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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Biography of Wong Chin Foo

Scott D. Seligman, who has written extensively on China, speaks two dialects of Chinese, and spent several years in Hong Kong and Beijing has just completed a biography of Wong Chin Foo, The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo. Hong Kong University Press, expected Spring, 2013. Update: Seligman's book, as of April 30, 2013, is now available in hardcover, paperback, and Kindle versions.

Seligman contacted the Grand Rapids Historical Commission to share some particulars about Wong after discovering our photo essay, “The Earliest Chinese in Grand Rapids,” which includes information about Wong Chin Foo.

The introductory paragraph of our photo essay mentions the operator of a Bay City tea store as one of the few Chinese residing in Michigan, according to the 1880 census. Ah Wong, proprietor of that tea store, on Fourth St. in Bay City, is none other than Wong Chin Foo. We were unaware that Ah Wong roughly translates as Mr. Wong until advised by Mr. Seligman who shared the following:

 “Wong ran into some trouble in Chicago in early 1880; he intervened in a dispute between two Chinese laundrymen and was brutally attacked for his efforts. He left town shortly afterward, and after delivering speeches in Kalamazoo in May, he made his way to Bay City. There, in the Spring of 1880, he declared that he intended to give up lecturing and open a tea shop in that city (Kalamazoo Gazette, 6/25/1880). And he proved as good as his word: the 1880 Federal census for Bay City includes this record of “Ah Wong,” proprietor of a tea store on Fourth Street (line 7). Although some of the details are wrong – his age was given as 24 (he was actually about 33) and his place of birth as Shanghai rather than Shandong – there is little doubt that the entry refers to Wong Chin Foo. He was the only Chinese enumerated in the city and was operating a tea shop, just as he had said he would. As it happened, however, in just over a month he abandoned the entire scheme and returned to lecturing. Perhaps Bay City was not so welcoming, or he was lonely, or perhaps he could not make the business pay. As subsequent events would demonstrate, he was a lousy businessman!”

Recall that Wong Chin Foo obtained his citizenship papers here in 1874. Seligman discovered that Wong also registered to vote in Grand Rapids while lecturing here in the Fall of 1880, just in time for the November Presidential election. The last day to register was Saturday, October 30. The Daily Moring Democrat, 10/31/1880, and the Daily Eagle, 11/1/1880, ran the same story: “Wong Chin Foo, the Chinaman who addressed an audience at the Opera House a week ago registered on Saturday as a voter in the Fifth Ward.” Unfortunately, Kent County registration records for 1880 no longer exist.

We thank Scott D. Seligman for generouly sharing his findings about Wong Chin Foo, and alerting us to the upcoming biography.

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