While looking for something else one day, I came upon Yee Sing [full name: Woo Yee Sing], a Chinese-American who ran a restaurant in Minneapolis in the late 19th century and early decades of the 20th. In 1902, he was interviewed by a reporter from the Minneapolis Journal in which he revealed an anti-racist perspective that was sadly uncommon among white America at the time.
Chinese restaurants were some of the very few spaces in the United States where the “races” mixed. The reporter observed that at the four Chinese restaurants in Minneapolis at that time a black patron “gets just as cordial a greeting from the proprietor as is accorded to a white man.” Woo asked, “And why shouldn’t they? They are men like you or me. They have got to eat and there must be some place for them to do so.” He looked around his restaurant, observing, “They are all brothers, and there is no room for race prejudice.”
The story made me want to know more about Woo Yee Sing.
He arrived in the United States in 1882, evidently just before the United States prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers with the signing of the Chinese Exclusion Act. He was admitted – but scarcely welcomed. He reported years later that when Chinese came to America “their baggage is turned topsy turvy and probably stolen, they are locked up as if they were criminals and are sent back many times without any kind of a show.” It is likely he experienced something like this himself.
He established an import store in Minneapolis in 1882, and the Canton restaurant in 1883. A brother arrived in 1884 and joined the businesses, and they opened a couple of laundries. Woo cut off his long braid, joined a Protestant congregation, and embraced his new country. He set about to acquire citizenship, which proved not an easy process (although he said he was naturalized, he is identified as an Alien on U.S. censuses and was not allowed to take an oath of allegiance in 1898).
He evidently made quite a favorable impression on a number of people in Minneapolis. He was often quoted or interviewed in the newspaper and his minister defended him against those who physically assaulted him in 1890, saying he was “a thorough business man, a gentleman and a Christian, and one of the best members of my church. In my opinion he is better than 90 per cent of those [who] are so vindictively persecuting him.”
As the minister’s remarks reveal, Woo experienced hostility in Minneapolis. In 1892 Congress extended the Exclusion Act with the Geary Act which required Chinese to carry resident permits or be deported. Although Geary was supposed to apply only to laborers and not to merchants, in practice it became necessary for all Chinese to carry permits or risk deportation — based on the widely accepted belief that it was impossible to tell one Chinese person from another.
The Canton restaurant was picketed by the cooks’ union in 1902, which asked union members to boycott it and other Chinese restaurants in Minneapolis. The union charged that Woo and the others underpaid their Chinese cooks and this made it impossible for white-owned restaurants to compete with equally low prices. Woo responded that he paid his cook well. He rejected the union’s claim that powerful Chinese in San Francisco furnished money for others to open Chinese restaurants all over the country, calling this “the old California cry [i.e., propaganda].” Note that a Chinese cook could not join a union, nor be paid at the same rate as others when cooking in a white restaurant.
The head of the cooks’ union disliked hearing Woo claim that he was a citizen. During the boycott he complained to a reporter, “It is silly to hear him talking of being a naturalized American citizen. All know why a Chinaman gets naturalized – not for love of the country, but for the lust of gold.”
Woo and his brother did not let discrimination keep them from progressing. In 1905 they opened a new restaurant named Yuen-Faung-Low Chop Suey House [see 1916 advertisement above], but popularly known as “John’s Place.” It was damaged by a bomb in 1909, but reopened. In 1916, the restaurant advertised the addition of a second-floor tea room “for ladies” that catered to “a strictly high-class clientele.”
Woo Yee Sing died in 1925. His funeral, attended by 700 people, was accompanied by a 25-piece band playing a Chopin funeral march. He left an estate valued at $41,200, and his was said to be the first “Chinese” will filed in Hennepin County probate court. Woo Yee Sing’s brother Woo Du Sing continued to operate John’s Place, and opened another, The Sea Food Grill, in the early 1930s.
© Jan Whitaker, 2019
For more about the Woo family and photos of Yee Sing and the Yuen-Faung-Low restaurant, see the article about his socially prominent wife in Minnesota History. Some of the dates in that story are discrepant with those I found.