Federal Writers' Project – Life Histories/2020/Fall/105i/Section 52/Chung Tai-pan

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Overview[edit | edit source]

This Wikiversity article is about the life of Chung Tai-pan, a Chinese-American laundryman who lived in Savannah, Georgia. Gerald Chan Sieg, a local Chinese-American author interviewed him for the Federal Writer's Project in 1939.

Biography[edit | edit source]

Early life[edit | edit source]

Chung Tai-pan was born in southern China in the 1870s. Chung’s father had five boys and two girls. His fathers first wife died and then he remarried. He passionately drew a picture of his old family’s home for the interviewer with the windows, flowers, trees and fields. Since his father was a teacher and when he was young, he would go with his dad to the school. They would ride in a slow ox cart on a muddy road leaving the city wall behind and pass by peach trees and Billy goats. He gave an anecdote about when he told his father he went into a temple and touched the stone alters and wondered how the gods could see and hear people if they were just stone, his father was amused and said wise men don’t believe in stone gods but they know common people will “be wild if they not believe in alter gods” so wise men pretend to believe. Chung said he loved the earth and making things grow but in America being a farmer doesn’t pay. While smoking his cigar he told the interviewer as he got older, he learned Chinese calligraphy in school and was very good at it. He was secretary of the Chinese national convention three times in America because he knew old and new calligraphy. In school he also studied many poems, he said that “if a man study poem his spirit not can ever be evil”

Coming to America[edit | edit source]

In China he and other young men didn’t support the Manchu government and they had many meetings where they would get fired up and plan to make a republic. The older men would tell them the time for a revolution will be in 10 or 15 years and in the meantime go out of the country to make money. So, he left to America, he meant to go back to china but to this day he never went back. His father wasn’t happy he left for America but told him it was better he in America than have the emperor cut off his head. He never got to see his mother and father again, they died, and he hoped to go back and burn incense on their grave out of respect.[1]

When prompted to speak on his first experiences in the united states he explained how he first came to “frisco” and joined Chinese free masons then he went to los Angeles and Sacramento to make money to send back to china. Then he went to New York to be with his brother but it “nearly freeze to death” so he took a train down south to his older brother. when he got to the south, he laughed about how he was a skinny Chinese man who wore all Chinese clothes and knew no English other than “savannah, savannah”

Personal Life[edit | edit source]

After moving down to Savannah, got married, and had several children. He remarked that savannah in 1890 was one of the prettiest towns he had ever seen. he liked that it was quiet and green. he spent over 10 years working to send money to send back to china to his family and support the revolution. when news finally came that china was a republic and there was a president every Chinese man in America went “wild”. Tai-pan gradually became wealthy as a laundryman, despite the Great Depression.He regularly went to independent presbyterian Sunday school, as he would quote the bible well. When he first came to the church, he told them about Confucius but was frowned upon but he to this day believes Jesus spoke wise words just like Confucius did. Because of his wealth, as well as his conversion to Christianity, Tai-pan had a relatively high position in Savannah society

Tai-pan had a highly multiethnic family circle. He married his half Cantonese and half Spanish-American wife and together they had six kids. Several of his children married Caucasians, and his wife was a woman of mixed Chinese and Mexican ancestry. Initially, Tai-pan had had some concern about his children's marital choices, but he eventually supported them. His son was studying to become an engineer and he hoped his son would go back and help build china. They were proud of their successful and talented children and spoke about them in admiration. Chung also has two grandchildren that the interviewer met, a girl and a boy.

In the interview, Tai-pan spoke of politics and claimed himself to be a “true democrat." He explicitly stated his support for Franklin Roosevelt and the party as a whole. Tai-pan's liberalism extended to the international sphere; he denounced the Japanese invasion of China. When his wife mentioned the Sino-Japanese war he set off “like a match to Chinese fireworks” he pulled out photos and pamphlets to show every maneuver the two armies had made in the last week. [2]He claimed he was not worried because he knew the Chinese dragon would rise again.

At the time of his interview he was retired but he was still the same passionate and strong-willed man. When Chan met with Chung, he described him as having thick hair that was almost white, and a “curiously unlined” face. Chung turned 70 the April before interview date but he looked much younger and he acknowledged Chan’s surprise about this by saying he looks young because he works hard and doesn’t eat too much and worry to much. He said “if you worry about trouble you better go die” Chung Tai-pan's death is unknown.

