Many Northern Kentuckians would be surprised to know that the City of
Covington once had the largest Chinese population in the Commonwealth
of Kentucky. Chinese immigrants first began arriving in the United States
in the middle of the 19th Century. The Chinese came to this country
primarily for economic reasons and most settled in the western states
where jobs were plentiful. By 1880, 25% of California’s workforce
was of Chinese descent. The overwhelming majority of these immigrants
were male laborers.
Chinese Americans faced racism in this country. Their different styles
of clothing, food, language and customs set them apart from other Americans.
In 1882, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act.
This legislation prevented Chinese natives from entering the country.
The Chinese Americans who were already in the country were not forced
to leave, however, they were forbidden to apply for naturalization.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was the first such legislation in American
history that barred an entire ethnic group from immigrating to this
The Chinese Exclusion Act had a great impact on Chinese American life.
With most immigration cut off, the Chinese American community remained
overwhelmingly male. This legislation also resulted in a new class of
Chinese Americans called ‘paper sons.’ Chinese Americans
who were born in this country automatically were United States citizens
(this was true for all immigrants). United States law also declared
that all children of U.S. citizens were also citizens themselves. These
children, even if they lived in China, were still eligible to come to
the United States.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake provided an unexpected loophole for
many Chinese Americans. The earthquake destroyed the courthouse, and
thus, the birth and immigration records. Many of the Chinese immigrants
had entered the U.S. though San Francisco. This turn of events allowed
many Chinese Americans who were born in China to claim American citizenship
(the government could not prove these individuals had been born in China).
The earliest mention of Chinese in Covington appears in the Ticket newspaper
in 1877. The article dealt with the marriage of John Naw Lin, a Chinese
American and Mary Ann Morgan of African American descent. Chinese Americans
rarely received any attention in the local press. The one exception
was the celebration of the Chinese New Year. Reporters often covered
the celebrations using racist language and stereotypes.
In 1913, the 14-year old Pong Dock, an American born citizen of Chinese
descent registered to attend the Covington Public Schools. This event
caused a minor furor in the city. Some Covington residents claimed that
the boy should attend the African American School in Covington because
he was not of European ancestry. The Kentucky Post and Kentucky Times-Star
both ran articles on the boy and the controversy concerning his education.
Eventually, the issue was turned over to the Kentucky Attorney General
M. Logan. Logan determined that the Superintendent of the Covington
Public Schools could choose which school the boy should attend. Pong
Dock was permitted to attend Covington’s First District School
on Scott Street. He began the first grade in September 1913.
Other Chinese American children attended classes at a special Chinese
Language program at St. Xavier Catholic School in Cincinnati. One of
these children was Lily Wong. In 1929, Lily was 5 years old. Her father
operated a Chinese restaurant at the corner of Madison Avenue and Pike
Streets. Lily was bilingual, and thus was able to act as an interpreter
at her father’s restaurant. Another educational opportunity available
to Chinese Americans was Bible lessons offered by the Covington Y.M.C.A.
Most Chinese Americans in Covington operated laundries. By 1880, one
Chinese laundry had already been established at 519 Madison Avenue.
By 1897, six of the 11 laundries in Covington were operated by Chinese
Americans. In 1910, eight Chinese laundries were in operation, one on
Pike Street and seven on Madison Avenue. The United States Census for
1900 and 1910 shed much light on the lives of Chinese Americans in Covington.
All were males and most were single (if they were married, their spouse
were living in China). The average age was between 35 and 40. A majority
of the Chinese Americans had been born in China; all of those who were
natives of the United States had been born in California. A surprising
number were able to speak in the English Language.
The number of Chinese laundries remained stable in the years between
1900 and 1945 between five and eight. The last Chinese laundries appear
in the Covington City Directory in the late 1940s.
United States Census 1900 and 1910, Covington City Directories
1880-1948, Kentucky Post, February 16, 1904, p. 1, April 21, 1905, p.
1, September 13, 1913, p. 1, September 24, 1914, p. 1, August 19, 1914,
p. 4, October 28, 1929, p. 1; Kentucky Times-Star, September 19, 1913,
p. 20; Ticket, September 18, 1877, p. 3.