In 2008 Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard suggested that the Circle City build a Chinatown to celebrate the “cultural flavor of Indianapolis” and “showcase its diversity.” Ballard’s proposal was an unfunded musing that was not especially focused on celebrating Chinese culture; the Mayor was instead aspiring to craft a tourist-friendly Chinese district in reach of downtown on the city’s near-Southside. Nothing has ever come of Ballard’s idea, and perhaps it is because the city has no historically Chinese neighborhood and has been the home to relatively few Chinese immigrants. In 1880—on the eve of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the first of a series of laws strictly regulating overseas Chinese immigration—Indianapolis had just 14 residents who were born in China to Chinese parents; in 1910 that population swelled to 43 residents, in 1930 it was 39, and in 1940 it was 20. Nevertheless, some Chinese immigrants did come to Indianapolis, and they and their families were part of city affairs throughout the early 20th century.
In the 19th century segregated Chinese communities emerged throughout much of the West. The earliest of these communities were based in Gold Rush and railroad centers like San Francisco, and these Chinese neighborhoods were often referred to as “Chinatowns.” Cities like Chicago and Detroit had similar communities emerge in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as Chinese immigrants went eastward searching for new social and economic opportunities or simply fleeing West coast xenophobia.
Nearly all of the earliest Chinese immigrants to Indianapolis ran laundries, a pattern that was typical of Chinese laborers throughout the US well into the 20th century. Wah Lee’s laundry on South Illinois Street was probably the first Chinese laundry in Indianapolis, opening in May 1873 (and receiving a fine in August for constructing a wooden building in violation of the city’s fire code). In the 1874 city directory, two of the four laundries in the directory were Chinese managed, including Wah Lee’s laundry and Sang Lee’s laundry on Virginia Avenue.
Indianapolis’ Chinese laundry firms were established at the same moment as nearby Chicago’s Chinese laundries, but the scale of growth in the subsequent decade was vastly greater in Chicago. Paul C.P. Siu’s 1953 dissertation on Chinese laundrymen (published in 1987) detailed the Chinese laundry trade in Chicago, and he found that the first Chinese laundry had been built there in 1872. Two years later Chicago had 18 Chinese laundries, but Chicago had an exponentially faster growth and had 165 laundries in 1882.
In 1878 there were five Chinese laundries in the Indianapolis city directory, but the number of Chinese-born residents of the city would remain quite modest throughout the early 20th-century: in 1880, for instance, the census identified just 14 Indianapolis residents who were born in China. Twelve of those 14 were working in laundries (one was a huckster, and the other was a cook and patient at the Indiana Hospital for the Insane). Those searching for a population center that might be dubbed a “Chinatown” would find that the Chinese immigrants in Indianapolis were scattered about the city in no particular center. In 1900, for example, the 29 Chinese-born residents in Indianapolis were living in 12 residences in no specific area in the city.
Chinese-American residents often assumed a host of Americanized names and even changed them as they moved from one city to the next; American record-keepers and newspapers routinely mis-spelled those names. For instance, the Indianapolis laundry proprietor known locally as E. Lung was also known as Chin Gum Sing (and Pang Wah Jung, and eventually some locals referred to him as Edward Lung). Lung was operating a laundry on Massachusetts Avenue in 1880 and would live in Indianapolis for nearly a half-century.
Like many Chinese immigrants, Lung sent money to China throughout his stay in the US and ventured back and forth between the US and China. When the Indianapolis News believed Lung was preparing to permanently return to China to retire in 1889, the paper suggested that he had been “the head of the Indianapolis colony” of Chinese immigrants since his arrival in Indianapolis in 1879. In 1889 the News trumpeted Lung’s departure with the headline “Chinaman going home with vast fortune,” reflecting Americans’ commonplace fascination with Chinese immigrants’ tendency to save much of their earnings. The paper’s assessment of Lung indicated that “unlike most Chinamen he studied the English language and became quite proficient in it. On account of his business qualifications, and his knowledge of English, be became the advisor, if not the business manager, of all his race in Indianapolis. He made money out of his laundry and he said this morning he would go back to his native country with about $5,000 to his credit.” Lung told the Indianapolis newspaper that on his return to China “`I will be able to live the rest of my life without work,’” but he was back in Indianapolis by 1900.
Lung’s contemporary Moy Kee told the Indianapolis News in 1900 that he had been back to China 18 times since first arriving in the US around 1859. Few Chinese immigrants made so many trips back to China, but the vast majority of Chinese immigrants were men who often had families they had left behind in China. This boosted the characterization of Chinese immigrants as “sojourners” who moved to the US for financial gain, resisted mainstream American cultural practices, and passed their time until their inevitable return to China with newfound wealth or after their deaths.
In 1889 the Indianapolis News painted a picture of the city’s Chinese immigrants as temporary residents patiently accumulating riches to take back to China. The paper indicated that after Lung and his two companions departed there would “remain in Indianapolis twenty-one Chinamen, all in the laundry business. They are all accumulating wealth rapidly, and long for the day when they, too, can return to their native land and live at their ease. At the rate they are accumulating money now, it will not be many years until they can realize their hopes. One Indianapolis bank alone has during the last six months received exchange on $12,000 sent home by the Chinamen of this city. Only the other day a Chinaman from Louisville, on a visit to this city, bought a draft for $1,200. It is estimated by those who do business with the Chinamen that not less than $15,000 is annually sent to China from Indianapolis.”
