Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Sam Wah Kee: From Chinatown's Most Wealthy Merchant To Wanted Fugitive

During the late 1880s and 1890s, Sam Wah Kee was maybe the most wealthy Chinese merchant in all of New England, a leader of the Chinese Free Masons, and sometimes said to be the uncrowned king of Chinatown. His ultimate fate is unknown, as he fled from federal authorities and apparently was never apprehended. It’s a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of an influential Chinese merchant in Boston’s Chinatown.

Sam Wah Kee was first mentioned in the local newspapers in 1883, as he was part of a historic event. The Morning Journal-Courier (CT), November 19, 1883, printed that on November 16, “The first child born to Chinese parents in Boston, a girl, came into the world here at No.33 Causeway street. The happy parents are Mr. and Mrs. Sam Wah Kee. Mrs. Sam, who is only sixteen years old, is the only pure blooded Chinese woman in the city.

We can see that Sam Wah Kee, who was 27 years old at this time, lived at 33 Causeway Street, which was not within Chinatown, although Chinatown as a named neighborhood didn’t exist until about 1884. We can also see that his wife was the only Chinese woman in Boston at that time, making her quite unique. Though it wasn't mentioned at this time, this was actually Sam's second wife, his first living in China. 

There was some follow-up in the Boston Globe, May 12, 1884, which noted that Sam Wah Kee’s daughter was named Toy Goa. The article also mentioned that other Chinese children had born in the U.S., and that they weren’t a rarity in California. For a local example, Ar Foon, a fruit merchant in Chelsea, had a family of two or three. It was also noted that Sam’s cousin in Chicago had two small daughters. In Boston itself though, Sam's daughter was the first Chinese child born in the city. 

A little bit more about Sam was mentioned in the Daily Chronicle (TN), June 5, 1884. Sam was a laundryman, and his wife, who spoke a little English, had joined Sam in the observance of Christian worship. It was also said that his wife had “...elaborate wardrobe of Chinese silks, heavy with embroidery and fastened with ornamental clasps of native gold, while the wardrobe for the baby comes from a prominent Chinese house in San Francisco.” 

It appears that Sam must have been making very good money if he could afford such clothes for his wife and daughter. It seems likely that he was more than just a laundryman, or maybe owned multiple laundries. He might also have started working as an importer by this time although the newspaper didn't mention it at this time. 

Later newspaper articles would provide earlier biographical information about Sam. He was born on October 1, 1856, in Canton, China, and came to the U.S., to San Francisco, in 1868, when he was 12 years old. It's unknown who he might have traveled with to the U.S., though it seems likely that he came with family, as his family was prominent in the U.S. Upon his arrival in this country, Sam then spent five years in Salem, Oregon and a year in Chicago before he moved to Boston, around 1875.

Part of the nature of Sam’s influence came to the forefront in 1885. The Daily News (PA), March 17, 1885, reported that 22 Chinese had been arrested in Boston, charged with gambling on Sunday. Their defense counsel had claimed that they had just been attending a class intended to teach newly arrived Chinese how to count our money. Sam Wah Kee was called as a witness to provide an explanation of this matter, and the matter was postponed for consideration. 

During the next fifteen years, Sam Wah Kee often appeared to help bail out and assist Chinese who had been arrested. He used his wealth to pay bails and fines, to help the people of his community. This certainly endeared him to the people of Chinatown, which may be one of the reasons he became known as the uncrowned king of Chinatown. 

Though initially said to be a simply a laundryman, Sam Wah Kee eventually expanded his business as the Boston Globe, May 18, 1885, noted that Sam was involved in the trade of tea, soap and other articles. It was now that he was becoming known as a local importer and merchant.

There was a brief mention in the Boston Globe, November 20, 1885, that there had been a robbery at Sam’s store, located at 189 West Fourth Street. Three men had entered the store, assaulted the proprietor, and stole $4. The police later arrested three men who were thought to have been involved.

Another store? The Boston Globe, April 14, 1887, reported that yesterday, the Chinese Free Masons had held a large holiday celebration. The center of the celebration was Sam Wah Kee’s grocery store, located at 36 Harrison Avenue. This address appears to have been Sam’s primary grocery store, and the article also showed he had a connection to the Chinese Free Masons, though many of the Chinese in Boston also belonged to this organization. Later, we would learn that he was more than just an ordinary member, and was actually the leader of Chinese Free Masons. 

