Bertha Grace Chan (Chinese name 陳端信, pinyin Chén Duānxìn) was born in September of 1887 in China, possibly in Canton (Guangzhou), but more likely in Hong Kong, as she was considered a British citizen. Her father was a Methodist missionary and her mother was a physician. When she was less than a year old, her family moved to Vancouver for her father’s missionary work. They lived in Canada for 12 years before moving to the United States.
Bertie first shows up in the American primary sources in 1906, as a contestant in a scholarship for Behnke-Walker Business College in Portland (Oregon Daily Journal, 28 Aug 1906). The article is actually about a benefit she and her sister Lily organized to help fund a girls’ school in Canton founded by their mother. No information on whether she won the scholarship or attended Behnke-Walker. Bertie appears again in 1908, in a newspaper article detailing a benefit concert she organized on behalf of Epworth Methodist Church in Portland (Sunday Oregonian, 22 Mar 1908). She is listed in the program as playing a piano solo as well. Another concert followed in July, in which she sang contralto (Oregon Daily Journal, 18 July 1908). She also played guitar, as evidenced by the news item in 1910 about a Valentine’s Day Concert she participated in (Sunday Oregonian, 20 Feb 1910). The first reference to Bertie’s schooling appears in the Pacific Alliance Periodical, where she is listed as a student at Portland High and living at 262 Clay Street (Xi Mei liu xue bao gao, 1908). She would have been 20 years old, but it’s possible she was taking night courses or had entered school in a younger class than her age would suggest. Bertie is also in the 1911 Chinese Students’ Alliance Directory, where she is listed as living at 226 1/2 Morrison St. in Portland, information which is repeated in the 1912 Directory. However, these directories did not include information on university or course of study, so it is hard to tell where she attended. Bertie also shows up in another newspaper article in 1912 for attending a women’s suffrage banquet with her mother, detailed in my previous post.
1912 was an important year for Bertie, as she married a dentist named G. G. Leong on 16 September 1912. Gustave Gim Leong (Chinese name 梁官照, pinyin Liáng Guānzhào) was an American-born Chinese who grew up in San Francisco and earned a post-graduate certificate from Washington Evening School in 1905 (San Francisco Call, 27 Jun 1905). He would have been 28 years old at that time according to his birth date of 18 February 1877. He first appears in the 1905 Pacific Coast Annual under his surname of “Liang” and was living at 847 Dupont Street in San Francisco. He was studying medicine at “San Francisco Medicine Specialist School” (original text: “金山醫學專門學棠, probably UCSF) and planned to graduate in 1907 (Mei Zhou liu xue bao gao, 1905). Like Bertie, he also appears in the 1908 Pacific Coast Annual, as a special student at the University of California studying dentistry. According to this directory, he lived at 865 Dupont Street in San Francisco, and his family originally came from Kaiping in Guangdong province. Gus began practicing dentistry soon after graduation, but according to the California Board of Dental Examiners, he must have only done so for a short time before running into legal issues. He was arrested in September 1907 for “sign display”, which I assume means hanging out a sign advertising his services as a dentist without a valid license (Board of Dental Examiners). I am not sure why he did not have a valid license to practice; I will say that I have been looking at Board of Dental Examiners’ reports for some time now and apart from the arrest records, I haven’t seen the names of any obviously Chinese dentists. Anyway, Gus’s trial was set for June of 1908, and then continued until January 1909, but the case was dismissed as he was “removed”, meaning he left the city (Board of Dental Examiners).
This is the point at which historical documents become both tantalizing and frustratingly limiting. At this point in Bertie and Gus’s story, it was early 1909. Bertie was 22 years old, living at home and heavily involved in the life of her church. Gus was 32 years old and out of a job, and we know from the Board of Dental Examiners records that he had left the city of San Francisco. And, later that year, Gus came to Portland and stayed at the Oregon Hotel (Morning Oregonian, 25 Aug 1909). Although I’m not completely certain how Bertie and Gus met, one of the youth active in the Portland Chinese Christian community was named William Leong, so it’s possible that he and Gus were relatives and Gus met Bertie through William. The two married in 1912, and soon after moved to San Francisco to live at 861 Grant Avenue (Sunday Oregonian, 6 Oct 1912). They lived in San Francisco from the time of their marriage in 1912 until just before 1920, although Gus was working in Oakland as of 1914. Amazingly enough, he had a dental practice at 634 Alice Street, according to the Oakland City Directory of that year. However, the Board of Dental Examiners must have caught up with him there as well, because according to Gus’s passport application, the family moved to Tientsin (today Tianjin), China on April 8, 1918.
So . . . what happened? It seems clear that they moved to China so that Gus could practice dentistry, being unable to do so in the United States. His consulate records in Tientsin state that he worked there as a dentist. The family lived there for over 25 years, bringing their American-born son to China with them and having three other children while living there. I can trace their movements, the births of their children – and in some cases, their deaths – through US Consulate records, but I don’t have these people’s voices, so I have no idea what they thought about their own lives. This is where history meets speculation,and I find myself wondering what kind of life Bertie had. On the one hand, this could be an extremely sad and difficult story. The girl who was notable in her own right as a talented musician in the Chinese Christian community and who aided her mother in charitable and political work ended up as a wife stuck in a marriage to an unemployed man and dragged to a foreign country that she didn’t remember and had never lived in, with no recourse due to her gender and her race. That would be a harsh but realistic story . . . but I have no way of knowing whether it is a factually true story in Bertie’s specific case. On the other hand, perhaps Bertie and Gus had a great marriage in which they overcame together the obstacles their race afforded them in a country where they were considered second-class citizens. Perhaps they decided together that they would be better off making a go of it in International Tientsin (a city with international concessions like Shanghai; the Leongs lived in the French Concession, then moved to the British Concession) where their status as US citizens would mean more. This would be a more cheerful but no less realistic story . . . but again, I have no way of knowing whether it is a factually true story in this case.
Bertie and Gus actually left the United States before they had gotten passports, so Gus was carrying a “certificate of preinvestigation”, which Chinese-Americans often carried while travelling abroad, to make re-entering the United States easier by allowing them to bypass the Chinese Exclusion Act screenings (Archives.gov). They registered at the American Consulate in Tientsin on 16 December 1920, which incidentally is the strongest evidence that I have found that Gus was considered a native-born American citizen. Gus died in Tientsin sometime in the early 1940s, because Bertie returned to America in November of 1945 as a widow. She was accompanied by her youngest son; her oldest son was already in California getting a Masters at UC Berkeley (John M. Leong, interview by Andrea R. Maestrejuan), and her daughter returned to America on a military transport ship later that same November. Bertie lived in California until her death on 2 June 1968.