1906: A rich merchant and his wife return to China

Thursday, 23 June 2011 13:52 Amy Gwilliam

Moy Dong Yee was one of the three Moy brothers who were reputed to have founded Chicago's Chinatown.  A successful merchant, he could afford to return to China repeatedly and to stay there for many months on each trip.  This application for a reentry permit gives the dates of previous trips and, unusually, includes a photo of his wife who planned to accompany him.

Dong Yee came to the U.S. in 1875 and moved to Chicago, where his brothers already lived, in 1879.  He almost immediately went back to China to find a wife.  Marrying one Hue Shee, a Toisan girl, he stayed on in China (perhaps in Canton city [Guangzhou] rather than Toisan) until 1881, when he left her and returned to Chicago.

He made the same trip and stayed for a similar length of time twice more, in 1883-1886 and 1891-1893.  Altogether he and Hue Shee had three children, all of whom seem to have stayed in China. 

She died in 1897.  He went back for a fourth time in 1898, presumably to set her affairs in order, and in 1899 married.again.  This time he would take his new wife, a beautiful 16 year-old named Luk Shee, back to Chicago.  She seems to have done well in her new environment.  In these reentry permit photographs she and her husband both seem quite plump.  In the 1912 family photograph shown elsewhere on this website, where she appears with two sons and an older niece, she looks content and proud while Dong Yee looks thin and worried.

When these photographs were taken in 1906, she was 22 and he was 50.  She must have looked forward to seeing her own family again -- she had already been away from them for six years.

Very few Chinese-American men in those days could afford to do what Dong Yee did -- to return to China repeatedly, to make long stays there each time, and not only to marry twice there but eventually to bring one of those wives back to America.  The average laundryman was lucky to return to China once in his life, and if he had a wife there, to see her and his children once before he died.  This pattern of near-permanent separation of husband and wife was not unusual for sojourning laborers from places like Toisan, where in some villages almost all males were expected to seek a living overseas.  Both men and women may have been used to the idea of long-term separation.  Yet it must have been cruelly hard.

The original of Moy's reentry permit application is preserved in the files of  the National Archives and Records Administration, Chicago office.  It was scanned there by Soo Lon Moy, Grace Chun, and Ben Bronson.