Public and Private Steps toward Chinese Women’s Rights in California and the Pacific Northwest
Bennet Bronson. Chinese in Northwest America Research Committee, 2/19/2012
Paper prepared for WCILCOS 2012.  Minor revisions, 3/24/2013


The protean ideology of women’s liberation had spread around the globe by the start of the twentieth century.  So too had the pragmatic, partly non-ideological, assertion of women’s rights.

In China, much of this was due to the influence of progressive Chinese thinkers like the statesman Duan Fang  端方  and the entrepreneur Zheng Guanying 郑观应.  Western media must have played a role too.  It would have been hard for a Chinese wife in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Vancouver or San Francisco not to notice that upper-class white women appeared freely in public places, danced with unrelated men and conversed with them as equals, attended ladies'  clubs without a male escort, and contributed publicly to ladies' charities.  Old-fashioned Chinese husbands may have told their wives that such white women were only expensive courtesans and not decent women.  Yet many Chinese wives would surely have been aware that those indecent white women included governor-generals’ wives, presidents’ and premiers’ daughters, and the Queen of England

Among Chinese in the Pacific Northwest and California, the ideology of liberation and the assertion of rights both were in place by 1900, introduced at first slowly by white and Chinese Christian missionaries and then, more quickly and in a more comprehensive form, by modernizing organizations such as the Empire Reform Association. Respectable Chinese women began to appear in public   Rights, quite different from those that women had traditionally enjoyed in China, began to be asserted.  “Slave girls” absconded.  Non-arranged love marriages occurred.   Widows not only resisted returning to China but seized control of their husbands’ estates.  And, incredibly, decent wives mingled with men at lectures and dinner parties while their daughters became coeds and even took part in beauty pageants.  Any objective observer would have thought that that the old order, built on  the bedrock of unquestioned wifely submission and daughterly seclusion, was in mortal peril.

In the Pacific Northwest, however, that observer would have been wrong.  After a few heady years, the excitement died down.  A handful of wealthy, educated Chinese women managed as a group to advance the process of what would now be called liberation.  A handful of others achieved the same ends through individual efforts.  However, the great majority, without obvious repressive efforts by the local Chinese male establishment, slipped back into traditional roles.  The feminist dawn had been partly false.  Not until after World War I and perhaps even World War II would most Chinese women in this region feel free to form their own associations, assert their economic and political rights, and gain significant control over educations, marriages, and homes.

This paper discusses not the eventual successes but the faltering earlier steps toward that goal.  That those steps occurred at all was due to several aspects of Northwestern culture.   The region already had a substantial Chinese middle class before 1900.  Its educational systems allowed girls as well as boys, some of them Chinese, to attend public schools.  In British Columbia, western Oregon, and southern Idaho, if not in Washington-- relations between Chinese and whites were not so bad as to preclude all contact and mutual influence .  Even racist Washington held promise in three areas: its exceptionally progressive attitude toward white women’s rights, including the right to vote; its permissive attitude toward interethnic Chinese-European marriage; and—like California and Idaho but unlike Oregon and British Columbia-- a law code that gave wives and widows absolute rights to a substantial portion of their husbands’ property.

As implied in the foregoing, the paper focuses on respectable women: the wives and daughters of Chinese merchants and other high-status individuals in the United States and Canada.  Although prostitutes and servant girls played a role, and although their eventual marriages or “rescues” created supportive attitudes in progressive white and Chinese communities, it was women of the Chinese elite and merchant classes who would eventually be the first to achieve the same rights as those enjoyed by upper and middle class white ladies in the Pacific Northwest.  

The subject will be approached from two angles:  First, the well documented efforts of Chinese Christians and the Chinese Empire Reform Association to promote female equality, especially the acceptance of public roles for Chinese women.  And second, the poorly documented, and indeed often unrecognized growth in women’s private economic power that took place as Chinese wives became familiar with the relevant Canadian and American laws.  In most states and provinces, daughters already had enforceable inheritance rights, no matter what their brothers claimed.  But more importantly, certain states, including Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and California, had so-called community property laws that gave widows, rather than their in-laws, substantial or sole ownership of everything their deceased husbands owned.

