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50 Years/50 Collections: The Chinese Presbyterian Church Records, 1986

This week’s blog post is contributed by Winston Ho, a New Orleans native and graduating history and Chinese language undergraduate at Rutgers University in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures. Winston specializes in early twentieth-century Chinese history and the history of Chinese American settlement in New Orleans. He has conducted extensive research at the Amistad Research Center.

The Amistad Research Center features one of the largest collections of archival records related to the Chinese American community in Louisiana and the Gulf Coast region – the records of the Chinese Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. The records include a large collection of reports and articles written by the pastors, directors, and members of the Church. The records also contain correspondence, monthly and annual reports, church bulletins, news clippings, and drafts of Walter Dale Langtry’s history of the church. Much of the material is in the form of photocopies, with some original documents, as well as oral histories conducted with members of the church. The documents serve as evidence of the many activities of the Chinese Presbyterians and detail a long storied history of the Chinese in New Orleans.

On July 4, 1870, one hundred and forty one Cantonese laborers arrived in New Orleans by steamship to work as contract laborers at the Millaudon Sugar Plantation, on the West bank of the Mississippi River in what is now Gretna. They were among the first of thousands of “sojourners,” men who migrated to New Orleans and the American South in search of work while sending most of their income back to their families in China. A decade later, on February 12, 1882, a Congregationalist missionary named Lena Saunders began teaching English and scripture at her home on South Liberty Street to five Chinese laborers who had traveled from San Francisco to work in New Orleans. The Chinese Mission quickly attracted other Chinese and grew far beyond what Ms. Saunders could manage alone. In 1884, the Chinese were adopted by the Canal Street Presbyterian Church and the New Orleans Presbytery as one of their home missions. Saunders’ Mission also attracted local New Orleanians from other churches as teachers – not only Presbyterians and Congregationalists, but also Methodists, Baptists, and other Protestants. By the 1890s, as many as one hundred Chinese and nearly as many English teachers could be found at South Liberty Street on any given Sunday.

The Chinese Presbyterian Mission was founded at the height of the Christian missionary movement to China. The original objective of Lena Saunders’ Mission was to evangelize the Chinese in New Orleans, in the hope that a few would convert to Christianity and transmit their faith back to China. The Mission was founded at a time when the Chinese population in the South was rapidly expanding. As many as two thousand Chinese lived in New Orleans alone by the end of the 19th century. However, the records at Amistad indicated that the Chinese rarely stayed in the city for long. They often traveled to other states, back to China, or even other countries in search of work. Chinese laborers, often uneducated peasants from the Guangdong province, were attracted by low-skilled jobs, including the dried shrimp industry in Southeast Louisiana and the hand-wash laundry industry, an industry that the Chinese dominated in New Orleans for many decades. The laborers were quickly followed by merchants, from San Francisco and other American cities, who provided goods and services to the growing Chinese population, and also profited from trade at the Port of Orleans. They imported tea and luxury goods to Louisiana, and exported cotton and dried shrimp to Asia. Merchants and laborers alike hoped to improve their English, and in its first three decades, the Presbyterian Mission was primarily an English school for Chinese men.

However, the Chinese Presbyterian Mission was also founded in the same year that the U.S. Congress passed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. As the Federal Government began restricting immigration from China, the Chinese population in New Orleans collapsed but the Chinese community survived. The remaining Chinese chose to live in the United States permanently and sent for their wives and children to join them in New Orleans. By the 1920s, the Chinese Mission had moved from South Liberty Street to a new building on South Roman Street. It had transformed from a “bachelor” club for sojourners to a community of young families. Although the number of Chinese families was small, the number of children for each family, especially American-born children, was quite large. The Sunday school evolved into a scripture school for English-speaking Chinese children, while smaller groups of Cantonese-speaking adults held bible studies and social events. This Chinese American community endured the Great Depression, sent their children to “White” segregated public schools and universities, such as Tulane University and H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, served in the military, worked in the factories of the Second World War. They migrated to the suburbs as the city grew beyond the boundaries of Orleans Parish, and became entrepreneurs, teachers, physicians, and engineers.

In 1952, the Chinese Mission moved to a new campus on Bienville Street, and in 1957, the Chinese Mission was turned into an independent church. The Chinese Presbyterian Church of New Orleans not only became a spiritual home for the city’s Chinese Christians, but a community center for all Chinese in the Gulf South region. The Chinese Presbyterians evangelized to all Chinese visitors in the city, including Chinese sailors at the Port of Orleans, Chinese soldiers at nearby military bases, and Chinese students at universities throughout the American South. They sponsored cultural events, such as the annual Chinese New Year celebration, and they supported charitable missions, like the annual Christmas visit to Chinese patients at the Leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana.

When the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 was passed, it removed all earlier restrictions on immigration from Asia, and allowed new waves of immigration from the Chinese-speaking world. These new immigrants included Chinese who had been Christians in their home countries, and carried with them the regional languages, customs, and religious practices from their native country. In 1982, Mandarin-speaking immigrants formed the New Orleans Chinese Baptist Church. They purchased their own building on Continental Drive in Kenner, Louisiana in 1997, and have surpassed the Presbyterians as the largest Chinese Christian church in Louisiana. The Chinese Baptists sponsor their own bible studies on Fridays, including a bible study at Tulane University, and another bible study at the University of New Orleans. In 1987, the Taiwanese-speaking immigrants also formed their own church, the Evangelical Formosan Church of New Orleans on Georgia Avenue in Kenner.

In 1997, the Presbyterians moved to their current campus near the corner of West Esplanade and Power Boulevard in Kenner. The elderly generation of Cantonese-speaking immigrants from China is dying out and the Church today consists mostly of their American-born descendants, converts from among the recent immigrants from Mainland China, and non-Chinese New Orleanians who have married into the church. With over 130 years of history, the Chinese Presbyterian Church of New Orleans is one of the oldest continuously existing Chinese churches in North America. Although this history is interesting, its true value lies in the insight that it provides regarding the culture of the entire city. The Chinese were welcomed to New Orleans as foreign “sojourners,” but they have since become New Orleanians, and their community is now an integral part of the multi-ethnic character of the city.

Disclaimer: Images from the Chinese Presbyterian Church Records. Images from Amistad’s website, newsletters, and blogs cannot be reproduced without permission.

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