How much was Sam worth? The Boston Globe, March 26, 1888, provided an estimated answer, about $18,000-$20,0000 (roughly $500,000 in today's dollars). The article also mentioned that 39 Chinese had been arrested for gambling at his place at 36 Harrison Avenue. Sam responded, in a letter to the editor, to the accusations of gambling in the Boston Globe, March 31, 1888. Sam stated he was “an importer of Chinese goods” which he sold wholesale to the local Chinese. He continued that he didn’t occupy the downstairs at 36 Harrison, and was unaware of any gambling that took place there, although it was possible that some people might have been playing Chinese games.

Another historic birth! The Boston Globe, December 3, 1888, reported that yesterday, Sam’s wife gave birth to the first Chinese baby boy born in Boston. This was far more important than the previous two births of his daughters (aged 5 and 2 1/2 years) as the birth of a boy in Chinese culture was a momentous occasion. It was also noted that Sam married his wife about 10 years ago in Canton, China, and that they had been in Boston for about 8 or 9 years. They hadn’t named their son yet and according to Chinese custom, they had 30 days to name their child.

There appears to be a discrepancy in this article compared to the original article mentioning the birth of Sam’s first daughter. In November 1883, it was stated that Sam’s wife was 16 years old, but this 1888 article claims they were married ten years before, which would mean 1878, when his wife would have been about 11 years old and Sam was 22 years old. The 1888 Glob article likely got the time frames wrong. 

At this same time, the Hartford Courant, (CT), December 3, 1888, briefly mentioned that Sam’s wife was one of only two native Chinese wives in Boston. So, in the past five years, only one more Chinese wife had appeared in Boston. 

A grand feast for a new son! The Fall River Daily Evening News, January 7, 1889, and Boston Herald, January 7, 1889, both described this major event. It was reported that Sam Wah Kee, one of the most influential Chinese in Boston, owned a grocery business at 36 Harrison Avenue and also supposedly had mortgages on half the Chinese laundries in the city. So, he used his wealth to invest in his community, allowing the Chinese to start laundry businesses. It's possible that he might have invested in other businesses too in Chinatown, such as restaurants and grocery stores. 

The article also stated that Sam's wife was one of only two Chinese women in Boston, and on December 1, 1888, she gave birth to a son. To name his son, Sam sought advice from Major Jones, “...without whose advice none of the natives of the Flowery Kingdom in Boston would think of doing anything of importance,…” The Major recommended the name Ames Hart Kee, in honor of the Governor and Mayor-elect.

As the birth of a boy is a cause for great rejoicing, Sam arranged for two feasts, inviting about 700 Chinese to join in the festivities, and non-Chinese were not invited. One of the feasts was held at 36 Harrison Avenue, in a room above Sam's store, and 40 tables were set up, each which held ten people. Another six tables were set up at 39 Howard Street. A Chinese caterer had been hired, and many delicacies were served, each plate costing $3a. There was an initial seating at 6pm, and then another at 10pm. It's very interesting that this was a catered affair and wasn't held in any restaurant.

The feasting continued. The Boston Globe, January 9, 1889, reported that Sam was going to host a dinner, a christening feast, that night at the Parker House. Sam had invited about 50 of his friends outside of Chinatown, and a few Chinese, and had booked the Crystal Bouquet room, the largest in the hotel. A Chinese band, of eight pieces, would play at the dinner. The article also claimed, “It will be the dinner of dinners in Boston this winter.”

The Boston Globe, January 10, 1889, mentioned that Sam’s son actually had two names, his Chinese name being Moy Poy Hem and his American name being Ames Hart Moy. Sam’s family name was Moy. The article also stated that Sam had arrived in U.S. almost 20 years ago but had also been back to China several times since then. About 6 years ago, he brought back a wife (actually his second wife), and his daughters are named Toy Song (also called Hattie) and Toy Goa (also called Lillie).

Sam’s wealth was also noted. “He has made money rapidly, and is now the possessor of a fortune which is a monument to his industry and business sagacity. He is said to have an interest in nearly every Chinese laundry in the city,...” It appears Sam might have been an investor in a number of Chinese businesses, possibly helping them gain the necessary capital to start a laundry or other business.

About six months later, Sam was showcased in a lengthy article in the Boston Globe, June 30, 1889. The article stated, “The wealthiest Chinaman in Boston and probably in all New England is Sam Wah Kee, who is at the head of the Wah Kee Company in this city, and one of the acknowledged leaders of the New England branch of Chinese Free Masonry.” It was claimed that no one truly knew his worth but it was estimated to be at least $100,000 (about $2.8 million in today's dollars). He was probably one of the wealthiest men in all of New England, and not just the wealthiest Chinese. 