Public Roles: The Coming-Out of Chinese Ladies in North America

As in China itself, some of the first “respectable” Chinese women in the U. S. and Canada to step outside the seclusion of the home were Christians . 
Several Christian Chinese women are known to have played leading roles in this, including Phoebe King-heen Cheung, the talented wife of the Reverend Fung Chak in Portland and Seattle .  However, I wish here to focus on a Canadian example: Chow Kate Shee, the wife of Chan Sing Kai, the pastor of the Chinese Methodist Church in Vancouver and New Westminster, and later, Victoria.  Ms. Chan was in an exceptional position to begin organizing women for charity.  She started in 1900, three years before the newly formed Chinese Empire Reform Association began its efforts to form a women’s auxiliary.  

Victoria already had a tradition of Chinese contributions to white-controlled charities.  The most prominent of these was the Royal Victoria Hospital which received contributions from eleven local Chinese corporations in 1885.    Mrs. Chan may have taken her cue from these efforts; in any event, she proved to be an adept fund-raiser.  In essence,  she was replicating within the Chinese community what white women were already doing among European-Americans -- using fund-raising for charitable causes as a means of promoting women's roles in society as a whole.  Like many contemporary white female church members, Mrs. Chan focused her efforts on raising funds for famine and disaster relief.  On two occasions, she collected money not for China but for India.  In October, 1900, for instance, when she and her husband were based in Victoria, she collected $64 from "the Chinese women and children of Victoria"  for Indian famine relief.  More than half of the 61 donors were women.  A month later she was in Vancouver fund-raising for the same cause.  This time she collected $46.50 from the Chinese women and children of Vancouver and New Westminster.  39 of the 56 donors were women . 

Significantly, there was overlap between Mrs. Chan's donors and those who, three years later, joined the Chinese Empire Ladies Reform Association.  It is hard not to conclude that her efforts helped prepare local women for taking a less passive stance within the community.  Was this due to the influence of Christians, including Mrs. Chan and her husband?  Quite possibly.    By the beginning of the 20th century, women's rights had become part of the teaching of many Protestant missionaries within China and among overseas Chinese .  

One of Mrs. Chan's donors was Yip May Young 叶美蓉, who would become one of the two leaders of the Ladies chapter of the Chinese Empire Reform Association (CERA or Baohuanghui).  She was 16 in 1904.  Five other donors were wives of men who were prominent later in the Vancouver CERA:  One of the five also was Mrs. Chan’s daughter.
- Mrs. Ling Dang.  Wife of Ruan [Goon] Lindeng.  Vice President of the CERA
- Mrs. Charlie Yip Yen.  Wife of the president of the CERA of Canada, #
- Mrs. Ho Chans, maiden name Ling Foy.  Wife of He Can, a board member of the 
- Mrs. Seid Sing Gaw.  Wife of Xue Singjiao, a board member of the CERA, 
- Mrs. Won Alexander Cumyow, maiden name Yea [Eva] Chan, wife of  the official 
interpreter of the CERA.   Eva Chan was a daughter of Mrs. Chan. 

It is interesting that Mrs. Chan was in no position to force these ladies to contribute and thus had to depend on her own persuasive ability and their more or less free consent.  A we shall see, this probably was not the case when the same women joined the ladies’ branch of the Chinese Empire Reform Association several years later.

The CERA is not known to have shown interest in organizing Chinese women until 1902, three years after Kang Yuwei began giving the lectures in  Victoria that led to the founding of the Association and two years after it officially came into being.  
The 1902 event took place in San Francisco and is best described by quoting passages from two contemporary articles in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“The slim figure of a Chinese girl, robed in the silks and satins of China’s latest
 fashions, standing before hundreds of her own countrywomen and talking 
 earnestly about social and dress reforms, was the novel spectacle presented
 yesterday in the Chinese theater on Washington  Street.  Beneath the galleries
 crowded with fantastically garbed Chinese women, sat their husbands and
 masters, curious, perhaps a little amused, but very courteous and, strange to say
 listening to the little speaker with every sign of approval.  

“This daintily clad slip of a girl—for she is scarcely 18 years of age—is Sieh King
 King, the high priestess of a new Chinese reform movement and, in the
 magniloquent language of a Chinese editor, the Joan of Arc of her people.  Never
in the history of that ancient nation has a womAn arisen as the leader of a social
 revolution or to voice the spirit of patriotism in its revolt against the wrongs of her
 country until the daughter of a liberal-minded merchant of Tien-tsin [sic—the
 same article later states that King King is from Heung Shan/ Zhong Shan in
 Guangdong province] sprang boldly to the front and proclaimed it as her life’s
 work.  It has been the Chinese custom for ages to let their women have no voice
 in the affairs either of the home of the Government, nor indeed to sit with the men
 nor to speak in public places nor even to mingle with the men anywhere save
 only in the privacy of their apartments.  But yesterday the men came to hear little
 Sieh King King and brought their wives and daughters with them.  And the
 women heard from the lips of one of their own kind of the wrongs custom had
 forced them to endure . . .”  

