Tung Pok Chin (1915-1988) was born in Tai-shan County in Guangdong, China and emigrated to the U.S. in 1934 as a “paper son” to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Acts. He worked in laundries during his brief residence in Boston, and later established his own laundry business in Harlem and Brooklyn, New York, with the assistance of the Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance (CHLA). In his spare time, he studied English, read Chinese literature, and wrote prose and poetry. In 1937, he contacted Dr. Ralph E. Pickett, then Associate Dean of NYU’s School of Education, about admission into NYU. Although he was not eligible for admission, Dr. Pickett sent him grammar books and literature to encourage Mr. Chin’s education. The two men shared a friendship and correspondence that would last a lifetime.
After the Pearl Harbor attack, Tung Pok Chin enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was the first Chinese person in New York City to enlist, and photos of his swearing-in were published in major newspapers in the northeast U.S.A. to encourage minority enlistment. After his honorary discharge from the navy, he began to write columns and poems for the China Daily News under the pen name Lai Bing Chan. In 1949, he returned briefly to China where he married Mak Ting Fong, and in 1950 re-entered the United States with his new bride. Amidst McCarthyism and FBI accusations that he was writing and subscribing to a pro-Communist newspaper, Tung Pok Chin burned more than 200 of his own poems. Upon retirement in 1978, he co-wrote his memoir with his daughter, Winifred C. Chin. The result was Paper Son, One Man’s Story, published by Temple University Press in 2000.
Mak Ting Fong (also known as Wing Fong Chin, 1928- ) first arrived in the United States in 1950 with her husband, Tung Pok Chin. In 1955, when their first child was old enough to attend school, Mrs. Chin began working as a seamstress in Chinatown. Her work with the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) began when she interpreted messages for union organizers from English to Chinese at the shops where she worked. As the daughter of a prominent Hong Kong family, Wing Fong Chin understood English and used her language ability to aid the ILGWU in organizing Chinatown garment workers. Wing Fong Chin became increasingly involved in the ILGWU, eventually becoming Chairperson of the Executive Board in 1983. She was influential in the 1982 Chinatown garment workers’ strike and in 1985 testified before Congress against foreign imports that ate away at American jobs. Wing Fong Chin’s work was exceptionally important as an advocate for the Asian American women and workers’ rights.
This collection contains photos and the original speeches of Wing Fong Chin, and articles about her in ILGWU newsletters. The collection also contains navy photos and selected writings of Tung Pok Chin, documents from the “paper son” era, and the collection of the letters from Dr. Ralph E. Pickett written to Mr. Chin.
To learn more about the contents of the Tung Pok Chin and Wing Fong Chin Papers and Photographs, located at the NYU Tamiment Library & Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, view the collection’s finding aid.