From China To Hartford, Elsie Jane Yung's Historic Connection
ANNE M. HAMILTON
June 14, 2009
Elsie Jane Yung was a Connecticut resident in spirit only, but she chose Hartford as her final resting place for reasons that go back to the 19th century.
Yung's grandfather, Yung Wing — in Chinese families, the family name usually goes first — made history when he graduated from Yale University in 1854, becoming the first Chinese graduate of a North American college.
His story, and his relationship through marriage to several old New England families, connect Elsie Jane Yung to Connecticut. There are markers in Hartford's Cedar Hill Cemetery for her Chinese grandfather, her Yankee grandmother, her father and mother, and a number of other relatives.
The Yung family connection with Connecticut began when Yung Wing was in school in Macao, a Portuguese colony near Zhuhai, his hometown.
The school's principal was a Yale graduate, and when he was preparing to return to the U.S., he asked if any of his students would like to accompany him and go to school there.
Yung was the first to raise his hand, and he went to live with a family in the Hartford area, attended Monson Academy in Massachusetts and entered Yale in 1850, when he was 22.
Records show that Yung was popular in college, intelligent and charismatic. After graduation, he returned to China and worked in business, but his love of Yale and his admiration of a Western education led him to press the Chinese government for a chance to extend the same opportunity to others.
The government agreed to sponsor 30 youths a year in a remarkable bilingual program that became known as the Chinese Educational Mission. It was based in Hartford, and Yung Wing was the deputy director.
The boys, who were between 13 and 15, boarded with families in the Connecticut River Valley, where they attended school. The expectation was that they would study science and technology in college and bring their skills back to China.
The first boys arrived in 1872, after a voyage that included a three-week paddle-boat crossing of the Pacific and a cross-country railroad trip. Besides their regular classes, the boys spent time in a house the mission built in Hartford learning Chinese history, calligraphy and Confucianism. The academics were rigorous, but most of the boys survived both the prolonged absence from their families and the educational program. They were the toast of the town — and danced with Mark Twain's daughters at Hartford soirees. Eventually, 19 students enrolled at Yale and others studied at colleges that included Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Harvard.
For political reasons, the educational program lasted only nine years and involved only 120 boys. The Chinese government was angered by the racism shown toward Chinese laborers in California and feared that the boys were becoming too Westernized — some had cut off their pigtails, which were obligatory in China. Despite pleas by Twain and Ulysses S. Grant, the program ended.
Yung Wing had become a Christian and attended Hartford's Asylum Hill Congregational Church, where he had married Mary Louise Kellogg, a teacher who came from a prominent Connecticut family. Her father was the doctor who cared for Mark Twain's children.
"The wedding rocked Hartford society," said Jane Kellogg, a cousin.
The couple had two sons, but Mary Louise died at a young age, and the children were brought up by the Kellogg family. Yung Wing later served in the first Chinese mission to the U.S. in Washington but died in Hartford in 1912 in poverty.
Bartlett Yung, Yung Wing's son and Elsie Jane's father, grew up in Connecticut and attended Yale before moving to Shanghai, where he worked in the import-export business. After the Japanese occupied Shanghai during World War II, officials came to take him to an internment camp — as an American, he was considered an enemy alien — but he had already died of tuberculosis. A standoff with his family occurred when the officials refused to believe he was dead and not in hiding.
Without Bartlett Yung, the family fell on hard times, and there was little money or food for Elsie Jane, her two siblings and their mother. The family obtained a loan from the American government, which helped them survive.
Elsie Jane was able to attend secretarial school, where she won awards, but in 1949, after the Communists took over, she left for Hong Kong, where she became a secretary and worked to support her mother and siblings.
In 1957, accompanied by her mother and her younger sister, Yung sailed for the U.S. Through family connections, she obtained a job as a legal secretary at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy, a New York law firm where she worked until she retired in 1986.
Yung was friendly but unassuming and told few people about her past and the trauma of the war years in Shanghai.
"She never spoke about China," said Tom McGrath, her boss and later a good friend. "She kept most of her life to herself. ... She suffered a great deal, never complained, and never showed it."
The three women lived in Manhattan, where Elsie Jane's mother took care of Violet, her sister, who was severely retarded. Money was tight, and Yung had many financial responsibilities, as the State Department demanded that she repay the loan she had received in China. Despite the pressures on her, Yung never complained.
"She really accepted this was the deck of cards she'd been dealt," said Jane Kellogg.
Yung was in touch with her Kellogg relatives, and with Betsy Bartlett, a distant relative and a professor of Chinese history at Yale who organized two conferences on the Chinese Educational Mission and Yung Wing.
"She was elfin and lively, very self-reliant," said Steve Courtney, who met her at one of the conferences in 2001 and visited Cedar Hill Cemetery with her. "She went right to work dusting off the grave [of her grandfather]. She was there on a mission."
After her mother died, Yung was forced to find a nursing home for her sister. Yung continued to live in New York, but four years ago, her health began to fail, and a cousin escorted her to a nursing home in Zhuhai, the city on the south China coast, where her grandfather was born.
In Zhuhai, Yung was a minor celebrity because of her grandfather. "She was treated like a semi-VIP," said her cousin, Frank Yung. "Everyone knew her."
Students from the local Yung Wing School would visit, people would invite her to lunch, and the city government erected a statue to honor Yung Wing.
After Elsie Jane's death in February, Frank Yung brought her ashes to Hartford, where they were interred two weeks ago in the family plot at Cedar Hill Cemetery. The simple service also honored her sister Violet, who died May 25.
Peter Grandy, the minister at Asylum Hill Congregational Church, led the service, which brought Elsie Jane Yung full circle, back to her grandfather's church and the life-changing journey Yung Wing first made to Hartford in 1847.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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