The couple shown here is a puzzle. The Harvard anthropologist Frederick Ward Putnam, who was a top Fair official and should have known what he was talking about, described them as “the most prominent Chinese at the fair.” He wrote that Ah Que had been educated by Presbyterian missionaries in San Francisco and that “she is said to be very popular” in that city. As for Wong Ki, Putnam credits him with being “the architect of the Chinese Building and the decorator and designer of the Joss House.”
Putnam goes on to say that Wong Ki was “a native of Canton, where he spent his youth in studying the peculiar architecture of his country. Arriving at manhood, he concluded to cast his lot with many of his countrymen in California, and there was successful at his trade and also fortunate in meeting the beautiful Ah Que, who is now his devoted wife.”
The problem is that Putnam’s captions contradict other sources. Wong Ki certainly was not the most prominent male Chinese at the Fair. Hong Sling and Gee Wo Chan received more publicity, and leading members of the Moy family were more influential. True, one Wong Kee, said to be the richest man in (the Clark Street) Chinatown, was a financial backer of the Chinese Theater and Joss House. But that Wong Kee was an established Chicago merchant, not an architect-designer from San Francisco. And we have not seen anything else about Ah Que. We don’t think she is same person as the “Chinese beauty,” who appears on another page of this website and may have been the wife of Hong Sling, the manager of Chinese exhibits at the WCE.
Ah Que may be the featured subject in this photograph of a Chinese farm house interior, exhibited in one part of the Chinese building, but she seems to have been not at all prominent otherwise. It is hard not to conclude that a famous Harvard anthropology professor might have been a bit careless with his facts.
The photo of the farm house interior was discovered by Mae Ngai.
CAMOC is open on Wednesday and Friday from 9:30am to 2pm and Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. Group visits by appointment only. Visitors are required to wear a mask at all times while inside the Museum.