Sam was also described as, “He is a jolly, good-looking Celestial, of middle age, with a keen, sharp eye and an elastic step.” It was also noted that very few white men had ever seen his wife as it's a Chinese custom to keep their wives indoors as much as possible. In addition, it was mentioned that a rival to Sam’s grocery store was the Sam Sing Company.

In the basement of Sam’s store was a “dirty, dismal cellar where dampness may be felt and grime scraped from the walls,” and it “is one of the typical Chinese opium joints,..”. This joint was kept by Joe Yet, a fat, oily-looking Chinese, who some years ago ran a joint in New York until their laws against opium were more strongly enforced. White people were originally able to smoke opium in this basement, but after a series of hassles with the police, Joe decided to limit it only to Chinese. He still sold opium to white people, but they couldn’t smoke it on the premises. About half of his opium sales were to whites.

A couple months later, the Boston Globe, August 4, 1889, provided more details about Sam and his family. Sam was preparing to take his family for a visit to China and he needed to ensure that he would be able to legally return to the U.S. afterwards. That required plenty of paperwork, and the accumulation of evidence to show that Sam was a Merchant, and able, by law, to journey to China and return back into the U.S.

It was stated that Sam was 5 foot, 6 inches tall and weighed 130 pounds. He was worth at least $100,000 and owned stores in Boston, Philadelphia and San Francisco. This is the first indication we have that Sam's holdings extended outside of Massachusetts. His mercantile empire had tendrils both to the West Coast and further down the East Coast. The article also mentioned that his wife was May Wah Kee, who was born in 1867. While Sam was in China, his brother would manage his businesses in the U.S. 

More information about the Chinese Free Masons. The Boston Globe, November 10, 1889, reported that, “In Boston the Highbinders are very strong, for fully 1000 Celestials must surely belong to the lodge in this city.” It continued, “As a rule they call themselves “China Free Masons” and in many respects the order does resemble that of Free Masonry, although there is no connection between them whatever.” In addition, “One of the Chinese names for this society is the San-ho-Hoey or Triad Society, and the different lodges throughout the United States are known by distinctive names or titles. The name of the order means the “Society of the Three United,” that is, of heaven, earth and man, which, according to the imperfect ideas of Chinese philosophy, imply the three departments of nature.”

Locally, “The hall of the Boston lodge of these Highbinders is located at 36 Harrison avenue, in the building occupied by Sam Wah Kee, the rich Chinese merchant. It occupies all of the second floor being just over the restaurant of Moy Auk, the Chinese Delmonico, who, by the way, is quite a prominent man in this society.” How involved was Sam with the Chinese Free Masons?

The Boston Globe, February 8, 1890, answered that question. Sam Wah Kee was the president of the Wy Gee Tong or Chinese society of Masons. A successor was being appointed only because Sam would be away for a year, visiting China with his family. The connections of the Chinese Free Masons to the Triads and Tongs is a complex and intriguing matter, which I will detail in a future article. 

It was also fascinating that the Whiting Weekly News (KS), March 1, 1890, reported that Sam was the head of the powerful Moy family, and that his family name was Ah Moy, with Sam Wah Kee being only his business name, though used far more frequently. In Boston’s Chinatown, there were more members of the Moy family than any other Chinese family. The Moy family might have given Sam his financial start when he came to Boston, and his business acumen seems to have propelled him to great wealth. 

The Boston Daily Globe, August 18, 1890, briefly noted that Sam Wah Kee was the “uncrowned king of Harrison av.” In addition, it was reported Sam had left Hong Kong on July 16, headed back to Boston and he eventually arrived in Boston around August 22.
More gambling problems. The Boston Globe, January 10, 1893, reported that Sam Wah Kee had been arrested for the charge of keeping and maintaining a common gaming house at 36 Harrison Avenue. The house had been raided, leading to the arrest of 13 Chinese and the seizure of a large quantity of gaming implements. The resolution of this criminal matter wasn’t mentioned in any subsequent newspaper and likely ended with a few fines.

Sam Wah Kee was highlighted once again in an extensive article in the Boston Globe, May 7, 1893. The article began by noting, "There are 1600 unregistered Chinamen in the State of Massachusetts,.." and currently, there were "...over 1000 Chinamen have their homes and places of business in the neighborhood, and under the governorship of Sam Wah Kee they live the lives of just, orderly, law-abiding citizens." It was also mentioned that Sam’s wealth was estimated at about $75,000 and that he was a member of Moy & Co., which was one of the large Six Companies in San Francisco. There were 38 members in Sam’s firm, all belonging to Moy & Co. h

The Boston Globe, May 9, 1894, reported that Moy Toung You, Sam’s brother, had died in Canton, though he had also spent many years in business in Boston. Sam was “called the king of Chinatown; a great merchant and said to be the richest Chinese in New England;..” Moy Toung You was his elder brother, and was partnered with Sam, with You managing the business in China. In Boston, Sam owned several large stores in Boston, and the usual number of laundry enterprises.

