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1858: The First Chinese Resident of Chicago: A Knife Thrower

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Terry Goldsworthy has made a discovery.  The year 1858 saw not one but three Chinese living in Chicago.  Plus, quite possibly, a Caucasian wife and a Kentucky-born daughter named SEF.  The group must have visited Chicago before that and may well have resided there between 1858 and 1860.  This makes them far and away the city’s earliest known Chinese residents, and little SEF the first Chinese girl born in the Midwest.

Now, it seems, we must change our minds.  The first Chinese in this region were not refugees.  They came because they found opportunities here, because they were treated as equal under local law, and – judging from the tone of the Tribune article – because they were not unpopular with other ethnic groups.  Moreover, they began coming early.  Dorming and his associates may, as Goldsworthy suggests, not have arrived in the U.S. before 1852.  However, the Tribune’s reporter seems not to have regarded it as extraordinary for three Chinese to be working in a saloon in the Third Ward.  This hints that other Chinese, perhaps entertainers, had worked elsewhere in Chicago, and that Dorming may not have been the first Chinese to visit or live in this city.

John Dorming, the father of  SEF, was not what one might expect of an early Chinese immigrant in a raw and violent inland city. He seems not to have been a timid, low-profile refugee doing an inconspicuous job that needed no English.  Instead he was a professional entertainer in night spots whose English was evidently good and who was ingenious enough to persuade a series of magistrates to arrest and fine his bar-owning attacker, not once but several times.  The Tribune article describes him as “a quick-witted fellow, and not ill-natured.”  One assumes that these qualities (perhaps along with his profession as a knife thrower) enabled him to get along in the rough-and-tumble saloons of pre-Fire Chicago.

This alters our own picture of early Chinese immigration to the Midwest.  Like most historians, we had always believed that Chinese began coming here after the transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869, fleeing racial violence in the West. True, we knew that Alla Lee came to St. Louis in 1857 and that various Chinese individuals like Edward Cohota and Yung Wing had found their way to the East and Gulf Coasts as early as the 1840s.  But we had thought that the inland parts of the eastern U.S. were hostile and unattractive to early Asian immigrants.

Research & writing by Ben Bronson and Chuimei Ho; copyright 2004-2006 by the Chinatown Museum Foundation.