‘A Race So Different’: Asians and Asian Americans in UVA’s History

March 11, 2021 By Sylvia Chong, schong@virginia.edu Sylvia Chong, schong@virginia.edu

Editor’s note: Even an institution as historic as the University of Virginia has stories yet to be told. Some are inspiring, while the truths of others are painful, but necessary for a fuller accounting of the past. As Baptist minister and former Southern Christian Leadership Council leader Fred Shuttlesworth once said, “If you don’t tell it like it was, it can never be as it ought to be.”

The president’s commissions on Slavery and on the University in the Age of Segregation were established to find and tell those stories. “UVA and the History of Race” – a joint project of UVA Today, the commissions, and faculty members and researchers – presents some of them, written by those who did the research. The project reflects UVA’s educational mission and the commission’s charge to educate, and to support the institution as a living laboratory of learning.

Today’s story, “A Race So Different,” explores the experiences of Asians and Asian Americans at UVA and more broadly in the U.S. in the 19th and 20th centuries. Find all of the stories in this series published to date at UVA Today.

In 2017, the University of Virginia renamed two buildings on Grounds that had associations with prominent eugenicists: Lewis House, a dormitory at the International Residential College named after biology professor and College of Arts & Sciences Dean Ivey Foreman Lewis, and the School of Medicine’s Jordan Hall, named after anatomy professor and medical school Dean Harvey E. Jordan.

Lewis House was renamed Yen House after W.W. Yen (also known as Yan Huiqing), the first Chinese to graduate from UVA, in 1900. Yen went on to serve five terms as the premier of China during its republican era. Jordan Hall became Pinn Hall, named for Dr. Vivian Pinn, a 1967 graduate of UVA’s medical school who went on to become the first female African American chair of Howard University’s Department of Pathology.

While Pinn would seem a natural rejoinder to these disavowed eugenicists, serving as a living reminder of the failure of their predictions about African Americans, Yen is a more ambiguous case. In Virginia, without a large influx of Asian immigrants, Asians were mostly an afterthought in the racist laws of the era, and were barely mentioned in the implementation of the Virginia Racial Integrity Laws and Sterilization Laws of the 1920s. Based on his social class, education and relative assimilation, Yen had little in common with the Chinese laborers being derided at the time as “coolies,” “strike breakers” and even replacements for slaves. To borrow a term from contemporary sociologists, Yen may have even been seen as an “honorary white.”1

But only four years before Yen’s graduation from UVA, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan made a striking comment that reminds us of the role Asians and Asian Americans have always played in the U.S.’s otherwise binary, Black-white racial system. Justice Harlan’s famous dissent against the “separate but equal” doctrine in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) contrasts the loyal and patriotic African American with the Chinese, a “race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States,” and goes on to lament how the Chinese could ride in a railcar in Louisiana with whites while Blacks remained segregated under force of law.2 Jim Crow segregation would regularly group Asians alongside whites, yet others like Harlan saw whites and African Americans as united against the intrusion of these “strangers from a different shore.”3

Related Story

Yen House Building viewed from the front entrance
The former Lewis House has been renamed to honor the first international student to earn a bachelor's degree from UVA, W.W. Yen, who went on to become premier of China. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

To recount the history of Asians at UVA, we must keep in mind this constant-yet-shifting triangulation of Asians between Black and white. While this history is of particular interest to UVA’s current Asian American students, staff and faculty, it is also unclear whether these early Asian students would be legible as Asian American by today’s standards, since students like Yen not only held themselves distinct from other Asians in the U.S., but ultimately returned to their home countries for their careers and families. Ironically, many of these Asians who thought of themselves as temporary “sojourners” remained in the U.S. and established the foundations of the Asian American communities that thrive today. Both Asians and Asian Americans in the 19th and 20th century are linked by their shared fate of labor exploitation, cultural marginalization and exclusion from the privileges of legal immigration and naturalized citizenship.

How, then, do Asians and Asian Americans fit in a broader history of race and racism at UVA?