The academic picture of the Chinese “sojourner” was perhaps most clearly argued in 1952 by sociologist Paul C. P. Siu. Siu’s analysis repeated in his dissertation painted the typical Chinese immigrant as “one who clings to the cultural heritage of his own ethnic group and tends to live in isolation, hindering his assimilation to the society in which he lives, often for many years. The sojourn is conceived by the sojourner as a `job’ which is to be finished in the shortest possible time. As an alternative he travels back to his homeland every few years.”
The caricature of Chinese resistance to “assimilation” had been hyperbolized by anti-Chinese racists since the late 19th century. In January 1881 the Sacramento Daily Union argued that the most compelling argument in favor of Chinese immigration restrictions was “the repugnance of the Chinese to assimilation with the people of the United States. It has been argued that the Mongolian brought here the civilization of China; that he despised and detested American civilization; that he neither understood nor cared to understand our institutions; that our literature and history were sealed to him; that he was in all essentials as the inhabitant of another planet, and that he had no inclination whatever to merge himself in the Anglo-Saxon community, or to relinquish his Tartar civilization. It has been contended that such a being, bringing here no stable feminine elements, and refusing to marry into the country, could never represent anything more than a class of virtually servile labor, from which no real advantage to the State could be expected, and which could only force and keep down the price of white labor.” In May, 1881 the same paper complained that “the Chinese have in point of fact never assimilated with Americans.” After passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the Indianapolis News supported the legislation and echoed the Western complaints that the Chinese “refuse to be citizens, and mix and mingle with our life and manners.”
In 1879 E Lung was one of eight Chinese laundries expressly identified as Chinese in the city directory. Lung’s laundry continued to operate in his name after his 1889 trip to China, and Lung returned to the US by 1900. In September, 1901 Lung moved his laundry from 221 Massachusetts Avenue a block away to North Delaware Street. In December, 1902 he was elected Grand Master of the Chinese lodge of the Masons of America, and he often hosted Chinese visitors and Masons in his North Delaware Street home and business place. He was living on Delaware Street in 1902 and hosted a Masons’ dinner after which one of the diners was murdered. The victim, Doc Lung, had arrived in Indianapolis by 1890 and managed a laundry on Indiana Avenue at the time of his death (he was also known as Dong Gong Chung as well as Gong Lee) (Stephen Taylor detailed the case in 2015 in Historic Indianapolis).
In October 1911 the Indianapolis Star accused E Lung of plotting to overthrow the Chinese empire as head of the Chinese Masons. The Masons were believed to be assisting Sun Yat-sen, who was then visiting Chicago securing funding for the Chinese revolutionary movement. Lung may have first met Sun Yat-sen in New Orleans in 1904, when Lung was in the city for the opening of a Chinese mausoleum at Cypress Grove Cemetery. Sun had apparently met with Lung in Indianapolis in 1909, and Lung and the city’s Chinese Masons may well have supported Sun, who was in exile from China. In October, 1911 the Wuchang Uprising pitted revolutionaries sympathetic to Sun against the Qing Dynasty; the dynasty would fall by year’s end and Sun Yat-sen became provisional President. In January 1912 Lung’s employee and Delaware Street boarder George Horn told the Indianapolis Star that “during the last year fully $1,500 had been raised by the local celestials to assist their countrymen in conducting the revolution. Dr. Sun is a personal friend of Horn and E. Lung a North Delaware street laundryman, and has visited them in their homes here.” Lung’s laundry last appeared in the city directory in 1927.
Many Chinese immigrant entrepreneurs managed laundries, but some tried a range of other enterprises, of which restaurants were most common. Born near Peking in 1847, Moy Kee was managing an Indianapolis tea store at 506 East Washington Street in 1900. In about 1858 or 1859 he came to the United States with an uncle who was a San Francisco tea merchant. Around 1861, Moy Kee became a cook for California Governor Leland Stanford for about 17 years. During one of his trips to China in about 1873, Moy Kee married Chin Fung in a union arranged by his father.
In 1878 Moy Kee moved to New York City, where he was a central figure in the 1878 opening of a Methodist mission in Chinatown on Mott Street. However, in May, 1879 he was accused of theft and he and his wife moved to Chicago, where he was a court interpreter as he had been in California and New York. In December, 1894 Moy Kee served as a translator in a court case in Indianapolis, and he and his wife Chin Fung moved to Indianapolis by March, 1897, when they advertised their Massachusetts Avenue tea shop in the Indianapolis News. In 1903 the Indianapolis News described his wife Chin Fung as “the only Chinese woman who has ever lived in Indianapolis.” Moy Kee had moved back and forth between the US and China, and in 1885 Chin Fung migrated to the US and joined her husband. Moy Kee returned to China in October, 1907 but came back to Indianapolis in 1909. He resumed management of his Washington Street restaurant, and he died in the restaurant in January, 1914. His widow accompanied his body back to Canton for burial in his family’s plot, telling the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald that she planned to commit ritual suicide on his grave (there is no evidence she did). In January, 1914 Kee’s widow sold his Washington Street restaurant to Chin Gum Shing, better known locally as E Lung.
