Gam Lee educates the AmericansGam Lee

The biggest social event of 1893 for Kansas City’s small Chinese community was the September marriage of Gam Lee, a leader in the community, to a white woman. Marriages between Chinese men and Caucasian women were still rare enough to draw occasional newspaper attention. A wedding in Boston had gone out on the wires in April not because it was so unusual – there were said to be over twenty white women legally married and living with Chinese husbands in that city – but because the groom belonged to a prominent Chinese family.

The Boston story tells that the groom, Moy Dong, had tried to get his marriage license at city hall but was refused “owing to the determination, it is said, of City Registrar Whittemore not to grant any such permits without an order from the Supreme court,” though Massachusetts anti-miscegenation laws had been repealed half a century earlier.[1]  Moy had to secure his license across the river, in Chelsea.

The Boston Globe story notes that everyone at the wedding except the justice of the peace was Chinese.  Outsiders, including reporters, were rigorously excluded, and the wedding celebrated by what the reporter calls “the Chinatown agony orchestra.” The unfamiliar sound of traditional Chinese musical instruments became in the reporter’s ears “the clanging of the cymbals, and the squeaky flutes [which] played something intended as a wedding march.” When the reporter’s attention turns to the bride, Nellie White, he sees a “strange contrast to the crowd of Chinamen who were chatting exultantly. She is a decided blonde and remarkably good looking. Although her age is given in the license as 25, she looks much younger.”

The story concludes by noting that other white woman who are married to Chinese are also mostly “young and good looking,” but are “scarcely ever seen on the street, and resent the entrance of white people to their houses, which are generally fitted out in first-class American style. Nothing can be learned about the past of any of them, although efforts in that direction have been made from time to time by Boston preachers.”[2]

The Globe story displays some typical attitudes toward marriage between Chinese and Caucasians in 1893. The Chinese are depicted as exclusive, rejecting the presence of “common white people,” and “chatting exultantly” -- the implication being they are celebrating the capture of a “young and good looking” white woman, whose relation to them is perceived by the reporter as unnatural, a “strange contrast” to the crowd.

Stranger yet, for the Globe reporter, is that these white women once married are “scarcely seen,” and become unwelcoming to whites.  As Patrick Lozada has pointed out, white women marrying Chinese men occupied “a racially ‘queer’ discursive space in which they were imagined, in some measure, to be Chinese. This identity was created through discourses surrounding Chinese sexuality and white female purity,” the former emphasized in the Globe story through the “exultant” conversants, the latter through the emphasis on Nellie White’s blonde looks and youth.  Lozada argues that the subjects of his study, like the women in Boston, “adopted and performed Chinese identity,” in the face of a “discourse that sought to marginalize them.”[3] The snooping of Christian preachers reveals one aspect of that marginalization:  racial fears that the women had fallen under the power of “heathen” Chinese.

A July marriage in Illinois between a Chinese physician and a white woman was noted in a wire service story with the observation that the bride is a “very pretty girl of 18,” whose father, a saloon keeper in Chicago, so strenuously objected to the match that the couple had to elope to Peoria to get married. The physician was said to have a good practice, “not only among the people of his own nativity, but also the better class of Americans.” The bride told the reporter she is “thoroughly in love with him” and “saw no objections to a marriage of the kind, and was satisfied she would never regret it.”[4] The nature of the reporter’s questions and the assumptions behind them can easily be conjectured.

Thus there were precedents for Gam Lee’s wedding to Miss Lillie Hanks, not only in the east but apparently even in Kansas City, since the Times reporter notes that “Unlike most marriages of this kind,” the couple had not met at one of the Chinese Sunday schools, they being one of the few places where Chinese men could meet and socialize with females.

Like Moy Dong and the Chicago physician, Gam Lee was a man of standing as leader of what the newspaper story titles the “Chinese Four Hundred of Kansas City,” a name which may refer to an actual organization but is more probably an ironic way of characterizing the city’s Chinese elite by allusion to a famous list published in 1892 of all those in New York society who really mattered.[5] The number of Chinese residents in the City was certainly smaller: Gam Lee himself numbered it at 150.[6]

The Times story describes the couple’s visit to the recorder’s office to get a license, Gam “arrayed in a brocaded silk blouse,” and the bride “blushing, but attempted to convey the impression that getting married to a Chinaman was a very ordinary occurrence.” They are married by a Justice of the Peace, then return to Gam’s rooms over his store on West Fifth Street for the reception, to which the Times reporter was made welcome, unlike his Boston counterpart. The bride, he notes, “is rather good looking, with a wealth of fluffy brown hair. She said she hoped the reporter wouldn’t ‘give her the worst of it in the paper.’” The reporter adds, insinuatingly, “whatever she meant by that.”

