October 27, 2020

Dinner at Fong Lee's

By Leonard Chan

Left to Right: Frank McLaughlin, Fong Lee, unknown boy, Fong Lee's daughter Chin Suey Good, possibly C. H. Deuel (may be the author of the Oroville Mercury article), possibly Hi Loy, unknown, possibly J.A. Weldon, probably Albert Foster Jones, others are unknown

In May of 1894, White supremacist groups forced Chinese and some Japanese farmworkers out of farms in Fresno, Pleasanton, and the Vaca Valley. They stole, beat, and shot at the Asian workers, and, with the tacit approval of the law and judges, were allowed to seize many of the Asian workers as prisoners for deportation.

This is just a small sample of incidents that reveal the dark racial climate of what was happening throughout California and other Western states during that time. Author Jean Pfaelzer, in her groundbreaking book Driven Out: the Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, does a marvelous job of retelling this horrible facet of Old West history (this is a must read for anyone that is the least bit curious about how Asians fit into the 19th century American experience). From the years 1849 to 1906, Pfaelzer states that there were over 200 similar incidences in California alone.

This article is not about all the atrocities that were being committed against Asian in the West in the 1800s. This introduction is meant to give you some context to the rest of this piece. On January 31, 1895, approximately eight months after the earlier described incidents, a Chinese man in the town of Oroville, California, chose to break bread with his Caucasian neighbors.

When looking back at events from over a hundred years ago, we often only have vague recollections from personal accounts passed on through generations of family history. Even when you have the newspaper and journal articles to help backup the record, it’s hard to say what really happened and what was embellished through creative retellings of the story.

What follows is a transcription of one of the articles from this event written by someone for the Oroville Mercury newspaper on February 1, 1895. Whether or not the reporter added his own details to the story, we’ll never know for certain.

Parts of the reporter’s portrayal of the broken English language spoken and general observations about the event may seem outdated or even racist by today’s standards. However, it is a reflection of those times and the reporter’s perspective. We hope that reproducing the article without edits adds to your knowledge about the event itself and about the views of some non-Chinese of this time period.

A Chinese Feast

Fong Lee, the Wealthy Merchant Tenders a Banquet.

Fong Lee the wealthiest Chinese merchant in Oroville and probably in Northern California, and likewise the most progressive one, tendered his American friends a magnificent banquet yesterday afternoon at his residence and place of business at the foot of Lincoln street. The affair was very select and was given regardless of expense with true Celestial magnificence.

The dinner was announced for 4 p.m. and half an hour before that time the guests found themselves at the door of the Fong Lee’s store where they were received with deep courtesy by the host, his intimate friend and associate Hi Loy and a retinue of cousins, clerks, lackeys and white-robed coolies. The guests were at once escorted to the main reception room. This apartment was in a state of gorgeous decoration and arranged in a circle around the room were chairs of state, high-backed, solid ebony affairs, each one covered with silken drapery embossed with solid gold embroidery. On the walls were silken placards of welcome which being interpreted by Fong Lee to his guests signified: “Welcome Melican Man,” “Heap Good Flend Fong Lee,” “Melican Man Will Now Sabe Chinaman Chow-chow,” “Eat Plenty in the Abode of Bliss,” “When the Mouth is Full forget not the Benefactor,” “Take Cockel’s Pills after Dinning,” etc.

The preliminaries were commenced by the serving of delicate Imperial Moy Une tea imported for the occasion (contrary to the Geary act), in delicate and extremely valuable Gorody-Shonshi ware which had been in the host’s family for over 400 years. At this stage Fong Lee announced that the festivities of the occasion would soon commence and while the guests drank tea, he would bombard the devil with bombs and firecrackers. Giving the signal to his menials the fun commenced. The whole front of the elaborately decorated build was hung with festoons of firecrackers worth $75 a string, while from the subterranean store rooms, coolies in flame colored fire proof robes brought out box after box of bombs, fire crackers and daylight illuminations, and for half an hour the noise was deafening. After the devil had been effectually driven from the premises and out of the constitutions of the guests, to effect which probably $1500 worth of powder had been burned, Fong Lee and Hi Loy, preceeded by a band of Chinese musicians led the way to the festival board. The witching harmonies of the band so affected the guests that they called for a renewal of the bombardment.

