Fortunes of early Chinese students in US

Sep 2008    

Chen Chang Lok (a.k.a. Tan Ah Lok), the man who influenced Goh Hood Keng to accept Christ at ACS, served briefly as a pastor of the Straits Chinese Baba Church. He himself was later educated in the United States, where he earned a Doctorate in Jurisprudence from the University of Chicago. Returning to Singapore and unable to find suitable employment, he went to China and from there, was appointed a diplomat, serving as Consul-General, first in Singapore (1930-1934), then in Calcutta, Ottawa, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, DC.

‘IN THE early eighteen seventies, New England first saw a few Chinese lads who went there to attend a school. One of them surprised the faculty and students of Yale by taking first honour in oratory.

The name of Mr Yung Wing still remains fresh in the memory of all Chinese returned students and he is often spoken of as the Father of Chinese students of America. He was the man who, after his graduation, induced the Chinese government to send the first official batch of one hundred and twenty young lads to Hartford, Conn., there to pursue their studies. They had a very interesting and eventful career.

Queues (tow chang) were the distinctive feature that characterised all Chinese at that time. Any Celestial son found without one would be regarded by the Chinese emperor as a rebel guilty of high treason. So these lads walked about the streets of Hartford with dangling queues much to the delight, wonder and amusement of the passersby, both young and old.

A policeman in his daily beat thought it not a bad idea to try his hand on a novel method of arresting a brand new kind of would-be prisoners. This sport at the expense of the Chinese lads was played once too often and street fights began to be more frequent in the old New England town. But the policeman even had cause to register his grievances before the tribunal of justice. Defendants, who numbered a good many as a rule, were charged for assault and battery in the public highway. His Lordship put aside all rules of law by treating the plaintiff policeman as though he were a defendant criminal. The case was generally dismissed without costs.

Worse tales of woe were yet to follow. These lads still in their teens soon began to be rivals of American youths in baseball, track, football, as well as on the dancing floor. The fair lassies of New England were only too delighted to accompany these lads on the smooth floor much to the jealousy of the American young gallants.

Such conduct was indeed unbecoming in Chinese students, according to the traditions and laws of the Chinese. Such unheard-of crimes soon reached the ears of the emperor. Secret emissaries were despatched, and they confirmed the news in language most detrimental to the welfare of these youths. The epithets of traitors, foreigners, etc., were applied against them in the petition to His Imperial Majesty with the prayer that just and dire punishments commensurate with such heinous crime be meted out to them.

They were nearly all arrested and sent home, there to enjoy the comforts of dingy cells in a Chinese prison. Thus ended the first Chinese mission to the United States.

This setback was indeed unfortunate, and it was not until Yuan Shih Kai’s time that Chinese students began once again to
cross the Pacific in appreciable numbers … Until a few years ago, most of the students flocked to the Eastern states, and Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yale, Cornell, Lehigh and Columbia received each a fair quota. But of late, the Midwest states have come in for a goodly number: Chicago, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Colorado have a strong hold on them.

In the West, owing to the antagonism and race feeling, the number has never been very great. California and Leland Stanford seem to have the best following … The result of all this training has been most satisfactory to the Chinese nation. Officials and commoners vie with one another in sending their sons and daughters to the States. Thousands of miles of railroads have been built by these young men. They are at the head of many industrial plants, and give good promise of becoming a future Carnegie, Rockefeller, Guggenheim and Patten of China …

There is now absolutely no use for the white representatives in the East to put on the air of a “higher than thou,” for these young men have lived with the great men of the West who do not deem it beneath their dignity but rather consider it a high honour to be associated with the young men of China.’ – MM, October 1918, p.11-12, slightly edited and shortened.

The MCS Archives and History Library is open from Monday to Friday from 9 am to 5.30 pm except during lunchtime from 12.30 pm to 1.30 pm.


Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.


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