Gam is quoted as saying that “as he expected to live in this country for twenty years he thought he might as well get married. He intends to open a grocery store soon, ‘and then, he said, ‘I’ll want a wife to cook for me.’” [7]The reporter was apparently the only non-Chinese among the “jolly crowd of Celestials” who enjoyed cigars and wine at the celebration, and Lillie probably the only women since there were so few Chinese women in the U.S. – the gender ratio of Chinese women to men in 1890 was 27:1[8] – and those few would have been concentrated on one of the coasts.

Henrietta AfongNews of another interracial marriage, this one with international implications, came later in the year when William Whiting, naval officer and Civil War hero, arrived with his Hawaiian-Chinese bride Henrietta, nee Afong, to visit his sister in Kansas City. The bride, notes the Journal story, is “young and fair and the groom is gray and distinguished…. No marriage has been more gossiped about,”[9] an allusion to rumors that Whiting would be driven from the navy for his marriage to a daughter of Hawaii’s wealthiest Chinese businessmen, Chun Afong,[10] at a time when Hawaiian sovereignty was in doubt and there were calls for American annexation of the islands. Chun was deemed by annexationists to be too close to the deposed Hawaiian royal family.

Kansas City’s Chinese community was small in 1893: a February news story put the number at 300 in the two Kansas Cities,[11] although a story in May claimed there were 425 Chinese in Kansas City, Missouri, alone.[12] By December, in Gam Lee’s estimate, there were only 150; there used to be about 500, he said, but most had moved away.[13]  The reduction in numbers may have been precipitated by the impendingDrPowSang threat of registration under the “Geary law,” which extended the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882, adding to them the requirement that Chinese “laborers” register with the local Customs office. There was at least one Chinese physician, Dr. Pow Sang, in town, but only about a dozen Chinese residents, including Gam Lee, fitted into the exempt “merchant” category,[14] so it’s likely that some Chinese residents left for larger cities where they would be less visible.  The class of “laborers” under the amended law included laundrymen, of whom there were many, such as Sam Wah, whose business was at 211 West Seventh St.  Wah appeared in a newspaper story after he was attacked by a burglar, who stole the $50 he had saved “to take him back to the land of his birth.”[15] Another laundryman, Ching Long, who had his laundry at 403 Southwest Boulevard, got into a dispute with a neighboring groceryman over the disposal of wash water. Neither could understand the other, nor could Long understand a Sanitary Officer who was attempting to serve notice on him, this occurring in the midst of a furious anti-cholera sanitation campaign by the city.  An Assistant Sanitary Superintendent also appeared but was driven away by Long’s “excited volubility and wild gestures.”  He was determined, he said, to “reform the Chinaman today if he has to take along an interpreter.”[16]

The contretemps with the Sanitary officers illustrates the duality in the relation of Kansas City’s Chinese residents to other citizens. In the discourse of the time, the Chinese were often represented as outsiders, “strangers in a strange land,” in the words of Hiram Devol, local Collector of Internal Revenue.[17] They were regarded as constitutionally incapable of assimilation into mainstream American culture, even had immigration laws allowed it:  “Every other foreigner may become an American,” the editors of the Times opined; “the Chinaman is always a Chinaman.” [18] In Kansas City newspapers Chinese were routinely referred to by an array of distancing epithets that included John Chinaman, Chink, Celestials, yellow stranger, heathens, gentlemen of the long queue, Mongolian, and disciple of Confucius. They were assigned stereotypical, often antithetical qualities: shrewd vs. childlike, immoral vs. scrupulous, criminal vs. law-abiding, friendly vs. secretive, courteous vs. vindictive.  They were accused by some of “sapping the life-blood out of American labor,”[19] yet defended by others as “welcome and useful.”[20]

A Star story in January illustrates this perspective on the Chinese. It describes an incident witnessed by a reporter in which three Chinese men were on their way to Sunday school, “chattering unintelligible gibberish.” A group of young women watch them go by and remark on “John’s wide pantaloons and underneath his loose hanging blouse.” The girls comment on the “funny clothes they have on, “ and they “Wonder why they don’t take those awfully funny shirts they wear outside and tuck them…” [21] The Chinese language is, to the reporter’s ear, “gibberish,” the Chinese man is “John Chinaman,” and to the girls their dress is “funny,” untucked, and unsuitable to winter weather.  