Sam had been en route to China to see his brother, but You died before Sam ever reached him. At this same time, it was mentioned that Sam’s store on Harrison Avenue had been “chopped” in two by the widening of the street.

In addition, Yee Toi, said to be “a bad man” and an enemy of Sam, started to spread untrue rumors about Sam. There was bad blood between the Yee and Moy families, and Yee Toi belonged to the Sam Sing Company, owned a laundry, and was said to be a blackmailer. Yee Toi alleged that Sam’s wealth was dwindling away, that he couldn’t pay his bills, and had fled to avoid his creditors.

The beginning of the end for Sam Wah Kee. The Boston Globe, July 10, 1894, published a disturbing article about the illegal immigration of Chinese at the port of Burlington, Vermont. It was alleged that Sam Wah Kee was involved in this illegal immigration although Boston officials didn’t believe that allegations. There was some evidence that the New York firm at the center of the controversy were friends with Sam, and they also had some financial connections. Plus, their families were intermarried. That alone though wasn’t sufficient evidence of Sam’s involvement in illegal activity. However, this would have been a very lucrative activity for Sam.

Sam returned to Bostonfrom China  around March 1895, but he had left his wife and children behind in China. The Boston Herald, April 21, 1895, stated that Sam was now married to a third woman, who had traveled back with him to the U.S. His first two wives remained in China to care for their children, and they agreed to allow Sam to marry a third woman, who would take care of him back in Boston. Although Sam had become a Christian, and his Sunday school teachers told him that he had too many wives, Sam chose to continue to follow this Chinese custom.

It was also said that Sam had loaned out about $18,000 to a number of people in Massachusetts and other states, and was back to collect on those debts. For the next nearly six years, Sam continued his life in Chinatown, running his mercantile empire and helping his community. 

However, over six years after the first allegations against Sam Wah Kee for possible involvement in illegal immigration, the Boston Globe, January 14, 1901, reported that Sam had been arrested in Dennysville, Maine on January 12 by U.S. authorities. It was now alleged that a significant amount of Sam'sh wealth had come from smuggling Chinese into the U.S.

As a follow-up, the Hollis Times (NH), February 15, 1901, noted that after his arrest, Sam was brought to Portland, Maine, and remanded in jail for several days as he was unable to initially secure bail. The incident that led to his arrest involved 6 Chinese who had been smuggled over the Canadian border, and who had subsequently been deported. Sam finally made bail but then failed to show up on February 12 for his next court appearance, forfeiting his bail, and his defense counsel claimed that Sam had left for China the week before.

Evidence against Sam mounted. The Boston Globe, February 14, 1901, reported that U.S authorities were acquiring a mass of evidence against Sam Wah Kee, including letters from Sam to his friends indicating he had assisted over 1000 Chinese illegally enter the country. It was still thought that Sam was only the way back to China, although that belief didn’t last long. The Bangor Daily News, February 20, 1901, claimed that Sam was not in China but was hiding in the U.S., maybe even close to Boston. 

The Chinese Exclusion Act prevented many Chinese from coming to the U.S. so it's understandable that some Chinese tried to illegally cross the border into the country. One illegal path into the U.S. was across the Canadian border, north of New England. Sam may have assisted 1000 Chines e enter the country, but what is more important is how much he financially benefited from such activities. Did Sam take advantage of these poor Chinese who sought entry into the U.S.? 

Almost a year later, Sam had still not been apprehended. The Boston Globe, January 19, 1902, then reported that Sam’s wife, who had been living at 8 Oxford Place, had vanished. Her apartments were on the top floor of a 4-story brick house, and now the home was quiet. It was mentioned again that this was Sam’s third wife, “a young daughter of a very old family, and one of the nobility.”

Sam’s ultimate fate is not known, though he apparently eluded U.S. authorities, and he might have traveled back to China with his third wife. From the king of Chinatown to a wanted fugitive, Sam amassed much wealth in the U.S. and it doesn’t appear that U.S. authorities ever tried to seize any of that wealth, beyond the $1000 bail Sam paid after he was arrested. With his great wealth, Sam could have lived like a king in China, and probably also used some of that wealth to support his family, the Moys, in the U.S.

1 comment:

Cathy Huang said...

Fantastic research ! Greatly appreciate your enthusiasm! Chinatown history should be included in the curriculum !