Yung Wing, China’s 1st Overseas Graduate, Finds Love, Tragedy in US

Yung Wing (1828-1912) stands out in history as the pioneering overseas Chinese student, the first from China to graduate from an American university (Yale, class of 1854). He also went on to champion higher education for his fellow Chinese compatriots by establishing the Chinese Educational Mission, which helped send other Chinese students to US schools (including Yale) for a period of time. And countless students, scholars and lifelong learners have benefited from his generous donation of over 1,200 books to Yale, which formed the heart of its celebrated East Asian library.

But Yung Wing’s life also stands as a tragic example of how Chinese exclusion brought about needless suffering — and in his case, the death of his beloved wife, a European American woman.

Yung Wing, who had become a naturalized US citizen in 1852, married Mary Kellogg, from the town of Avon, Connecticut. In a 1875 photo from their wedding day, Mary looks graceful in a long, flowing white gown adorned with garlands of flowers, just like any beautiful bride. (In his memoir, Yung Wing states that, much like the Chinese Educational Mission, it was one of his daydreams while at college to marry an American woman.)

Yung Wing and Mary Kellogg went on to have two sons together: Morrison Brown Yung and Bartlett Golden Yung. Yung said of them in his memoir My Life in China and America:

They are most faithful, thoughtful and affectionate sons, and I am proud of their manly and earnest Christian characters. My gratitude to God for blessing me with two such sons will forever rise to heaven, an endless incense.

By Fred Hsu – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22760947

Unfortunately, their marriage took place amid growing the anti-Chinese sentiment gripping the US — as Yung Wing described it in his memoir, “The race prejudice against the Chinese was so rampant and rank….” The era culminated in one of the most discriminatory laws ever enacted in America: the Chinese Exclusion Act, which passed in 1882.

As Ben Ralton writes in a piece for HuffPost:

…the Chinese Exclusion Act [was] overtly designed to impact and even destroy the existing Chinese American community. Yung’s citizenship was stripped, and when he traveled back to China to continue his work as a diplomat, he was denied readmission into the United States under the law’s bigoted pretenses. In a painfully blunt letter relying this decision to diplomat Charles Denby, Secretary of State John Sherman admitted that the exclusion “would on its face seem unjust and without warrant. … Nevertheless, … the department does not feel that it can properly recognize him as a citizen of the United States.”

This denial of Yung’s citizenship, and indeed of the fundamental truths of his half-century of inspiring and influential American life and work, profoundly affected his family and final decades of life. Deeply traumatized by their extended separation and by fears for Yung’s life, Mary passed away, leaving Morrison and Bartlett to be fostered out to family friends in New England.

Mary’s death came in 1886, which meant their entire marriage lasted only a scant 11 years. She would never live to see other indignities visited upon her husband, as TK Chu noted in the work 150 Years of Chinese Students in America:

[Yung Wing’s] life at old age was lonely (his children were working in China) and at times humiliating. He was asked to leave a boarding house when fellow boarders refused to share a dining table with him. After that he found his last residence at 284 Sergeant Street, Hartford; he entered his second floor quarters through a side entrance.

To learn more about Yung Wing and his extraordinary life, you can read his memoir My Life in China and America.

‘The Chinese Exclusion Act’ on PBS Reminds Me Asian Stereotypes Haven’t Changed Much

The other night, I had the chance to stream The Chinese Exclusion Act, a nearly two-hour film documenting the events that led to America’s one and only piece of legislation targeting a specific nationality and race, as well as the aftermath and eventual repeal. The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law in May 1882 and didn’t end until December 1943.

Much of the film centers on the mid- to late-1800s, and yet it feels timely because many of the stereotypes originating from that era still persist to this day, continuing to shape US media portrayals of Asians as well as how many Americans still view the rise of Asian countries such as China.

Here are 4 stereotypes from the 1800s that have still survived – sometimes in slightly different forms – to this day, as mentioned in The Chinese Exclusion Act.