Yet an editorial in the Times took issue with this view of Chinese dress when it mocked the legislature in Minnesota for considering a bill requiring that “all Chinamen should in the future ‘wear their shirts inside their pants.’” The Chinese do not wear a shirt, said the editors, but a blouse, “and a very comfortable and roomy garment it is, too…. the garment is as full of common-sense as it is of Chinaman.” As evidence they cite the opinion of a former city resident who had been the U.S. consul in Hankow and had found Chinese attire appropriate to that city’s steamy weather. The editors conclude this nod to practicality with a summing up of qualities that make the Chinese seem utterly alien to white Americans:

The Chinaman may be off color; his eyes may slant, and his appetite may seem heathenish; he may refuse our religion; he may care for us and America only as mediums through which he may procure the mighty dollar; he may even refuse to let his bones, after flesh and soul have fled, rest in the soil of this ‘barbarious’ nation; he may be ugly, disagreeable, odoriferous and untamable; he may be all of these and more, but in the matter of simplicity and comfort in dress he has the best of every civilized race that looks down on the Mongol  and calls itself great.[22]

These competing views of Chinese illustrate dual attitudes in Kansas City toward Chinese residents: distance and alienation on the one hand, interest and appreciation on the other, even if interest was sometimes of the morbid or exotic variety, as in the fascination with Chinese funerals, which tended to attract crowds of onlookers.

Chinese funeralA Times reporter attended the March funeral of Hop Lee, an Armourdale laundryman and Free Mason, whose interment was under the auspices of the city’s Chinese Masons. The funeral was full of details that intrigued the reporter: the placing of a felt hat on the head of the corpse and of pieces of paper with Chinese “hieroglyphics” into the coffin, the scattering of hole-punched paper en route to the cemetery, the pouring of a bottle of whiskey into the grave and placement on top of it of a roast chicken and boiled rice which were carried off by onlookers after departure of the Chinese mourners. Lee’s cortege, the reporter notes, included several white women from Armourdale “who had learned to respect Hop during his long residence near them.”[23]

The Daily Journal reported briefly on the July funeral of Hum Hok, also a laundryman, speaking dismissively of the “usual scraps of holy paper … scattered along the streets to protect the dead man’s soul from the charms of the evil spirit.” [24] The Times, in contrast, reported on Hok’s funeral in some detail, describing the presence of a “curious crowd of spectators” who blocked the street and of a Chinese band that accompanied the cortege to the cemetery.  Again, there were mourners from the non-Chinese community: four young women from one of the Chinese Sunday schools.

The sound of Chinese traditional instruments brought out the reporter’s ethnocentrism – “The members of a Chinese band have a deep-rooted hatred for music. The band yesterday was the very worst of its class” – but otherwise he paid respectful attention to the ceremony, setting the decorum of the Chinese mourners in contrast to the crude behavior of the lookers on, who struggle for offerings left on the grave: “One young woman was thrown to the ground in her anxiety to secure one of the little Chinese tea-cups. Her clothes were trampled into the mud, and the better element of the crowd was glad to see it.”[25]

Another subject that attracted morbid curiosity was the use of opium among the Chinese. Federal laws on the sale and possession of opiates were lax since they were widely used in patent medicines, but as a Star article mentions, city ordinances prohibited “any person to keep an opium den or sell the drug to be smoked,” a measure directed against the Chinese, who smoked rather than ingested the drug. But “as long as the wearer of the queue does not attempt to lure others than his own race to his den he is not disturbed.”  It was popularly believed that the drug was less harmful to a Chinese, who “thrives on the narcotic fumes,” while for the Caucasian “opium means sure death….”[26] OpiumDen-03-31-KCTimes-p3

Nevertheless, opium dens were occasionally raided:  a Times item mentions Jim Sing paying a fine of $10 for keeping an opium joint at his laundry at 13 West Fourth Street.[27] Another Chinese, Young Sing, was arrested after selling $1 worth of “hop” to an undercover policeman. This arrest attracted press attention because of the large quantity – fifty pounds -- of opium found and the fact that half of it had apparently been smuggled in hollowed-out lemons[28] to avoid federal tax. “There was enough opium,” reported the Times, “to stock all the joints between here and San Francisco. The boxes were quarter-pound boxes, and more than half of them did not bear the government stamp.”