“In the evening a banquet was given in her honor at a public banquet hall
by the men of the Chinese Reform Society.  Women were invited to attend
 as guests—the first time in the history of Chinatown.  Her advent marked
 the beginning of a new era for her sisters on American soil.  Henceforth they
 shall gradually usurp the privileges denied them, become the rightful
 mistresses of their homes and the equal companions of their husbands.”  

In 1903, a similar event took place in Victoria, when the CERA established a women’s branch, the so-called Chinese Empire Women’s Reform Association (CELRA).  The CELRA’s first meeting was on May 29, 1903.  According to a Victoria newspaper of that date, 

"The Chinese women resident in this city last night formed a women's branch of
 the association, elected officers and went through regular organization
 business...Miss Kang, daughter of Kang You Wei, a reformer, presided at the
 meeting and directed the organization work." 

Soon after, the CELRA produced a poster in the form of a photo montage showing the eighteen founding members under portraits of the emperor, Guangxu, the two founders of the CERA, Kang Yuwei康有为and Liang Qichao梁启超, and—as president of the ladies’ branch—Kang Tongbi.  No one yet knows who the ladies on  the Victoria poster were.  In modern Western (and traditional Chinese) fashion, it is their maiden names rather than their married names that appear under their portraits on the poster, and thus far no document has been found that correlates maiden with married names for women of that period in Chinese Victoria.  We may assume, however, that most or all were wives or daughters of  Victoria business leaders.

That assumption seems reasonable when we consider a second photo montage poster, printed in 1904 and depicting members of Vancouver’s CELRA.  Because one surviving copy bears handwritten married names next to printed maiden names, one can identify nine of the twenty members plus the two female officers whose names appear at the top. 

Ye Meirong 葉美蓉 [Yip May Young].  Leader.  A 16-year old daughter of
    Charley Yip Yen 叶恩, President of the national Baohuanghui of Canada. 
Kang Tongbi [Kang Tung Pih] 康同壁.  Leader.  Daughter of Kang Youwei
    康有为, president of the Chinese Empire Reform Association.  Kang Tongbi also
   appears directly under the emperor's image on the Victoria photo.
Li Jihuan  李姬欢, Vice President.   The 1st wife of Charley Yip Yen, aka Huibo
    惠伯, who was a nephew of Yip Sang.
Nellie Yip Quong, English Secretary.  Wife of Ye [Yip] Quong, a son of Yip Sang. 
    A Bostonian English teacher who married Yip Quong in New York in 1900 and moved
    to Vancouver in 1904 to be with his family, Nellie was still new to Vancouver's
    Chinatown community when recruited by the Association there.   She spoke good
Li Caiyue  李彩月, Board Member.   Wife of Ye [Yip] Tingsan, aka Yip On,
    葉庭三, a nephew of Yip Sang and brother of Charlie Yip Yen. 
Zhang Jinman  张金满 ,  Board Member.   The 2nd wife of Charley Yip Yen.
Huang Hongyun  黄红雲, Board Member.   The 3rd wife of Yip Sang. 
Deng Yunkai  鄧雲開, Chinese Secretary.   The 2nd wife of Yip Sang, presumably with a 
    good Chinese education.
Chen Qing  陈青, Board Member.  The 4th wife of Yip Sang. 
Li Lianzhu  李連珠, Board Member.   The wife of Ye Qiu Yao [Yip Kew Yow]
    葉求耀, the 1st son of Yip Sang. 
Ye Jinwei  [Yip Gum Mei] 葉金薇 , Board Member.   The 2nd daughter of Yip
    Sang and Huang Hongyun (3rd wife).  In 1904 Jinwei was only 11 years old. 