#1: The stereotype of Asian men as “inferior”

A few years ago, I wrote Debunking the “Model Asian” Myth: Five Ways Asian-Americans Still Face Discrimination for Hippo Reads, which includes the following paragraph:

Justin Chan spoke for generations of Asian men when he wrote, “Are Asian Men Undateable?” in Policy Mic. Years of pernicious stereotypes have branded Asian men as emasculated, weak, asexual, and even too small in a certain department—essentially, editing them out of the most eligible bachelor pool. Not surprisingly, Freakonomics calculated that an Asian man would need to earn $247,000 more than a white man to be equally appealing to a white woman. That’s like requiring every Asian guy to own a Bentley before asking out the white girl next door.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that, back in the late 1800s, when Yellow Peril took hold, white Americans cast Chinese men as being inferior to white men, as experts point out in part 1 of The Chinese Exclusion Act (emphasis added):

John Kuo Wei Tchen, Historian: So what happens is that class and racialization converge – get confused. And the “Coolie question,” and the Chinese question, really become the big question nationally of labor and class.  Can the American man compete with this degraded Asian male form of labor?  They don’t eat as much; their nerves are farther away from the surface of the skin, so they don’t feel as much; they eat rats.  You know, all this  gets played out even more and more around not just class lines and racialization, but also around gender.  The Chinese male is inferior – is not the same as white manhood, right.  So you have that famous cover – “Meat versus Rice.” American manhood vs. Asiatic coolie-ism,?   And, of course, the Asian male is inferior – but tenacious, because there are a lot of them.  So they’re dangerous because they’re so many of them, right.  Not because they really rival the actually superior white male.

#2: The stereotype of Asian women as “sexualized”

A major stereotype that still persists is this idea of Asian women as sexualized and subservient (see Kristina Wong’s post earlier this year titled I Give Up On Trying To Explain Why The Fetishization Of Asian Women Is Bad).

And again, we see echoes of that stereotype in the late 1800s in America, prompting the 1875 passage of the Page Act, which forbade the immigration to America of those coming to work under contracts and as prostitutes. The latter prohibition was aimed squarely at Chinese women, as The Chinese Exclusion Act explains (emphasis added):

Scott Wong, Historian: There developed this sexist, racist, misogynist attitude among Americans, that Chinese women were naturally prone to become prostitutes.  And, therefore, Chinese women, who wanted to come to the U.S., had to prove that they were never prostitutes; that they weren’t prostitutes then; nor would they ever become prostitutes.  Now, of course, one can’t prove what will not happen or happen in the future.  So many women chose not to even go through that humiliation. So we had that first act that’s passed, that is very racial and gender-specific.

#3: The stereotype of Chinese “stealing jobs/opportunities from Americans”

When major elections roll around in America these days, there’s one thing you can count on – those politicians claiming China is “stealing” jobs and opportunities. And as Chinese students still comprise the largest group of foreigners studying abroad at US institutions of higher education, you’re sure to hear complaints from Americans, alleging Chinese are also “taking away” slots at colleges and universities that belong to American students.

Sadly, this narrative has hardly budged from the late 1800s, when white workers concocted this stereotype that Chinese were also plundering their economic opportunities back then, as The Chinese Exclusion Act noted in years following the California Gold Rush (emphasis added):

Narrator: As surface gold in the river beds became scarcer – hydraulic mining run by companies increasingly displaced the lone prospector panning for gold.

Ling-chi Wang, Scholar: A lot of white independent prospectors went bankrupt and became unemployed. But instead of turning their anger against the gold-mining company and the water company for exploiting them, they turned against the Chinese.  They say: “Ah, the Chinese were here.  They take away our jobs.” And so that is really the beginning of white working-class agitation for Chinese Exclusion.