Yung Sing defended himself by saying he attended Sunday school every Sunday, and that the opium was for his own use and that of his friend, although when the police arrived several Chinese and one white man fled the building. Since government stamps were lacking on many of the boxes, it appeared Yung Sing would face federal smuggling charges. The Times story notes that “Not one grain of opium has ever passed through the customs office of this city since it has been established,”[29] suggesting that opium smuggling was common. Yung Sing was taken into custody by a federal marshal on a charge of smuggling, [30] but was bailed out by compatriots the next day[31]  and although he was fined $100 in local court for “conducting an opium joint,”[32] federal charges were apparently not brought against him.

Joss-household godFor many Kansas Citians, the exoticism of Chinese funerals or Fifth Street opium joints was less interesting than the prospect of converting the "heathen" Chinese from their worship of ancestors and household gods, given the generic name of "Joss" in some news accounts.. The Washington Avenue M.E. church was among local churches campaigning to convert Chinese residents; sixteen converts agreed to encourage their countrymen to convert.[33] The Dundee Place Methodist Church at Fifteenth and Troost highlighted its missionary efforts by sponsoring an event in July featuring hymn singing and recitations by fourteen students from the Cumberland Presbyterian Church’s Sunday School. Second Presybterian Church at Thirteenth and Central gave an annual Christmas entertainment at which students in its Chinese Sunday school sang hymns and gave recitations in both English and Chinese.

Newspapers tended to cover these events in a proprietary, patronizing tone.  The Times in its story on the Dundee Methodist event emphasized the limited English and “queer” behavior of the performers, including  Gaw Wing, a “Fifteenth street washee man,” who wears “Melican clothes” and speaks English “in a manner that makes him a very oracle among his gibberish-speaking fellow-citizens.” The event, the report concludes, was a success as a lesson in the “rapid strides this race is taking in language and religion.”[34] The Journal’s report on Second Presybterian’s Christmas event said that the entertainment “was made up entirely of Celestial talent, and everyone on the program acquitted himself more than creditably, and reflected credit on the teachers who have trained the class.” At the conclusion of the event, Lee Foo, “a more than ordinarily intelligent young man,” read an address thanking the teachers on behalf of “We, sons of China,” for their work: “your labors have not been in vain,” he read, “and we earnestly hope that when the Savior comes to take the faithful ones of earth to walk the golden streets and sing the glad songs of the New Jerusalem, you will receive a rich reward.”[35]

Although it would have been satisfying to the members of Second Presbyterian to hear this declaration, there wasYMCA English Class always a suspicion that Chinese attendance at Sunday schools– it was claimed that every Chinese person in the city attended on and off [36]– had more to do with learning English and socializing than with religion. According to the Times story on the Methodist Church event, thirty Chinese attended the Cumberland Presbyterian Sunday school, and each one had his own female teacher to guide him to “the straight and narrow path, for each particular John must be herded by himself.” The largest Chinese Sunday school was conducted by Second Presbyterian Church at 13th and Central, with another large school in Wyandotte. The two schools held an annual picnic, also in July; the one in 1893, at Merriam Park, was attended by sixty Chinese Sunday school students along with no fewer than 123 “young lady teachers” and their friends. The students, said the Times story on the picnic, “have a child-like faith in their teachers … and they treat them with an admirable deference.” Gam Lee was among those in attendance. Like other of the Chinese Sunday school students, he was there for the games and socializing: “Me tired,” he told a reporter afterward. “I run around like a little boy all day and my legs are sore, but we had a big time, you bet.”[37]

If attitudes were often patronizing, there was sometimes appreciation for Chinese customs. The Chinese Spring Festival celebrations in February were covered by a Times reporter, who discovered that the Chinese “know how to have a good time much better than some of their Caucasian brethren.” Again, Gam Lee is the medium for the reporter’s introduction to Chinese culture and cuisine, offering him “the right hand of good fellowship.” The dinner features “gallons of tea served in little shallow teacups without handles.” The reporter comments on the quality of the tea, such that no Caucasian “disciple of the hissing urn every brewed such a satisfying pot of the beverage….” The tea is followed by a roast goose, pickled sharks’ fins, tongue, pigs’ snouts, fish, crackers, and “a whole lot of curious looking Chinese confections and nuts.”[38]

Gam Lee tells the reporter that the feast is a sample of "hundreds of similar blowouts" that will occupy the city’s Chinese in the week to come. Clearly he was not only a leader of the Chinese community in Kansas City but a person willing to reach a hand of friendship across the cultural biases of his time.



