Zeng Laishun - The first Chinese to enroll at an American College

From the Hong 曾 Family's American Diaspora Files:

ZENG Laishun 曾來順 was the first Chinese to attend an American college. Laishun attended Bloomfield Academy, a boy's boarding school in New Jersey for three years. He then enrolled at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York in 1846. The women from the First Presbyterian Church in Utica, NY, were Laishun's sole source of support and refused to extend his funding beyond their initial two-year agreement. In May 1848, Laishun left New York and set sail for Hong Kong.

According to historian Edward J.M. Rhoads, “he was a pioneer in Western studies, an early and lifelong convert to Christianity, one of the first Chinese in the United States, a leading second-echelon figure in China’s self-strengthening movement, and, during his CEM [Chinese Educational Mission] days in the United States, a diplomatic representative of the Qing government as well as an explicator of things Chinese to the American public.”

The pioneering achievements of Zeng Laishun, America's first Chinese college student, have often been overshadowed by Yung Wing 容閎 (November 17, 1928 - April 21, 1912), who followed Laishun's footsteps by four years and is forever remembered as the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university, Yale College in 1854.

Zeng Laisun late in his career. From the Smithsonian Institution, United States National Museum,
Department of Anthropology, Division of Ethnology.

The Smithsonian misidentifies this photo as “Portrait of Li Hung Chang, Viceroy of Chilhli in Costume with Fur Cost n.d.” Researchers have asserted that the photo is of Zeng Laisun and not the Viceroy. Moreover, the photo is signed “Tseng Laisun” (which is the way Zeng spelled his name in his later years). The Smithsonian has declined to correct its catalog.

Asian American History is American History

Why I started this blog?

In 2001, I started researching my family's roots in the US and China, trying to uncover the stories of my ancestors. The post below is my first attempt to connect my family's story directly to the broader history of the United States. It focuses on how American laws and institutions have shaped the lives of my forbearers and continue to shape the lives of my family today. It's content was excerpted from the October 21, 2021, panel discussion on "Asian Perspectives on Race & Equity" presented to the public in Tredyffrin and Easttown Townships, Pennsylvania.

This is the history that I wish I had learned growing up, and that my children and all of our children should learn. It is only by learning about all aspects of our history that we can create a better future together.

You can read the transcript that follows or watch the 13 minute video on YouTube.

[The following transcript has been edited for concision and clarity.]

Zack ZENG Zhe - A September 11th Fallen Hero

From the Hong 曾 Family's American Diaspora Files:

On September 11, 2001, Zack ZENG Zhe 曾喆 was working at the Bank of New York at One Wall Street near the World Trade Center. When his building was evacuated, Zack could have gone home like the rest of his colleagues. Instead the 29-year-old gathered all the first aid and medical supplies he could find and told his friends and colleagues he was heading to the disaster scene to assist.

While attended the University of Rochester college Zack had worked as EMT with the Brighton Volunteer Ambulance. So, on 9/11, Zack was doing what he was trained to do.

Chin Bok Lain (1869-1938) - Unofficial Mayor SF Chinatown

View from a Hang Far Low Restaurant balcony above Grant Street look toward
the corner of Sacramento Street and St. Mary's Cathedral on the left (Lee Rashall)
"Down the Street of Bazaars in San Francisco's Chinatown on July 31[, 1938], more than 1,300 mourners followed the body of Chin Lain to its last resting place. Son of Cantonese immigrants, the late Chin Lain lived to become a millionaire merchant, philanthropist and unofficial mayor of the greatest Chinese colony in the Western Hemisphere. Because the Chin family embraces the ranks of Chen and Chan, "relatives" of Chin Lain stretched in grieving files for six blocks behind the flower-filled phaeton which bore his picture at the procession's head (below). Observers said his funeral was the biggest, most dignified, Chinatown had ever staged." -- Life Magazine, August 15, 1938, page 14
Phaeton bearing portrait of Chin Lain (Lee Rashall)

The Burma Road (1938-1945)

Our Family's Journey

Strategic Hui Tong Suspension Bridge 惠通橋 over the Salween River
-- US Army 2-½ ton CCKW "Jimmy" cargo truck towing a Howitzer --
(US National Archives)

The Backdoor to China

Between 1937 and 1938, China built the Yunnan-Burma Road as a backdoor supply route during Second Sino-Japanese War. The Chinese government depended on this road to transport materiel through Britain's colonial possessions in Burma and India to Chungking in Central China. Supplies were transferred from ships docked at Burma's capital, Rangoon, to rail cars bound for Lashio. From the Lashio railhead, trucks transported the materiel over the Burma Road to Kunming in China's Southwestern Yunnan Province. The road became one of China's main lifelines after China lost sea-access along its Eastern and Southern coasts.

