What did early Chinese Americans in the U.S. accomplish?


Chinese people have been involved in important moments in U.S. history since its beginning — Chinese American history is U.S. history. Here is what some of the first Chinese in America were able to accomplish, despite the intense prejudice and discrimination against them. 


Poison Jim: Poison Jim was a squirrel trapper in California’s Salinas Valley during the mid-nineteenth century. Poison Jim would gain fame for discovering the mustard plant. When wealthy grain growers hired him to remove the mustard plant, he decided to sell the seeds to a French buyer for a lot of money. In doing so, he unintentionally turned mustard into a commercial crop. 


Ah Bing: Ah Bing was a farmer in Milwaukie, Oregon. In 1875, he developed a variety of cherry known for its sweet fruit that would go on to be named the “Bing Cherry” in his honor. 


Ing “Doc” Hay: Ing ‘Doc’ Hay was born in 1862. Using his knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine and herbalism, he was able to treat all sorts of maladies such as blood poisoning, gangrene, appendicitis, frostbite, flu, and more — all while operating out of a general store in eastern Oregon. His success in treating these ailments won him widespread respect, and his practice would become well known to patients throughout Oregon and the Northwest.


Lue Gim Gong: Lue Gim Gong, a Florida farmer born in 1888, developed a sweet and frost resistant orange now known as the “Valencia” orange. The orange was so popular that it was awarded the Silver Wilder Medal by the American Pomological Society in 1911 and he would go on to be known as “The Citrus Wizard of Florida.” 


Joseph L. Pierce: Joseph L. Pierce enlisted in the 14th Connecticut Infantry at the age of 21 and would go on to fight in the Civil War. Though he was born in China, he decided to take the surname of his adopted American family, “Pierce.” Pierce’s regiment played a key role in the Battle of Antietam and the Battle of Gettysburg.


Tom Gunn: Born in 1890, Tom Gunn was the first Chinese American to earn a U.S. pilot’s license and would go on to represent China in the 1910 International Aviation Meet in Los Angeles. In 1911, Sun Yat-sen contacted Gunn, asking for his help with popularizing aviation. In just two years, Gunn made more than 800 flights and carried more than 300 passengers. He also is credited with demonstrating the world’s first flying boat!  


Fung Joe Guey: Born in 1883, Fung Joe Guey was an inventor and aviator who is best known for making the first successful flight of a heavier-than-air, motor-driven airplane on the West Coast.  


Dr. Faith Sai So Leong: Dr. Sai So Leong became the first Chinese woman dentist in America after graduating from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1905. The only female member of San Francisco’s Chinese Dental Club, she would pave the way for generations of women to come. 


Chien Lung – Chien Lung — also known as the “Chinese Potato King — was born in 1906. He would go on to become one of the most successful farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta area, until the Alien Land Laws forced him to give up his land in the 1920s. 


Clara Elizabeth Chan Lee: Born in 1886, Clara Elizabeth Chan Lee registered to vote in California in 1911, becoming one of the first Chinese American women to vote in the U.S. She would go onto found and serve as president of the Jeleab Association, an activist organization dedicated to empowering Chinese American women in California. 


Du Lee – Du Lee founded the Chinese Americans Citizens Alliance in 1915 as a direct response to Native Sons of the Golden West, an anti-Chinese organization in California. Lee hoped that the organization would “combat anti-Chinese sentiments and accelerate the assimilation of the Chinese.” 


Yan Phou Lee (Li Enfu) – Author Yan Phou Lee was the first Chinese student to become a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society and commencement speaker at Yale in 1887, where he gave a speech entitled “The Other Side of the Chinese Question.” His memoir, When I Was a Boy in China, was the first Asian American literary text published and written in English. 


Yun Gee – Yung Gee was born in 1906 and trained in classical Chinese watercolor, painting, and poetry from a young age. At the age of 15, he immigrated to San Francisco, where he would go on to study under the tutelage of Modernist painter Otis Oldfield. In Paris, he would be involved in the city’s bohemian scene and become the first Chinese artist to exhibit work in Pari’s internationally renowned salons.


Tye Leung – Born in 1887, Leung became the first Chinese American to serve as a civil servant in 1910 when she became an interpreter and assistant at the Angel Island Immigration Station. She also was one of the first Chinese American women to vote in an American presidential election. 


James Wong Howe – Considered one of the great American cinematographers, by the end of his life, James Wong Howe had over 130 films to his credit. Born in 1899, the cinematographer was one of the first filmmakers to use deep-focus cinematography and his mastery of the shadow earned him ten Academy Award nominations, winning twice for The Rose Tattoo (1955) and Hud (1963). 


Dong Kingman – Born in 1911, Kingman was an artist known for his landscape watercolor painting and his design work in the Hollywood film industry. He won much critical acclaim throughout his career, and his work was included in over 20 public and private collections. 


Chien Shiung Wu – Wu — also known as the “First Lady of Physics” and “Madame Curie of China — came to the United States to study science as a teenager and would go onto become “the world’s foremost female experimental physicist.” She received the National Science Medal in 1975 and the Wolf Prize in 1978 for her significant contributions to nuclear physics.