Remembering 'first Confucian missionary to the United States'

Updated: 2013-06-28 11:57

By Chen Jia in San Francisco (China Daily)

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 Remembering 'first Confucian missionary to the United States'

Author and historian Scott D. Seligman talks about his new book at a Chinese Historical Society event in San Francisco's Chinatown this week. Chen Jia / China Daily

America's civil rights campaigns have all had their leaders - Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King and Gloria Steinem - to name but a few. But what kind of comparable leaders does the Chinese American community have?

America writer, historian and genealogist Scott D. Seligman has given us an answer to that question in his new book: The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo.

"Chinese people in America endured abuse and discrimination in the late 19th century and early 20th century, but they had a leader and a fighter, whose story is a forgotten chapter in the struggle for equal rights in America," he said during a recent reading and party for the book in San Francisco's Chinatown. "I think his story is shining repudiation."

As one of earliest campaigners for racial equality, Wong Chin Foo was not only representing Chinese but all Americans, who can all be proud of him, Seligman said, adding that this "biography is the first book-length account of the life and times of one of America's most famous Chinese".

Seligman said he first learned about Wong Chin Foo by doing an Internet search of the most prominent Chinese Americans. "Most of them were figures in the twentieth century, and I was surprised to find Wong Chin Foo's name, who was described as a nineteen century civil rights activist against the Chinese Exclusion Act," he said. "I had never heard of him before and that's why I got interested in starting this research project."

Wong Chin Foo (1847-98) was born in Shandong Province in northern China, which automatically made him different from almost all of the other early generation of Chinese immigrants in the US who mostly came from China's southern Guangdong province.

His family lived in Chefoo (today's Yantai) and was known to be poor. Wong's father was too old to raise him and so decided to hand his 13-year-old boy over to an American missionary, who soon recognized how bright the boy was. She thought he could be of great help to her missionary activities in China, so she took Wong Chin Foo with her to the US to get an education. He studied first in Washington DC at what is today Georgetown Prep and later furthered his education in Pennsylvania at what is today Bucknell University. In the process, he learned to speak and write English beautifully, according to Seligman.

At the age of 23, Wong Chin Foo got married and moved to Shanghai, where he worked as a translator for the customs service. He later returned to the US and toured and lectured and founded the Chinese American weekly newspaper in 1883. According to Seligman, Wong defended his fellow Chinese Americans against malicious attacks and encouraged them to get an education and become "Americanized" as a way to fight for their rights.

"Unlike what the American missionary expected, Wong didn't become a missionary to help convert other Chinese," Seligman said. "He became a trailblazer and a born showman who proclaimed himself China's first Confucian missionary to the United States."

Wong founded America's first association of Chinese voters and testified before Congress to get laws denying citizenship to Chinese repealed. And he challenged Americans to live up to the principles they freely espoused, but failed to apply to the Chinese in their midst, Seligman said.

Fluent in Mandarin and conversant in Cantonese, Seligman lived in Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland for eight years. He served as a legislative assistant to a member of the US Congress, lobbied the Chinese government on behalf of American business and managed a China-based multinational public relations agency, and was a spokesperson and communications director for a Fortune 50 company.

(China Daily USA 06/28/2013 page11)