Building on Joey’s great post (see below) on The Oriental, I’d like to call attention to the work of early Chinese American editor and writer Wong Chin Foo, who was active in New York City during the 1880s and ’90s. Wong is an extremely interesting figure (e.g. he challenged anti-Chinese labor organizer Dennis Kearny to a duel–Kearny refused–and bested him in a debate), who started another of the first Chinese-language newspapers in the U.S., The Chinese American, which was published in New York City for the first time on February 3, 1883.
Wong was a born provocateur (see his most famous essay “Why Am I a Heathen?” in The North American Review) and exaggerated immensely when he said his paper would serve the “nearly 100,000 Chinese east of the Rocky Mountains.” According to his biographer Scott D. Seligman, there were approximately 2,500 Chinese in the eastern U.S. during this era, with about 700 living in New York City (the paper comes out just after the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act).
Again, according to Seligman, “Only two editions of the Chinese American, the inaugural issue and the ninth issue, dated March 31, survive. The articles they contained, written rather inelegantly, were mostly tabloid fare.” The paper also seems to have primarily covered events in China, or events involving Chinese abroad, rather than local events.
The Chinese American was short-lived and not very profitable (there was only a small audience of Chinese readers in the local area), so Wong wrote extensively for other papers to earn his living. Harper’s and the Youth’s Companion are prominent among these, though Wong’s contributions to the Cosmopolitan are particularly noteworthy. His serialized novel, “Wu Chih Tien: The Celestial Empress” (1889), based on the life of real historical figure Wu Zetian, was illustrated by Daniel Carter Beard. That same year, Mark Twain read Wong’s story and soon contracted Beard to illustrate A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889).
In my American literature survey (1865 to present), I’ve taught Wong and Twain’s texts alongside one another, having students write about the interaction between illustration and text within each novel, as well as highlighting continuities and disparities in the way Beard illustrates the different subject matter. So far, it’s proved a useful way to incorporate marginal voices into the syllabus in a way that also stresses the significance of periodical culture as a medium of intercultural exchange during the late nineteenth century.
I hope to start writing about Wong’s “Wu Chih Tien” and other related materials in the next year. So much remains to be done in covering this remarkable figure in American literary and cultural history!
References re: Wong Chin Foo
Hsuan L. Hsu’s chapter “A Connecticut Yankee in the Court of Wu Chih Tien” in Sitting in Darkness: Mark Twain’s Asia and Comparative Racialization (2015)
Scott D. Seligman’s biography, The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo(2013)
The Stanford Graphic Novel Project’s American Heathen, a student-designed graphic novel about Wong’s life (available as a free eBook)