By Tamara Treichel
Think Frank Abagnale’s life in Catch Me If You Can is exciting, full of shape-shifting, danger, suspense and a sprinkling of romance? Then compare Wong Chin Foo’s life.
Wong Chin Foo (1847-1898) was a real man with the flair of a Chinese American trickster hero, and he is brought back to life in Scott D. Seligman’s new book The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo (Hong Kong University Press, 2013).
In Seligman’s book, Wong’s main role is that of an ardent champion of Chinese Americans’ rights. He was an opponent of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and founder of the Chinese Equal Rights League to oppose the degrading Geary Act, which demanded that Chinese in the U.S. register and carry a resident permit at all times.
It was Wong’s belief that America’s Chinese should be able to enjoy the same rights as their white peers, and that the key to becoming Chinese American was assimilation into American culture.
As a Chinatown crime-buster, liberator of Chinese women who had been forced into prostitution or gumshoe in a murder case, Wong made a career out of playing with fire and became the target of multiple assassination attempts.
Wong’s life also included more low-key stints as a tea shop proprietor, journalist, patron of the performing arts and lecturer who enlightened nineteenth-century Americans about the mysterious Chinese culture.
Moreover, in Seligman’s book, this dapper Chinese man is credited with having been the first to introduce Americans to chop suey, coin the term “Chinese American” and publish a Chinese-language newspaper east of the Rockies. He was also among the first Chinese to file for U.S. citizenship.
Throughout, Seligman stays true to its historical sources and keeps his prose clean and controlled as suits a serious biography. Yet his narrative is so fast-paced and suspenseful that it will keep you turning the pages to see what the protean Wong is up to next.
Seligman’s life has almost been as action-packed as Wong’s. A retired corporate executive-turned-writer who now lives in Washington, D.C., Seligman has worked as a legislative assistant to a member of U.S. Congress, lobbied the Chinese government for American business, managed a multinational P.R. agency in China and was a spokesperson and communications director for a Fortune 50 company.
Seligman is also a meticulous historian, genealogist and China expert. His books include Three Tough Chinamen, Chinese Business Etiquette and Dealing with the Chinese. He has also co-authored The Cultural Revolution Cookbook, Chinese at a Glance and Now You’re Talking Mandarin Chinese. The fact that he lived in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong for eight years and is fluent in Mandarin makes him ideally suited to write about China-related topics.
Upon returning from two book talks in the San Francisco Bay area, Seligman answers some questions about The First Chinese American exclusively for Asian Fortune.
AF: What first sparked your interest in writing about Wong Chin Foo?
SELIGMAN: I first saw Wong’s name on a list on the Internet of the most prominent Chinese Americans. Most were people like I. M. Pei, Maya Lin, Gary Locke, Yoyo Ma – or going back a little bit further, Anna May Wong. Almost all were 20th century figures, many still very much alive today. Wong was described as a civil rights activist who had opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Since I had believed the Chinese community had more or less cowered in a defensive crouch in the 1870s and 1880s and permitted this horrible law to be brought down on their heads without a struggle, I decided to try to learn a bit more about this Mr. Wong and his activities.
AF: Please tell us how you conducted research for this book. How did working on this book differ from working on your other books?
SELIGMAN: I don’t think I would have had the courage to tackle a figure like Wong had I not gotten some experience doing biographical research with my earlier book, Three Tough Chinamen. My principal sources for both works were articles that appeared in American newspapers during the lifetimes of the protagonists. In the case of Wong Chin Foo, I found nearly 150 articles written by him and more than 3,000 written about him, sometimes in small town papers published in places he never even visited. Neither book would have been possible as recently as a few years ago, before widespread digitization of old newspapers, which has made research much easier. I would still be hunched over a microfilm reader searching through 30 years’ worth of publications if websites such as the Library of Congress’ chroniclingamerica.loc.gov had not made these old papers keyword-searchable. And I was able to do most of the research conveniently, in the privacy of my own study.
AF: As far as you could ascertain, what was typically “Chinese” and what was “American” in Wong’s character?
SELIGMAN: Wong certainly took a great deal of pride in his Chinese identity. He boasted frequently about Chinese values and China’s ancient culture and pointed out ways he thought Americans could benefit from Chinese practices. He never lost his interest in Chinese affairs, and harbored hopes for political change in China. But it was his American-ness that pointed the way for him: He devoutly wished that political reform in China would occur along American lines, and would lead toward democracy and enfranchisement. Partly due to his early education by missionaries, and partly to the fact that he spent more of his life in America than in China, Wong drank deeply of the well of American principles and customs. In the end he was, in an important sense, a true “joint venture” of both cultures.