The arrival of Chinese laborers in the mid-1800s was initially greeted enthusiastically by industrialists and railroad tycoons, and as early as 1866, some former slaveholders considered “coolies as a substitute for Negroes” in Southern industrial agricultural production.4 Despite that early enthusiasm, Asian immigration to the U.S. was relatively small. In the 1900 U.S. Census, with the total U.S. population just under 76 million, the total population of Chinese and Japanese (other Asian groups were not counted) was 114,189, with only 3,839 in the entire South and a mere 253 in Virginia. (Compare this with the more than 8.8 million African Americans and 237,196 Native Americans counted in that same census.)5

Imagery from What shall we do with John Chinamen that was in a newspaper
In the mid-late 19th century, anti-Chinese racism was virulent in the U.S. Northeast and West Coast, where white working class saw Chinese migrants as undercutting their wages and threatening their jobs. Above, “What Shall We Do with John Chinaman?”, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 September 1869. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Those early Chinese in the U.S., while few in number, nonetheless sparked violent opposition from the white working class, who saw such “coolies” as undercutting their wages and threatening their jobs. This anti-Chinese racism was most virulent in the Northeast and the West Coast, where Chinese immigrants were the most numerous. Deadly riots were not uncommon, such as the 1871 Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles, the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming, or the 1907 anti-Japanese riots in San Francisco. Soon, many white Americans, already struggling to understand the place of African Americans in society in the years after the Civil War, would join in rigid opposition to Chinese immigrants, as evidenced by local, state and federal restrictions prohibiting Chinese from working in mines (Tuolumme County, California, 1849), attending white public schools (California Assembly Bill 668, 1885), marrying white women (Nevada Territory Laws, Ch. 32, Sec. 1, 3), and testifying in court against whites (People v. Hall, 4 Cal 399 (1854)).

Those hostilities culminated in two landmark moments of anti-Chinese immigration legislation. First, the 1875 Page Act effectively ended the immigration of Chinese women. A decade later, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which passed Congress with widespread national support, barred all Chinese laborers from entering the U.S. and created a permanent and isolated underclass of those Chinese already here by denying a pathway to naturalized citizenship and preventing their families from joining them. That legislation stood unchanged until 1943, when China was a U.S. ally during World War II.

Drawing depiction of the Rock Spring Massacre
The 1885 Rock Springs Massacre in Wyoming. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Chinese merchants, diplomats and UVA students such as W.W. Yen and Theodore Wong, who attended UVA before Yen from 1894 to ’97, but did not receive a degree, could still come to the U.S. during this period of exclusion. Many visiting Chinese elites were insulated from most of the hatred and violence simply by virtue of their class and political status. The Qing court, the last imperial dynasty of China, officially sponsored many of these students starting in 1872, dispatching them to elite universities such as Yale University, Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and UVA, among others. Significantly, both Yen and Wong also came from families who converted to the Episcopalian Church, and both attended the Anglican-sponsored St. John’s College in Shanghai before coming to the U.S. Upon arrival in the U.S, both Yen and Wong attended Episcopal High School in Alexandria before matriculating to UVA.

Yen returned to China after graduation and taught English at St. John’s for six years before coming back to the U.S. to study law at George Washington University. He returned to China again shortly before the republican revolution of 1911, and thereafter served in a variety of governmental positions, including vice minister of foreign affairs; ambassador to the U.S., Soviet Union and Germany; and five terms as premier. In his memoir, “East-West Kaleidoscope,” Yen describes no incidents of discrimination during his schooling in Virginia, as his Western clothing, fluency in English and high status made him welcome in most social circles.6 During his last year at UVA, Yen recounts proudly that the chairman of the faculty refunded his tuition fee, explaining, “You have been so long in our state that we can consider you a Virginian”.

However, traces of the national anti-Chinese climate emerge in a story about visiting New York City with the Chinese consulate-attaché and being attacked by street urchins who pulled the attaché’s “queue,” a braid of hair worn hanging from the back of the head, as well as the suspicion from immigration authorities that followed Yen’s trip to Canada.

black and white photo of men standing in rows for group pictures
On the fourth row, ninth from left, Hiraoaka Ryosuke of Hakate, Japan seen in the photo of law students in 1900. (Photo courtesy UVA Library)

Theodore Wong’s career followed a similar path. After studying at UVA, he completed his Bachelor of Arts at Georgetown University. He returned to China after graduation to take the civil service exam, but moved to back to D.C. in 1911 to become director of the second iteration of the Chinese Educational Mission, an organization which funded Chinese students’ schooling in the U.S. The mission’s staff and headquarters were only a few miles away, but a world apart from D.C.’s nascent Chinatown, whose residents were largely Cantonese who moved from the West Coast to the East Coast in search for jobs and safety, and who were employed as laundrymen, cigar-makers, restauranteurs and grocers.7 When Wong was killed, possibly by another Chinese student, in a shocking triple murder in Washington in 1919, newspapers referred constantly to the “high-caste” status of both the victims and the murder suspects, as if to distinguish these students and diplomats from the alien and unassimilable working-class Chinese.

