The Chan (陳) Family

The focus of this blog is on Chinese students who studied in American universities, specifically those that were sponsored by the government through the Boxer Indemnity Scholarship or other programs. Because of this, I tend to concentrate on educational motivations that provoked the massive influx of Chinese students in American universities from the turn of the 20th century until World War II. Simply put, students came to America from China to get a Western education and to take that knowledge back to their home country to improve the social and political situation there. This theme is easy to see in W. K. Lam‘s political ambitions and H. T. Wong‘s military career. The typical tone of the articles in the Chinese Students’ Monthly, a publication produced by the Chinese Students’ Association in America, also evidences this focus on education, Western learning, and the betterment of China through technological advancement. But I would be remiss in not mentioning the other large institutional factor in promoting Chinese student immigration to America: the growth and influence of the Christian churches in China.

Christianity in China has a long history, but the modern missionary movement is most pertinent to the subject of this blog. Beginning in the early 1800s, Christian missionary work was focused on the coastal areas and the south of China; the first missionaries operated in Macau, Hong Kong, and Canton (today Guangzhou). Christianity and a desire to study in the West often overlapped among Chinese students, so it’s not surprising that many of the students who arrived in America in the early 1900s were both Christians and from the province of Guangdong. Cities which were open to foreign trade such as Shanghai were also centers of Christianity at this time, and many students from the city of Shanghai and the province of Zhejiang also came to America in large numbers to study. The importance of missionary schools cannot be overstated either; many students who ended up finishing their studies in America first studied at missionary schools in China, such as Canton Christian College in Guangzhou and St. John’s University in Shanghai. In short, most students who came to America did so under government encouragement and to learn Western subjects, but a majority of them were also Christian.

This brings us to the subject of today’s post: the Chan family. They are a bit atypical among the other Chinese students I am studying, since Sing Kai Chan, the family patriarch, came to America purely to work as a missionary; he did not study at an American school at all. He also brought his family along, and then his children became Chinese students in America due simply to growing up in America, not due to an educational motivation to travel to another country to study. This means that the motivations of this family in coming to America are a bit different from those of the other students I am researching. However, although the father did not come to America to study, he was motivated by that second impulse, that of Christianity, and so I find him and his family worthy topics of study. I thought I’d write a little bit about them as a family overall and then dedicate individual posts to those members who were students in America. Overall, the themes of Christianity, cultural interchange through performance, and eventual residence in the US still resonate throughout the story of this family.

Sing Kai Chan in 1935
Sing Kai Chan in 1935

As I said, the story of the Chan family begins with a non-student: father Sing Kai Chan (surname 陳, pinyin Chén), who was born in Guangzhou in 1854. He was a Christian and the son of a Christian, and left China probably around 1888 to become a missionary in Vancouver, Canada. Sing Kai and his wife – recorded several places as Chow, English name either Kate or Sarah – had three children who came to Canada with them: George, Bertha (陳端信), and Lilian (陳謙信), although for some reason Bertha does not appear on the 1891 Census of Canada. She is there on the 1901 Census, aged 13, so we can assume there was a transcription error on the part of the 1891 Census official. Two more children were born in Canada: Ida (陳永信) and Frances (陳寬信). Throughout that time, Sing Kai’s occupation was listed as a Methodist missionary and he worked to found Vancouver’s first Chinese Methodist Church at 186 W. Pender, as well as serving at the New Brunswick Methodist Church and the Methodist Church on Fisgard Street in Victoria (Asian-Canadian Working Group, UVic). In fact, this is where the family was living when the 1901 Census was taken: 16 Fisgard Street.


On September 17, 1901, according to son George’s naturalization petition, the family moved to America to continue their missionary work. The 1910 US Census lists the family living at 226 1/2 Morrison Street in Portland, Oregon, and Bertie, Fanny, and Ida are listed in the 1911 Chinese Students’ Alliance Directory as living at that address (Lily is also in the directory – she was attending Wheaton College – but George was never listed in any CSA Directory; he would have been 35 years old in 1911). According to the 1910 Minutes of the Methodist Episcopal Annual Conference, Sing Kai served as the head of the Chinese Missions in Portland. He and his children appear in article after article after article, showcasing the children’s musical and dance talents in the many benefit shows they put on as fundraisers or profile-raisers for their missions (although the final linked article is about a Valentine’s Day party attended by many of the church youth).

His wife was not idle either. A physician by education, Sing Kai’s wife was heavily involved in charity work in Vancouver, raising donations for famine and disaster relief for both China and India (CINARC). By the time she and her family were living in Portland, she had become a vocal proponent of women’s suffrage. In 1912, she participated in a dinner along with 6 other Chinese women – two of them her daughters – in support of voting rights, gaining notice not only for her political stance, but also for the fact that she and her sisters-in-arms were crossing the race line (Oregonian). It is notable that the article mentions that she spoke in Chinese and her remarks were interpreted by her daughter Bertie; she apologizes for her lack of fluency in English but comments that her work, along with being a wife and a mother, leaves her little time for study. Thus she turned what could have been a barrier between her Chinese women’s suffrage chapter and the white women’s chapter into a political message of the value and the struggles of women in modern society.


The family moved to San Jose, California around or just after 1914; Sing Kai was appointed there by the Pacific Chinese Mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church (Annual Conference Minutes, 1915). He and his wife were living without the children in San Jose in 1920; by this time even the youngest daughter Fanny was 23 years old and married. Sing Kai became the pastor of the Chinese Methodist Church in Los Angeles in 1925, but resigned in 1929 (CUMCLA). Several sources have suggested that Sing Kai had ongoing health issues, and in fact this was given as a reason for leaving Vancouver in 1901 (Asian-Canadian Working Group, UVic), so we can guess that these issues may have been behind him leaving after so short a tenure. Another possible explanation for his abrupt abandonment of the church is the death of his wife; on the 1930 Census, Sing Kai is listed as a widower. He himself died on 6 January 1953 in Los Angeles.


Of his children, Bertie, Lily, Ida, and Fanny will be addressed in separate posts later in this blog, as they were students at American institutions. George does not seem to have been a student in America since he was already 26 years old when the family arrived in Portland. George was married and divorced in the 1920s and had two children. He lived in Los Angeles and worked as an actor, getting bit parts as “Native” or “Chinese Man #1” in many films (IMDB). He became a naturalized US citizen in 1950 and died in 1957, not long after his father. The Chans also had a daughter whose early life is not well attested: their oldest child Mary. She doesn’t show up with the family in Canada, but the 1900 Census states that she was born in Canada in 1878, long before her parents had moved there! The 1910 Census corrects this and states that she was born in China in 1880 or so. She actually arrived in America before the rest of the family, it seems to get married; her husband was another Chinese Christian. She lived with him and his family in Portland, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1913 (although I don’t know how she managed that. She was an Asian marrying an Asian and under the laws of the time should not have been eligible. She was possibly able to do so since she was married in 1900, before the Expatriation Act of 1907 went into effect). She and her husband adopted two children and lived in Portland until her death in 1965. The Chans also had one adopted daughter named Eva, who married a Chinese-Canadian in Vancouver at the age of 18, not long after their immigration in 1889. She had ten children with her husband, and lived in Vancouver until her death in 1939.

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