Although best known for its German and Irish immigrants, Indianapolis also had a small population of Chinese residents as early as the 1880s and estimated by local newspapers as 100-150 residents by the early 1910s. Finding photographs of the Chinese community or businesses has proven difficult so I was surprised to find several stereographs of Moy Kee & Company’s Chinese Restaurant in the collections of the Library of Congress this week.
Moy Kee, owner of a restaurant and tea house at 506 E. Washington Street, was recognized as the Chinese mayor of Indianapolis in the early twentieth century. As a young boy, Moy moved with his uncle from Guangdon (Canton) Province to California in the late 1850s, first selling newspapers and eventually working in the governor’s home. By the 1870s he had converted to Christianity, had returned to China to marry, and was living in New York City where he became outspoken against the strict U.S. laws that no longer favored Chinese immigration. His appointment to a Methodist Chinese mission to preach and teach English ended abruptly when he was accused of theft and jailed. He soon moved to Chicago where he opened a laundry and later a tea house, all the while attempting to become a U.S. citizen.
Why he moved to Indianapolis in 1897 is unknown, but Moy Kee had visited at least once before as an interpreter. He soon was naturalized and by 1901 had opened Moy Kee and Company’s Chinese Restaurant in the Hazelton Hotel building on the northeast corner of E. Washington and East Streets. He and his wife lived in the building, described as the most grand Chinese restaurant the city had seen with black ebonized wood, native decorations, and the lingering smell of Chinese tobacco and incense. Newspapers noted the unusual foods served there, including 100-year-old eggs, and often called it a chop suey restaurant.
Photographer Monroe George documented the exterior of the restaurant on May 20, 1904 when the Royal Prince Pu Lun visited Indianapolis after his visit to the St. Louis World’s Fair. A committee headed by William Fortune planned many events for the prince, including fireworks, a reception in the State House, a visit to May Wright Sewell’s Girls’ Classical School where he spoke and passed out diplomas, and a streetcar ride to Fairview Park to see “King and Queen” the diving horses who jumped from a forty-five foot platform into a tank of water.
Scott D. Seligman wrote about Prince Pu Lun’s visit to the restaurant in “The Hoosier Mandarin: the ‘Mayor’ of Indianapolis’s Chinatown,” in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Fall 2011:
Pu Lun accepted Moy’s invitation to a luncheon at his restaurant. A large lantern was hung outside the door, and the facade was festooned with colorful ribbons.Oriental rugs were laid, and on a teakwood table incense, food, and Chinese wine were placed. [Indianapolis Mayor John W.] Holzman, civic leader William Fortune, and poet James Whitcomb Riley were also in attendance. The repast pleased Pu Lun, who presented Moy with a silk scarf and made a surprise announcement: upon his return to China, the Prince would recommend that Moy be granted a title.
Pu Lun proved as good as his word, and two months later Moy received certificates bearing the seal of the Emperor of China elevating him to the rank of Mandarin of the Fifth Degree. The title, which did not confer any practical benefit but permitted him to display an embroidered silver pheasant badge on his tunic, had not been bestowed simply because the prince had enjoyed his company. This was certainly a business transaction of some sort. During this era, the declining Manchu government courted overseas Chinese merchants because it needed capital, and it is possible Moy paid for his title. Another possibility, though, is that the Chinese government saw in him a potential standard-bearer in a drive to push the United States to ease restrictions on its Chinese population. The title might have been given to encourage him in this effort and to signal that the Chinese government supported him.
A large crowd followed the prince to all of his engagements in Indianapolis and here they gather in front of Moy Kee’s restaurant in the Hazelton Hotel (also home to a drug store and Gordon’s Pool Room). Prince Pu Lun is the front seat passenger. To copyright his images, photographer Monroe George sent two copies of each photograph to the Library of Congress in 1904. A handwritten note under the stereograph image reads “Royal Prince Pu Lun, future Emperor of China, with Mayor Holtzman’s party attending Moy Kee’s reception.” Although at that time Prince Pu Lun was expected to eventually become emperor of China, that never came to be.
With his many American as well as Chinese friends, Moy Kee was the go-to source for local newspaper reporters and was often quoted (although his accented English was sometimes spelled phonetically, for example “Melican” instead of “American”). Sadly, both countries later rejected him. The Chinese government revoked his honorary title and he was eventually stripped of his U.S. citizenship. Many of his friends supported his efforts to remain in the country. Even Mayor Samuel L. Shank wrote a letter to President Taft proclaiming him one of the city’s upstanding citizens. Being unsuccessful, Moy Kee and his wife returned to China for a year but, stating that China was too slow, they returned home to Indianapolis where in 1914 he died suddenly of a heart attack at age 65 while eating in his restaurant. At the time he was one of the city’s wealthiest residents, worth $25,000 (over $600,000 today). Chin Fung, his grieving widow, escorted his body to China for burial and never returned.
506 E. Washington as of July 2011, courtesy of Google Street View
Today, not a hint remains of the importance of this thriving Chinese restaurant, a long-ago visit by a Chinese prince, or even the fact that this strip on the National Road had ever been a busy block full of hotels and stores. Since the 1970s, the block has been a non-descript surface lot, currently providing parking for the adjacent Harrison College.
Read more about the life of Moy Kee in Scott D. Seligman’s article “The Hoosier Mandarin: the ‘Mayor’ of Indianapolis’s Chinatown,” in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, Fall 2011. Seligman has since published a book about Moy Kee and his brothers titled Three Tough Chinamen (Earnshaw Books Ltd., 2012).
[Does anyone out there own other photographs of Prince Pu Lin’s Indiana visit, Moy Kee, or images documenting the city’s Chinese community? We would like to borrow and make scans of them. Thanks!]