In the early 20th century increasingly more Chinese arrivals became cooks in local restaurants as Chinese cuisine began to secure a foothold in the American restaurant industry. Moy Kee opened a tea store on Massachusetts Avenue in March, 1897, and by December, 1900 he was advertising a chop suey restaurant on Indiana Avenue (cf Scott Seligmann’s thorough biography of Kee The Hoosier Mandarin: Moy Kee, the “Mayor” of Indianapolis’s Chinatown). In May, 1901 he and his wife moved the restaurant to 506 East Washington Street, which was advertised as the “only chop suey house in the city.” In June 1901 Moy Kee advertised the restaurant as “the only clean Chinese restaurant in the city; open day and night; special attention to parties; give us a call if you want an enjoyable evening. Mrs Moy Kee will entertain.” In 1902 Moy Kee hired a Chinese-born former San Francisco chef, Moy Hon, for his Washington Street restaurant. In 1910, 11 of the 43 Chinese-born Indianapolis residents were managing or employed in restaurants (though in 1930 there were only five and in 1940 just four).
As the African-American community rapidly grew in the Circle City, some Chinese immigrants and their families began to live and work in predominately Black neighborhoods. Charlie Yee, for instance, married his African-American neighbor Marie Robinson in Indianapolis in October, 1920. Born in Edwardsville, Illinois in December, 1905, Robinson’s family came to Indianapolis in about 1909, and Robinson was just 14 years old when she married Charlie Yee. Yee probably was born in China in the 1880s and came to the US as a child around 1890. He was managing a restaurant at 532 ½ Indiana Avenue for the first time in 1917, and by the late 1920s it was a chili parlor.
Both Charlie and Marie described themselves as married in the census in 1930, but they were living in separate homes a few blocks from each other, he at his 533 Indiana Avenue business and she on 621 West St. Clair Street with their son Charles Elmer Yee. In 1936 the younger Yee was described by the Indianapolis Recorder as the “Afro-Oriental American” in a story on the Golden Gloves boxing tournament in which Yee was competing. In 1940 his father Charlie described himself in the census as widowed, but Marie would not die until 1955. Charlie Yee was described as “the famous Chinese Chef” when he became the first chef at the March, 1938 opening of the Oriental Café on Indiana Avenue. However, he was again running his own restaurant on Indiana Avenue by July, 1941.
By 1940 Chinese immigrants and their families had begun to shift to new occupations. For example, in 1929 Ko Kuei Chen and his wife Amy moved to Indianapolis, where Ko Kuei Chen started a position as Director of Pharmacological Research with Eli Lilly in 1929. Chen remained with Lilly until 1963, where he developed a formula to produce ephedrine based on a Chinese herb. Chen co-authored more than 150 articles with his wife, who was herself an accomplished researcher.
Much of the landscape of Chinese immigration has today been erased by postwar urban transformations, but it persisted until quite recently. For instance, Chinese laundries remained part of the city until the 1960s. In 1920 the city directory included 30 Chinese laundries; in 1940 there were 26 establishments still expressly identified as Chinese laundries; in 1949 there were 14 Chinese laundries; in 1955 there were five; in 1960 there were three; andin 1963 Moy Way’s laundry at 645 East 42nd Street was among the last laundries expressly identified as Chinese in the city directory (though his laundry remained there in 1965 and the Moy Yin laundry was in that location in 1970). A discrete historical place linked to Chinese immigrants for a century is not part of Indianapolis’ landscape, but in many ways the Chinese immigrant story in Indianapolis once again underscores the city’s often-unrecognized ethnic diversity.
The Indianapolis Star
1912 Local Chinese are Satisfied with Sun. The Indianapolis Star 3 January:9. (subscription access)
2012 Chinese Chicago : Race, Transnational Migration, and Community Since 1870. Stanford University Press, Redwood City, California.
Scott D. Seligman
2011 The Hoosier Mandarin: Moy Kee, the “Mayor” of Indianapolis’s Chinatown. Traces Fall:48-55.
Paul C.P. Siu
1952 The sojourner. American journal of Sociology (58)1: 34-44. (subscription access)
1953 The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation. PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago, Department of Sociology.
1987 The Chinese Laundryman: A Study of Social Isolation. Originally published as PhD Dissertation, University of Chicago 1953. Edited by John Kuo Wei Tchen. New York University Press, New York.
2002 Gender, Race and Civilization: The Competition between American Power Laundries and Chinese Steam Laundries, 1870s – 1920s. American Studies International 40(1):52-73. (subscription access)
1969 Division of Labor between Native-Born and Foreign-Born Chinese in the United States: A Study of Their Traditional Employments. Phylon 30(2): 160-69. (subscription access)
Chinese laundry 1881 image from PD-US wikipedia