Yen’s idyllic description of his time at UVA contrasts with local popular representation of Chinese people. Appearing only a year after his graduation, a short story in the 1901 edition of the Corks and Curls yearbook called “The Two Ends of Hi Go” presents a “Mikado”-like parody of Chinese life, including the ridiculously named eponymous character Hi Go and his parents, No Go and Miss Tea. The story is accompanied by numerous illustrations depicting them as grotesque, queue-wearing8 oddities very similar to the depictions found in racist political cartoons published by the anti-Chinese exclusion movement. Even if neither Yen nor Wong encountered such sentiments, they certainly existed among their fellow UVA students as well as in the U.S. at large.

Left: book chapter that reads, the two ends of Hi go.  Right: a drawing of an Asian man from the side
A short story in the 1901 edition of the Corks and Curls yearbook called “The Two Ends of Hi Go” presents a “Mikado”-like parody of Chinese life.

Chinese exclusion ironically opened the door to a wave of Japanese immigration to the U.S., which was encouraged by the new Meiji government as part of a larger effort to modernize Japan through engagement with American and European technologies, politics and culture. In some ways, the stronger military and diplomatic position of Japan compared with China, combined with a popular fascination with Japanese culture, resulted in less hatred toward early Japanese migrants. Japan also sent many university students to the U.S. to acquire knowledge useful to its modernization, and a few of those students came to UVA. The earliest, Itami Jiro, studied law here from 1889 to 1891. Sugino Kaigiro studied math and science from 1890 to 1894 and even worked briefly for the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White after the Rotunda fire of 1895.

Despite a fascination with Japanese culture, American popular culture still ridiculed the Japanese as undesirable yellow aliens, in many ways indistinguishable from the hated “coolie.” For example, the popular “Hashimura Togo” Collier’s Magazine column that started in 1907 was written by white American humorist Wallace Irwin in a yellowface minstrel voice. The title character was named after the Japanese admiral who became famous for his successes in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, but Irwin’s “Togo” persona was hardly laudatory. His Togo was a 35-year-old “schoolboy” who at times also worked as a “houseboy” under the employ of white middle-class women. Irwin’s trademark voice for his Japanese doppelganger was a stilted, ungrammatical, pseudo-Chinese accent borrowed from coolie portrayals in the blackface minstrelsy circuit.

UVA gas, water, and sewer diagram
An 1895 Map of UVA by Sugino Kaigiro who studied math and science from 1890 to 1894 at UVA, and worked briefly for the architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White after the Rotunda fire of 1895. (Photo courtesy Special Collections Library.)

The widespread popularity of Togo can be seen in UVA’s own rendition in the 1916 Corks and Curls, in which an anonymous UVA student adopts Irwin’s Oriental masquerade to pen a series of letters entitled “Uniquities [sic] of the University, or Letters of a Japanese Schoolboy (With Apologies to Mr. Wallace Irwin).” Togo arrives at UVA – “I leaped from C. & O. local train and disclosed Charlottesville not far from” – and is besieged by fellow students trying to lure him into their “boarding-joints,” prompting Togo to reply, “So sorry … 23 meals a day is 20 too much for frugal Japanese.” Although the fake letters were likely poking fun at the absurdities of student life, rather than at any actual Japanese students (there were none listed for 1916), such painfully awkward language casts even educated and elite international students at UVA as uncivilized rubes.

As the line between “welcome” and “unwelcome” Asians was quite blurred, Chinese and Japanese upper-class subjects attempted to distance themselves from their lower-class countrymen. In “The Four Immigrants Manga,” a Japanese graphic novel published in 1931, author Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama humorously depicts the other side of the Hashimura Togo story, showing how Japanese students felt degraded for being forced into “houseboy” work. Even while proudly declaiming their difference from Chinese coolies and Japanese farmers, these erstwhile servants constantly found themselves being mistaken by white employers and even other Japanese as common laborers.

an excerpt from a 1916 Corks and Curls yearbook about a Japanese School boy

In the 1916 Corks and Curls yearbook, an anonymous UVA student adopts Irwin’s Oriental masquerade to pen a series of letters entitled “Uniquities [sic] of the University, or Letters of a Japanese Schoolboy (With Apologies to Mr. Wallace Irwin).”