AF: Wong spent some time in Washington, D.C. Could you tell us more about his time in the nation’s capital?
SELIGMAN: Most of Wong’s time in the U.S. was spent in New York and Chicago, but when he first arrived in the U.S. in 1868, he studied at a Baptist school called Columbian College that was located on modern-day Meridian Hill in the District of Columbia. It was the forerunner of George Washington University, and Wong was almost certainly the first Chinese to matriculate there. He is also believed to be the first Chinese ever to testify before the U.S. Congress, which he did in 1893 in favor of a bill to permit citizenship for Chinese in America.
AF: In what respect do you think Wong was a role model for other Chinese Americans, in what respect was he not?
SELIGMAN: Wong certainly had his flaws. He could be stubborn, unrealistic and he sometimes played fast and loose with the truth. At times he flitted from cause to cause and lacked focus. But he was, in the main, a principled man, and he was a leader to all who would follow. Wong set a pattern for what he thought being “Chinese American” ought to mean that is more or less what it has come to mean for millions. It involved acculturating and adopting some American customs on the one hand, but never losing sight of one’s origins or passion about China on the other.
AF: How would you sum up Wong’s legacy?
SELIGMAN: Wong believed deeply in justice, equality and enfranchisement, and challenged Americans to live up to these values that they so freely espoused, but so utterly failed to apply to the Chinese in their midst. That there was such a man who spoke out so passionately and eloquently against the injustices perpetrated against America’s Chinese is deeply important, because he is a leader to whom Chinese Americans can point with pride. Wong’s story stands as a shining repudiation of the popular impression that nineteenth-century Chinese bore everything the American establishment dished out, quietly, passively, and without much protest.
AF: What was it like working together with Wong’s descendants in Beijing to add some missing pieces to the puzzle of Wong’s life?
SELIGMAN: It wasn’t easy to locate Wong’s great-great grandson in China, but once I did it led to a warm and very rewarding relationship. He shared several letters Wong Chin Foo had written at the very end of his life that were invaluable in understanding what he was thinking and feeling before he died. And I was able to repay the debt when my research uncovered a lost portrait of his great-great grandfather; the family had previously had no photograph of him at all.
AF: As a Jew, did you feel that you were able to identify with Wong and his experience as a minority in the U.S.?
SELIGMAN: Absolutely, although it is worth noting that when my grandfather stepped off the boat from Europe in 1905, he enjoyed far more freedoms than Chinese in America were permitted – even those who had preceded him by decades and spoke better English than he did. But you don’t have to go back nearly that far. Even today, 70 years after the repeal of the Exclusion Act, we hear reports of informal quotas on Chinese Americans at American universities – precisely the same issue Jews faced in earlier decades. Despite all our espoused national values, Americans often need to be pushed to recognize the rights and prerogatives of minorities, and this seems to have been true all through our history. Every group has required leadership willing to demand equal treatment when it was not forthcoming. In Wong, Chinese Americans certainly had such a leader.
AF: If you were given the chance to meet Wong in person and could ask him three questions you were burning to know the answers to, what would those three questions be?
SELIGMAN: Since Wong’s public and political activities are well-documented, I would probably ask some personal questions. I would ask why he was not in contact with his family in China and why he does not seem to have made any effort to bring his wife to America, even though as a citizen he would presumably have had that right. I would ask him whether he had close personal friends, and if not, why not. And I would ask why he changed his name and used a different surname in the final decades of his life.
AF: Did you ever consider that a different genre might also be used to tell Wong’s story? For example, an epic poem? Or perhaps a play, considering you use the term Dramatis Personae to list the book’s cast of characters and the rather dramatic twists and turns of Wong’s life? What do you think of those possibilities?
SELIGMAN: No, I didn’t. Some have suggested that fictionalizing parts of Wong’s life might have made for a more interesting book, but I’m a historian and a biographer, not a novelist, and certainly no poet! I have a real aversion to writing dialogue that was never spoken, or putting thoughts into someone’s head that may never have resided there. Frankly, Wong’s story was fascinating in its own right; it didn’t need any embellishment to make it interesting. I do wish he had left behind some journals or diaries that might have provided more insight into his personal life, but in the end, there was enough about him in the public record to get a very good sense of who he was and what he was about.