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Our Rich History: One of the early Chinese families in the CIncinnati region was the Wong family

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

Note: This article follows Chinese style, where the family name is given first (Wong) and the personal name second.

Chinese immigrants to the United States have helped to forge the American landscape, from playing a major role in the settlement of the state of California to building the nation’s first transcontinental railroad to excelling in the arts and sciences. They have succeeded through hard work and determination, despite tremendous odds against them.

Racial prejudice against Chinese Americans abounded in the 1800s and the 1900s. In one of the saddest chapters in its history, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, prohibiting Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States and barring them from ever becoming citizens. Only in 1943, with the repeal of this act, could Chinese begin the long process of being treated as equals.

Wong Yie’s new restaurant opened in November 1921 on the northwest corner of Sixth and Main Streets in Cincinnati. Source: Cincinnati Post, November 14, 1921, p. 2.

Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Cincinnati’s vast distance from China, the Chinese community in the Cincinnati region was very small in the early years. Nevertheless, the region’s Chinese residents were innovative, frugal, and dedicated neighbors. Many Chinese owned and operated their own businesses, especially laundries and restaurants.

One of the early Chinese families in the Cincinnati region was the Wong family. Wong Yie left the Sun Ming district of China in circa 1901, arriving at Vancouver, Canada. He was planning on visiting New York City, and later settled in Cleveland, Ohio, where he operated a novelty store. Wong came to Cincinnati in 1911. In April of that year, he opened the “Gold Dragon” Restaurant in Cincinnati at 536 Walnut Street downtown, with his cousin Wong Kee. Wong Kee was the leader of the Chinese community in Cleveland, Ohio, owning multiple restaurants. Kee’s brother was a prominent businessman in St. Louis, Missouri.

When Wong Yie arrived in Cincinnati, a newspaper described him as the “chop suey king,” who had “developed the art of serving chop suey in 140 different ways” (Cincinnati Post, March 16, 1911, p. 3). ” Chop suey was a popular Chinese American dish of the time period. The restaurant was innovative, even incredible for its day. Occupying four floors, each was “devoted to various forms” of Chinese and American food. Diners were actually encouraged to view the kitchen and to ask for recipes. The restaurant also had private rooms that could be reserved (Cincinnati Post, March 1, 1911, p. 7).

Wong Yie was a supporter of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 against the Qing Dynasty in China, sending money to China to support the revolutionaries. In November 1911, the Cincinnati Post reported that Wong’s family “was massacred in the State of Canton” in China. Wong remained hopeful, however, that the revolution would succeed, stating in December that “ ‘The rebels will win because they are intelligent men. . . . They no longer stand for women’s feet being tied or such things’ ” (Kentucky Post, December 4, 1911, p. 6). Fortunately, later that same month, Wong received a letter stating that “all members of his family” in China were safe (Cincinnati Post, December 22, 1911, p. 2).

Cincinnatians liked to hear news about Wong Yie’s family. In 1919, the Cincinnati Post newspaper announced that his daughter, Wong Ping, had won an award, noting proudly that she was a United States citizen. Cincinnati Post, June 18, 1919, p. 12.

Wong’s wife, Lee Mon, and daughter fled China soon after, arriving in Vancouver, Canada. With the special permission of US immigration officials, they were allowed to enter the United States and to come to Cincinnati. By 1912, the Wong family was reunited, living as the guests of Harry Hanover in a wealthy neighborhood of Cincinnati called Hyde Park. Wong Lee Mon was an educated woman, involved in the women’s suffrage movement in China. Their daughter Ping attended kindergarten in Hyde Park, learning English quickly from her classmates.

Cincinnatians were charmed by the Wong family, whose activities were followed by the Cincinnati Post newspaper. Wong Yie was innovative in marketing himself, his family, and his restaurant. In circa 1913, the family celebrated the birth of a second daughter, Ting. In the same year, the Gold Dragon went into receivership. Probably due to his cousin’s wealth, Wong rebounded and opened a new restaurant at 628 Vine Street, and in 1915, moved it to 520-526 Walnut Street, close to the original location of the Gold Dragon. In November 1915, the family celebrated the birth of a son, Juke Lan, the first Chinese-American boy born in Cincinnati.

By 1921, Wong moved his restaurant to a new building, occupying two entire floors at Sixth and Main Streets in downtown Cincinnati. The restaurant even featured dancing. Advertising promoted it as “a place where refined people can come to dine and be entertained.” (Cincinnati Post, November 14, 1921, p. 2) Wong’s eatery was an important meeting place for groups like the Kiwanis Club, which demonstrated a new invention there, the radio, in April 1921. The restaurant was so successful that in 1922, Yie opened a second location a block away, at Sixth and Walnut Streets.

In 1926, Wong Yie died, and his wife continued to operate the family business. The Cincinnati Post, in a front-page article, paid tribute to Mr. Wong: he “was not a naturalized citizen of the United States since under the laws he could not be,” however, “he was a fine citizen of Cincinnati in the sense that a citizen is one who serves the community well, respects its laws, lives at peace with his fellows, does what good he can and endeavors to be a credit to the community” (Cincinnati Post, August 3, 1926, p. 1)

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at NKU and the author of many books and articles.

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