This article is part of Placemaking, a project to uncover, collect and share Asian, South Asian and Pacific Islander (ASPA) histories in Evanston. The project is co-sponsored by the Kitchen Table Stories Project and the Evanston History Center. (Click here to read about the genesis of this effort and click here to start at the beginning of Wong Aloy’s story.)

North Clark Street, Chicago, 1893 Credit: S.L. Stein Pub. Co., Library of Congress

Evanston/Chicago

At some point during his time living in Evanston, Wong Aloy began to work as an interpreter in the Chicago court system. The opportunity may well have come to him by way of his friend James P. Grier, who still lived in Evanston and was working as a lawyer in Chicago.

Wong was one of a growing number of Chinese immigrants who would be hired as interpreters for local and federal governments during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They would play a crucial role as mediators between Chinese immigrant communities and the courts, law enforcement and government of the United States. 

Credit: Jasper Davidoff

On March 29, 1893, Wong traveled from Evanston to downtown Chicago to serve as an interpreter in a trial of a man named Jung Jack Lin.[1] Later, it was reported that Wong “gave his help to another of his countrymen” who was “in some minor trouble.”

Wong reportedly succeeded in “obtaining his release.”[2] That night, Wong was walking alone on the street when he was brutally assaulted in an alley near the Rookery Building in Chicago.[3] He survived, although he was badly injured. His two attackers, both immigrants from China, were apprehended.

Later accounts would reveal that the attack on Wong was the result of a variety of disputes between the Moy and Wong families, or “clans,” in Chicago. These were two powerful groups of Chinese immigrants. Both groups exercised social and political power and each supported its members in a variety of ways as they negotiated life in the United States.

Reportedly, within the Moy family there was some dissatisfaction with Wong’s role in helping obtain the release of the man he had recently helped. The Moy family was said to have been the man’s enemy and had set him up, assured he would be found guilty.[4] Wong was now identified as an enemy of the Moys. (The families or clans had their origins in kinship that stretched back to China and over many generations.)

According to Huping Ling, author of Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration and Community Since 1870, the public often perceived the clans – later more often referred to as “tongs” – as purely criminal associations. While some number of these groups did expand into criminal operations, they began as collectives structured around providing help, support and protection for their immigrant members. Ling describes them “as being simply to help fellow members in poverty or distress and to assure justice among members.”[5] In part, as Ling argues, the rivalry that existed between the Moys and Wongs centered on the ways in which each group defined integration into American society: The Moys were proponents of exercising the power of the Chinese immigrant community itself, through influence, business and politics, while the Wongs were proponents of the “Americanization” of all Chinese immigrants. Credit: The Inter-Ocean, April 9, 1893

Following the attack, Wong’s name appeared in papers across the country. It was reported that he was hiding somewhere in Chicago, badly injured and fearing for his life. He sent a note to his friend, John B. Strasburger, a Chicago lawyer whom he likely met in his work as an interpreter. According to reports at the time, Wong asked Strasburger for help. Strasburger found Wong and took him into his home while Wong recovered. Strasburger would soon represent Wong in the case against his assailants. In a sense, this act of kindness would shape Wong’s future career.[6] After he recovered, Wong returned to Evanston.[7]

Some speculated that the attack on Wong had also been related to another dispute between the Wongs and the Moys. Both families had applied for the contract for creating and operating the Chinese Village display at the upcoming 1893 world’s fair in Chicago.[8] The Wong family had been awarded the contract that the Moy family reportedly had been sure it would secure.[9]

Being awarded the contract for the world’s fair display was a lucrative business opportunity. “Chinese merchants of wealth,” it was explained at the time, saw their involvement in world’s fairs as a way to “to take advantage of the opportunity thus offered to introduce into this country several lines of manufactured products which have never been handled here.”[10] But the importance of the contract related to more than mere business. Indeed, the fair provided the opportunity to represent Chinese culture in America, an opportunity that was viewed as politically and socially critical among many in the Chinese immigrant community. It afforded the opportunity to educate white Americans about Chinese history and culture, to connect with the public and work closely with many of Chicago’s most prominent business owners and politicians.   

