact that Aisy was a young girl of great resource and that Eugene had even then shown a talent for diplomacy. The key to the mystery was in Monsieur Gantheume’s hand.
The marriage might have been a love match, but it would not have been too far from the truth to say it was initiated to some extent by Monsieur Gantheaume himself. Anxious to find a suitable husband for his high-spirited natural daughter, he might have requested the aid of the good sisters of St. Joseph and the good fathers of St. Mary’s. The good fathers of St. Mary’s recommended Eugene to the good sisters of St. Joseph, and both presented the candidate to Monsieur Gantheaume for inspection. Eugene, as human as any young enterprising lover, was more than ready to marry a wife with a dowry, considerable by the standard of the Chinese community, and an influential father.
The marriage also set a pattern for Eugene to follow in the future. At every critical stage of his life, he had an eye for the extraordinary opportunity and for taking an unusual course.
Was theirs a happy marriage, despite the challenges of that era? It’s a good question, one complicated by the fact that Chen had a mistress, who was also Creole, after he and Aisy were married.
Aisy passed away in 1926, and Chen would go on to marry Georgette Chen, a Chinese painter. But it’s nevertheless fascinating to know that Eugene Chen and Agatha Alphosin Ganteaume wedded at a time when interracial marriages were rare and even illegal in many countries.