All nine , plus one of the two officers, are relatives of Vancouver’s leading businessman, Yip Sang (Pinyin: Ye Sen 葉生or Ye Chuntian 葉春田and his nephew, Charley Yip Yen 叶恩, or Yip Huibo  葉惠伯,national president of the Canadian CERA.  One of the two female officers on the upper part of the montage is Kang Tongbi, president of the worldwide CELRA, and the other is Yip May Young [Pinyin: Ye Meirong 葉美蓉 ], the sixteen year-old daughter of Charley Yip Yen.

The main question is,  how real were these organizations?  The fact that so many Vancouver members belonged to the same extended family, and that men of the same family were the leaders of the Canadian CERA, might suggest that the ladies had joined at the urging of their men folk rather than of their own volition.  Perhaps the CELRA should be seen as mainly a public relations effort by the CERA, wishing to look progressive in Western eyes and/or to encourage social changes in China by exaggerating the spread of similar changes in the West.  One is also suspicious about the reality of any organization of mature women who are supposedly led by not one but two teenage girls.  As shown on the Vancouver poster, the president of the worldwide CELRA was 19 year-old Kang Tongbi, the daughter of Kang Yuwei, while the national president of the Canadian CELRA was 16 year-old Ye Meirong, the daughter of Charlie Yip Yen, national president of the Canadian CERA.  

One should not be too hasty in dismissing the CELRA, however.  In the first place, one knows from the example of Sieh King King that teenaged Chinese girls did sometimes become accepted leaders in the social turmoil surrounding the last years of the Qing And in the second place, we must recognize that Kang Tongbi struck western observers as being a remarkable person in her own right.  In Seattle in 1903, still 19 years old, she too was called “China’s Joan of Arc.”    There she lectured to a partly female Chinese audience and attended a banquet for Chinese women as well as men.   Shortly afterward, she moved on to New York City where she organized a "New York Ladies' branch of the Chinese Reform Association" with "All the prominent women of Chinatown enrolling themselves as members."   

Hence, there were several CELRAs, probably more than the three known examples in Victoria, Vancouver, and New York.  Moreover, they remained active for at least a short while and thus can hardly have failed to encourage middle class Chinese Canadian women to begin thinking about getting out of the home more, associating more freely with other women, and having more say in what went on in their communities.  An important factor was that Kang Tongbi, although she spent  much of her time after 1903 as a student in Hartford and New York, was an able propagandist and, moreover, a feminist.  In 1910 she was quoted as saying, “Many people ask my ideas on women‘s suffrage.  I  believe that America is ripe for it, but this will take time in  my country.  It is too bad that when there are heiresses and women of wealth owning much property they have no right to dispose of it.  Women who are wage earners should protect their wages and property.  The only salvation I can see is the vote.” 

The Victoria montage comes from Ray Lum, courtesy of the of the Harvard-Yenching Library at Harvard University.  The Vancouver montage was rephotographed by the editors at the Vancouver City Archives.

Private Roles: Widows and Daughters Begin to Exercise North American Legal Rights 

While Chinese liberals, Western feminists, and the Chinese Empire Reform Association were agitating for women’s rights in general, progress was being made on a largely separate front, that of reducing male dominance in overseas Chinese homes through individual efforts by Chinese women to take advantage of the Canadian and American  legal systems.  

There were many aspects to this trend: education for women, attitudes of white society as these filtered through to even the most isolated Chinese woman immigrants, and the profound social changes that were occurring back in China.  What I wish to explore here, however, is an aspect that has not been widely recognized among scholars: the existence in certain American states of legal systems that gave wives real leverage in financial matters, especially after their husbands’ deaths.  

In China and Hong Kong, a widow had almost no security at all.  If she was a first wife with sons or a concubine with sons when the first wife had none, norms of filial behavior would usually ensure that she was supported in her old age.  If she did not fall into one of those categories, however, she had very few property rights.  Even in British-administered Hong Kong, it was not until the 1990s that the laws of the colony gave women the right to inherit land in the New Territories, and then only after prolonged controversy. 

