Many Northern Kentuckians would be surprised to know that the City of Covington once had the largest Chinese population in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Chinese immigrants first began arriving in the United States in the middle of the 19th Century. The Chinese came to this country primarily for economic reasons and most settled in the western states where jobs were plentiful. By 1880, 25% of California’s workforce was of Chinese descent. The overwhelming majority of these immigrants were male laborers.
Chinese Americans faced racism in this country. Their different styles of clothing, food, language and customs set them apart from other Americans. In 1882, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This legislation prevented Chinese natives from entering the country. The Chinese Americans who were already in the country were not forced to leave, however, they were forbidden to apply for naturalization. The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first such legislation in American history that barred an entire ethnic group from immigrating to this country.
The Chinese Exclusion Act had a great impact on Chinese American life. With most immigration cut off, the Chinese American community remained overwhelmingly male. This legislation also resulted in a new class of Chinese Americans called ‘paper sons.’ Chinese Americans who were born in this country automatically were United States citizens (this was true for all immigrants). United States law also declared that all children of U.S. citizens were also citizens themselves. These children, even if they lived in China, were still eligible to come to the United States.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake provided an unexpected loophole for many Chinese Americans. The earthquake destroyed the courthouse, and thus, the birth and immigration records. Many of the Chinese immigrants had entered the U.S. though San Francisco. This turn of events allowed many Chinese Americans who were born in China to claim American citizenship (the government could not prove these individuals had been born in China).
The earliest mention of Chinese in Covington appears in the Ticket newspaper in 1877. The article dealt with the marriage of John Naw Lin, a Chinese American and Mary Ann Morgan of African American descent. Chinese Americans rarely received any attention in the local press. The one exception was the celebration of the Chinese New Year. Reporters often covered the celebrations using racist language and stereotypes.
In 1913, the 14-year old Pong Dock, an American born citizen of Chinese descent registered to attend the Covington Public Schools. This event caused a minor furor in the city. Some Covington residents claimed that the boy should attend the African American School in Covington because he was not of European ancestry. The Kentucky Post and Kentucky Times-Star both ran articles on the boy and the controversy concerning his education. Eventually, the issue was turned over to the Kentucky Attorney General M. Logan. Logan determined that the Superintendent of the Covington Public Schools could choose which school the boy should attend. Pong Dock was permitted to attend Covington’s First District School on Scott Street. He began the first grade in September 1913.
Other Chinese American children attended classes at a special Chinese Language program at St. Xavier Catholic School in Cincinnati. One of these children was Lily Wong. In 1929, Lily was 5 years old. Her father operated a Chinese restaurant at the corner of Madison Avenue and Pike Streets. Lily was bilingual, and thus was able to act as an interpreter at her father’s restaurant. Another educational opportunity available to Chinese Americans was Bible lessons offered by the Covington Y.M.C.A.
Most Chinese Americans in Covington operated laundries. By 1880, one Chinese laundry had already been established at 519 Madison Avenue. By 1897, six of the 11 laundries in Covington were operated by Chinese Americans. In 1910, eight Chinese laundries were in operation, one on Pike Street and seven on Madison Avenue. The United States Census for 1900 and 1910 shed much light on the lives of Chinese Americans in Covington. All were males and most were single (if they were married, their spouse were living in China). The average age was between 35 and 40. A majority of the Chinese Americans had been born in China; all of those who were natives of the United States had been born in California. A surprising number were able to speak in the English Language.
The number of Chinese laundries remained stable in the years between 1900 and 1945 between five and eight. The last Chinese laundries appear in the Covington City Directory in the late 1940s.
United States Census 1900 and 1910, Covington City Directories 1880-1948, Kentucky Post, February 16, 1904, p. 1, April 21, 1905, p. 1, September 13, 1913, p. 1, September 24, 1914, p. 1, August 19, 1914, p. 4, October 28, 1929, p. 1; Kentucky Times-Star, September 19, 1913, p. 20; Ticket, September 18, 1877, p. 3.