#4: The stereotype of Asians — including Chinese — as “perpetual foreigners”

Back in 2016, Christopher Hoffman penned the post Perpetual Foreigners: A Reflection on Asian Americans in the American Media, commenting on a racist segment aired on Fox News titled “Watters’ World: Chinatown Edition”, and noted the following:

The larger problem is the segment clearly challenges the American identity of Asian American citizens in Manhattan’s China Town. Frank H. Wu’s Race in America Beyond Black and White defines this idea of Asian Americans as the “perpetual foreigner.” By assuming Chinese Americans have a better relationship with the country of their ancestral heritage, Watters is placing Chinese Americans in a second-class citizen role, unable to fully adopt all the characteristics to become a full citizen of the United States of America. This idea of the “perpetual foreigner” is not limited to Chinese Americans, but a xenophobic image many Asian Americans from a variety of Asian backgrounds must face.

This xenophobia can be traced back to the late 1800s and the Chinese Exclusion Act itself, where people believed it was impossible for Chinese to ever be fully American, as The Chinese Exclusion Act explains:

Martin B. Gold, Attorney: It really did two things.  One is an exclusion from immigration, and the other thing was an exclusion from citizenship.  at the time there were approximately 105,000 Chinese in America.  Now, they were just two-tenths of one percent of the overall American population.   So what happens to the people who are already here – people legally in the United States?  And what that law said was, “These people cannot assimilate.  They are too different in terms of their culture – in terms of their appearance – in terms of their language – the clothes that they wear – and the food that they eat – and the gods that they worship.  They cannot assimilate into the American population.  And in that sense, they are different from European immigrants.  So we’re going to make, as a Congress, a judgment.  We’re going to say that because they are an unassimilable population, they cannot come to the United States, and those that are here cannot become American citizens.”

If you haven’t yet viewed The Chinese Exclusion Act, I highly recommend streaming it — and noting how the legacy of oppression still lingers to this day.

What do you think?

When Marrying Foreigners Cost American Women Their Citizenship

Mae Franking, featured in the book Eurasian, married a Chinese man at a time when the Expatriation Act meant American women who wed foreigners would lose their citizenship.

Among the many dark, discriminatory chapters in American history, there was a moment in time where my marriage to Jun, a Chinese citizen, would have cost me my American citizenship. As reported by NPR:

In March of 1907, Congress passed the Expatriation Act, which decreed, among other things, that U.S. women who married non-citizens were no longer Americans. If their husband later became a naturalized citizen, they could go through the naturalization process to regain citizenship.

Could you imagine the gut-wrenching choices confronting women of this era who fell in love with foreigners? They included Mae Franking (the subject of Mae Franking’s My Chinese Marriage as well as part of the book Eurasian), whose decision to follow her husband to China was clearly precipitated by the harsh and xenophobic policies of the era (a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act was still in full force). Had I met Jun during that time, would I have had the same courage and devotion to sacrifice my American citizenship in the name of love?

But here’s what’s even worse:

…none of these rules applied to American men when they chose a spouse.

“It’s as though she walks under his umbrella. He puts his arm around her and poof! she’s a citizen,” says Linda Kerber, a professor who teaches gender and legal history at the University of Iowa. “She has had the good sense to come out from these monarchies and opt for an American. She’s a sensible woman, we adore her.”

“Whereas an American-born woman who marries a foreign man, oh my goodness, she is disloyal,” Kerber said.

Doesn’t this just reek of entitlement? The idea that American women must only make themselves available to American men, while the latter are more than welcome to “shop around” internationally for their spouses.

This shameful, double standard of a policy persisted until 1940. That’s more than 30 years that American women were forced into a decision nobody should have to make – your passport or your partner.

As fortunate as I am that I was never presented with this choice, the fact that it even happened should make us pause. After all, xenophobia still remains a virulent force in our society today, from Muslim bans and Islamophobia to the continued fears about China. Once you’re willing to oppose the entry of certain foreign individuals to your country, it’s not that short a jump to the draconian Expatriation Act.

We must all remain vigilant and committed to the words of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. — that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We must all remember it wasn’t that long ago that marrying foreigners cost American women their citizenship.