The massive teak and ebony tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl were spread with Oriental splendor in the dining hall opening from the main reception room. The hall was likewise decorated with silken and cloth of gold banners bearing mottoes signifying, as the host explained, “Fong Lee’s Venerable Ancestors desire Welcome,” “Big Melican Man Eat Here Today,” “Melican Man Eat Here Today,” “Melican Man no Talkee Japan War,” and other fitting and appropriate sayings.

The tables were a model of neatness and extravagant elegance. Pure yellow Tusseh silk table cloths, rarest Moonga silk napkins, each embroidered with the guest’s initials, ancient ivory bronze and gold filigree chopsticks and solid silver knives, forks, and spoons with the rarest and most delicate of China ware embossed in gold and worth in themselves a fortune. The old miners among the guests had seen vast stores of gold but the embellishments of this Chinese merchant’s table made their eyes bulge to a degree that compensated for the expansion of their vests after the feast.

At the head of one table on a raised dias sat Fong Lee, attired in countless silk brocaded coats, which as the feast progressed and the pressure became heavy, he discarded one by one until the hem of his expensive undershirt was apparent.

At his right sat his “good flend” Major Frank McLaughlin, who with true politeness, copied his host by unbuttoning various portions of his attire occasionally, and down on either side sat J.A. Lawrence, Banker C.H Schiveley, H. W. Smith, G. H. Cordy, C. H. Deuel, G. W. Braden, Judge H. C. Hills, Major H.V. Reardan. At the head of the adjoining table sat Hi Loy robed in a gorgeous combination of green silk, red satin, gold, silver and pearl embroidery, and E.A. Halstead, Senator A.F. Jones, H.N. Almy, George F. Geisse, County Clerk Ed Harkness, Carleton Gray, M. Reyman, O.M. Enslow, J.V. Parks and J.A. Weldon. White-robed waiters brought in the dinner in countless courses.

As the first course consisting of appetizing pickels, preserves and Chinese caviare was being removed, a wild refrain burst from the orchestra, which was stationed in a velvet draped alcove which was followed by a thunderous discharge of bombs. So alarming was the peal, that the guests, feared an attack from the Japanese hordes of Biggs. It speaks volumes for the civilization of our State, that only thirteen pistols were drawn—the balance of the guests being armed with bowie knives.

A word of explanation from the polite hosts assuaged these groundless fears, and, thereafter, the music of the orchestra and the boom of firecrackers were drowned by the popping of champaign corks.

After the sixth course had been removed, the curtains at the end of the main room were drawn to one side and six of China’s loveliest dancing maidens were disclosed to the guests. The stately dances, or rather motions, of the ancient Chinese ceremony were pictured to the delighted guests. The curtain slowly dropped over an effective grouping and the feast resumed its course.

Words would fail to truly depict the gorgeousness of the dances, and our reporter confesses himself not equal to it this morning, owing to a serious lightness above his ears. Curious to say, this epidemic seems to have struck the leading citizens of the town, almost all the offices bearing notice “called out of town; back tomorrow at noon.” After the thirteenth course, Ki Yang, the Chinese magician delivered his most astounding feats of disappearance palled upon the guests who had been watching Surveyor Enslow’s attention to the viands. The competition seemed to have been entered into between himself and Mr. Geisse to clear the tables for the succeeding course. Dr. Karsner reports this morning no further dangerous symptoms reported in; both gentlemen will resimie business within two or three weeks.

With dessert, speeches were indulged in and thanks returned to the hosts by Senator Jones in a speech replete with pigeon English and Chinese witticisms. 

Letters of regret were read from Sheriff Wilson, District Attorney Sexton and Banker Fogg, The former gentlemen being called to a murder case and the latter gentleman having hired a fast horse and carriage in the morning. The Sheriff's and District Attorney's offices and the bank are open for business today.

