Exile between two continents: Ettie Chin's war experience in China (1937-1944).

Author:Feng, Jin
Position:8H Paper - Biography

Those who study Chinese American experiences in the early twentieth century often face the challenge of the paucity of written materials produced by ordinary Chinese Americans themselves. Ettie Len-Toy Chin [Hong] (1913-2005) is such a case in point. Having worked as an instructor of physical education in an American-founded missionary college in wartime China from 1937 to 1944, her experience as a second-generation Chinese American living in the old country would have shed light on the construction of Chinese American identity from a unique perspective. However, she left behind very little writing representing either her wartime experience in China or her continued efforts to develop exchange relationships between Chinese and American institutions of higher education after she returned to the United States in 1944. Therefore, the goal of my project is not just to retrieve some lost pieces of an individual life, but also to explore effective ways to examine Chinese American experiences where "authentic" written materials of their own creation are scarce or even nonexistent due to various historical circumstances. By situating the most extensive of the few available written accounts of Chin's experience in wartime China--a letter written by her, dated July 1938--in its particular historical and textual context, I hope to explore the means by which Chin negotiated her way through complex cultural forces and systems of knowledge at a critical moment in both Chinese and Chinese American histories.

Sau-ling Wong has argued that second-generation ethnics have to contend with three cultural systems: "the 'ideal' Old World Values" as presented by their parents, "'real' Old World values" as actually mediated by these same parents, and "'real' New World values as seen from the vantage point of Americans by birth." (1) Chin's experience would add yet another layer to this already complex story. To paraphrase Wong's terminology, she also had to contend with the "real" Old World values as she wrestled with the challenge of living in her parents' native country during the war. Caught in the crossfire of Chinese and American cultural values, such as individualism versus collectivism, or filial obligations versus institutional allegiance, while carrying with her the burden of racial stereotypes, Chin encountered plenty of thorny situations in wartime China. In order to investigate how Chin interacted with the different cultural forces from her particular locale of wartime China, I will first provide a biographical sketch of Chin, then offer an institutional snapshot of Ginling College, the missionary college where Chin taught during the war years, and last examine her letter in light of both its historical and textual context.


From records at the Smith College Archives, we know that Ettie Chin was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1913, and received her bachelor's degree in history from Smith College in 1936 and her master's degree from the University of Michigan in 1937. After her graduation from Michigan, Chin set out to join the Physical Education Department at Ginling College, an all-women's college that had been established by female American missionaries of multiple denominations in Nanjing, China, in 1913, and which later became a sister college to Chin's alma mater, Smith College. By the time she reached China, however, the Japanese occupation had forced Ginling College to leave Nanjing. Chin joined a unit of Ginling students in Shanghai, and in 1938 she accompanied them to Chengdu, Sichuan in West China, which became the site of Ginling-in-exile from 1938 to 1946. Chin worked in the Physical Education Department at Ginling's Chengdu campus until 1944, when she returned to the United States and joined the faculty at Smith. She served as an assistant professor in Smith's Physical Education Department until 1953. Chin was an active member of the Smith Alumnae Committee for Ginling for a number of years after her return to the United States, not the least because her first-hand experience at Smith's sister college made her a valuable and popular spokesperson. In 1953, she married Edward Lim Hong, a restaurateur, and the couple settled in Freeport, Long Island, New York. (2) She passed away in August of 2005.

Furthermore, my oral interviews with Chin's family members also reveal that Chin's parents were first-generation Chinese Americans from Toisaan (Taishan) County, Guangdong Province. They were the first Chinese family to settle in Worcester, though the town had seen single Chinese men whose presence predated their arrival. Her father ran a dry goods store in town and later operated a family laundry and restaurant. We may find it surprising that Chin was able to hold degrees from prestigious institutions of higher education as the daughter of Chinese nationals, especially since at that time Chinese Americans were subjected to discrimination under the Chinese Exclusion Act while her family was eking out a living in a mostly "white" town. But Chin excelled in Worcester's public schools and earned a scholarship to Smith. (3) As the youngest of five children, with four older brothers before her, one suspects that she may have also enjoyed some degree of parental indulgence and sibling doting and was thus able to pursue her dreams of higher education. Although all of Chin's brothers, except for the oldest, received a college education, it is known in her family that it was her youngest older brother, Rockwood Chin, then a Yale student, who encouraged her to attend college by declaring: "No sister of mine is not going to college!" (4) This incident gives us a rare glimpse into the intriguing shift of expectations of Chinese American women's education and career in an immigrant family, when the second-generation ethnic's experience outside of home ushered in fresh ideas and more daring ventures. However, in order to focus more on Chin's experience in wartime China, I will refrain from delving too deep into its significance at this point.

Chin's trip to China was actually a collective family project, since it had originally been instigated by her parents, who had often encouraged their children to visit China, and it was joined in by her two older brothers, Luther and Rockwood Chin. In August 1937, after the recent deaths of their parents, Chin and her two older brothers started out for a country that was up to that point known to them only through their parents' stories. This journey, both filial and patriotic in the historical context of the Sino-Japanese War, heralded the beginning of her complex, though often understated and truncated, self-representation as a Chinese American P.E. instructor at Ginling College in China during the war.


In addition to Chin's experience of having spent her formative years during the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Ginling's particular institutional temperament also played an important role in the way that Chin represented herself. Ginling College boasted an institutional history strongly influenced by the vicissitudes of twentieth-century Chinese history. It was founded in 1913 through the united efforts of eight American women's missionary boards--Baptists, North and South; Disciples; Episcopalians; Methodists, North and South; and Presbyterians, North and Southland officially opened its door in Nanjing, China, in 1915, with six faculty and eight students. Ginling's birth can be attributed to a fortuitous combination of various national and international factors, particularly the Student Volunteer Movement and the Social Gospel Movement in the United States that recruited many female college graduates for the mission field in China, and the Chinese government's more receptive attitude toward "new learning" as a result of its repeated defeat and humiliation suffered at foreign hands. While Ginling's origin already implies that both its Chinese and American constituencies must carry more than their share of cultural and emotional baggage, Ginling also witnessed the many cultural and political convulsions of early twentieth-century China during its lifetime. Before Chin arrived on the scene, Ginling had already experienced two large-scale collective traumas. In 1927, American faculty members had to evacuate Nanjing when the Nationalist Northern Expedition Army recaptured it and engaged in anti-foreign activities such as arson, looting, and shooting, causing considerable chaos and distress within the college community. In 1937, the whole college was yet again dispersed, as they were forced to scatter to different parts of China by the invading Japanese army

Added to this mixture of tumultuous historical events was also Ginling's dominant ethos. Attempting to maintain Ginling amidst increasing political turmoil and nationalist fervor, the missionary faculty created and propagated the discourse of "the Ginling Family" in order to establish a unified...

To continue reading