Meanwhile, Cook County State’s Attorney Jacob J. Kern presented the case against the two men accused of attacking Wong. Both men were from the Moy clan. Wong’s supporters and members of the Wong clan accused Kern of going too easy on the two accused assailants. And thus, they summoned noted journalist and activist Wong Chin Foo from his home in New York. They hoped he would help bring justice for Wong.

Wong Chin Foo (1847-1898) was a writer, journalist, and civil rights leader. He was born in Jimo, Shandong Province, China and attended school in the U.S. In 1874 he became one of the earliest immigrants from China to be granted U.S. citizenship. He lived for a short time in Chicago in the 1870s and later in the 1890s. Credit: Pittsburgh Dispatch, Oct. 30, 1892

Wong Chin Foo was founder of an association for Chinese-American voters and is credited with coining the term “Chinese American.” In 1883, he launched New York City’s first Chinese newspaper, The Chinese American. He also published a newsletter in Chicago.

After the Geary Act of 1892 renewed and extended the Chinese Exclusion Act, Wong was one of the founders of the Chinese Equal Rights League in New York City (re-established in Chicago in 1897). One of the League’s goals was to petition Congress for the right of suffrage for Chinese immigrants. Wong served as secretary of the group and led a battle against the Geary Act, testifying in front of Congress and debating noted anti-Chinese leaders. (Learn more about Wong Chin Foo here and here.)

Wong Chin Foo’s attempt to ensure that the two alleged attackers would be fairly prosecuted was not successful. In fact, as he soon stated, the unwillingness of the state’s attorney to bring any kind of real charges against the two men stemmed from corruption within Chicago’s city government. Kern, it was charged, was “prejudiced in favor of the Moys and will not accord justice to the Wongs.” “Those men are my friends,” Kern reportedly said of the two assailants, “and in no case will I prosecute them.”[11]

While Wong Chin Foo was not successful in ensuring that Wong Aloy’s attackers were brought to justice, it appears that he did have a great impact on Wong Aloy; in fact, Wong Aloy’s career would come to mirror the older Wong’s career in many ways. Both men would work as writers, lecturers and advocates for civil rights; both would work to educate the American public about Chinese culture and history; and soon, both men would join together in their work to represent Chinese history and culture at America’s world’s fairs.

The Chinese Theatre, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, photograph by Halsey Cooley. Credit: Newberry Library

Chicago

Just weeks after the attack, the World’s Columbian Exposition opened in Chicago and soon Wong would be identified as “a prominent figure in the Chinese theater at the world fair.” [12]

On the Midway Plaisance on Chicago’s Hyde Park, the Chinese Village opened; it included a theater, teahouse, restaurant, shop and temple. The village was funded and designed by three prominent Chicago residents, all of whom were immigrants from China.[13] Wong served as a manager at the village.[14] He also premiered one of his own plays, God in Heaven, which was performed at the theater during the fair.

A Chicago reporter was on hand opening night: “Shortly after 11:00 o’clock,” he wrote, “Wong Aloy, the Evanston student whose fracas with the Moy faction of Chinatown was exploited in a police court recently, gazed out at a fair sized audience through a peephole in the curtain.”[15]

Wong earned acclaim for his work, and the next year, 1894, he premiered another of his plays, “a drama of Chinese love and courtship.”[16] The play centered around a young man in China who meets the woman of his dreams, falls in love and works to win her heart.

All the players were white students from the Sopor School of Oratory, located in the Steinway Hall building on Van Buren Street in Chicago. (In at least one account, Wong was listed as a student of the school.[17])

The play was a “decided hit.”[18] As one reporter noted, the play might “immortalise [Wong’s] name as the Shakespeare of his countrymen in America.”[19]

The year 1894 was significant for Wong. The premiere of his new play brought him accolades and a lengthy and laudatory profile of his life and talents appeared in newspapers in Chicago and other cities across the country. “In person [Wong] Aloy is of medium size and slender,” the profile read. “He dresses and wears his hair in the American style and his features are somewhat like the Japanese. And, like them, he is very polite, good natured and unassuming.”[20]

That year Wong moved from Evanston and settled in Chicago’s Chinatown. At the time, the majority of immigrants from China lived in Chicago’s old Chinatown, a neighborhood located on South Clark Street and Van Buren.