When full scale war broke out between China and Japan, my grandfather HONG Hock How was a professor of electrical engineering at National Sun Yat Sen University in Canton, and Japan was swiftly occupying much of coastal China. In June 1938, Hock How moved his wife, Tui Goon, and their children, Larry, Jack, Paul, and Lily, to Hong Kong, while his parents stayed behind in their family village.

The Chin Family's Greatest Generation

My grandfather CHIN Pak Yick, his first wife LEE Moon Yee, and my grandmother TSO Mee Shew raised what is arguably our family's greatest generation. This generation, the third generation of Chin's in the United States, all born in America, includes twelve of my mother's brothers and sisters who have over 190 years of combined U.S. Military and U.S. Government service. They served in Europe and the Pacific during World War II, in Korea, and in Vietnam. They also served with distinction at many levels of the U.S. civil service. All U.S. military service was completed with honorable discharges, and U.S. government service with retirement after many years of service.

Like most people, the Chin brothers and sisters were a product of their times. They came of age when many young men and women heeded the call to serve their country and fight fascism and authoritarianism abroad. They also grew-up at a time of segregation and exclusion in the United States when the federal civil service provided one of the best (and often only) opportunities for hard-working, dedicated minorities to make a good middle-class life for themselves and their families.

The Chin Family in the U.S. Military

My mother's eldest brother, Bruce Chin (1919-1988) served in the US Army during the invasion of Europe in World War II. He served three years with tours in Paris and Germany while both were under the boot of the Nazis. He was later assigned to General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Bruce, Paris, 1946
Cover and Page from "Paris Under the Boot of the Nazis"
(From Collection of William Chin)

[Note: Willam Chin compiled this record of service to the United States for his generation with the help of his brothers and sisters and their children.]

The Gateway to Guangdong: Pearl Alley and the Plum Mountain Pass

The Pearl Alley or Zhujixiang 珠璣巷, Nanxiong is in Northeastern Guangdong province was a wealthy town across the border from Jiangxi province. As Han Chinese families migrated from the Central China to Guangdong, for many Pearl Alley was the first stop after traversing the Plum Mountain Pass or Meiguan Pass 梅關 through the Nanling Mountains 南嶺山. As such it could be consider to be the Ellis Island of Guangdong.

The Nanling mountains separate the Yangtse and Pearl River watersheds and are located at the junction of Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan, and Jiangxi provinces. The mountain range elevation averages 3,000 feet with peaks as high as 6,000 feet. The ancient Meiguan road was first built in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE) and covered the more than 75 miles between Ganzhou, Jiangxi 贛州江西, in the north and Nanxiong in the south. The road quickly became the main north-south trade artery and accelerated the shift of China’s economic center of gravity away from the central plains and toward the south. The pass was named after the numerous plum trees planted along the road.

North gate of Meiguan Pass with "South Guangdong Xiongguan" engraved over the arch, and "Plum Ridge or Plum Mountain Range" on the stone tablet. [Credit: Zhangzhugang – own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33050221]

Oops! Mistakes in the Book


History is not the study of cold facts but the interpretation of the past through available evidence. This evidence may include records of events (like a newspaper's recitation of who, what, where and when) or interpretations and analysis of those events (how and why). Both of those are subject to mistakes and bias. Many genealogies were lost in mass wartime migrations. With the social and financial importance of genealogies in traditional Chinese society, it also would not be surprising for some people to claim a more influential lineages to move up in society. Some genealogies were completely made up, with professionals going around using templates then fill in more information supplied by the clients. Other times overrun indigenous tribes in north and west of China wanted to blend in with Chinese society.

The Chin family genealogy, which was given to me by my maternal grandmother, has the following note on page 8:

Mistakes in the Book:

According to the Book to avoid the Jin chaos, the family's southern migration started with the move to Nanxiong 南雄 then to Gu Gang Zhou 古岡州. As the early migration was so long, there was no record of the exact time. According to legend, it was around 1266AD 咸淳二年. However, this was hearsay and not support by historical records. To find out the truth, the village elders were asked and they remembered the migration was about 1131 紹興元年. Between 1130 and 1266 is a difference of more than 140 years. Such a mistake! Therefore, the Book contains inaccurate information.

[Source: (穎川源記略 page 8, translation by Fonny Lau.]

These discrepancy may be attributed to poor record keeping or lost records during the times of war, chaos, and mass migration that occurred throughout Chinese history. But the self-acknowledge mistakes in the Chin book also points to the important aspect of historical records, which is that they may have conflicting facts and are not always reliable.