In celebration of Chinese New Year on February 12, we’re featuring the life of Wyoming’s China Mary, a longtime resident of Evanston. Most Americans opted to call the Chinese living among them “John” or “Mary” in lieu of learning their Chinese names. For example, there was also a “China Mary” who thrived in Tombstone, Arizona, as a “godfather” in that town’s Chinese community.
Most likely there were other women in the American West with the moniker “China Mary” but finding accounts of them can be difficult. Racist biases in the 19th century and into the 20th century meant that Chinese were often excluded or unnamed in newspaper or written accounts. Chinese women are even more invisible in the historical record.
We do know that Evanston’s China Mary was also identified as Ah Yuen. Yuen is a Cantonese Chinese surname. Because of the Chinese practice of putting the surname before the given name, Chinese migrants’ surnames were often incorrectly listed as their first names on official documents. “Ah” is a Chinese prefix used with a shortened form of peoples’ names to express familiarity, roughly equivalent to Mister or Miss. Based on this, Ah Yuen is most likely not her given name.
As Christopher Merritt of the Utah Division of State History explains in a short biography of Ah Yuen, U.S. Federal Census Bureau records show that she arrived in the United States sometime around 1863. She was likely born in southern China between 1848 and 1854. This would make her quite young when she made the long trip to the United States.
Ah Yuen’s voyage to America was most likely not a pleasant one. Chinese immigrants generally rode in steerage, which is the lower deck of a ship where the cargo is stored. These passengers were often placed by the hundreds in a single large hold. Beds were routinely long rows of large, shared bunks with straw mattresses and no bed linens. Travelers dealt with limited privacy and security, inadequate sanitary conditions, and poor food. The voyage could take several weeks.
Why she came to the U.S. is not known. We do know that people living in China between the 1840s and 1860s were facing violence from a civil war, rampant unemployment, dispossession of land and wealth, famine, and overpopulation of coastal cities. Girls in China were at a further disadvantage.
Because daughters could not provide hard manual labor needed to support the family or carry on the ancestral name, they were considered inferior to sons and therefore expendable. As more and more Chinese men immigrated to the US without their wives, a natural market for prostitution was created. Families in China facing economic hardship and starvation often decided to sell their daughters overseas not only to survive, but in hope of giving them the chance at a better life. Most girls in such circumstances accepted their family’s decision out of filial loyalty and allowed themselves to be sold to “labor contractors” in China. Maybe Ah Yuen was one of these girls? Her birth and emigration dates coincide with the time period.
Instead of forced prostitution, some of the more attractive girls were “lucky” enough to become the concubines of wealthy owners, who might treat them decently, although if they failed to please, their masters could return them to the auction block. However, most of the girls did endure prostitution, ending up in high-class brothels reserved for Chinese men or in “cribs” where they serviced anyone from sailors to teen boys to drunks for 25 to 50 cents. Ah Yuen may have been one of the lucky ones. According to a Works Progress Administration-era biography in the Wyoming State Archives, she had been a woman of unusual beauty.
Ah Yuen’s own stories about her life indicate that, like many Chinese immigrants, she started her American journey in San Francisco. At some point she was in Denver, but that part of her history is still a mystery. By 1868, she turns up as a cook in Bear River City, Wyoming Territory. She may have been married by this time, possibly to a railroad worker since Bear River was an end-of-track town during construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. She recalled witnessing what is now known as the “Bear River City Riot” on November 19, 1868, that began after the vigilante lynching of a murder suspect who worked for the railroad. Friends of the lynched man revolted against the vigilantes and the town erupted in violence. Sixteen people were killed. Later in life she would show interested parties a long trench where bodies were buried.
By the 1880s she was in Park City, Utah, which had a Chinatown created when the first railroads into the city were constructed in part by Chinese labor. Ah Yuen and a husband opened a shop selling Chinese wares to local laborers and European-Americans alike. Life there may have been uneasy for the couple. According to an article in the Utah History Encyclopedia, the Chinese in Park City were victims of sporadic, racially inspired difficulties well into the first decade of the 1900s.
After the death of this husband, Ah Yuen moved about 65 miles east to Evanston, Wyoming, around 1900. By now she would have been in her late 40s or early 50s. Why Evanston? Perhaps opportunity beckoned. The town had lost its wild edge. By the time Ah Yuen arrived, the Union Pacific, in partnership with Pacific Fruit Company, had developed an icing station between the railroad tracks and the Bear River. The UP had also constructed a brick depot to replace the first wooden one. Soon after, Evanston could boast of a federal courthouse and a post office. The town even had one of the few Chinese temples in the United States, which were known as Joss Houses. It was built in 1894. When Evanston’s Chinatown burned in 1922, the fire took the Joss House with it. Many Chinese had already left Evanston by this time; others left after the fire. Ah Yuen was one of the few who stayed.
Once moving to Evanston, Wyoming, she would marry twice more. Her final husband was a gardener referred to as “Mormon Charlie” who she may have married in the late 1920s. His name was recorded as Lock Long Choong (or Chung) and his birth year as 1862. According to an entry in the Findagrave website, he was given the nickname “because he assimilated well with the locals.” The entry also notes that he migrated to the US in 1881. He was described as a small man who was remembered for carrying large amounts of vegetables around town using two baskets supported by a long pole. Sometimes he would give children rides in the basket. He was well-liked and trusted, to the point that he was allowed to enter people’s homes to leave vegetables while they were out for the evening.
As for Ah Yuen, the WPA biography notes that she had a cheerful spirit, spoke English fluently, and would regale those who listened about her time in San Francisco, Denver, and Park City. She became one of Evanston’s town characters. Tourists asked to take her picture, for which she charged ten cents. She in turn paid Evanston children a dime for bringing her fish from the Bear River. She loved to gamble, to the point she was forced to go on county assistance for many years before her death. The biography states that she had three children, although their names or whereabouts were not mentioned.
Ah Yuen spent the rest of her life in Evanston, until she died in her small house on January 13, 1939. That she was a loved figure in Evanston is seen by her memorial service that was attended by a number of town residents and overseen by a Presbyterian minister. Although her burial site is in the pauper section of Evanston’s cemetery, her grave is marked, courtesy of the city. There is even a “China Mary Road” today in the town.
Ah Yuen’s story, while mysterious in so many ways, is an example of the grit and endurance of Chinese women in the United States. It is hard to imagine the hardships Ah Yuen must have endured in her home country and then in her adopted country. Somehow, she made the journey in good spirits and with an apparent zest for life.
Post contributed by AHC Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.