Friday, May 15, 2015

Experience of a Chinese Journalist

Wong Chin Foo (1847–1898)
From Writing New York: A Literary Anthology

“Chinatown, New York,” illustration for
Wong Chin Foo’s article “The Chinese
in New York,” Cosmopolitan, June 1888.
Shortly after becoming an American citizen in 1874, Wong Chin Foo traveled across the United States on the lecture circuit. He hoped to educate audiences on Chinese culture and to combat the pervasive stereotypes of Chinese immigrants. When he appeared in front of a crowd of more than six hundred at Steinway Hall, The New York Herald reported his most famous line: “I never knew rats and dogs were good to eat until I learned it from Americans.” Although nearly forgotten today, “he was arguably the most famous Chinese in the nation during his lifetime,” according to Scott Seligman, who has published a full-scale biography.

Wong spent his early life in China and his later life in the United States provoking, with equal parts humor and pugnacity, his associates and his enemies—and, on both sides of the Pacific, he made plenty of enemies. He fled his native land because of his political activism, including a crusade against opium use, and the Chinese foreign minister later demanded Wong's extradition, a request turned down by American officials. In the United States, he irked various elements of the urban underworld by rescuing Chinese immigrant girls from prostitution and, later, conducting a campaign against vice. He founded the first organization for Chinese American voters and, in 1894, he testified before Congress against the Geary Act of 1892, which extended and toughened exclusionary restrictions placed on Chinese residents.

Wong is also believed to be the first person to use the term “Chinese American,” which became the name of the newspaper he circulated in New York in 1883. “Experience of a Chinese Journalist,” our Story of the Week selection, amusingly details his subsequent failure as a publisher. Yet, when he moved to Chicago in the 1890s, he nevertheless made two further attempts to launch newspapers for the Chinese community. He also wrote dozens of pieces for national magazines, including the serialized novel “Wu Chih Tien, the Celestial Empress” (which was fictitiously labeled as “translated from the original”) and a fifteen-page illustrated article for Cosmopolitan about New York’s new Chinatown. The latter piece is a fine example of how Wong challenged his readers’ preconceptions yet refused to sugarcoat the activities of his fellow immigrants. After justifying the prevalence of Chinese laundries and describing popular foodstuffs and methods of cooking, he admits to the pervasiveness of illegal gambling joints and opium dens: “It is as difficult for the police to stop Chinamen from playing their fascinating fantan as for the mandarins to stop the great yellow waters of the Whong Whoo [Huang He] from overflowing. The Chinaman will gamble with his last cent even if occasionally made to pay over the entire receipts of a week’s ironing as a fine to the American officials.”

In 1897 Wong heard from his family in China for the first time since his arrival in the United States. The following year he decided to make the trip for a reunion. Upon his arrival in Hong Kong his application for a U.S. passport was first approved, then almost immediately rescinded by the State Department. He continued anyway to his family home in Shandong province, where he died of heart failure soon after his arrival.

Note: E. C. appears to be Wong’s abbreviation for editorial correspondence.

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