“America’s Lost Chinese: The Rise and Fall of a Migrant Family Dream” by Hugo Wong

Lost Chinese

The railroads, San Francisco Chinatown, the Chinese Exclusion Act, laundries, restaurants: just when you thought there was nothing more to be written about the story of Chinese immigration to America, along comes Hugo Wong with an absorbing account of his families’ history in Mexico. Wong is a scion of two of Mexico’s erstwhile most important and successful Chinese families, but whose stories have largely been forgotten. Both the remembering and the forgetting contain important lessons.

The two protagonists are


Wong Foon Chuck (the older brother of my great-grandfather, Wong Yun Wu) and Leung Hing (my other great-grandfather, latterly known as Jorge Hing Leon). In 1875, at  the tender of age of twelve, Foon Chuck fled natural disasters, famines and violence in the province of Kwangtung in the south of China to seek fortune in California. Five years later, aged fourteen, Hing followed him.


Not many years passed before both found themselves in Mexico, victims of increasing anti-Chinese sentiment and exclusionary laws, the two following quite different paths:


Foon Chuck stayed in the north of Mexico—the “Mexican Wild West”—where he built a commercial empire … and became … among the first Chinese millionaires in the Americas. Hing, on the other hand, made Mexico City his home and became a dealer of Chinese art …


Foon Chuck’s success is really quite extraordinary:


huge farms, an international bank, the largest sugar refinery in the country, a school for the children of Chinese migrants, a publicly listed company, a chain of hotels, a retail network, a newspaper, and even a tramway company…


America’s Lost Chinese: The Rise and Fall of a Migrant Family Dream, Hugo Wong (Hurst, August 2023)
America’s Lost Chinese: The Rise and Fall of a Migrant Family Dream, Hugo Wong (Hurst, August 2023)

If you hadn’t heard of this, you wouldn’t be alone, for neither, it seems, had Wong until he came across an “an old trunk” of his mother’s “containing age-yellowed photographs and family documents.”


These old family stories had been long forgotten, memory being selective and no one in my family being willing to remember the massacres and humiliations of the past.


Indeed, Foon Chuck’s and Hing’s success didn’t last long, mostly vanishing in the throes of the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution:


… the Chinese diaspora in Mexico suffered violence unmatched in its history in the Americas, causing its almost complete extinction. The brutality began with the Torreón Massacre of 1911, one of the deadliest anti-Chinese pogroms in the Americas.


Torreón was the commercial center of Foon Chuck’s operations, the home of the Compañia Bancaria China y Mexico (Bank of China and Mexico). This, as well as his railway hotels, still stand, albeit in different guises; one, the railway hotel in Piedras Negras, in great need of restoration, was the site of some scenes in the iconic film Like Water for Chocolate.

Although some of the next generation remained in Mexico, several scattered. Wong’s own branch of the family ended up in Shanghai where his mother was born. Widowed to cancer, his mother fled Shanghai for Mexico in 1938 as the Japanese advanced.


Both in human terms and well as historical ones, Wong’s tale is worth reading. The effects of Mexico’s anti-Chinese policies have legacies in its current demographics:


As of 2023, there are only 70,000 descendants of Chinese immigrants in Mexico, as well as 25,000 Chinese nationals recently immigrated to the country, together making up less than 0.1 per cent of Mexico’s population. This figure contrasts with the more than one million Peruvians of Chinese origin …


Wong adds context with potted histories, most of which will be familiar, but some details are fascinating:


In September [1911], at the request of the local Qing consulate in Cuba, the Haiqi vessel [battleship] arrived in Havana … “to encourage Caribbean and South American governments to respect the rights of Chinese overseas workers and businesses…” As the indemnity negotiations with the Mexican government stalled, the Qing diplomats leaked to the press the intention for the Haiqi to sail towards Mexico to “further the friendship between the two countries” …


The American press and even a US General thought this grand. One can however imagine the reaction today if a Chinese warship were to pay a visit to the Caribbean to protect Chinese interests.

Wong is not however a historian and details (for the most part not directly relevant to the story he is telling) occasionally trip him up. The “first inhabitants of the American continents” arrived well before the “10,000 years ago” he gives. Legazpi’s trans-Pacific voyage of 1564-1565 didn’t “finally arrive in China from the east”: they stopped in the Philippines. The colonial mint in Mexico City didn’t mint “all the silver from Mexico and Peru”; Peru had its own mint. Filipinos and Chinese may well have been called “indios” in colonial Mexico, but that was not “a sign of their distant shared ancestry” with the indigenous Mexicans. Rice did originate in Asia and was brought to Mexico by the Spanish, but there had been rice in Europe for more than a millennium by that point.

One wishes an editor had exercised a firmer hand. Wong will all of a sudden drop in the narrative present, and will include off-target editorial asides, such as


In contrast with the beliefs of Indian Americans, and even Western philosophy, the Chinese have long had a utilitarian view of nature, in which humans and their environment are always interrelated …


Unlike in the United States, Christianity in Mexico was never reformed …


One imagines most Native Americans would take issue with the idea that they believe that humans and nature are not interrelated; nor is it evident what “reform of Christianity” in the US is being referred to as the point of comparison.

These are not mere quibbles, but they do not detract from the main storyline. If readers stick to that, America’s Lost Chinese tells a tale that we should know, but up to this point, probably did not.

Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books.