At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Wong Kai Kah, a Yale alumnus and imperial vice-commissioner of the Chinese exhibit, lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. government that the distinguished delegates he had encouraged to attend the fair were being treated like a “coolie … detained in the pen on the steamship wharf, or imprisoned like a felon.”9 News of this humiliating incident helped instigate the 1905-06 Anti-American Boycott in China, one of the first modern Chinese mass movements and a precursor to the republican revolution of 1911, which installed the post-imperial government under which W.W. Yen served.

In the segregated South during the early 20th century, Chinese and Japanese migrants would have occupied a complicated position within the larger Black-white racial binary. While class privilege may have seemingly elevated students like Yen, Wong, Itami, and Sugino above local African Americans, general sentiments toward Asians in the U.S. during this period positioned them as even less desirable than African Americans. The pro-labor economic theorist Henry George wrote in 1869 in the New York Tribune that while “the Negro” might be characterized as “an ignorant but docile child,” the Chinese were “sharp and narrow minded, opinionated and set in character … A population born in China, expecting to return to China, living here in a little China of its own, and without the slightest attachment to this country – utter heathens, treacherous, sensual, cowardly, and cruel.”10

In a similar vein, the 1916 UVA Hashimura Togo letters describe how “Tappa Keg” fraternity reacted to Togo’s attempt to join them: “Worthy High Grand Stein … this resemble yellow peril to me. Who want J-- coolies in fraternities?” In the end, the fraternity assents to Togo’s membership, but only if he is positioned in rank beneath their “n—— janitor” Clarence, a “self-respectful Afro-American” who “knows more fraternity concealments than anybody here,” and Togo happily agrees to this arrangement.

Pacific Islanders were even further denigrated, lacking the veneer of exotic but developed culture to elevate them from their primitive status. A 1917 Corks and Curls story called “Saved by the Ray” depicts a UVA alum marooned in the South Pacific and about to be boiled by cannibals, who are drawn as Sambo-like caricatures. Filipino Americans were also often likened to African natives, disparaged in an article in the November 1930 issue of the Cavalier magazine as "little brown brothers,"11 to borrow the language coined by William Howard Taft when he served as governor-general of the Philippines after the U.S. annexed the islands as a colony in 1898, after the Spanish-American War.

None of this is to say that Yen, Wong, Itami and Sugino were not part of Asian American history. Even if they returned to their countries of origin after studying at UVA, their lives are intertwined with those who elected to stay. In fact, George Yin, a professor currently in the UVA Law School, is distantly related to both Yen (who was his great-uncle) and Wong (who was the grandfather of his first cousin).12 Like Yen and Wong, Yin’s father attended St. John’s College in Shanghai before coming to the U.S. for graduate school in the 1930s, and he ended up settling down in New York City, where Yin and his siblings were born.

But even with their relative privilege and separation from other Asian migrants, George Yin’s parents saw their opportunities in the U.S. limited. In an interview with Professor Yin, he explained that his father had a master’s in chemistry and his mother studied piano at Julliard, but neither were able to find employment in these fields. To support the family, his father started an import-export business that made use of his language skills in both English and Chinese and his mother became a clerical worker. Yet their ability to start and support a nuclear family in the era of Asian exclusion (1924-65) also differentiated them from other early Chinese and Filipino Americans, many of whom lived their entire lives in the U.S. as forced “bachelors” because of the restrictions on female immigration and their own limited economic means.13

Headshots of two men.  Left: dressed in a dress shirt, right: dressed in Asian military uniform
UVA Law professor George Yin is related to W.W. Yen, aka Yan Huiqing, the late Chinese leader and former UVA student.

