As noted above, marriages between Chinese men and white women were not uncommon during the Exclusion Act period (1882-1943), when there were very few Chinese women in the U.S. Many of these East-West marriages were happy enough. Some, however, were not.
One such marriage reached its final crisis here in Chicago in 1912. It had begun in the early 1900s, when Emma Wing (her maiden name is not recorded) married Willie Wing. The Wings took up residence in New York's Chinatown and then went to Hong Kong where they seem to have intended to live for a while. Emma had already lived in Chinatown for a number of years and spoke Chinese. Willie seems to have been a charming man with big ambitions, no business sense, and a strong interest in his wife's money. They had an adopted son whose original parents, the Immigration Bureau noted later, were Jewish.
We first see the Wings, or at least Willie, as loving spouses. In 1906 Emma had returned to America while he stayed in Hong Kong. He wrote her this letter, pleading with her to hurry back, inquiring sweetly about their son, asking for money, and enclosing many kisses as X's.
But his kisses had already been, or were about to be, rejected. Either on her first trip to Hong Kong or on her next trip, Emma had made a shocking discovery. Willie was already married. And he had not one but two other wives. She naturally was furious. She went back to New York determined never to see him again.
Sometime before 1912, however, Willie too returned to the U.S., crossing the border illegally from Mexico. He got a job of some kind in Chicago and lived here for a number of months until Emma, who evidently had good sources of intelligence through her New York Chinatown connections, found out where he was. She informed the Immigration Bureau, which promptly arrested him for illegal entry. Emma did everything she could to get him deported. She bombarded Immigration's offices in Chicago with letters accusing him of polygamy and other illegal behavior but not, interestingly, of brutality. She offered to come to Chicago to testify against him in court.
Immigration replied that unfortunately this was impossible. According to law, they said, wives could not give valid evidence against husbands. This was when she decided to drop her bomb. She wrote back that giving evidence would be no problem because she had never been legally married to Willie anyway -- she already had another husband when she married him.
The Immigration Bureau may have felt that this revelation rather undercut Emma's credibility. They almost stopped corresponding with her. It was only as an afterthought that one official in 1913 sent her a short note saying that Willie had been released. The court had found him to be a citizen and therefore set him free.
The story of Emma and Willie Wing comes from the Correspondence of the Chinese Division of the Immigration Service, stored in the Chicago District Office of the National Archives and Research Administration. The researchers who discovered the Wing story were Grace Chun, Soo-Lon Moy, and Ben Bronson, all from the Chinatown Museum Foundation.
Images: letter. photo