[1] Reference: Accessed May 26, 2012.

[2]A Boston Girl Weds a Chinaman.” Kansas City Times, May 4, 1893, p. 4.

[3] Patrick Lozada, Taking Up the Dragon: A Case Study of Chinese-White Intermarriage in the Early 20th Century. Haverford College, 2011. 

[4] “Married a Celestial.” Kansas City Times, July 31, 1893, p. 2.

[5] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 54.

[6] “Chinese Will Register.” Kansas City Daily Journal, December 19 1893, p. 3.

[7] “Gam Lee Married.” Kansas City Times, September 17, 1893, p. 4.

[8] Qinbo Gao, “Geographic Origins of Fujian Illegal Immigrants from China.” TED Case Studies, Number 734, 2004.

[9] “A Bride from Honolulu.” Kansas City Daily Journal, December 24, 1893, p. 5.

[10] Robert Paul Dye. “Merchant Prince: Chu Afrong in Hawai’I, 1849-90. Chinese America: History and Perspectives. Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America. January, 2010. 

[11] “The Flaming Red Dragon.” Kansas City Times, February 16, 1893, p. 8.

[12]  “The Chinese Not Worried.” Kansas City Star, May 1, 1893, p. 2.

[13] “Chinese Will Register.” Kansas City Daily Journal, December 19 1893, p. 3.

[14] “The Chinese Not Worried.” Kansas City Star, May 1, 1893, p. 2.

[15] “A Chinaman’s Ill Luck.” Kansas City Daily Journal, September 20, 1893, p. 5.

[16] “Ching Long ‘No Talkee’.” Kansas City Times, March 25, 1893, p. 8.

[17] “Chinese Will Not Register.” Kansas City Times, March 28, 1893, p. 5

[18] “Throttle the Six Companies.” Kansas City Times, March 30, 1893, p. 4.

[19] “Blair on the Chinese,” Kansas City Times, July 24, 1893, p. 2.

[20] “More than Mere Sentiment.” Kansas City Daily Journal, November 25, 1893, p. 4.

[21] “They Chattered.” Kansas City Star, January 16, 1893, p. 5.

[22] “Another Legislative Blunder.” Kansas City Times, March 26, 1893, p. 4.

[23] “Stole the Chicken.” Kansas City Times, March 21, 1893, p. 2.

[24] “Hum Hok laid to rest.” Kansas City Daily Journal, July 6, 1893, p.3.

[25] “Stopped for Breath.” Kansas City Times, July 6, 1893, p. 8.

[26] “Where Opium is Smoked.” Kansas City Star, March 31, 1893, p. 3.

[27] “In Police Court,” Kansas City Times, August 13, 1893, p. 5.

[28] “Opium in Lemons.” Kansas City Daily Journal, August 25, 1893, p. 3.

[29] “Bad for Yung Sing.” Kansas City Times, August 25, 1893, p. 8.

[30] “In Uncle Sam’s Custody.” Kansas City Times, August 26, 1893, p. 8.

[31] “Yung Sing Secures Bondsmen.” Kansas City Times, August 27, 1893, p. 5.

[32] Kansas City Daily Journal, August 31, 1893, p. 3.

[33] “Will Try to Convert Chinese.” Kansas City Daily Journal, May 2, 1893, p. 6.

[34] “Eng Leon Made a Hit.” Kansas City Times, July 29, 1893, p. 2.

[35] “The Chinese Class.” Kansas City Daily Journal, December 26, 1893, p. 8.

[36] “Belly Blig Time.” Kansas City Times, July 11, 1893, p. 8.

[37] “Belly Blig Tlime.” Kansas City Times, July 11, 1893, p. 8.

[38] “The Flaming Red Dragon.” Kansas City Times, February 16, 1893, p. 8.

May 29, 2012