The thanks of the guests were tendered in the choicest Oroville Chinese by Major Frank McLaughlin, who seemed too full for utterance. Songs were rendered by Mr. Almy and the really beautiful Miss Fong Lee, in the daintiest of Chinese costumes, having handed around the cigars, the same were lit at the glowing countenance of G. W. Bradden, and, with three hearty cheers for their hosts, the guests left the hospitable domicile.

We have repeatedly called attention to the desirability of a local ice manufacturing company. Stock would be rapidly taken by the leading citizens.

Further Information

Here is some background information and some conjecture about the people and dinner.

The real name of Fong Lee was really Chin Kong You (spelled in numerous ways; I’ll use his alias for this article to cut down on the confusion). He ran a general store in the town of Oroville that was called Fong Lee and thus everyone knew him better by the store’s name.

Fong Lee ran a profitable import/export business selling good to the Chinese and wider community. To supply his store he also was involved with local agricultural interests which included 100 acres of land for orchards and vegetables. At that time, oranges were a major crop in Butte County, California, and until the 1950s family members can still recall the adjacent lots to his store having orange trees on it.

Fong Lee and his store also served as an employment agency for Chinese workers connecting them with the local businesses and households that needed laborers. Helping workers find jobs was vital to the community as more and more Chinese workers were finding it hard to find employment or even a place to live in those turbulent times. The Chinese and other Asians were literally being burned out, rounded up, and forced to move throughout the west and Caucasian employers were equally being pressured not to hire them.

As a broker for laborers and supplier of goods, it was important for Fong Lee to forge friendships with members throughout the community.

Frank McLaughlin was the general manger of a big nearby mining project called the Golden Feather. The project involved the building of a massive water diversion wall for the Feather River. Their goal was to divert the river and then dig up gold from the exposed river bed. The project required lots of workers, especially the help of skilled Chinese workers that may have worked on the building of hillside retaining walls for railroads or rice terracing projects in their home provinces in China.

Fong Lee was probably also helping McLaughlin and Albert Foster Jones (noted as Senator AF Jones in the article) find workers to tend their orange orchards. All three men had orange fields and mining operations in common and Jones was one of the founders of the Oroville Citrus Association.

The most prominent friend of Fong Lee’s was George C. Perkins. He ran a nearby general store in Oroville and was also the governor of California and US Senator. Perkins was not mentioned in the dinner article probably because he was in Washington at that time.

The entertainment for this dinner is important to note in that it sheds some light on how Chinese communities were not as isolated and lacking in cultural actives as some may think. Oroville was a fairly active and big community in the 1800s and the Chinatown even had its own Chinese opera house. The mention of the female dancers and Fong Lee’s wife singing shows that Chinese women were not all prostitutes as often portrayed in historical and popular media accounts.

The last thing of note from the dinner article is the meal itself. Several of the items listed were western foods and drinks. So Fong Lee was trying to accommodate his guests’ tastes as well as introduce them to gourmet Chinese foods. The event was also meant to be a Chinese New Year celebration dinner. The year started on January 26 of that year.

According to Fong Lee’s grandson, Gaing Chan (my uncle), “Kong You gave the Chinese New Year Dinner for his Caucasian friends to promote friendship and mutual goodwill between the two cultures.”

It didn’t really occur to me until I was preparing for this article that my work with AACP was in some ways similar to what Chin Kong You was trying to accomplish 125 years ago – bridging cultures and trying to instill racial harmony.

Chin Kong You’s motives for the dinner may have been a little self-serving, but it also helped to serve the wider community and, considering the time he lived in, that was quite commendable.

Thank you Great-Grandfather!

Resource and Sources

- Actual copy of the Oroville Mercury article

- Feb. 1971 California Herald's transcription of the dinner article

July 1895 American Magazine article on the dinner (contains unverified accounts)

- Photos of Oroville Chinese Temple, community, and artifacts

- Photo of herb drawers from the Fong Lee store