The traditional Common Law of Britain, Canada, and the eastern United States did not treat widows well either.  In British Columbia by 1907, a wife had a one-third life interest, technically called a “dower,” in her deceased husband’s property if he died without leaving a will, assuming that this property had not been sold or deeded to someone else.  If her husband had left a will, she might get nothing at all.  And if he had not, she did not actually own the one-third that came to her; she only received the income from it.   Even this provision for widows was relatively new in some parts of the country.  As late as 1899, the Daily Colonist newspaper could editorialize: 

“The Westminster Sun says it is a crying shame that there is no law in British
Columbia to secure a widow’s dower in [right to use part of] her husband’s estate.
 If no such statute exists, and if the common law does not give it to her, the
 legislature ought not to allow another session to pass without providing
 something of that nature.  In this connection if may be interesting to mention that
 in some of the American states [Washington, California, Idaho, etc.] a wife is
 entitled to what is known as a community right in her husband’s property
 acquired after marriage and he in hers.  This means a full half interest, which is
 hers and her heirs, after her. and she cannot be divested of it unless by her free
 consent .” 

Oregon too clung to the male-dominant provisions of the Common Law: “Legal provisions made for a widow from her husband's property to support her and her children. The widow usually received an interest for the remainder of her life in one-third of the land and certain other property which her husband had acquired during the marriage.” 

But in California, Idaho, Nevada, and Washington, which took this part of their legal systems from that of Spain and Mexico, the situation was very different.  The key was the concept of community property, familiar to many aficionados of Hollywood divorce proceedings.  

In California, 

“Upon the death of the husband one half of the community property [all property
 acquired by either spouse during the course of the marriage] goes to the wife, the
 other half to the husband's next of kin. If there be descendants the widow takes
 only one half of the community property and does not take an additional portion
 of the other half under the provisions of section 1386 of the Civil Code. In the
 absence of descendants of the husband, however, she takes one half also of the
 other half or three fourths of the whole.” 

In Washington, after 1867

“Upon the death of either husband or wife one half of the community property
 shall go to the survivor subject to the community debts and the other half shall be
subject to the testamentary disposition of the deceased husband or wife subject
 also to the community debts In case no testamentary disposition shall have been
 made by the deceased husband or wife of his or her half of the community
property it shall descend equally to the legitimate issue of his, her or their 

As shown by the following chronology of relevant articles in English-language newspapers, Californian Chinese women, and men as well, seem to have been well aware of this quirk of Gold Mountain law. 
In 1887, Lim Tom, the cousin of Lim Hop, went to the California Probate Court to compel Lim Hop’s widow “to transmit one-half of the estate of the late Mr. Hop to the surviving Hop heirs in China.”   The estate consisted of $500, which Lim Hop had enjoined his wife to take back “to the Flowery Kingdom and there acquire a three-story pagoda and live in luxury and splendor among her relatives.  She, however, had declined to return to China and married a local fish merchant named Pim instead.  “It is alleged that Mrs. Pim is young and pretty.”  

In 1888, Ung Fook, “one of the wealthiest Celestials in California,” died in San Jose and was taken to San Francisco for burial.  His wife fainted in the funeral procession when her carriage reached California Street in Chinatown.  “She is the richest Chinese widow in America.”  

In 1890   A wealthy Chinese man, Man Wo Chan, died without leaving a will, “and it was thought that his wife, who died two days later, had been poisoned in order that his brothers might come into the inheritance.”  The Coroner’s jury tried to investigate but was stymied when the brother of Man Wo Chan and two brothers of the dead woman refused to allow a post-mortem examination.  

In 1891, a Sacramento court upheld the right of the widow of Lee Gong Gee to choose an administrator for the estate of her husband, who died intestate. His American-born daughter Lulu and her husband disputed the widow’s choice, claiming that she was scheming to get hold of the full estate.  Part of that scheme, Lulu alleged, was to have her, Lulu, murdered.  The issue was resolved in the widow’s favor.  The administrator she chose succeeded in selling her husband’s business and, presumably, made sure that she got a good part of the sales price.  

By the 1890s, Chinese widows were regularly seeking the help of Chinatown missionaries when relatives of their dead husbands attempted to place the women under the family’s control.  Pascoe cites one case from the archives of the Presbyterian Mission Home in San Francisco, where a woman “came to the Mission Home when, after her husband's death, his nephew demanded that she return to him all the jewelry she had received as wedding presents."  Pascoe goes on to say that “Other widows, who feared that relatives would send them back to China or sell them or their children, also approached the Horne."   In such cases, the women involved seem to have been well aware of (and willing to take advantage of) differences between American and Chinese law.

In 1902, Chun Tun Shee, the widow of Ah Yiou Sing Jung,” filed a petition to have her husband’s estate distributed.”  There were five children, apparently in California.  According to California law, she would have received half and the children much of the other half. 