“[D]own in that portion of Clark street where so many Chinamen live there’s a fanciful young man from the flowery Kingdom whose name is Wong Aloy,” read the profile of Wong.[21] The reporter noted that while Wong had been “formally engaged in that particular branch of domestic science which distinguishes his countrymen in America,” he was now working for the Wah Chong Jan company, a dealer of “Chinese wares” located at 309 S. Clark St. in the heart of Chicago’s Chinatown.[22]

That same year, Wong was serving as secretary of Chicago’s Chinese Mutual Benefit Association.[23] He was also building a broader reputation as a writer. He was, according to one reporter, “probably the only Chinese writer in America [sic].” [24]

The fact that Wong moved to Chinatown is not surprising. In a later study of a group of Chinese immigrants in Evanston, sociologist Paul Siu noted that although the men lived and worked in Evanston, the center of their social life was Chicago’s Chinatown; on their days and evenings off from work they would travel to the city for recreation and entertainment.[25] “At night in Chinatown,” a reporter wrote in 1904, “hundreds of Chinese congregate in little groups in various places of business.”[26] (Paul Siu’s study will be the subject of an upcoming Placemaking story.) 

A little over a year after the Chicago world’s fair opened, Wong formally declared – once again – his intention to become a U.S. citizen. Perhaps he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his friend Wong Chin Foo who had applied for U.S. citizenship in 1874 and succeeded.

On June 13, 1894, Wong swore an oath that it was his “bona fide … intention to become a citizen of the United States” and that he would “renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever, and particularly to the emperor of China.”[27]  

By the time Wong signed this “Oath of Allegiance” on June 13, 1894, he had been living in the United States for 12 years. Like other immigrants from China at the time, Wong was barred from attaining U.S. citizenship. Credit: Ancestry.com

Wong would soon become involved in the movement for civil rights for Chinese immigrants and people of Chinese descent. When, under Wong Chin Foo’s leadership, the Chinese Equal Rights League of America was reestablished and incorporated in Chicago in 1897, Wong was part of the organizing group. Among the goals of the League: “To encourage among Chinese residents of the United States, including both natives of China and American born descendants of Chinese, patriotism towards the United States government, and devotion to its principles” and “to secure for the members of this organization full rights and privileges as citizens of the United States and protect them in the exercise and enjoyment of the same.” [28]

On March 11, 1897, articles of incorporation for the league were officially filed with the Cook County recorder. The incorporators included Wong Chin Foo, Thomas Yuen and James P. Grier, Wong’s old friend from Evanston.[29]

The group was active in lobbying for rights and educating the public. In the fall of 1897 in Chicago, for example, the league hosted a “grand mass meeting.” Wong was one of several of the league’s members who were present on the stage that night.[30]

Meeting announcement for Chinese Equal Rights League of America. Credit: Chicago Tribune, Nov. 25, 1897

Over the next few years, along with his work with the league, Wong would also be involved in other world’s fairs. In 1898, he served as one of several “gentleman in charge” of the Chinese Industrial Village at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska.[31] That project brought Wong once more into contact with Wong Chin Foo, who served as “Chinese commissioner” for the exposition.[32]

After that fair closed, Wong Chin Foo traveled to China to visit family. The sad news soon reached the U.S.: Wong Chin Foo had died from heart failure while he was abroad.   

The loss of his friend must have been a hard blow. Although Wong was building a life for himself in Chicago, and was, in many ways, successful, he also confronted numerous barriers. The life of a Chinese immigrant in Chicago, Wong observed at the time, “is a very sad one.”[33]

Wong Aloy did not stay long in Chicago. He soon made his way New York City.

(Click here to read the conclusion of Wong Aloy’s story.)


[1] Adam McKeown, Chinese Migrant Networks and Cultural Change: Peru, Chicago, and Hawaii, 1900-1936 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001),199.

[2] “Allege a Conspiracy to Murder,” Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1893. 

[3] “Wong Aloy’s Assailants Held to the Criminal Court,” The Inter-Ocean, April 29, 1893.