Even a hundred years later, there are echoes of Hashimura Togo and anti-coolie hostilities for current Asian and Asian American students at UVA and across the country, who may hear backhanded compliments like, “Your English is so good,” or complaints that their success in STEM fields takes away good grades and job opportunities for “real Americans.” The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these tensions, as people of Asian descent in the U.S. have been targeted by verbal abuse and violent hate crimes across the country for their association with the “Wuhan virus”.14 Just a day after UVA President Jim Ryan announced the closing of in-person classes at UVA last March, two Chinese international students reported an incident just outside the Aquatic and Fitness Center in which eggs were thrown at them.15

The naming of the Yen House may have been intended to diversify the history of UVA and highlight the achievement of non-white students. Much work remains to be done, however, in acknowledging the discrimination and hostility that Asians and Asian Americans have faced over the last two centuries. Furthermore, there is a dangerous continuation of the model minority myth’s racial triangulation, as the success of an Asian student is posited as the solution to a racial problem: UVA’s history of involvement with the eugenics movement.16 The stories of Yen, Wong, Itami, Sugino, and other exceptional students should be told, but they cannot substitute for a fuller reckoning with UVA’s, and the nation’s, relationship with Asian Americans and with other people of color.

Sylvia Shin Huey Chong is an associate professor of English and American studies and director of the Asian Pacific American studies minor at the University of Virginia.

Up next: Property and power – An examination of the effects of gentrification in Charlottesville linked to rapid growth and redevelopment in the city and at the University.



1. Mia Tuan, Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites? The Asian Ethnic Experience Today (Newark, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1999).

2. Plessy v. Ferguson, 1896, 163 U.S. 537, 561

3. Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, revised ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1998).

4. “Coolies as a Substitute for Negroes,” Debow's Review, Vol. 2, Issue 2, Aug 1866, pp. 215-217. See also the political cartoon “What Shall We Do with John Chinaman?”, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, 25 September 1869, p. 32, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3b48686/

5. Data derived from “Table A-1. Race and Hispanic Origin for the United States: 1790 to 1990,” “Table C-10. Asian and Pacific Islander, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States: 1900 and 1910,” and “Table 61. Virginia - Race and Hispanic Origin: 1790 to 1990,” from Campbell Gibson and Kay Jung,  Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals by Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States, Working Paper No. 56, U.S. Census Bureau (September 2002), < https://census.gov/content/dam/Census/library/working-papers/2002/demo/POP-twps0056.pdf>.

6. W.W. Yen, East-West Kaleidoscope, 1877-1946: An Autobiography (New York: St. John’s University Press, 1974).

7. Scott D. Seligman, The Third Degree: The Triple Murder That Shook Washington and Changed American Criminal Justice (Lincoln: Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2018).

8. The queue (sometimes spelled cue) was a hairstyle from Manchuria that was worn by men during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The front portion of the head was shaved, with hair toward the back grone long and braided.

9. Wong Kai Kah, “A Menace to America’s Oriental Trade,” The North American Review 178.568 (March 1904), 418-19.

10. Henry George, “The Chinese in California,” New York Tribune, 1 May 1869, reprinted in Major Problems in Asian American History: Documents and Essays, ed. Lon Kurashige and Alice Yang Murray (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003), 99

11. The offending phrase, “little brown brothers,” is taken from Lewis Mattison, "Pacific Letter," in University of Virginia Cavalier (November 1930), 21.

12. See the blog Inside the Classroom: UVA School of Law for a feature on Professor George Yin, < https://uvalawteach.tumblr.com/post/148495366283/professor-george-yin-grew-up-in-new-york-city-on>. See also Eric Williamson, “Professor George Yin Finds Unexpected Family Ties to World Figure, UVA’s Past,” University of Virginia School of Law, News and Media, 11 April 2018, <https://www.law.virginia.edu/news/201804/professor-george-yin-finds-unexpected-family-ties-world-figure-uva%E2%80%99s-past>

13. Personal interview with George Yin, March 26, 2019.
14. As of this writing, there has been a recent spate of killings, assaults, and robberies of Asian Americans in California and New York. See N’dea Yancey-Bragg, “ ‘Stop Killing Us’: Attacks on Asian Americans Highlight Rise in Hate Incidents Amid COVID-19,” USA Today, 11 February 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/02/12/asian-hate-inciden...

15. Nik Popli, “Chinese International Student Reports Attempted Assault at U.Va.,” Cavalier Daily, 12 March 2020, <https://www.cavalierdaily.com/article/2020/03/chinese-international-stud...

16. For more on the history of the model minority myth and racial triangulation, see Kat Chow, “ ‘Model Minority’ Myth Again Used As a Racial Wedge Between Asians and Blacks,” Code Switch: Race and Identity Re-Mixed, NPR.com, 19 April 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/04/19/524571669/model-minority-myth-again-used-as-a-racial-wedge-between-asians-and-blacks


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