In May 1903, Lee Shee Guy, wealthy owner of San Francisco’s Hong Far Low Restaurant company,  died.  His widow, American-born Li Toy Shing, took his remains back to China as he had wished.  However, when she tried to return via Seattle, she found that neither her uncle, Chew Mon Hong, nor Lee Fook, head of the Hip Sing Tong and presumably a male relative of the deceased, would vouch for the affidavits of identity they had previously signed for her.  Instead, they “hoped to swear to false statements before the immigration officers and kep Li Toy Shing out of the country..  Had they succeeded, her interest in a thriving business would have gone to Fook and her uncle.”   Perhaps because of a native’s fluency in English, she seems to have foiled the plot and managed to claim her share of her husband’s estate.  In the absence of children, according to contemporary California laws on community property, that share would have been fifty percent of everything Lee Shee Guy owned.

In June, 1903, an important legal case began, in which the male Chinese community seems to have made a concerted effort to limit the inheritance options of California widows.  It began when Chew Bing Quoia or Chew Bun Quoy, a labor contractor with 4000 employees working in Alaskan canneries, died and was buried, leaving a substantial estate, presumably without also leaving an unambiguous will.  Chew’s fifth wife, a former servant girl called Lum Quoia, moved promptly to take over.  She had J. J. Cunningham appointed as estate administrator and got him to distribute a large part of Chew’s property to her.  Cunningham also attempted to collect funds supposedly held in trust by her husband’s former business associates while Lum Quoia did her part by oppressing a foster daughter so as to seize money left to the daughter in Chew’s will.

In December 1903, a lawyer named Vogelsang came on the scene, representing Low Shee, the widow or one of the widows in China, and claiming that “the San Francisco widow was but the servant of the contractor and not entitled to any of his wealth.”  The ensuing court case began in February and lasted at least ten months.  It drew in a number of lawyers, many members of the Chew family, the assistant president of the Kong Chow Association, the Chinese consul-general, the counsel for the Alaska Packer’s Association, and former employees of Chew’s company.  The points at issue were whether the marriage of Chew Bing Quoia to Low Shee in China had occurred and could be validated under American law, whether Lum Quoia was really Chew’s wife or only a concubine, and whether Lum Quoia was actually someone else, having entered the country under a false name. 
Available newspapers do not say how the case turned out.  It is clear, however, that local Chinese saw it as significant.  The involvement of the Kong Chow Association and the Consul-General, both of whom testified against Lum Quoia and for the widow and heirs in China,  indicate that San Francisco’s Chinese business community regarded Lum Quoia’s actions as a serious threat.  By taking advantage of California’s probate laws, she seemed to show that even where a will existed, as in Chew’s case, a clever recent wife with a good lawyer might well prevail over living earlier wives and the deceased’s family back in China.  

In this case, the San Francisco probate court seems repeatedly to have questioned  the validity of prior marriages in China.  Similar questions arose in other in other  inheritance  cases.  In 1915, for instance, the U. S Supreme Court decided, with reference to a case in the Philippines, then an American colony, that 

“a marriage followed by forty years of uninterrupted marital life should not be
 impugned and discredited after the death of the husband and administration of
 his estate through an alleged prior Chinese marriage save upon proof so clear
 strong and unequivocal as to produce a moral conviction of the existence of such

Such precedent-setting decisions did not make the jobs of first wives’ lawyers easier.

By the late nineteenth century, marriages between Chinese women and men in California were quite often legalized by getting official licenses and going through Christian or secular judicial ceremonies.  The on-line California Digital Newspaper Collection mentions at least 25 local marriages of Chinese couples before 1900.  Of those, 9 were performed by Christian clergy, 12 were performed by judges and justices of the peace, and only 4 were traditional.  While it is not clear that an American wedding license always benefited the husband, such licenses were good for wives.  Possession of such a license would not only have improved the immigration status of merchants’ wives but would also have greatly strengthened the claim of a wife to at least half of her husband’s estate in case of his death or a divorce.  Did the husbands’ families back in China recognize this danger?  Did the husbands themselves?  Even European-Americans from non-community property states must have found it hard to believe that just by marrying and staying married for a few years, they had forever lost the right to bequeath, sell, or give away one-half of everything they owned

One of many examples of such marriages occurred in 1905, when Quong Yan, “a leading merchant of Los Angeles and Miss Chin Yook Ying, one of the noted beauties of the Oriental quarter” were married in Judge York’s private office at the court house.   Whether Chin Yook Ying was an altogether respectable women is uncertain, but an American marriage license would have put her in a strong position anyway.  Quong Yan’s family and earlier wives, if any, would not have stood much of a chance in court against Chin Yook Ying if he had died and she, waving a Los Angeles marriage license, had seized the estate. 