[4] “Allege a Conspiracy to Murder,” Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1893. 

[5] Huping Ling, Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration, and Community Since 1870 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press), 38.

[6] “Fears They Will Kill Him,” The Inter-Ocean, April 4, 1893.

[7] “Teacher Lawyer Friend” – so reads the headstone at the grave of John B. Strasburger (1850 – 1928). Strasburger was born in Naperville, Illinois. His father was an immigrant from Germany. He was educated at Aurora Seminary and Pekin Academy. Before becoming a lawyer, he was school superintendent and principal of South Chicago High School (closed, 1910). A.T. Andreas, History of Cook County of Illinois (Chicago: A.T. Andreas, 1884), 591.

[8] The Moy clan, the most influential, was often in sharp conflict with the Wong clan. Wong Aloy was said to have been a member of the Wong Clan, which won the bid for the World’s Fair display. Yuki Ooi, “ ‘China’ on Display at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893: Faces of Modernization in the Contact Zone” in From Early Tang Court Debates to China’s Peaceful Rise, Friederike Assandri and Dora Martings, ed. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009), 60-61.

[9] “Allege a Conspiracy to Murder,” Chicago Tribune, April 7, 1893.

[10] “The Exposition Column,” The Crete Vidette, June 2, 1898.

[11] “Complaints of Kern,” Chicago Tribune, April 16, 1893; Huping Ling, Chinese Chicago: Race, Transnational Migration, and Community Since 1870 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 37. Jacob J. Kern (1863-1941) served as Chicago city attorney from 1890 to 1892. He served as state’s attorney from 1892-1896. “Jacob J. Kern, 78, Dies,” Chicago Tribune, Feb. 1, 1941.

[12] “A Love Drama,” Cincinnati Post, Nov. 21, 1894.

[13] Z. Serena Qui, “In the Presence of Archival Fugitives: Chinese Women, Souvenir Images, and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair,” Panorama, Spring 2021. https://journalpanorama.org/article/asian-american-art/archival-fugitives/#marker-11645-19

[14] M. B. Thrasher, “A Chinese Boy’s Story,” Every Other Sunday, Dec. 31, 1899.

[15] “Chinese Theater,” Evansville Journal, May 24, 1893.

[16] “A Love Drama,” Cincinnati Post, Nov. 21, 1894.

[17] “Camel Feeling Bad,” The Inter Ocean, Nov. 18, 1894; “Midway is Revived” Chicago Herald, Nov. 11, 1894.

[18] “A Love Drama,” Cincinnati Post, Nov. 21, 1894.

[19] “A Love Drama,” Cincinnati Post, Nov. 21, 1894.

[20] “Wong Aloy and His Play,” Chicago Daily News, Nov. 20, 1894.

[21] “A Love Drama,” Cincinnati Post, Nov. 21, 1894.

[22] “A Love Drama,” Cincinnati Post, Nov. 21, 1894.

[23] “Lee Yon is Placed Behind Bars,” Chicago Tribune, Oct. 22, 1894.

[24] “A Love Drama,” Cincinnati Post, Nov. 21, 1894.

[25] Paul C. P. Siu, The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation (New York: New York University Press, 1988), 145, 147.

[26] “War in the Orient,” Lawrence Democrat, Sept. 16, 1904.

[27] Northern District of Illinois, U.S. Federal Naturalization Records.

[28] Scott D. Seligman, The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 265.

[29] “Chinese Form a Society,” Chicago Chronicle, March 12, 1897; Scott D. Seligman, The First Chinese American: The Remarkable Life of Wong Chin Foo (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013), 265.

[30] “Chinese Ask for Rights,” Chicago Tribune, Nov. 28, 1897. 

[31] “WCTU Column,” Canute Daily Tribune, July 30, 1898.

[32] Wong Chin Foo was also granted a permit to bring 250 Chinese citizens to the U.S. for three months to take part in the exposition. “Washington Notes,” New York Sun, Dec. 5, 1897; “Notes from Omaha,” Nashville American, April 4, 1898; “WCTU Column,” Canute Daily Tribune, July 30, 1898.

[33] “A Love Drama,” Cincinnati Post, Nov. 21, 1894.

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