Wong Chin Foo
America’s civil rights movements have all had their Martin Luther Kings,
their César Chávezes and their Gloria Steinems. But
to whom can Chinese Americans point? More
than 70 years before Dr. King dreamed of an America that
judged people according to the “content of their character,” Wong Chin Foo (王清福, 1847-1898) defied
those who wished to exclude Chinese by declaring that only “character and fitness should be the
requirement of all who are desirous of becoming citizens of the American
Republic.” His story, told for the first time in a book-length
biography, is a forgotten chapter in the struggle for equal rights for
all in America.
Wong Chin Foo was the first to
term “Chinese American,” and the first to define it. He founded
America's first association of Chinese voters and fought for
citizenship rights for his countrymen in the United States.
Through lectures and articles,
Wong took on critics of America's Chinese and demystified Chinatown
lives. He founded New York’s first Chinese newspaper in 1883. He famously bested the standard bearer of the “Chinese Must
Go” movement in a public debate. And he testified before Congress -
probably the first Chinese ever to do so - in support of citizenship
A firebrand and a trailblazer,
Wong believed deeply in justice, equality and enfranchisement, and
repeatedly 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.
America's Chinese had a leader and a fighter in Wong Chin Foo, whose
story stands as shining repudiation of the popular impression that 19th
century Chinese bore everything the American establishment dished out
quietly, passively and without much protest.
Wong charted the path to an entirely new
identity - that of the Chinese American. Millions would follow him.