1912: Chin Foin wins a civil rights battle

Thursday, 23 June 2011 14:19 Amy Gwilliam
In late August 1912, the Chinese restaurant owner Chin Foin closed on the purchase of the Clarence Knight mansion on Calumet Avenue between 33rd and 34th Streets.  The neighborhood was wealthy, all-white, and originally dead-set against an invasion by a Chinese family.  Bureaucratic obstacle appeared.  Foin (he used this as his family name) patiently overcame them.  Inflammatory anti-Chinese statements were made.  Foin responded with a public relations campaign of his own, enlisting the help of sympathetic newspaper writers and emphasizing that he was well able to keep the building and grounds up to the high standards of his future neighbors.  In interviews he let it be known that he was a Yale graduate and -- even more relevant in his neighbors' eyes -- not at all poor.

The neighbors seem to have been mollified  by these revelations.  According to the Chicago Tribune (Aug 28, 1912), one neighbor, Charles J. Furst, commented "If Chin Foin is a gentleman, we shall welcome him.  Another neighbor, J. W. Seefeld is reported to have been amused.  Apparently referring to Irish-Americans, he commented "I'd rather have a Chinese any day than some other nationalities."

Residential desegregation was not an active issue in western states at this time.  In most, Chinese were not even allowed to own real estate, much less buy it in places where European-Americans lived.  That Foin succeeded in buying his Calumet Avenue home shows, first, that anti-Chinese feeling in Chicago was much less virulent than in the West and, second, that -- then as now -- social class often mattered more than race.

Image: Chin Foin and Yokelund Wong, his wife.  Taken in Chicago, 1906.