Social Issues[edit | edit source]

The Chinese Exclusion Act[edit | edit source]

Following an 1852 crop failure in China, over 20,000 Chinese immigrants came through San Francisco’s customs house looking for work. Violence soon broke out between white miners and the new arrivals, much of it racially charged. The upswing of nativist sentiment, resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States. Many Americans on the West Coast attributed declining wages and economic ills to Chinese workers so Congress passed the exclusion act to placate worker demands and assuage prevalent concerns about maintaining white "racial purity." To enforce this strict system, the American government established regulations for entry and exit permits for Chinese settlement and travel to the U.S. The act made it very difficult for Chinese families to be reunified and dramatically slowed down migration to the U.S. Furthermore, it made it difficult for legal US residents or citizens to return to the country if they did not adequately follow regulations. An 1854 Supreme Court Case, People v. Hall, ruled that the Chinese, like African Americans and Native Americans, were not allowed to testify in court, making it effectively impossible for Chinese immigrants to seek justice against the mounting violence. [3]As a result, many Chinese people in America did not return to China for fear of deportation. [4]

Interracial Marriage[edit | edit source]

Beginning in the colonial era, many US states imposed laws restricting marriage between people of different races. Religion played a significant role in American anti-miscegenation cases. By 1810, every colony that banned interracial sex and/or marriage (except Delaware, Georgia, and South Carolina) also punished ministers or magistrates or solemnizing a marriage ceremony between a white person and a person of color. These laws served as a critical enforcement mechanism for slavery, and afterwards for Jim Crow. Only 8 states never had an restriction on interracial unions. In Georgia, as in much of the south, punishments for interracial marriage were very severe. Both sex and marriage between whites and African-Americans were illegal, and courts could legally impose corporal punishment on those found in violation of the law.[5] However, Chinese-White marriages were legal, but controversial. In the 1880s, in the town of Waynesboro, mobs attacked the town's burgeoning Chinese community, inflamed in large part because of an interracial marriage between a white woman and a Chinese man.  The Georgia State legislature attempted to make Chinese-white marriages illegal, as in other states  but it never passed due to public pressure from both the state's small Chinese community.[6]

Georgia's Chinese Community[edit | edit source]

Chinese immigrants living in Atlanta, the majority of which were laundrymen, did not have family from China with them. This was out of necessity and restrictive immigration laws. In Georgia, the Chinese community was concentrated in three cities: Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah. The Chinese population in Savannah was moderately large and wealthy and Chinese residents of the city were able to establish successful businesses and careers for themselves. Chung Tai-pan moved from California to the South and settled down with his family in Savannah, Georgia where he spent the rest of his life as a Laundromat. His interviewer’s family was also among the first Chinese people to live in Georgia and have created a name for themselves that lasts even today. [7]

Resources[edit | edit source]

  1. Li, Mu Yang. 2003. "Essays on Public Finance and Economic Development in a Historical Institutional Perspective: China, 1840–1911." Order No. 3090633, Stanford University. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/305293378?accountid=14244.
  2. Phillips, Steve. “The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945).” UNC Chapel Hill Libraries, September 19, 2014. https://www-oxfordbibliographies-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/view/document/obo-9780199743292/obo-9780199743292-0141.xml.
  3. Li, Mu Yang. 2003. "Essays on Public Finance and Economic Development in a Historical Institutional Perspective: China, 1840–1911." Order No. 3090633, Stanford University. http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.libproxy.lib.unc.edu/docview/305293378?accountid=14244.
  4. History.com Staff. “Chinese Exclusion Act,” August 24, 2018. https://www.history.com/topics/immigration/chinese-exclusion-act-1882.
  5. Botham, Fay. Almighty God Created the Races: Christianity, Interracial Marriage, and American Law. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ Of North Carolina Press, 2013.
  6. Desai, Jigna, and Khyati Y. Joshi. 2013. Asian Americans in Dixie: race and migration in the South. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  7. Desai, Jigna, and Khyati Y. Joshi. 2013. Asian Americans in Dixie: race and migration in the South. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.