Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Walter Ngon Fong- A Life Story

Walter Ngon Fong
In researching the academic career of my great granduncle Jue Shee, I came across the life stories of two Chinese students at California universities in the late 19th and early 20th Century.  The life stories of  Fong Foo Sec and Walter Ngon Fong are fascinating and I wanted to present those stories here. In this post I will explore the story of Walter Ngon Fong . In the immediately preceding post  I explored the life of Fong Foo Sec.
  Walter Ngon Fong was born in 1866 in a small village in Guandong province and came to America in 1881 at the age of 15. He was educated in Methodist missionary schools in San Francisco and ultimately was ordained a minister in the Methodist church. After completing a course in Classics at the University of the Pacific, he applied and was admitted to Stanford University. He obtained his B.A. degree in 1896 in Economics and Sociology with a minor in Law. He was the only Chinese student at Stanford at the time and the first Chinese to graduate from Stanford. "For its first two decades, the Law Department at Stanford  was composed mostly of undergraduate law majors. As a result, the Department counted among its students women and some minorities-student populations that were not always welcome at other law schools. Walter Fong '96, the first Chinese-American graduate of Stanford, minored in law and became a member of a San Francisco law firm."
  During his freshman year at Stanford, Walter met Emma Howse , a Caucasian women originally from Canada who was also a freshman at Stanford. "Walter proposed to Emma and they were married shortly after their graduation from Stanford. Because of laws in place in California that prohibited interracial marriage , the couple had to travel to Denver, Colorado to marry. Marriage between a Chinese man and a white woman was sensational news in those days. The next day in the local newspaper,The Rocky Mountain News, an article was published with the headline "Eloped with a Chinaman." This news was wired around the nation and reprinted in newspapers across the United States with similar sensational headlines."
  The couple returned to San Francisco and  Walter went to work for a local law firm. Walter became active in local and international politics and eventually became the head of the Chinese Revolutionary Party in America. In 1898 , Walter left his law practice and enrolled at the University of California , Berkeley , as a graduate student in the mining  engineering program. He remained in that program for two years, before leaving the mining program to become a graduate assistant in Chinese in the Oriental Languages Department. Ultimately he completed his Master of Arts Degree in Oriental Languages in 1903.  His thesis was on "Some Phases of Village Life in South China".
   During his time at the University of California Walter met and became best friends with Yoshio Kuno.
("Yoshio Kuno was born in Nagoya, Japan, on January 2, 1865; his father had been a minor daimyo, a member of the Minomoto Clan. He graduated from a Japanese middle school, his study having been concentrated on Japanese classics and history. As he was a younger son, his desire to enter a university was opposed by his father, who decided that he should accept a minor official position which the family influence could obtain for him. His elder sister, however, was sympathetic with his ambition to go to America for advanced study, and induced her husband, a well-to-do brewer, to provide him with money for his passage to the United States, where he entered the University of California. Since he received no further assistance from home it was necessary for him to work his way through college, chiefly by performing odd jobs at a minimum wage, for he had not been trained for any skilled employment. As a result he pursued only short programs, which delayed his graduation well beyond the normal four years. After graduating with the degree of Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering in 1897, he was appointed assistant in astronomy, serving from 1898 to 1900, and during this time he also pursued advanced studies in astronomy and mathematics, receiving a Master of Science degree in 1900. In the meanwhile Kuno had come to the attention of the Department of Oriental Languages, and at its request was transferred to an assistantship in Japanese, later becoming an instructor and then professor ") Walter Fong and Yoshio Kuno were both assistants in the Department of Oriental Languages between 1900 to 1903.
   In 1903 after his graduation from Berkeley , Walter Ngon Fong was offered  the position of President of the newly formed Li Shing College in  Hong Kong which he accepted. He and Emma left for Hong Kong. Unfortunately in 1906 Walter died of tuberculosis. "Heartbroken, Emma returned to the United States. After spending some time in a sanatorium later that year, she lived on her own supporting herself for a short time by contributing to magazines and newspapers. " In 1907 she married her late husband's close personal friend Yoshio Kuno. Like her marriage with Walter Fong , Emma was forced to travel with her new husband out of state because of the prohibition of interracial marriage in California and the couple was married at La Junta Colorado. In 1922 Emma wrote a series of articles entiled  " My Two Oriental Husbands"  that was published in the San Francisco Bulletin.  These articles caused a minor sensation because of the state of race relations at the time.  The article Emma wrote is still studied as source material for classes in ethnic studies and woman's studies related to interracial marriage and discrimination.


  1. Thanks for researching the history of Walter Fong. Was there a connection between your grandfather and Walter? Walter Fong was my father's (Fong Poy; aka Fong Wan of Oakland,CA)cousin. When my father first came to this country in 1900 as a Section 6 student, he lived with Walter and Emma Fong in Berkeley for several years, and they initially taught him English. After Walter's death in Hong Kong, Fong Poy would remain close with Emma (and her 2nd husband, Dr. Yoshi Kuno) until Emma's death in 1948. Fong Poy went back to China to marry in 1910 and upon his return, he and his wife stayed with Emma and Yoshi Kuno for a few more years until he was able to launch his career as an herbalist. Fong Poy's first 2 sons were born in Berkeley.

    Calvin Fong

  2. Hi Calvin Thanks for the information ! I came across Walter Fong's story in research the story of my great grand uncle Jue Shee. It is quite possible that Jue Shee and Walter Fong knew each other .

  3. Hi Calvin...I am trying to get in touch with you, in that I am researching a biography of legendary theatre organist George Wright, who played at the New Shanghai Cafe and Terrace Bowl. My email is georgewrightbook (AT) gmail (DOT) com Thanks, Bill Dr. Wm. L. Coale, Ph.D., El Cerrito