In 1912, Mrs. Lym Young Wong, the widow of a “millionaire” San  Franciscan named Wong Yow, petitioned for control of his entire estate on behalf of herself and her three children, Henry, William. and Jennie.  Her husband did not leave a will.  Family members in China, if any existed, were not mentioned in the petition and probably did not get a share.  

A widow’s inheritance case in which the issues came out with especial clarity occurred in 1921 in Minnesota, a non-community property state.  Moy Hee, a wealthy Chinese merchant in St. Paul, Minnesota, died and his will must have left everything to his wife.  His family seems to have demanded that she return to China with his body.  She refused point-blank: 
“ ‘I shall remain right here in America,’ she said.  She indicated she may marry
 again.  Relatives were shocked.  It was an unbelievable attitude. . . Mrs. Moy
 inherited much property, and [her husband’s] relatives declare it would be a
 calamity should anyone outside the family secure any of the property.” 

Although not directly relevant to this paper, it is worth noting that the question of widows’ rights came full circle when the British Consular Court in Shanghai ruled in favor of the Chinese wife of Aaron Hardoon, recently deceased, and dismissed the claims of his Iraqi Jewish family that Hardoon could not have been legally married to his wife because the Chinese wedding ceremony was not in accordance with Orthodox Jewish law.  Hardoon had been a fabulously wealthy man.  The value of his estate, all of which went to his wife, came to 50 million dollars.   She and he had resided in the British Concession in Shanghai.  By making use of the non-Chinese laws of that enclave, Mrs. Hardoon may have become the richest independent Chinese women who, up to that time, had ever lived. 


Married Chinese women are known to have arrived in North America almost as soon as Chinese men.  Between the 1850s and 1870s, they seem to have been in the minority.  According to Judy Yung’s statistics; most female Chinese immigrants of that period were indentured maids and/or prostitutes.   Some of them, however, and a number of the respectably married women as well, must already have come in contact with feminist ideas before they left China.  Those from Nanhai and neighboring  counties, where female marriage resistance was old and widespread, would probably have encountered silk workers and black-costumed servant women, quite possibly their own nannies, who were marriage resisters.  And many would have been aware of the presence of western missionary ladies in their region, most of whom insisted that women be allowed to attend church services.  A good many female missionaries were also militant advocates for women’s rights.  

True, the majority of immigrant Chinese wives in the U. S. and Canada were country girls with limited educations and no experience of the world beyond their native villages and those of their husbands’ families.  Most would have been inclined to accept the superordinate roles of fathers, husbands, and elder sons.  And yet their new environment offered many opportunities to catch the disease of feminism.

Female missionaries were one possible vector of the disease.  In China, their counterparts may have been reluctant to stir things up, but in North America they seem to have felt quite free to tell their potential converts that they, the converts, were oppressed and getting a bad deal from masculine Chinese society.  It was important that female missionaries often felt empowered to visit potential converts in their homes rather than waiting for them to come to church or, in the case of prostitutes and maids, church-run rescue shelters.
Other agents by which ideas of women’s rights may have been transmitted included (1) the husbands themselves, especially when wives were needed to work in family businesses or to serve as hostesses at social gatherings involving whites as well as Chinese, (2) prostitutes, who could move quite freely within Chinatowns and who sometimes had surprisingly close relations with middle class women and girls,  and (3) the white media, which continually showed pictures of women mingling freely with men, exhibiting themselves publicly in fashionable clothes, and taking on roles that even an unsophisticated county girl could see meant giving orders to men, receiving the homage of men, and accepting public praise from all sexes.

This is not to say that the war was won quickly.  There were numerous obstacles, some passive and some active.  Chief among the active obstacles were deliberate attempts, often successful, of the old order to strike back.  Wives and daughters were confined as closely as was possible in  a North American community.  Learning English was strongly discouraged by some husbands and fathers.  When necessary, widows were tricked into returning to China, and daughters were shipped back young so as to shelter them from the tempting ideas of the progressive West.

