Scott D Seligman is the author of The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo, a biography of the 19th century civil rights activist who coined the term ‘Chinese American’.
Shanghaiist: Who was Wong Chin Foo?
Scott D Seligman: Wong Chin Foo (1847-1898) was an editor, a lecturer and a civil rights activist who was probably the most famous Chinese in America in the second half of the 19th century. At a time when Chinese were excluded from America’s shores based solely on their race, Wong challenged Americans to live up to the values they so freely espoused on one hand, and so utterly failed to apply to the Chinese on the other. He was the first to use and define the term “Chinese American,” he established the first political association of Chinese in the United States, published the first Chinese newspaper east of the Rockies and was probably the first Chinese to testify before Congress.
SHist: What drew Wong to fighting for civil rights / equality for Chinese Americans?
SDS: Under the Exclusion Act (1882), Chinese laborers were barred from the United States, and all Chinese were rendered ineligible for citizenship. Wong believed deeply in justice, equality and enfranchisement, in part because of his early education by American missionaries, and he was furious that Chinese were being singled out for shabby treatment through no fault of their own. When the Act came up for renewal 10 years after it had become law, Wong led a fight to repeal the provision that denied citizenship to Chinese who were willing to acculturate. And he was just the man to do it. He was quick-witted and spoke fluent, idiomatic English, and was more than a match for his detractors when he went up against them in debates or in print.
SHist: What was the importance of his coining the term “Chinese American”, how were Chinese in America considered at the time?
SDS: The concept of being “Chinese American” was something quite new when Wong gave that name to his first newspaper – New York’s first Chinese language paper – in 1883. Most Americans saw Chinese as incapable of assimilating during this period, and the U.S. government had made it clear the previous year that they were not welcome to be citizens. Indeed, most Chinese in America at that time fully expected to return to their native land at some point in the future. But Wong believed deeply that Chinese who were willing to “Americanize” – by which he meant dress in Western fashion, learn to speak English and give up vices like opium smoking and gambling – should be welcomed as citizens in America, and it was for these people that he fought the hardest..
SHist: Why is Wong overlooked in the wider historical narrative about civil rights / equality in the US?
SDS: Asians generally have been overlooked in the civil rights narrative. Before I began my research, I also believed the Chinese community had more or less cowered in a defensive crouch and permitted the Exclusion Act and subsequent anti-Chinese legislation to be brought down on their heads without much protest. That’s one of the things that made Wong so interesting; his life’s work was the antithesis of the defensive crouch. It’s also true, though, that few of the institutions Wong built survived him and that those that lived on didn’t do so for long. But if there ever was a man who richly deserved to be rescued from obscurity and have his story retold, it was certainly Wong Chin Foo. I’m amazed nobody got to him before I did!
SHist: Why is Wong important today? What does he have to teach us about modern Sino-American relations?
SDS: Because he was a civil rights icon, and because he was Asian. That there was such a man who spoke out so passionately and eloquently against the injustices perpetrated against America’s Chinese is deeply important. America’s various civil rights movements have all had their Martin Luther Kings, their César Chávezes and their Gloria Steinems. Wong is a man to whom Chinese Americans can point with pride. His story stands as a shining repudiation of the popular impression that 19th century Chinese bore everything the American establishment dished out, quietly, passively and without much protest.
I don’t think that Wong’s importance lies in what he has to teach about relations across the Pacific, although it’s worth pointing out that he saw no reason Chinese in America should not continue to take an active interest in events in their native land, and he certainly did so himself. Being “Chinese American” may have meant making the second word in that term the operative one, but it never implied discarding the first word. Other “hyphenated Americans” have retained a love and a concern for their ancestral homelands, and while some have, at times, been accused of dual loyalty, it is still widely accepted that one can be American and something else as well without being any less American.
The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo is available to buy from Amazon, or directly from Hong Kong University Press.