In all this, the efforts of reformist, revolutionary, and civil rights-oriented Chinese organizations in North America played an important but by no means decisive role. The same is true of North American laws that favored women more than the laws of China.  Properly wielded, those laws, as they existed by the late nineteenth century,  offered a potentially decisive weapon against many forms of male tyranny.  And yet all too often those laws were slighted or ignored.  Why?  What kept Chinese women from bringing their husbands or their husbands’ families into court?  Could public pressure by traditionalists have been that strong?  Strong enough to force potentially rich, independent women back to dependent poverty and sometimes near-slavery in China?  Even when those women were at least vaguely aware of their rights under Western law? 

 And, as asked above, why did Chinese men in states like Idaho, California, and Washington, not to mention their families back in China, fail to recognize the danger more clearly and take more effective measures to deal with it?  Why did they not protect their families and fortunes by fixing their main residences in places with more male-oriented laws, like British Columbia or Oregon?


1.  Mary Keng Mun Chung  2005  Chinese women in Christian Ministry, New York, etc.: Peter Lang. 
2.; Charles Hiram Mattoon 1913  Baptist Annals of Oregon, Vol. 2: pp. 138-152.
3.  Victoria British Colonist 1885-05-08
4.  His Dominion and the Yellow Peril, Protestant Missions to the Chinese Immigrants in Canada, 1859-1967, p.51; Victoria Daily Colonist 1900-10-09; 1900-11-14.
5. See, for, example Hu Shih’s 1928 essay, “Congratulations to the YWCA.” and_education/hu_shi_and_womens_rights.php
6.See Endnote 4 above
7.Victoria Daily Colonist 1899-10-10; 1899-03-21
8.San Francisco Chronicle 1902-11-03
9.  San Francisco Chronicle 1903-03-01
10  Personal communication from Professor Chen Zhongping.  I do not know the name of the newspaper, but it appears not to be Victoria’s British Colonist/Daily Colonist.
11  Seattle Times 1903-08-26
12  New York Daily Tribune 1903-11-01.  I wish to thank Jane Leung Larson for this reference.
13  ChicagoTribune 1910-03-20
14  Sally Engle Merry and Rachel E. Stern  2005  The Female Inheritance Movement in Hong Kong, Current Anthropology Vol 46, p 389
15  W. H. Anger 1907 Digest of the Mercantile Laws of Canada and Newfoundland, p162
16  Victoria Daily Colonist 1899-03-17
17 See  See also
18  William M Mckinney ed. 1922, California Jurisprudence: A Complete Statement of the Law and Practice of the State Of California,  Vol 5
19  E. D. McLaughlin, C. E. Remsberg, & John SD. Atkinson ed. 1896 The Revised Statutes and Code of the State iof Washington, p 947
20  San Francisco Chronicle 1887-04-13
21  San Francisco Chronicle 1888-02-06; also New York Tribune 1888-02-12
22  San Francisco Chronicle 1890-02-05
23  Sacramento Daily Union 1891-01-31, -02-05, -04-04, -09-30
24  Peggy Pascoe  1989  “Gender Systems in Conflict: The Marriages of Mission-Educated Chinese American Women, 1874-1939”  Journal of Social History, Vol. 22, No. 4, pp. 631-652.
25  San Francisco Chronicle 1902-12-25
26  Portland Oregonian 1905-05-24
27  San Francisco Call 1903-06-27, -10-23, -12-08, -12-18; 1904-02-04, -02-10, -10-26, 10-27, -11-02, -11-05, -11-12, 11-20, -11-26, -12-04, -12-17, -12-25, -12-28 
28  Sv Joe Lieng v Gregorio Sy Quia 228 US 335 33 Sup Ct Rep 514 57 862  (United States Supreme Court Reports, 1915)
29 Los Angeles Herald 1905-07-15
30  San Francisco Call 1912-02-06
31  Appleton (WI) Post-Crescent 1921-08-24
32  New York Times 1932-07-12
33  Judy Yung  2005 Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in  San Francisco.  Berkeley. 
34  in 2010, the writer and his fellow researcher, Ho Chuimei, were fortunate in being able to interview Hazel Louie, a highly intelligent 97 year-old lady who was born and brought up in Portland.  Ms. Louie had fond memories as a young girl of getting treats from a Chinatown prostitute whose home she passed each day.  Neither she nor her well-to-do and highly respectable parents seem to have seen anything wrong with this.

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